This weekend, new movements will meet in Rome for a Pentecost encounter with Pope Benedict XVI. It echoes the 1998 Pentecost meeting with Pope John Paul II. In these events, the Holy See is acknowledging the importance of the new “ecclesial realities.” But many Catholics still don’t understand the role of the movements.

For centuries, families, parishes, Catholic schools and colleges passed on the faith from one generation to the other. Why do we need special movements? Because that old way of doing things needs a boost.

Today, many parents who grew up during the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council don’t know their faith or, even worse, have unorthodox opinions about it. How can they train their children in the knowledge and love of Christ’s revelation?

The family, moreover, has become a loose concept. According to a 1999 study sponsored by the University of Chicago, only 26% of American families are “traditional” — composed of a married heterosexual couple with children.

Parishes aren’t able to reach out to everyone, either. In the Americas, less than 30% of the faithful attend Mass on a weekly basis, whereas in most European countries not even 20% do. Also, parish territories are frequently too extensive to spark meaningful personal relationships that could ignite a true Christian initiation.

To make matters worse, many schools and colleges have lost their Catholic identity.

New movements and communities often fill the vacuum. They do not claim to usurp the indispensable and irreplaceable role of the family, the parish and the school — nor can they. On the contrary, they are at the service of the three institutions.

We often meet good practicing families who belong to or are connected with some movement or community. A number of thriving parishes and colleges are partly animated by one or more of these new groups.

The new movements and communities have developed a wide variety of methods and educational approaches of extraordinary effectiveness. They usually offer retreats, religious encounters, courses, seminars, youth meetings, conventions and similar activities that deeply inform the minds of many with a Christian outlook. They edit books, newspapers, journals, magazines, booklets, and run TV stations, radio stations and websites that are characterized by their fidelity to the Church’s teachings and by an in-depth, fresh and convincing presentation of the Gospel.

“And what is the motivation behind their pedagogical strength?” asked Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, in the first Latin American Congress of the new movements and communities. “The ‘secret,’ so to speak, is found in the charisms that have produced them and that constitute their very soul. And thanks to this charism, the fascinating original experience of the Christian reality, of which each founder is a witness, can be relived and reproduced in the lives of many people and of many generations of people without losing its newness and freshness.”

In his address, delivered March 9, the archbishop noted that the starting point of the formation offered by movements and communities is a deep conversion of heart. This is why these groups include many converts, people who “come from afar.”

Their formation process is based on a specific pedagogical approach that is typically Christ-centered.

“It focuses on what is truly essential, which is the awakening in the person of that baptismal vocation or identity that characterizes true Christian discipleship,” the archbishop said. “It is radical in the sense that it refuses to dilute the Gospel by proposing holiness as an ideal worth pursuing.”

They also instill a sense of belonging to, and love for, the Church. Thus, their means of Christian formation enhance, rather than compete with, the essential institutions of the family, the parish and the school.

The need is clear in the e-mails I receive.

From a woman in Vancouver, B.C.: “A few years back I developed some interest in New Age ideas. I was drawn to its emphasis on doing good and ‘self-improvement through self-discovery.’ It sounded like what the Catholic Church teaches.”

From a 31-year-old Mexican woman: “Wishing to get an explanation of my past experiences, I took an esoteric course. I regretted it. I began to believe in weird things, such as reincarnation and astral journeys. When I came back to the Church, I tried to get rid of those ideas but still have my doubts.”

From a Missouri Synod Lutheran woman: “I see the danger that they [certain movies and books] pose. Some of my cousins and many of my friends have abandoned Christianity in favor of New Age religions.”

Confusion about religious truths debases our culture. More and more well-intentioned Christians get trapped in the web of pseudo-religious phenomena, such as magic and the occult.

Confusion about moral principles and values is just as widespread. How many Christians are indifferent to — or favor of — contraception, abortion, same-sex “marriage” and “therapeutic” cloning?

Is there a way out of this quagmire?

“Strong witness” of Christ is an urgent need of the Church, according to John Paul II.

“This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel,” the Holy Father said at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. “It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It was never meant to be hidden away in private. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our heavenly Father.”

Characteristically, members of new movements and communities are not afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis. Many of them have experienced a deep inner transformation, at times to their own surprise; in fact, many never would have imagined themselves preaching the Gospel so boldly or participating so actively in the Church’s mission.

These groups, noted Archbishop Rylko, “know how to draw out the spiritual potential of the laity by helping them smash the barriers of timidity, fear and false inferiority complexes that today’s secular culture creates in the hearts of so many Christians.”

I believe their apostolic thrust awakens in the Church the type of inner freedom with which Jesus’ apostles and disciples preached the Gospel. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians weren’t afraid of being ridiculed, persecuted and tortured. They didn’t hide their opposition to the mainstream ideas of the cultural elites of the time — Jerusalem’s religious leaders and Roman authorities. They preached, no matter what — as much and as far as they could.

“The movements break with the habitual way of doing apostolate,” said Archbishop Rylko. “They re-examine the methods and approach, and propose new forms. They direct their efforts courageously and naturally at today’s modern areopagus which is present in culture, in the mass media, politics and the economy. They give special attention to those who suffer, to the poor and marginalized. How many social works have been born of their initiative! They do not wait for those no longer practicing the faith to return to the Church on their own: They seek them out. They do not hesitate to reach out by taking to the streets and city squares, by entering supermarkets, banks, schools and universities and wherever people can be found. Their missionary zeal carries them ‘to the ends of the earth.’”

Once again, their “powerful proclamation” should not be felt as a threat or competition to the basic parish and diocesan structures. Their evangelizing effort brings about, in fact, a tremendous support to bishops and parish priests — they draw more people to the local church and help some of the ones who are already churchgoers to develop a more committed life within their parish.

Next week, in part three, we will deal more in depth with the relationship between ecclesial movements and the local church.

In the end, we should not judge new movements and communities according to our likes, preferences or prejudices.

More than 2,000 years ago, Christ gave us the right criterion to judge them: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16).

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar

teaches philosophy at Rome’s

Regina Apostolorum University.