Toronto Blessing; analyzed according to Catholic Mystical Theology

Author: Colin B. Donovan, STL

TORONTO BLESSING (a little treatise)
a.k.a. The Anointing, Revival, Father's Blessing

Colin B. Donovan, STL                    

CBD: It has been 23 years since this was first written (1995), and 20 since it was published on (1997), but the main points remain unchanged:

1. The Church, specifically the Magisterium, has affirmed the reality and vitality of the Charismatic Renewal. All recent Popes have done so, applauding, especially, its zealous activity for souls. Such papal judgments, especially if longstanding, represent a safe pratical rule. See Charismatic Renewal - General

2. The approval of the Charismatic Renewal, however, does not imply that the Church affirms every claim that an extraordinary behavior is a charism from God (e.g. Holy Laughter), or that particular persons have particular extraordinary charisms (e.g. healing). These affirmations can only come from the Magisterium after discerning the particular case. Given the extent of the Renewal, however, it is unlikely to come in many cases. In addition to whatever guidance comes from the Holy See and the local bishop, Catholics can make common sense judgments on the same grounds the Church would use, doctrinal, moral and the fruits.

3. This is my own discernment of Holy Laughter. But, it is not my discernment alone. At the time I wrote it I submitted it pre-publication to two individuals for their evaluation. One was a respected theologian of spiritual and mystical theology, Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., who for many years was the director of the Institute of Spirituality at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (Angelicum). He found it to be exactly on the mark. The other person was my boss, Mother Mary Angelica, whose salutary and approving judgment were a great consolation. (January 2019)


a. All authentic charisms are at the service of the Body of Christ, the Church (1 Cor 12, 14). As gifts of the Holy Spirit, they are supernatural graces beyond the power of human striving and human nature (e.g. miracle working), though some may build upon the natural talents of the recipient (e.g. teaching). St. Paul contrasts these charismata with "the greater gifts" of Faith, Hope and Charity (1 Cor. 13) which he says have lasting value. These "theological virtues" unite the person's mind and will to God. As a consequence, the Church teaches that Faith, Hope and Charity are necessary for salvation but the charismata are not. St. Paul's experience at Corinth demonstrated rather early in the Church how susceptible these charisms are to exaggeration. In another context, he would even warn the Corinthians that the devil can appear as an angel of light (1 Cor 11:14). Similarly, both St. Peter and St. John (1 Pet 5:8-9; 1 John 4:1) warn us of this danger.

b. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae [ST II-II q177] tells us that the Holy Spirit does not accomplish the charisms directly but through the mediation of angels. Since they are within the power of the angelic nature, they are also capable of demonic imitation. It is difficult to explain the "charismatic power of speech" of a Hitler, for instance, on purely natural grounds. It is for these reasons that most spiritual writers, especially the mystical doctor St. John of the Cross, warn us not to seek such extraordinary phenomenon. The Magisterium, likewise, had this to say at the Second Vatican Council.

Whether these charisms be very remarkable or more simple and widely diffused, they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation since they are fitting and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired (my emphasis) nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labors are to be presumptuously expected. Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thes. 5:12, 19- 21). [Lumen Gentium 12]

Unfortunately, the appearance in the Church of a "sola scriptura" (Scripture alone) mentality has robbed some Catholics of the Holy Spirit's wisdom embodied in the Church's Sacred Tradition. We need to recover our faith in Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium if this trend is to be reversed.


a. The Apostle John encourages us to test the spirits (1 John 4) and over the years the Church has developed criteria to determine whether the fruits are good or bad (Mt. 7:15-20). St. John teaches that if anyone denies Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:3) it is proof that the person does not have the Spirit of God. We can call this the doctrinal test of the fruit. The Spirit of God would never lead one away from the truth about Christ. Since the Church is an extension of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Spirit of God would never lead one away from the Catholic Church or Her teachings. Similarly, the Spirit of God would never lead one away from the practice of the faith (morally, devotionally, sacramentally). Christ has left us the means of salvation and His Spirit would never deprive us of them. This could be called the practical test of the fruit. "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Mt. 7:21-23). Positively said, the Holy Spirit's activity (including among non-Catholics) must necessarily tend toward Catholic truth and unity (doctrine and practice), no matter how remote that unity might appear.

