Friday, June 23, 2006


They came in droves, some 300,000 committed laymen and women, all representatives of over 100 new ecclesial movements and faith communities around the world. They were invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Square on the vigil of Pentecost on 2 June 2006. Actually, it was not the first time that they converged in Rome. It was the second time. On this occasion, to prepare them for the eventual meeting of the Successor of Peter, they were huddled together for 3 days, from 31 May to 2 June 2006 in Rocca di Papa. They reflected on the topic: “The beauty of being a Christian and the joy of communicating this”, a theme that was inspired by the homily preached by Benedict XVI at the Mass inaugurating his pontificate. On the vigil of Pentecost, they came to St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father shared with them the joy of Pentecost with these introductory words: “You belong to different peoples and cultures and represent here all the members of the ecclesial movements and new communities, spiritually gathered round the Successor of Peter to proclaim the joy of believing in Jesus Christ and renew the commitment to be faithful disciples in our time” (Benedict XVI, Homily on Pentecost).

This event points out to all the continued existence as well as the proliferation and intensification of lay associations, small faith communities, and new ecclesial movements. They are existing not in abstract places in the world, but in dioceses and parishes, permanent basic structures of the Church’s life. Hence, for these institutions to ignore the existence of these realities is, to say the least, not wise. And yet, the phenomenon, refreshing and enlivening though it may be, has been looked with askance and caution by some authorities, for it has through these years remained an unknown factor, if not a mystery, to the local Churches, ever presenting untoward juridical problems. The local authorities and their trusted counselors, many of them experts in the law of the Church, cannot place these new realities within legal dimensions. The issuance of the Code of Canon Law in 1983 with its definitions and classifications of a thousand and one possible configurations of lay groupings somehow ease that tension, giving the bishops the needed locus to identify and define them. But the difficulty is still there, for the legal norms have not spelled out specific references to the juridical space of these new ecclesial realities.

All the while the Magisterium of the Church has gone out to ease the tensions. The event that occurred in 2 June 2006 was in fact a mere follow-up of a series of events
and papal pronouncements, oral as well as written, that has articulately expressed the profound concern of the Popes regarding the status of these communities in relation to the local Church where they exist. Immediately prior to this event was the first world congress of ecclesial communities and lay movements convened by the late Pope John Paul II in June 1998. The following year a meeting of bishops around the world was convened in Rome to shrug off some apprehensions, suspicions, and tensions created by the existence of such communities. It was expected to come out with some concrete resolutions as purported in its theme: “The ecclesial movements in the pastoral solicitude of the Bishops”.

These acts of the Magisterium are meant to send signal to the bishops and the priests to welcome these new movements. The Holy Father has accepted them as part of the apostolate of the Church, recognized their charisms as providential gifts of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the local churches, and reminded them of their duties towards the local authorities. This was particularly expressed by Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in his address to the bishops in the 1999 meeting when he said: “Here, suddenly, something no one had planned. Here, so to speak, the Holy Spirit had taken the floor once again. And in young men and women, the faith was re-embraced, without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, without escape hatches or loopholes, lived in the its totality as a gift, as a precious life-giving gift” (J. Ratzinger, The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements in Church Movement, p. 24). It was on the same occasion that he tried to establish the proper theological place of these movements. These “should be identified in apostolicity, which is the dimension from which a particular bond emerges to it to the ministry of the Successor of Peter… The papacy did not create movements but it was their essential support in the structure of the Church, their ecclesial pillar. The Pope needs these services and they need him, and in the reciprocity of these two types of mission, the symphony of ecclesial life is fulfilled” (ibid, p. 39 and 46).

If these movements are one with the Pope, extending to him the services needed by him in his apostolicity, then they too should be one in communion with the diocesan bishops and the priests in the parishes. Filled with missionary dynamism, these movements could become part of the life of the local churches. If they are welcomed by the bishops and priests within the diocesan and parish structures, they could generate renewed vigor to the faithful.

As Cardinal Ratzinger put it: ‘I therefore recommend that they be spread and that they be used to give fresh energy, especially among young people, to the Christian life and to evangelization, within a pluralistic view of the ways in which Christians can associate and express themselves” (ibid.).

And yet, when one comes to it, the conflict between these movements and local communities is a reality. It is perhaps caused by human frailty vis-à-vis the freshness of the Word of God and the radicality of the life offered by the movements. It can happen that the awakening spurred on by the Holy Spirit works in human beings whose immaturity or youthful enthusiasm made them, at least for a while, snobbish or exclusive. To insert themselves into the life of the parish is for them to be again dragged into a Christian life that is drab and traditional. Or, perhaps, it is caused by the suspicion of the faithful in the local Church, who perceive the new ecclesial communities not only as a threat to their religiosity, but as unknown realities and yet undeniably powerful in its promotion of Christian life. Or, perhaps, it is triggered by some apprehensions among the local authorities of the Church thinking that such radical movements of the Holy Spirit may disturb the on-going diocesan pastoral programs and activities. Whatever the cause, frictions have come to the fore.

It is within this context that the late John Paul II had in several occasions expressed his desire to put together these two realities in a harmonious relationship. It was his dream to see the movements humbly becoming an integral part of the local Church; to see bishops and priests within the diocesan and parish structures welcome these group as gift from the Holy Spirit. For him there is no opposition between charism and institution. There is dynamic complementarity between them. He expressed this doctrine very clearly in his 2 March 1987 address: “In the Church, both the institutional and the charismatic aspects, both the hierarchy and associations and movements of the faithful, are co-essential and share in fostering life, renewal and sanctification, though in different ways”. He reiterated this same thought in 1998 when he said: “Both are co-essential to the divine constitution of the Church, founded by Jesus, because they both help to make the mystery of Christ and his saving grace present in the world” (John Paul II, Message, 27 May 1998, n.5).

Within this line of thought Cardinal Ratzinger also gave this wise admonition: “Both sides must open themselves here to an education by the Holy Spirit and also by the leadership of the Church. Both sides must learn from each other, allow themselves to be purified by each other, put up with each other, and discover how to attain those attitudes of which Paul speaks in his great hymn to love. Thus, it is necessary to remind the movements that they are a gift to and in the whole of the Church and must submit themselves to the demands of this totality in order to be true to their own essence. But the local churches, too, even the bishops, must be reminded to avoid making an ideal of uniformity in pastoral organization and planning. They must not make their own pastoral plans the criterion of what the Holy Spirit is allowed to do…”. (ibid.).

It then falls on the bishops the task to take another serious look at all these new ecclesial movements and communities. They are the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the local church. With the charism that they have as ordained servant leaders of the community, with the authoritative pronouncements, acts and testimonies of the Magisterium, and, above all, with the sacramental grace that they received in their ordination as shepherds of the Church, the bishops should have that confidence and poise to appreciate and respect the autonomy of the various charisms of these ecclesial communities and movements existing in his jurisdiction, carefully discerning with the founders and the members the the genuineness of the charisms that have been let loose, helping them draft the statutes that would faithfully enshrine the nature and objectives of their communities, and gradually inviting them to insert themselves, as far as their rightful autonomy permits, into the structures and organizational set-up of the diocese and parishes. This episcopal act, simple though it may seem, will go a long way not only in guaranteeing the continuity and unity of faith in the local Churches, but also in bringing this experienced faith beyond territorial boundaries.