Understanding People of Praise

7 mins read

In his mid-30s, Glenn Hilton was a successful businessman, married with two kids. He rarely attended church but felt there “had to be more” to life than making money.

Hilton said his life changed in 1981 when he met the Lord in a deeply personal way through an encounter with People of Praise, a covenanted ecumenical community that grew out of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United States.

“I started looking for how to support this new way of life for myself,” said Hilton, who stuck with People of Praise after his initial exposure to the community in Victoria, British Columbia. Today, Hilton, 74, is a leader with the People of Praise branch in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

“I thought, if I’m going to change everything, I need to be with people who are going to help me,” Hilton told Our Sunday Visitor. “I went searching for something more than church, more than just a Sunday obligation. And I found it in community.”

‘A more personalist dynamic’

For many Catholics of Hilton’s generation, covenanted communities — where Christians make promises to share their lives to help one another grow in holiness — provided an invaluable opportunity to live as intentional disciples of Jesus Christ that they did not find in the traditional Catholicism of their parents and grandparents.

“When you look at the long trajectory of Catholicism in the United States, many of the prayer forms styled in the wake of the Second Vatican Council were more personalist,” said Timothy Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies the history of Christianity. “Instead of May crownings, 40 Hours devotions and Eucharistic adoration, in that era there was more of a focus on internal prayer, not memorized prayers but more spontaneous, spoken prayers, in a way of integrating Catholic devotionalism into a more personalist dynamic of prayer,” Matovina told Our Sunday Visitor.

Almost 50 years since People of Praise’s first 29 members “covenanted” themselves to one another in South Bend, Indiana, many Catholics and others outside the Church have discovered the community amid Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barrett, who currently sits as a judge for the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, grew up in People of Praise. Her father, Michael Coney Sr., served on the community’s board of governors and is still listed as a contact for the People of Praise branch in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Media outlets such as The New York Times and Washington Post obtained undated membership directories that list Barrett and her family in People of Praise. The directors also indicate Barrett at one point held the leadership position of “handmaid.” Though that word in recent years has come to be associated with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “A Handmaid’s Tale,” Catholics of course know that “handmaid” is rooted in Scripture.

Some stories in the secular press have falsely suggested that People of Praise inspired Atwood’s novel. Other articles have given the impression that the community is a cult where members are manipulated and every detail of their lives are controlled by authoritarian leaders, almost all of whom are men.

“It’s been suggested that the women are downtrodden, and that’s not true,” said Hilton, who has been married to his wife, Judy, for almost 50 years. “I often joke with the guys that the women are way smarter,” Hilton said. “They’re way more open than we are. They’re way more intelligent than we are. Women are not second-class citizens. My wife is my partner. She is a piece of me. We are a piece of each other.”

‘An outpouring of the Spirit’

Founded in 1971, People of Praise traces its roots a few years earlier to 1967, when a group of professors and students from Duquesne University experienced what they described as a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit during a weekend retreat in Pittsburgh.

In subsequent conferences, attendees said they received the fruits of baptism in the Holy Spirit, including praying in tongues. The burgeoning Charismatic Renewal found receptive audiences of young people at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Michigan and beyond.

“From a Catholic perspective, this is an outpouring of the Spirit that has its roots going back to the Upper Room,” said Walter Matthews, the executive director of the National Service Committee, a leadership group for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in the United States. “We’re talking about a movement that on one hand is relatively new and on the other hand is deeply rooted in Jesus telling the apostles, ‘Unless I go to the Father, the Spirit will not come,'” Matthews told Our Sunday Visitor.

The charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit — prophecy, healing, wisdom, knowledge, praying in tongues, to name a few — may be rooted in Scripture, but early on, the Church’s hierarchy viewed the renewal with a wary eye. However, that initial resistance has softened. Every pope since Pope St. Paul VI has embraced the movement, which today is growing in Latin America.

“If you ask almost any priest or bishop who’s working closely with the Renewal in Spanish in the United States, they’re going to tell you that it’s the engine of the Church, that this is what they’re doing to stop people from leaving the Catholic Church for other churches,” Matovina said.

