I grew up in a charismatic Catholic community much like the one Amy Coney Barrett belongs to. Neither one is a cult.
Much scrutiny has been placed upon Supreme Court shortlist nominee Amy Coney Barrett for her membership in the People of Praise, a Catholic charismatic community based out of South Bend, Ind. The veiled (or not so veiled) implication of many profiles of Ms. Barrett or of People of Praise has been that Ms. Barrett is a member of a cult. My own experience growing up in a similar kind of community might provide some insight.
I have written before about the work of The Lord’s Ranch—a community similar to People of Praise—in these pages. Like People of Praise, The Lord’s Ranch was largely made up of lay people who lived in community and shared many things in common; emphasis was placed on group decisions rather than individuality. We also shared a strongly charismatic style of worship and discernment. I am quite proud of my charismatic pedigree and am happy to speak about it openly—which I am often called upon to do as a Jesuit in a religious order with very few charismatic members. I also speak about it openly in the classroom at The University of Notre Dame and welcome conversations about the role of the charisms of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I pray in tongues, I rest in the Spirit, I take seriously for my own discernment the visions and “words of knowledge” that people share with me. I value prophecy as a crucial and underemployed charism essential for the life of the church.
I am quite proud of my charismatic pedigree. I pray in tongues, I rest in the Spirit, I take seriously for my own discernment the visions and “words of knowledge” that people share with me.
Granted, although I grew up in a Catholic charismatic community, I have never committed myself to one as an adult. I don’t fully understand the experience of those who have given their life to living in one of these communities and are encouraged to pass major decisions—where they live, where their children attend school, and more—through community leadership as part of their discernment process. On the other hand, as a member of the Society of Jesus, I think I understand pretty well what it means to accept another’s authority and abide by community decisions. While People of Praise are majority lay people (and an ecumenical community), their decision-making style is not foreign to anyone who is acquainted with Catholic religious orders.
As a People of Praise brochure explains, members of its community make a covenant to God, “resembling the permanent commitments made in Christian religious orders and in many other covenant and intentional communities around the world.” “Resembling” is a key word, since none of these communities embrace the structure of obedience found in religious life or a vow of celibacy or a commitment to shared property. The resemblance is found rather in the fact that since their foundations in the 1960s and 1970’s Catholic charismatic communities all over the United States have striven, similar to many religious orders through the centuries, to live a Gospel-based community life, further enriched by the experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit.
The recent biography of Rick Thomas, S.J., the founder of The Lord’s Ranch community, does not shy away from criticism from those who left the community and felt that some decisions were made in ways that were too controlling or heavy-handed. But can any healthy Catholic community, religious order or otherwise, claim anything different about its own life? Communities go through growing periods, and I am sure that People of Praise has been no different than The Lord’s Ranch in that regard.
I have met with People of Praise members. I have attended their prayer meetings in South Bend. At the last one I attended, Amy Barrett was present with her family, and we extended our hands in prayer over them. The members I have met are deeply committed to the poor. They are insistent that Catholics have a personal relationship with Christ. They love the Eucharist and have strong Marian devotions.
The People of Praise members I have met are deeply committed to the poor. They are insistent that Catholics have a personal relationship with Christ. They love the Eucharist and have strong Marian devotions.
The charismatic movement in the church has been an answer to the prayer and the desire of many Catholics to live a more animated and evangelistic Christian life. It has been part of the antidote in a Western Church often described as having no place for the Holy Spirit in its theology or life. Just as Pope Francis, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had his skepticism overcome when he actually experienced charismatics at prayer, the best thing for all those who are skeptical is to get to know one. Pope Francis has since become very favorable toward the movement because he saw that charismatics have a living faith.
I cannot personally comment on the opinions or character of Amy Barrett, but I am confident that the Spirit-based nourishment of a Catholic charismatic community is not a matter for concern. Rather, it should also inspire confidence and joy in Catholics everywhere who have longed for the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into the lay vocation in the Catholic Church.