The ties that bind: How the Catholic Church can respond to the cult of personality

National Catholic Reporter

June 25, 2020

By Phyllis Zagano

The sudden appearance of new communities, linked to the personality of some preachers … can conceal the danger … of enclosing the experience of faith in protected and reassuring environments.
— Pope Francis, to participants at the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Sept. 28, 2019.

The cult of personality is a very scary thing. No matter where or how it forms, it usually crashes and burns with the death or diminishment of the individual who gained a following. What Pope Francis spoke of here, to the assembled participants at the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was the theme of their conference: “Pentecostals, charismatics, and evangelicals: Impact on the concept of unity.” His words found their way into the final document of the Amazon synod about a year later.

The dynamics in the Amazon region are clear: The largest numbers of former Catholics there now affiliate with one or another of these groups, too often tied to a single preacher in a single village for a limited time.

Why? One would hope that the gospel is the principal attraction for the adherents to whatever Pentecostal, charismatic or evangelical preacher has won their hearts. But one must recognize the underlying circumstances causing people to gather around him or, increasingly, her.

It often has to do with language and culture. The local preacher comes from the people, or somehow is inserted into the locality, and gains a following. He, or, we must remember, she, is, or at least becomes, a known quantity whose joys, hopes and fears echo those of the followers. The preacher knows them, knows how to heal their wounds, knows how to salve their sorrows. The people hear common sense mixed with promise.

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