Close-knit, ecumenical

From its early days, a small percentage of Catholics in the Charismatic Renewal were drawn to covenanted communities, where members not only gather together for praise and worship sessions on Sunday afternoons but also look to share as much of their day-to-day lives as possible.

It is not unusual for members in a People of Praise community to live in the same neighborhood, to send their children to the same schools and carpool together to work. Hilton said he lives within walking distance of every member in his People of Praise community in Saskatoon, a city of 300,000 in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

“We socialize together, and we work together,” Hilton said. “We’re all connected with each other. They know my kids. I know their kids. I’m godparents to some of their kids. They’re godparents to some of my kids.”

Matthews said one covenanted community several years ago discerned a calling to move to Augusta, Georgia, where members bought dozens of homes in a run-down neighborhood to live close to each other.

“That’s an extreme example of what was happening in places like South Bend and East Lansing [Michigan],” Matthews said. “People were moving in close together. Rather than living five miles apart, they were going to try to live on the same block if they could buy a house there.”

In addition to People of Praise, which today includes 1,700 members in 22 cities across the United States, Canada and the Carribean, most covenanted communities in the United States fall under the umbrellas of different ecumenical movements such as the Sword of the Spirit and CHARIS groups, which are similar to People of Praise in that members who share beliefs live in close communities.

The majority of members are Catholic, but the communities are ecumenical and include Christians from dozens of Protestant denominations. Matthews said the early leaders discerned that the Lord wanted their communities to be ecumenical as a prophetic witness to how Christians could be united.

“We’re mostly Catholic, but we have some Protestant brothers and sisters as well,” Hilton said. “We support each other in our church affiliations, and we support each other in our daily walk with the Lord.”

‘A part of my life’

On its website, People of Praise says individuals undergo years of discernment before deciding whether to become lifelong members of the community, though adding that people are free to leave at any time. However, there have been periodic published reports of tensions within local branches, as some community members said they felt pressured or manipulated by leaders.

“It’s unlike a parish, where if the priest does something bad, the bishop can sweep in and try to fix whatever the problem was,” said Matovina, who was involved in the Charismatic Renewal in the 1970s and saw a covenanted community “fall apart” when the married couple at the head of the group divorced.

Matovina said there is often a risk in communities of having people that aspire to leadership roles who may not be as well trained in theology or faith formation, or who may have an authoritarian streak or a dominant personality that overpowers others in the community.

“If you ask people in the Charismatic Renewal, they’ll tell you that that is the kind of thing they work against. That’s why the training for leaders of Charismatic communities focuses on working within the Church, not on building separate structures,” Matovina said.

Matthews said the covenanted communities went through a period where they became “very introspective,” and focused on strengthening its members by providing a support system, similar to that of an extended family, to make up for societal breakdowns in family life.

“Some people didn’t like that, and they left. That was difficult,” said Matthews, a former People of Praise member who left the community with his wife after relocating to Virginia in 1990.

Over the last 20 years, Matthews said the communities have become more mission-oriented. He noted that Sword of the Spirit communities are involved in mission work on university campuses. In 1981, the Mother of God covenant community in Gaithersburg, Maryland, began publishing The Word Among Us magazine.

Meanwhile, People of Praise has operated Trinity Schools since 1981, and in recent years has sent Protestant and Catholic missionaries to evangelize and build Christian communities in neighborhoods throughout the Mississippi Valley.

“It’s a truth that if you stay introverted too long, you die,” said Matthews, who added that until Barrett’s nomination, people in the Charismatic Renewal often said that covenanted communities were “one of the best kept secrets in the Catholic Church.”

Hilton said he does not mind the media attention on People of Praise as long as “they represent what is really the case.” Adding that he knows Judge Barrett’s family through the community, Hilton said she’s “a very wise woman” and in “a good place to do good work.”

“When I first got involved (with People of Praise), it freaked me out,” Hilton said of the community’s praise-and-worship style, and the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. Now, he sees the community’s charism as second nature.

“It’s just part of my life,” he said. “It’s what connects me with the Lord.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.