VATICAN CITY—The future of the Church can be seen in the lay movements that continue to expand on the continent, according to a number of participants at the Synod of Bishops for Europe

Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague, president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, sang the praises of the movements in a speech on the synod floor, saying their impact has been “amazing” and they should be given room to grow.

In an interview Oct. 7, he said ecclesial movements are popular, energetic and, unlike other Church institutions, youthful. Like the major religious orders that arose and flourished in the Middle Ages, the movements appear to be the Holy Spirit's gift to the modern Church, he said. Not surprisingly, leaders of the movements agreed.

“Many people experience the Church as a rather geriatric institution,” Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare Movement, told the synod. She said movements like her own give the Church a profile of youthfulness, enthusiasm and a commitment to living the Gospel.

Kiko Arguello, co-founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, said his movement's focus on helping Catholics rediscover their faith offers a model for all parishes. He said Church structures need urgent renewal and called for establishment of a Vatican organization to promote this kind of evangelization.

Jesús and Juana Carrascosa, a husband and wife team from Communion and Liberation, shared their conversion story with the bishops, explaining the importance of the element of surprise in the encounter with Christ. “Jesus is a human presence that affects the whole of life and changes it. Therefore, Christians are needed who are aware and committed, and who are capable of making the Church present in their communities,” Jesús Carrascosa said.

To some, the praise of the movements seemed to coincide with a sense of resignation over the future of religious orders. One nun told the synod that consecrated life was being treated as “a very ill patient,” but that religious orders were too important to brush aside.

In the interview, Cardinal Vlk said many of the major religious orders were born in earlier centuries and that their “charisms” may not always be suitable to the Church's current period.

“I'm not saying the movements should have precedence. But perhaps they express more the needs of our time. I don't want to say religious orders don't express this, but they were certainly born for another time — and if they still have strength and dynamism, they will continue,” he said.

Cardinal Vlk said he hoped the synod would recognize a model of the Church that is less wedded to structures of the past, and in that sense give the lay movements space to expand, along with other more recent “manifestations of the Holy Spirit.”

Even the scarcity of priests, he said, could be a positive sign that reminds the laity that they, too, are called on to live and announce the Gospel. The priest shortage has serious implications for sacramental life, which is important for the Church, but “the life of the Church is not only the sacraments,” he said. The most important thing is to genuinely “live the life of the Gospel,” he said.

“In the past, perhaps we've had a narrow vision that Jesus is only present in the sacraments. Now, instead, this synod should enlarge the vision of the Church to include all the different types of Jesus’ presence in the Church,” he said.

Cardinal Vlk, who first got involved with lay movements during a period of religious repression in then-Czechoslovakia, where priests were not able to minister freely, said the spiritual commitment of lay movements has been one of the most effective evangelizing tools — more than the preaching of bishops, for example.

“I've been at meetings of these movements attended by others — people who were only ‘half-believers’ — and I've seen many of them convert right there. This way of living the Gospel appeals to them. It inspires them,” he said.

“It's not necessary that they sign up in the movement,” he added.

Cardinal Vlk acknowledged that the role of lay movements, which now number about 150, has not always been well understood in the Church, especially in the early years of Pope John Paul II's pontificate when many of the movements were experiencing significant growth. But he said the movements have matured and shown local bishops that they are valid ways of living the faith.

Cardinal Vlk said the Pope sent a clear and forceful signal when he presided over a meeting of 50 of the biggest lay movements in Rome in 1998.

“He wanted to have an ‘exhibit,’ you might say, of the movements as an expression of the activity of the Holy Spirit,” the cardinal said. He said the Pope's endorsement of the movements helped bolster their standing in the Church.

Cardinal Vlk said the movements have merely taken advantage of a legitimate “space for renewal” in the Church.

“The Holy Spirit has left this space so that it is always possible to correct, to renew. Because sometimes the institutional dimension of the Church — the hierarchy, the sacraments — has very fixed paths,” he said.