VATICAN CITY—Lay movements and new Christian communities often are more effective than parishes in sustaining a long-term commitment to the faith, said J. Francis Cardinal Stafford.
The U.S. cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, said one of the key strengths of these grass-roots religious groups is their ability to call people to a deep faith, and to a life of service within the Church and to those most deprived outside of the Church.
“Where parishes may be weak, that is, in sustaining over a long period of time the faith of individual persons—especially the young—communities seem to be the strongest,” Cardinal Stafford told the Register.
“Obviously, in most countries the parish is and will remain the center of the Church's activity,” he said. “However, the strength of those endowed with charismatic gifts within the Church is precisely evident where parishes are not so strong.”
The cardinal's remarks followed Pope John Paul II's landmark meeting last month with 56 lay movements and new communities from around the globe. Nearly 300,000 members of these groups gathered in St. Peter's Square for a prayer vigil held on the eve of Pentecost.
Among those represented were the Neocatechumenal Way, Regnum Christi, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Focolare Movement, the Legion of Mary, Communion and Liberation, Worldwide Marriage Encounter, L'Arche communities and the related Faith and Light movement. Prayer, song, Scripture readings, and personal testimonies marked the rally, which lasted into the early evening.
“That event was truly a miracle of the Spirit,” Cardinal Stafford said. “It was an extraordinary demonstration of the deep affection the Holy Father has for the lay movements. It was also a demonstration of their close association with the pastor of the Universal Church.”
The meeting of new religious and lay movements with Pope John Paul II and a Vatican-sponsored “World Congress of Ecclesial Movements” held a few days prior to it, signaled an unprecedented recognition by Church authorities of the work being carried out by these groups.
During the prayer vigil, Pope John Paul II said the birth and spread of lay movements following the Second Vatican Council has brought “unexpected newness” to the life of the Church. He called them “tangible proof” of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Cardinal Stafford said the Vatican could finally embrace these groups because they had reached “a new level of maturity.”
“We could not have held such an encounter with the Holy Father or a world congress five or 10 years ago,” he said. The various communities and movements, he said, had not reached “a level of awareness of their being united to one another.”
The cardinal also said the groups had now reached a clear understanding of their close ties with the shepherd of the universal Church.
“Their mission is an apostolic mission closely associated with that of the Pope and of the universal episcopate,” he said. “There is no way these groups can exist without there being an essential understanding of their universal mission in proclaiming Christ.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told leaders of ecclesial groups that the Church needs the energy, witness, and service of lay movements, and lay movements need the guidance of the Church.
Addressing the “World Congress of Ecclesial Movements,” he said the rise of new religious and lay movements in the Church's history almost always makes someone uncomfortable, but usually that is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work.
“It is not correct to pretend that everything must fit into a uniform organization; better to have less organization and more Holy Spirit,” he said.
Cardinal Ratzinger said many of the most active movements in the Church today were founded just after the Second Vatican Council, during a period that many described as a “winter” for the Church.
“But then, all of a sudden, something happened which no one expected. The Holy Spirit once again asked for the floor, so to speak,” he said.
Around the world, young men and women felt drawn to commit themselves to the Gospel and to living their faith as a precious gift, the cardinal said. The time, like earlier periods when religious orders dedicated to education and health care blossomed, also marked a new realization among women of the importance of their contributions to the mission of the Church.
For the most part, Cardinal Ratzinger said, the movements have a “dominant charismatic personality.” They form concrete communities that “attempt to live the Gospel in its entirety,” and they recognize that the Catholic Church is their reason for being.
In a written message to the congress, Pope John Paul II echoed that view, calling lay movements “a hymn to the unity in diversity desired by the Spirit.”
“The originality of the charism which gives life to a movement does not and cannot add anything to the richness of the deposit of the faith safeguarded by the Church with passionate fidelity,” the Pope said.
Rather, he said, the movements “are a powerful support, a suggestive and convincing reminder to live fully, with intelligence and creativity, the Christian experience.”
As the Church approaches the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II has dedicated 1998 to the rediscovery of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit.
Specifically, he has called on Christian lay movements to “bring to the heart of the Church” their spiritual, educational, and missionary riches, as valuable experience and as a proposal for Christian living.
In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man, 1979), Pope John Paul II remarked on a “spirit of collaboration and shared responsibility” among the laity, “not only strengthening the already existing organizations for lay apostolate but also creating new ones that often have a different profile and exceptional dynamism.”
In his address to ecclesial movements on the eve of Pentecost, the Pope highlighted the “institutional” and “charismatic” aspects of the Church, saying both were “co-essential” because they contributed in differing ways to the life, renewal, and sanctification of God's people.
While stressing the need for lay movements to submit to the discernment of the competent ecclesiastical authorities, he also said the groups render a service in helping the Church's members to respond to the universal call to holiness.
“There is great need for living Christian communities,” the Pope said. “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!”
Cardinal Stafford said the meeting of Pope John Paul II with lay communities and the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements marked a milestone for the Church on the threshold of the third Christian millennium.
“The first challenge that the future opens for us is a richer theological reflection on the experience that the Church is having, and especially those members of the Church who are themselves a part of these communities,” the cardinal said.
The speech by Cardinal Ratzinger on the nature and mission of ecclesial movements, he said, required “a great deal of continued reflection and prayer” on the part of Pontifical Council for the that lay movements have come to understand their identity and vocation.
“The genuine, ecclesial, Catholic nature of these communities can only be measured by their willingness to submit themselves to the universal mission of the Church, which is most clearly expressed in the papacy,” he said.
The prayer vigil, he also said, was a “magnificent manifestation” of the office of Peter.
“Who else in the world could pull together 280,000 lay persons to demonstrate their common vision, their common testimony to the event of Jesus Christ?” Cardinal Stafford said. “Who else but the Pope could do that?”
Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.