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Vincent GragnaniAugust 14, 2006

A rainy November evening finds three dozen people gathered for prayer at the Cabrini Center for Nursing in Manhattan’s East Village. They include Anthony Frarracci, who arrives early to help arrange the chairs in a circle, and Vita Santangelo, a wheelchair-bound native of Sicily whose recent 99th birthday party is the topic of conversation as residents gather. The group also includes younger non-residents, who come as members of the Community of Sant’Egidio, such as Paola Piscitelli, a mother of two who has just returned from a visit to Texas’ death-row inmates, and Brendan Maloney, a recent Boston College graduate who now teaches at a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn.

I’ve really become friends with these people to the point that it doesn’t seem like serving, coming here to Cabrini, said Maloney, who, after the prayer and conversation, brought several of the wheelchair-bound residents back to their rooms. The elderly are so forgotten, and it’s something the community has drawn my attention to. Maloney and Piscitelli see their twice-weekly gatherings for prayer at Cabrini not as part of a grand missionary plan, but as reaching out to those they have met.

Our community is based on human relationships, Piscitelli said. We have no program, training or vows. The only way we can relate to one another is through friendship.

But in the eyes of the church hierarchy, these lay people are part of one of many successive waves of movements dating back hundreds of years. Their work, though not coordinated through a parish or diocese, is a critical component of the church’s mission to be apostolic and universal.

Ministries and missions that are not tied to the local church alone, but serve universal mission and the spreading of the Gospel, must always exist in the church, said then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a speech at the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements in 1998. The pope has to rely on these ministries, they on him; and in the harmonious interaction between the two kinds of mission, the symphony of ecclesial life is realized.

Beginning with monasticism in the early church, Ratzinger outlined’ six successive waves of movements that precede the 20th-century phenomenon of lay associationsmissionary monasticism of the seventh century, the 10th-century reform movement of Cluny, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, new movements of evangelization of the 16th century that included the Jesuits’ worldwide mission, and the founding of various missionary congregations in the 19th century.

Though we often think of the phenomenon of lay movements as a 20th-century onesometimes even a post-Vatican II onethe Council for the Laity’s directory of international associations (2006) lists 122 groups, including Militia Christi, founded in 1209 by Dominicans, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in 1833 by a journalist in Paris, and others that predate the turn of the 20th century.

The pontifical council’s directory includes nearly a dozen professional organizations, like the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medical Social Assistants, the International Catholic Union of the Press and the International Christian Union of Business Executives. Others, like Worldwide Marriage Encounter and the World Federation of Nocturnal Adoration Societies, cater to wider groups of Catholics, but include specific charisms and activities.

Modern-Day Movements

But when one speaks of lay movements in the present day, it is primarily groups such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Regnum Christi and Cursillo that come to mind. Aside from the fact that they are occasionally the objects of controversy, they receive and deserve attention because membership in any of these groups is often a way of life for their members. The same can be said for Opus Dei, which, with its own hierarchy of priests and bishops, does not fit into the lay movement category.

For thousands of Catholics around the world, it is the lay association, not the parish, that forms the hub of their spiritual lives. And this poses a problem for some bishops and theologians.

It is no coincidence that the majority of lay movements were founded in Europeall but 12 in the directory are headquartered therewhere parish life is less active than it is in the United States. Lay movements can complement parish life, but in many cases worldwide they fill a spiritual gap for Catholics, providing them the nourishment they do not or cannot find in parish life.

Piscitelli saw a clear difference between the two continents in 1993, when she and her husband, Professor Andrea Bartoli of Columbia University, transplanted the community of Sant’Egidio from Rome to the more parish-centered United States. The community in Rome had several thousand people, several projects and prayer every night, she said. The community was very present in our lives, concretely. Then we came to New York, and the community at that point was really unknown.

Founded in Rome in 1968, the community is perhaps best known for negotiating a peace deal for the African nation of Mozambique. After over two years of negotiations at the Rome headquarters of Sant’Egidio, representatives from the Mozambique government and the guerilla opposition signed a peace agreement in 1992, with Piscitelli’s husband taking part in the negotiations. In 1993 the couple came to New York to monitor the United Nations’ implementation of the peace deal.

They formed the first U.S.-based community of Sant’Egidio after speaking in nearby parishes and colleges. The community has since spread to the University of Notre Dame, Minneapolis and Boston, where Maloney, then a student at Boston College, an antiwar protestor and a Catholic Worker volunteer met the group.

I was really drawn to the way of the community of Sant’Egidio as something differentchanging people’s lives maybe not through protesting, but through friendship, he says, recalling his introduction to the community. And at the end of the day, I would sit together with friends and we would pray together. I’ve been a Catholic all my life, he adds. I’ve been going to Mass, but the idea of taking the Gospel seriously, of reading it on a daily basis, was an idea that was never offered to me. And it’s not that foreign.

While its focus on prayer, communicating the Gospel, solidarity with the poor, ecumenism and dialogue often earn the Community of Sant’Egidio universal respect, the mere mention of other lay movements makes some Catholics, especially those on the left, roll their eyes and cringe.

Concerns Raised by Bishops

Speaking about the phenomenon of lay movements, the Rev. Eugene Lauer, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, calls some of the fringe lay movements questionable. In the Rev. Andrew Greeley’s book The Catholic Revolution, published in 2004, the sociologist implies that groups like Cursillo attempt to brainwash participants. Some bishops have banned the Legionaries of Christ and their lay association, Regnum Christi, from parishes in their dioceses. (The Vatican’s recent disciplining of the Legionaries’ founder, the Rev. Marcel Maciel, stemming from charges of sexual abuse, have not helped either the Legionaries or Regnum Christi.)

