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Charis-maniacs

I grew up on the rather traddy side of the Catholic fence—I recited rote prayers and the Baltimore Catechism, with a High Latin Mass thrown in here and there for good measure. So my first visit to the University of Steubenville for a youth conference was a big shocker. I recall my earliest impression of the place: we had just walked in late to one of their epic prayer services (our bus had a flat tire) and the teenaged woman in front of me was flailing her arms around and yabba-yabba-yabbering away to a song I had never heard. It was a tad surreal and a whole lot overwhelming—my first encounter with anything remotely charis-maniac (as I lovingly call it)—but that didn’t stop me from spending three years there and cramming as many Festivals of Praise and theology classes as I possibly could into my biology degree.

I came to know the Lord there, in the middle of all that emotion. Oh, I knew who God was and that he existed, but I didn’t KNOW him. My head knowledge had taught me that Catholicism was little more than a cosmic to-do list, not unlike air miles. The more you buy (or do) the more points you rack up and at some point you’ll have earned enough to trade them for the one-way ticket down that highway to heaven. My brain had heard and assimilated all the arguments for being Catholic and staying Catholic, but I didn’t feel any of it, didn’t KNOW any of it. I’m not talking feelings as in the Jesus-makes-me-feel-all-warm-and-squishy feelings. I’m talking about a much more profound feeling or knowing, an inclination deep down in the guts of your being that something is good, true, and beautiful and worthy of all the love and attention you can muster. Yeah, that. I didn’t feel it. It was the charismatic movement that changed all that for me.

There were several pivotal moments in my time at The Franciscan University of Steubenville (or FUS): the time when I realized that I mattered to God, the time I understood that I had a part to play in others coming to Christ, and the time when the existence of evil became real to me and the love and mercy of God became more real. They were all steps in my own journey to the Lord, facilitated by the loving, charismatic Catholics that inhabited FUS. They lead me to the Lord by their heads (i.e. through intellect, logic, science) and their hearts (i.e. through the senses, emotions, feelings) both of which are needed to KNOW the Lord. Why? Because we humans are not psychologically or physically all brain. Neither are we one big heart. We’re a messy mix of both. And I’m convinced that God does not want us to know him only cerebrally, or only emotionally, but desires rather that we get to know and understand him through our intellect (when appropriate) as well as through our senses and emotions (also when appropriate).

Which is why I get so hot and bothered when I hear statements like, “Charismatics aren’t authentic Catholics” or “Charismatics are adolescent catholics who just need to grow up.” So you had a bad experience with someone charismatic? Or you met someone on fire for God who didn’t know Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God? Say that. Don’t dis the whole movement. I get that there are differences of liturgical opinion and abuses that abound within each movement of the Church, but if we threw the baby out with the bathwater each time something untoward came to light … well, lets just say there’d be no Dominicans or Franciscans, no Jesuits, Augustinians, Poor Clares, Basilians, diocesan priests, and certainly no Legionaries. I think it would be safe to assume there’d be no orders or groups within the church—charismatic, traditional, or otherwise. Why? Because orders are made up of human beings and we human beings are frail. We’re prideful and sinful and we think we know everything. Only the Lord God Almighty is perfect and pure. The practice of following Him is anything but.

This does not mean, however, that we should all remain studiously oblivious to real and present abuses, of the liturgy or whatever else, that are going on under our noses, that we should just put up and shut up and never breathe a word about it. No. Address the offending person(s). Address the problem—in whichever way you need to do so. But don’t assume that a whole group is rotten because you found a few bad apples on the tree. You could be isolating, or even repelling others (God forbid) from coming to the Lord at all.

Am I naïve to think that Catholicism can accommodate those who like to practice a more traditional Catholicism and those who prefer a more charismatic slant and everyone in between? Perhaps. For me, it’s all just Catholicism with a capital C—one, holy, and universal. I see the different charisms of different groups as tremendous opportunities to learn from one another and helpful means in calling one another on to greater holiness. Because the hope of eternal life and salvation isn’t just for one or two types of people. It’s for everyone—even for hand-waving, awesome-God-singing, closet charis-maniacs like me.

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