b. On the other hand, a spirit which acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God (1 John 4:2). Such doctrinal correctness is a motive of credibility in the authenticity of a charism or event. Yet, a person may simply be operating by the human spirit fortified by Faith and may not be manifesting an extraordinary gift. To determine whether a given phenomenon exceeds human nature calls for a discernment beyond simple orthodoxy. When a bishop declares an event to be "worthy of belief" or "not worthy of belief" he does so based upon both scientific (can it be explained?) and theological (is it from God?) criteria. If he faithfully and prudently performs this discernment, there is little likelihood that he would err. Although such a decision is not infallible, the prudent Catholic will give it great weight, and in any case faithfully obey any regulations he may enact.

c. Since only the Magisterium has the charism of infallibility, a local bishop isn't able to positively affirm that a given phenomenon is from God. It belongs to the Pope, or the bishops acting collegially (Lumen Gentium 25), to make such a determination. The Popes do this quite frequently when they affirm the miraculous character of a cure offered in support of a Cause for Canonization. When they grant an official status to an apparition such as Lourdes (by canonizing the seer and granting a Feast Day for the apparition itself), we can be certain that it is from God. Only a few mystical phenomenon ever achieve this degree of certainty.

d. There is yet another dimension of the discernment which needs to be considered. Since charisms are given to build up the Church, there is no necessary connection with personal sanctity. Saints, sinners and even unbelievers have manifested these gifts. The pagan prophet Balaam was given the Divine spirit of prophecy in order to authenticate Israel as the People of God (Num. 22). Thus the moral state of the recipient (good or bad) does not by itself indicate a true or false charism. When actually under the constraint of the Spirit of God, however, the true charismatic could not say or do anything contrary to that Spirit. No one could claim, for instance, that the Spirit of God led him to get drunk or do anything sinful, although he might at other times do such things. This is why the mystical phenomena that takes place during the life of a person is considered equivocal evidence of holiness and may even complicate a Cause for Canonization.

e. Individuals can also do much to discern the spirit. As noted earlier, it is easier to dismiss a phenomenon as certainly NOT from God than it is to determine its exact origin. For the laity especially, this is generally enough. Knowing which of the other two possibilities (human or demonic) would be secondary to knowing it was NOT from God. This has been true at apparitions such as Necedah, Wis. and Bayside, NY., where many Catholics knew something was wrong well before the local bishops judged them as unworthy of belief. Even without the episcopal grace and the help of a commission of experts, we can apply our sense of the faith, the general theology of the Church and the history of authentic mysticism to such phenomena. We need only prayerfully ask "is a particular event a credible example of the action of the Spirit of God - a Spirit incapable of any lie or sin and which can only lead people (even non-Catholics) to a deeper Catholic faith and unity?" Pending the action of the local bishop or a decision of the Holy See, this should do much to protect us from the roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8).


a. The signs and wonders associated with the Toronto Blessing, as reported in God's Manifest Presence, a Toronto Airport Vineyard publication (the church from which the phenomenon is spreading) are: "shaking, jerking, loss of bodily strength, heavy breathing, eyes fluttering, lips trembling, oil on the body, changes in skin color, weeping, laughing, drunkenness, staggering, travailing, dancing, falling, visions, hearing audibly into the spirit realm, inspired utterances - prophecy, tongues, interpretation - angelic visitations and manifestations, jumping, violent rolling, screaming, wind, heat, electricity, coldness, nausea as discernment of evil, smelling or tasting good or evil presences, tingling, pain in the body as discernment of illnesses, feeling heavy weight or lightness, trances -altered physical state while seeing into the spirit world, inability to speak normally, disruption of natural realm - electrical circuits blown."

b. The teachings of the leaders of this movement, who accuse Catholicism of stifling the Spirit and praise Luther and the Reformation for freeing it, includes:

There is going to be a move of the Spirit of God that is going to include powerful signs and wonders, such as the early days of the Church in Jerusalem. There is also going to be leaders raised up in the Body of Christ that are going to move in an authority that will be trans-denominational. They will be pastors of pastors, and will be recognized as spokesmen and leaders for the government of God in the Body of Christ across all denominational lines. [Marc Dupont, as reported in Catch the Fire by Guy Chevreau]

In his books on this new apostolic movement, C. Peter Wagner makes clear that new apostolic authorities are rising up, some of whom have taken the title apostle. Even if merely a human conceit this is at best a dangerous principle, one rife for abuse, as some of the internal and external critics of the movement have noted.