The debate boils down to the issue of communion: Some bishops, priests and lay people see the lay movements as operating outside of parish and diocesan structures, and, in many cases, they do.

Even New York’s Sant’Egidio members attend weekly Mass, not at their home parishes as bishops and pastors might recommend, but at the Cabrini nursing home, along with the elderly residents there. But their members report a warm relationship with the Archdiocese of New York, quite different from what members of Regnum Christi in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis can report.

In October 2004 Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minneapolis sent a letter to the Legionaries of Christ and to all parishioners informing them that the Legionaries and Regnum Christi were not to use parish or diocesan property, or use diocesan channels to promote events. I feel very strongly that any group of religious who minister within this local church needs to do so in a way which promotes unity and cooperation, Archbishop Flynn’s letter stated. Rather than experiencing such a spirit, our pastors continue to sense that a parallel church’ is being encouraged, one that separates persons from the local parish and archdiocese, and creates competing structures.

The diocese of Columbus, Ohio, enacted a similar policy in 2002. And in 2004 the Diocese of Baton Rouge sent a letter home with students warning parents that the Legionaries operate outside the structures of the Catholic Church and often recruit children and teens to join their programs. The letter referred parents to two Web siteswww.regainnetwork.org, a site run by former Legionaries and Regnum Christi members that includes negative information about the groups, and www.legionaryfacts.org, a site sponsored by the respective communities to refute negative accusations.

Stories like these prompted Bishop Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Ind., to call several of his pastors when he learned that Regnum Christi had established a presence in his diocese. My experience, and the experience of the pastors in my diocese, is that they are among the most active parishioners in the parishes, says Bishop Melczek, who headed the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Laity from 2002 to 2005. They really take the faith seriously in terms of their commitment to prayer and living by the teachings of the church. I am happy to permit it as long as we’re functioning in communion with one another and not in competition with one another, he said.

Alive, Awake, Conscious

Facing a different sort of problem, a pastor in Southern California told me that he had to make an effort not to think of Cursillo as a mere factory for churning out active parishioners.

The name Cursillo means short course in Spanish. Involvement in the movement begins with an invitation from a member to make a three-day retreat. Upon return, the participants are encouraged to spend the rest of their lives, their fourth day, meeting regularly and bringing others to Christ. Very often, inactive or moderately active Catholics go on a Cursillo and return to become lectors, eucharistic ministers or catechists. They also return with a more active prayer life and a desire to learn more about the Catholic faith.

Though the Cursillo and many other lay movements were founded just before the Second Vatican Council, they all exemplify the council’s renewed discovery of the lay vocation, as outlined in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Many of these documents emphasized the need for lay people to be alive, awake, conscious, said Dolores Leckey, now a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and also the founding executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth. There were so many opportunities in the wake of the council. People would have religious awakenings on retreats. How do you keep that moving?

Paul Capiton, a consecrated member of Focolare who lives in the community’s men’s house in Manhattan, describes himself as a modern-day monk. He has taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but is not a priest or brother, and he holds down a full-time job as a network consultant for a tuition management company. We don’t look like monks, he said. We bring church to places it wouldn’t otherwise be.

Focolare, a movement founded in 1946 in Trent, Italy, focuses on the spirituality of unity. Its members meet once a week for fellowship, and Focolarini, as they are known, are encouraged to meditate on and put into practice a short Gospel passage and reflection each month.

Sustaining Communion

Just as scattered instances of working separately from the church hierarchy bring controversy and sometimes a bad name to lay movements, most experts agree that the chief challenge facing lay movements as they mature is building and maintaining that communion.

Lay movements always bring challenge to the church in at least two ways, said H. Richard McCord, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth. They represent a certain amount of new energy, new insight, a pushing out of the edges of mission. That’s a challenge probably in a good sense. But they also bring a challenge in that they need to be tied to the larger community of the church, which is institutional and hierarchical. Most of the movements he encounters meet that challenge, he said. None try to claim you body and soul, McCord said. They keep releasing you back to your parish for service.

As these groups move forward, they face not only the challenge of building communion with the local church, but also, according to Leckey, the challenge to attract new members and respond to the needs of the faithful. Like everyone else, these movements have to attract young people, she said. Those that have connections to campuses will fare better than those that do not.

A look through history shows that not every movement, even though it may have had an essential purpose at the time, will last forever.

Like any organization or group, we need to pay attention to the Hebrew Scripturethere is a time for everything under the sun, Leckey noted. These organizations have a place and a time. Some have a longer life expectancy than others.

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16 years 12 months ago
It was good to find a pair of serious articles regarding lay movements (8/14). I appreciate the image of “A Symphony of Church Life” by Vincent Gragnani, though I have long thought it more like grand opera. At the risk of sounding dissonant, I raise a few questions.

Why is the president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity an archbishop, or indeed a cleric of any order? Are there no educated, faithful lay men (or women) available to fill that seat at the table?

At most colleges, Catholic and secular, campus ministries are disconnected even from parishes in close proximity. What is the reason that so many dioceses overlook these communities?

How can the church embrace her members whose sense of social justice leads them to join Pax Christi, Voice of the Faithful, Dignity and alternative women’s prayer groups? These, too, are Catholic lay movements, which flourish independently of parochial structures and have their notes to contribute to that great musical tapestry.

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