One of the strongest and most distinctive features of U.S. Catholicism is the central place parishes play in the church’s life. In recent years we have heard a lot about the closing of some parishes and reconfigurations of others, especially in parts of the country like the Rust Belt. But the American parish is still a powerful and largely successful institution. Bishops, clergy and the faithful in general think of the parish as constituting the lion’s share of what the church does.
For years I have been thinking that there is something not quite right about this scheme of things. My doubts are rooted in both theory and practice. A church that is “in its entirety evangelizing,” as Pope John Paul II reminded us more than once, must not put all or even most of its eggs in one basket, that is, in one instrument of evangelization, no matter how fundamental it may be. While parishes come in all shapes and sizes and often accomplish a remarkable number of tasks, they do not exhaust the practical pastoral services needed in the dynamic and diverse contexts of postmodern living. Already Karl Rahner saw this in his classic reflection on parish in Sacramentum Mundi, published around the time of the Second Vatican Council. He wondered back then whether the parish could survive in the face of urbanization, with its anonymity and pluralism.
As a one-time parish priest and later professor of practical theology, I experienced the tension between parish loyalty and the somewhat different interests and visions of such apostolic movements as the Cursillo, Marriage Encounter and the Charismatic Renewal. Good people in these movements often experienced rejection when they tried to enlist their parish priests in supporting or working with them. The priests often saw the movement as “stealing” their parishioners and leadership. So a certain amount of tension characterizes the historical relationship between parishes and movements. That tension has tended to mount in light of the growing strength of both the older movements and new ones, such as those that have grown up in Europe in the 20th century. The latter include, for example, the Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation and even Opus Dei.
Parish priests often do not know how the dynamic of the movements relates to the immediate tasks and concerns of the parish. Many view them therefore as at best peripheral and at worse a debilitating drain on the parish. Yet the movements attract and energize many parishioners as well as “recovering Catholics” and the nonchurched too. Some of the better lay leaders are attracted to the movements and, what’s more, find a space to exercise leadership—something not so easy to do in too many still clericalized parish milieus. Many lay men and women seem to find something in the movements that they do not find in their parish. For one thing there is a kind of apostolic élan, a sense of mission and excitement about the movements that parishes cannot replicate.
The picture becomes especially clear if one looks at the church in Europe. Two years ago, on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s last journey to Spain, a survey of the church there revealed that at least 45 percent of Spanish Catholics related to the church primarily through a movement and not through a parish. The movements are strongest in Europe, where many parishes, it seems, are moribund. Certainly the movements are not as strong in the United States because the parish does work better here and is more lively and successful than may be the case in Europe.
Agents of Evangelization
Complicating the attitude of pastors and bishops regarding the movements is the fact that some of them are perceived as Trojan horses for various conservative agendas. In my view, movements have been viewed too much through the lens of ideology. There are strong ideologically based fears, for instance, about Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate and Communion and Liberation. This perception was enhanced, no doubt, by the keen interest and support given particularly to these movements by Pope John Paul II. His enthusiasm for the movements contrasted with his relative coolness or distance from the religious orders.
How might one explain this phenomenon? A rather straightforward interpretation is that the pope found the movements more amenable to influence, more cooperative, even enthusiastic, about his vision. The old religious orders, with their deeply rooted traditions and institutional interests, seemed less responsive than they were at other times in history when, indeed, the popes literally depended on them.
The point is that the movements, both in the life of the local church and globally, play a growing role as mediators in the church’s life. They are thriving, viable and appealing centers of service and action. They are providing diverse contexts that appeal to a broad spectrum of people today. As such they are de facto schools of lay ecclesial leadership. And, by all accounts, they are quite successful.
Rome has been taking the lead in recognizing the reality and further potential of the movements. In 1998 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke at the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements. His way of positively interpreting the contributions of the movements was in tune with the church’s real catholicity. He stressed the need to avoid the pretense of absolute uniformity in pastoral organization and programming. He went even further, stating that the diocesan bishops must seek to harmonize unity and diversity and not confuse unity with pastoral uniformity.
I connect this point of view with Pope John Paul’s definition of the new evangelization: proclaiming the message of Christ with “new ardor, new methods and new expressions.” The pope was giving the people of God permission, as it were, to innovate, diversify—yes, even experiment. And one outcome of this period in church history is precisely the emergence of the movements as powerful instruments of evangelization, means by which the church carries out its mission today. While the engagement of the laity in many of the institutionalized and clericalized aspects of the church’s life is still problematic, it is in the movements (not exclusively, of course, but significantly) where lay people are finding a place to flourish. The Spirit may be telling us something here.