c. Based on the principles of discernment enunciated earlier, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the Toronto Blessing is from God. Those who receive it exhibit both heterodoxy (false teaching) and bizarre behavior incompatible with the Holy Spirit. Some phenomena, such as uncontrollable laughter, could be the result of the human spirit and does not necessarily forebode demonic activity. The reports of bestial grunting and groaning, and rolling around on the floor, however, is worrisome, since the same reactions accompany authentic cases of possession, both in Scripture and in Church experience. They are not, however, unequivocally extraordinary since they are within our power. Of a more certain extraordinary character is the phenomenon called "holy glue." (A person becomes extremely heavy and others are unable to move them). This is a recognized mystical phenomenon called "extreme immobility" and is the opposite of levitation. It is clearly beyond us; however, it is within the power of an angel. Levitation is better known among the saints and is usually explained as the result of the ecstatic striving of the soul toward God. In the case of immobility, it has been reported in connection with reports of supernatural protection from some external evil - such as a physical assault, attack on one's virtue etc. It would be interesting to know the meaning in the cases associated with the Toronto Blessing. Does it manifest a "going down," as opposed to the "going up" of levitation? Or is God protecting some souls from the immodest behavior which seems associated with the Toronto Blessing? Or does it have a positive meaning that supports the authenticity of the Blessing? In any case, the entire mystical tradition teaches us that we must never seek such phenomenon since through them the devil misleads many souls. Yet, this is exactly what people are doing in great numbers, including many Catholic laity and clergy. 

d. Another point has to do with the bizarre behavior in general. In the Summa [II-II, q168] St. Thomas explains that modesty (which most people falsely associate only with sexual matters) has to do with becoming behavior in general. This includes such things as dress, mannerisms, laughter, play - anything which could ennoble or debase the dignity of the person. Quoting St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, Aquinas says: "the habit of mind is seen in the gesture of the body, and the body's movement is an index of the soul . . . from these things the man that lies hidden in our hearts is esteemed to be either frivolous, or boastful, or impure, or on the other hand sedate, steady, pure, and free from blemish." [Ambrose, De Officiis]

"In all your movements, let nothing be done to offend the eye of another, but only that which is becoming to the holiness of your state." [Augustine, Rule]

Continuing, he adds, "And in so far as outward movements are signs of our inward dispositions, their moderation belongs to the virtue of truthfulness, whereby a man, by word and deed, shows himself to be such as he is inwardly."

As St. Paul notes, "God is not the God of disorder but of peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). The god of disorder is, of course, the devil.

Similarly, one of the modern experts in mystical theology, Fr. Jordan Aumann, OP, in his book Spiritual Theology, places gravity and discretion among the signs of the Spirit of God. Both of these marks seem greatly lacking in the behavior of those under the influence of the spirit of the Vineyard.

Gravity. The Holy Spirit is never the cause of things that are useless, futile, frivolous or impertinent. When He moves the soul it is always for something serious and beneficial.

Discretion. The Holy Spirit makes the soul discreet, prudent and thoughtful in all its actions. There is nothing of precipitation, lightness, exaggeration, or impetuosity; all is well-balanced, edifying, serious, and full of calmness and peace.

e. Finally, if the Toronto Blessing is ordered to the building up of a trans-denominational church authority, as some of its leaders suggest, then it is incompatible with Catholic truth and unity. It already has begun to demonstrate this property by the divisions being created in parishes and the Church at large. Aside from the dangers associated with a false charism, the participation of Catholics in a movement with such a goal would certainly be a grave sin.


None of this precludes, in the case of individuals associated with the Toronto Blessing Movement, that the Spirit of God is at work to bring them closer to Himself and to the Church. Every claim of a charismatic gift must be individually discerned. Even the Church's endorsement of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is not an endorsement of every alleged gift.  This article concerns only the so-called Toronto movement, its teachings, leadership, aims and characteristic phenomena, in so far as they can be ascribed to the whole. The Holy Spirit is the soul of only one society on earth, and there is only one sacrament of the unity of believers in the world, the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself, as He would if this movement is the vehicle for Christian re-union as it claims.

© Colin B. Donovan, STL 9/25/95
rev. 7/5/2000 (The Year of the Holy Trinity and the Eucharist)

May be distributed unchanged and with attribution.

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