Sooner or later it becomes painfully obvious to all of us: Our Catholic faith sails in deep, troubled waters. Perfect storms try to engulf the supernatural treasure we carry in fragile vessels.

First, the cultural tsunami of secularism, which we saw in San Diego this month when a federal judge demanded that a war memorial cross be removed.

Second, the explosive Gnostic propaganda, which we saw in the orchestrated promotion of The Da Vinci Code and the “Gospel of Judas,” and which we’re treated to every year with the widespread coverage of the ideas of Jesus Seminar scholars. These and New Age lifestyles, magic and the occult, seek to distort the true faith, by reducing Christ to a human teacher and his redemption to a mere liberation from cultural taboos.

A third force is the apathy, ignorance and indifference of so many Catholics who undermine their own vessel.

The Holy Spirit knew well what Catholics were facing in recent decades and will have to face in the ones to come. So he provided the Church with some solutions.

A solution that holds a special place, according to Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, is the new associative moment of the lay faithful.

“Once again,” said the Polish archbishop in his opening address to Latin America’s first congress of ecclesial movements and new communities, “the Spirit has intervened in the history of the Church, raising up new charisms that possess an extraordinary missionary dynamism that responds in an opportune way to the challenges of our time, great and dramatic as they are.”

The congress took place between March 9 and 12 in Bogota, Colombia. It was convoked by the Vatican and the Latin American Bishops’ Council to prepare for the general conference of Latin American and Caribbean episcopates, which Benedict XVI will open in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007.

Besides a good number of bishops, the Bogota meeting gathered 170 representatives from 45 movements and new communities. It focused on the main theme of the 2007 assembly: “Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ Today.”

“Today there are many false teachers who hide behind shallow promises of happiness,” Archbishop Rylko noted in a March 9 interview with Vatican Radio. “The ecclesial movements and new communities, as pedagogical guides of adult Christian formation in the faith and as guides in the discovery of Christ as only Teacher and Lord, are the Holy Spirit’s timely response to this great challenge of our days.”

John Paul II

Before his election to the See of Peter, Karol Wojtyla joined a movement of sorts in the Living Rosary and founded an informal movement of his own — his “little family.” Then, as Pope, he met many groups of the new ecclesial realities, such as Communion and Liberation, Focolare, Community of Sant’Egidio, Regnum Christi, Movement of Christian Life, Charismatic Renewal, The Neo-Catechumenal Way, Emmanuel Community, Schönstatt and the Legion of Mary.

The Pope also befriended many of their founders: Chiara Lubich, Kiko Argüello, Msgr. Luigi Giussani, Jean Vanier, Legionary Father Marcial Maciel, Andrea Riccardi, among others.

His numerous encounters with them culminated in the initiative to convene in Rome the first International Meeting of the Ecclesial Movements and New Communities on the eve of Pentecost May 30, 1998. That encounter, explained Guzmán Carriquiry, then subsecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, “was born out of an express desire of the Holy Father. It was practically a personal convocation.”

Eight years ago, I joined more than 300,000 people who came from all over the world to take part on that encounter with the Holy Father. Most of us were outside St. Peter’s Square and had to follow the event via huge screens.

What did John Paul II see in the new movements and communities? A gift from the Holy Spirit for our difficult times.

“In our world, often dominated by a secularized culture that encourages and promotes models of life without God, the faith of many is sorely tested, and is frequently stifled and dies,” the Pope said in his 1998 address. “Thus we see an urgent need for powerful proclamation and solid, in-depth Christian formation. There is so much need today for mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world! There is great need for living Christian communities! And here are the movements and the new ecclesial communities: They are the response, given by the Holy Spirit, to this critical challenge at the end of the millennium. You are this providential response.”

John Paul’s words didn’t come only from a theoretical consideration. At that time, they reflected a 20-year-long experience as Vicar of Christ. In his apostolic journeys, World Youth Days and other papal initiatives, the Holy Father had noticed the constant support of movements and new communities — in numbers of the faithful who attended the Pope’s gatherings and in their contagious enthusiasm for the faith transmitted by the Church in her Tradition.

“Since the beginning of my pontificate, I have attributed great importance to the path of the ecclesial movements, and I have been able to appreciate the fruits of their widespread and growing presence in my pastoral visits to parishes and my apostolic trips,” John Paul wrote to the participants at the May 27-29, 1998, World Congress of Ecclesial Movements. “I have noted with satisfaction their willingness to put their own energies at the service of the See of Peter and of the local churches. I have noted them as a novelty that has not yet been accepted and valued adequately. Today I note, and for this I am happy, a more mature self-awareness. You represent one of the most significant fruits of this springtime of the Church foretold by the Second Vatican Council, but you often unfortunately are blocked by the widespread process of secularization. Your presence is encouraging, since it shows that this springtime is moving forward, showing the freshness of the Christian experience, based on a personal encounter with Christ.”

Benedict XVI

Joseph Ratzinger has known these new ecclesial realities for more than 30 years. His experiences do not differ much from those of John Paul.

“For me, the first time I got in deep contact with movements, such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, in the early 1970s, was a wonderful event,” Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged in his address at the 1998 World Congress of Ecclesial Movements. “I sensed the zeal and enthusiasm with which their members lived their faith. Due to the joy of having the faith, they felt the need to pass on to others the gift they had received.”

The years that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were called by some the “winter” of the Church. Many Catholics were confused, demoralized and intimidated by the world. Where was God and what future could the Church have in modern culture?

Then, all of a sudden, something unexpected came about.

“The Holy Spirit had asked to speak again,” Cardinal Ratzinger said in the same address. “The faith was reborn in young men and women — a faith without ‘if’ or ‘but,’ without subterfuges or pretexts, lived in all its integrity as a precious gift that encourages one to live.”

Led by this experience, Benedict XVI called together the new movements and communities to meet again on Pentecost 2006.

Following the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict wants to present the new ecclesial realities as providential expressions of the new springtime brought forth by the Spirit with the Second Vatican Council.

In them, he sees a renewed encounter and following of Jesus Christ, an experience and consciousness of belonging to the Church as a mystery of communion, a faithfulness and responsibility for the truths presented by the magisterium, and a drive to meet every man, especially the most spiritually and materially needy.

“The movements and new communities,” Archbishop Rylko said in his interview with Vatican Radio, “as John Paul II taught us and as Benedict XVI teaches us today, bring a very strong missionary drive to the Church. They have incredible missionary imagination and courage.”

In the next articles, we will discuss the specific contributions of these groups to the Church and their role within the diocesan and parish structures.

We may conclude, for now, reaffirming John Paul’s and Benedict’s conviction: The movements and new communities are fitting gifts the Holy Spirit has inspired so that many Catholics can face today’s tremendous challenges to their faith.

Through them, many of us can sail sound and safe in deep troubled waters and pass on the treasure of our faith to other vessels.

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar

teaches philosophy at Rome’s

Regina Apostolorum University.