Meeting With the Pope
Pope Benedict XVI, through the Pontifical Council for the Laity, invited the leadership of movements from all over the world to come to Rome this year at Pentecost for a second meeting. This gesture dramatized the increasingly important role played by the movements as well as their diversity and worldwide appeal. In March, Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, attended the first meeting of ecclesial movements and new church communities for all of Latin America in Bogotá, Colombia.
In his talk Archbishop Rylko referred to these movements and communities as “pedagogical guides of adult Christian formation in the faith and as guides in the discovery of Christ.” The Vatican, accordingly, is noticing that one of the hopeful contributions of the movements is the way that they model various types of Christian community and praxis. While parishes also model Christian discipleship, it would seem that they need help in the face of new social dynamics and the overpowering allure of global culture.
Challenges for Today’s Parish
The vigor of American Catholicism is closely related to the extraordinary success of the parish, especially the national parish of decades ago, in convening the teeming masses of immigrant Catholics who needed a place to call their own, where they could speak their native languages and forge their newfound identities. Yet the parish has not always existed in the life of the church in the form familiar to us. The centuries have witnessed much evolution in parishes.
Today the parish has certainly not run its course; community and Eucharist are essential to the church, however we define it. Parish in some form will always be with us, and that must be attended to one way or the other. But the success of the movements demands that the U.S. Catholic Church—clergy, religious and laity—begin to integrate that dynamic into their scheme of things more intentionally and wisely.
Priests, especially parish priests, have to ask whether their vision of priesthood goes beyond the confines of parish ministry. For priestly life today must explore with pastoral imagination new expressions and methods if the church is to accomplish its evangelizing task. The question, then, is how can priests become more movement-friendly and work synergistically with this flowering of God’s Spirit in our times. Only through a process of reaching out and giving witness to the faith in concrete, diverse and creative ways will the Christian message connect with today’s people. The movements need to be recognized as doing just that.
Lay Ecclesial Movements: A Short List
The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, considered by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin “one of the greatest fruits of the Second Vatican Council,” is a grass-roots movement centered in the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. Among its key dimensions are “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” Christian community life, evangelization, liturgical prayer, preaching and healing.
Christian Life Communities were founded in the 16th century in Rome by the Jesuits and long known as the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today’s C.L.C. groups, in countries all across the world, promote the spiritual life of members and encourage them to reach out to those in need. Since the Second Vatican Council, greater emphasis has been placed on Scripture, the liturgy and ecumenical work.
Communion and Liberation was founded by Msgr. Luigi Giussani in Italy in 1954 but was not officially recognized by Rome until 1982. Central to C.L. is conversion and witness through recognition of the presence of Christ in the Incarnation. Their primary works include charitable ventures and education. In addition to some 100,000 members in Italy, the movement today has members in dozens of other countries.
The Cursillo, whose name is Spanish for “short course,” was begun in Spain in the 1940’s by a group of men who prayed and worked together. The movement, best known for three-day retreats designed to foster a greater knowledge of Christ and efforts to bring that knowledge to the world, expanded to the United States in the mid-1950’s and today is worldwide.
Focolare, which in Italian means “hearth or family fireside,” was founded in Trent, Italy, during World War II by Chiara Lubich, an elementary school teacher. The gatherings of friends to discuss Scripture and apply it daily have grown into a worldwide ecumenical movement with 87,000 members in more than 180 countries. The goal is the unity of humankind. Its activities stress mutual love in Christ, reconciliation, and dialogue.
Marriage Encounter offers private weekends, away from everyday responsibilities, during which a married couple is guided toward improved communication and mutuality.
The Neocatechumenal Way was born in the late 1960’s through the experience of the Spanish painter Francisco Arguello, who went to live among the poor in slums outside Madrid and there encountered the mystery of Christ crucified. This “seed” flowered into evangelizing communities within parishes and dioceses. Today they are present in 105 countries on five continents. The group received formal recognition in 2002.
Opus Dei was founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá in 1928. The sole personal prelature of the pope, the movement has as its mission to proclaim the universal call to holiness. The Work of God believes that Catholic men and women find sanctification through work. Its nearly 85,000 members worldwide include a number of clergy, including bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Escrivá was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.