They are calling for Holy Spirit fire to fall at St. Anthony's of Padua in Baileys Crossroads. About 300 Hispanic Catholics are beckoning the skies with their arms, shouting in unison, "Fuego! Fuego!" The words are the chorus to a feverish Latino song and a request of heaven. The people want to see God manifest among them.
These Spanish-language charismatic gatherings take place every Sunday in the parish cafeteria. At this evening's meeting, most worshipers are leaping to the ear-deafening music and others dancing in twirls. Then someone lets out this mysterious uttering: "shatakatara sumbadakatayae . . . "
The Rev. Paul Berghout, an associate parish pastor, is worshiping in the front -- a white man in a Hispanic world. He says he has found a home here because he can openly exercise his spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues. Because there are few English-speaking prayer groups this expressive in the Diocese of Arlington, Berghout has had to learn Spanish.
"If I didn't have the Hispanic prayer groups, I would not have a place where I could worship" so freely, he says.
These meetings, which are thriving at Hispanic-dominated parishes in the Washington area and across the country, are a sign of how the face of the Catholic charismatic movement has changed radically from white to Hispanic in recent years. But even as Latino immigrants are reenergizing the movement, they have revived apprehension among the Catholics who frown upon this form of worship.
Religious scholars agree that if the Catholic Church had not allowed the Hispanic gatherings, it would have lost a huge percentage of its Latino population to rapidly expanding Protestant faiths such as the Assemblies of God. And it is these immigrants who largely fueled Catholicism's growth over the past 10 years.
"The charismatic movement keeps a lot of Latinos Catholic," Berghout said. "By nature, [Latinos] are expressive, and if they are constantly frustrated by an institution, they are going to leave to go to a Pentecostal church."
But not everyone has been happy with the results. The Rev. Franklyn M. McAfee, head pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, said many priests in the Diocese of Arlington believe the Hispanic gatherings go too far and will not allow them in their parishes.
"People shy away from them because of the emotionalism," he said. McAfee added that while his parish occasionally hosts English-language charismatic healing services -- in which parishioners obtain prayerful intervention from church leaders -- they are more calm and meditative. "All that jumping up and down -- I wouldn't want that here," he said.
Controversy is nothing new for Catholic charismatics. After the movement was founded in 1967 by students at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, it was dismissed by many clergy members as emotionalism. Other priests went further, calling it unhealthy and warning that it would pull people away from the faith. Indeed, some early charismatics turned away from devotion to the Virgin Mary; others regularly worshiped with Protestant Pentecostals.
Yet the movement continued to spread throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1981, Pope John Paul II met with charismatic leaders from around the world, a gesture that scholars say legitimized the trend.
By the mid-1980s, this first charismatic surge began to peter out. Some experts say its members simply grew older and less emotional. Others say it lacked a new crop of strong leaders to carry it forward into the 1990s.
Nationwide, the number of Catholic charismatics has shrunk from more than 500,000 in 1985 to about 200,000 today, said Walter Matthews, executive director of the National Service Committee of the National Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Locust Grove, Va. But the movement is growing again wherever Latino immigrants are settling, Matthews said.
In the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington, priests who work with the Latino community say more than 15,000 attend dozens of weekly Spanish-speaking charismatic prayer groups as well as regional healing Masses held monthly, although diocesan officials say they believe the figure is somewhat lower.
Charismatic worship is rooted in passages in the Book of Acts that describe "tongues of fire" falling on the heads of the early Christians at Pentecost. The first "baptism of the Spirit," as it is called, left them with healing powers, a fiery devotion to God, the ability to prophesy and speak in tongues and a determination to evangelize the world.
Its practice within Catholicism mirrors worship within Protestant Pentecostal denominations. And many Hispanic charismatics, feeling unwelcome in the Catholic Church, found it easy to make the transition to those faiths.
The exodus of Hispanics was so apparent during the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos, the director of Spanish Charismatic Renewal for the Diocese of Arlington, said he once disguised himself and spied on a nearby Pentecostal church to understand its appeal.
"The church was warm; they welcomed everyone. They gave hugs, and people were saying to each other, 'You are my brother,' " said Hoyos, who leads Holy Family parish in Dale City. "The Pentecostals were more expressive, and we were not. . . . People were longing for those things."
The Catholic Church reacted by helping immigrants set up charismatic prayer groups at their parishes. Hoyos, for instance, formed a band to play Latino music during Mass and encouraged people to express themselves freely during worship times, including speaking in tongues. He also began to lead monthly healing services.
At his most recent healing Mass, held last month at St. Philip Catholic Church in Falls Church, thousands waited in hour-long lines to receive deliverance from sickness and depression. As the priest prayed over people, they would collapse onto the floor and fall into meditative or ecstatic trances -- a phenomenon known as "resting in the Spirit." Volunteers called "catchers" stood behind them to make sure they didn't hit their heads on the ground.
Elaine Vargas, 32, of Arlington said attending the meetings transformed her life. "I felt empty. I felt that something was missing before I went," she said. After she was baptized in the Spirit in the early 1990s, she said, she "started feeling this hunger to know who Jesus was." She started to turn away from "bad habits," became infused with a fervor to evangelize to her friends and felt a passion to read the Bible and pray daily.
Priests and religious scholars say the charismatic movement has caught on among Hispanics because their culture tends to be more expressive. But some scholars add that a key to the future of the Catholic Church is to offer deeper emotional fulfillment to people of all ethnic backgrounds.
"People want something that has meaning or something that gives them a faith experience now. They are less likely to be loyal just to a name," said the Rev. Carl S. Dudley, a professor of church and community at the Hartford Seminary. "Just because it's Catholic, just because it's Lutheran is not enough."
Hispanics in the Catholic charismatic movement now outnumber their English-speaking counterparts by at least 2 to 1 in the Washington area. But even though the English-speaking movement shed members as it became less emotional, fewer parishes objected to hosting its meetings, and that has made the movement more accessible to ordinary Catholics.
Dozens of first-timers were at a recent diocesan-wide English-speaking healing Mass at St. Anthony's, which is held several times a year. The atmosphere was in stark contrast to the meeting of the parish's Hispanic charismatics in the cafeteria just a few days earlier. Traditional hymns were sung. No one danced or yelled out.
Most listened quietly to a sermon, formed a single-file line to receive healing from ministers and then fell down on the floor, apparently overcome by the Spirit. They were laid side by side on the ground, in a far more orderly manner than at the Hispanic gathering.
Still, some said they were deeply touched.
Adair Leanne Thomas, 37, of Falls Church, whose diabetic symptoms have been worsening, lined up to receive healing -- it was her first time. As a priest began to pray over her, Thomas muttered to herself, "I'm not going down, I'm not going down."
But with a little strum of the priest's fingers on her forehead, she fell into the hands of a catcher, who gently placed her on the ground. Thomas lay there for several minutes, tears seeping out of her eyes, an ecstatic look on her face.
"It was the most beautiful and memorable experience in my life," Thomas said. "All the fear kind of went away. . . . It's so hard to describe. On the floor, I don't know, I felt like God was holding me."