Ecclesial movements in the life of the Church

Ecclesial movements in the life of the Church

Bishop Julian Porteous

The emergence of what have come to be termed "ecclesial movements" has been a significant feature of the Church in the past fifty years. Such movements have been seen by Pope John Paul II and by Pope Benedict XVI as important gifts for the Church.

What are ecclesial movements? Pope John Paul attempted a definition of ecclesial movements in these words, "The term is often used to refer to realities that differ among themselves, sometimes by reason of their canonical structure. Though the term certainly cannot exhaust or capture the wealth of forms aroused by the life-giving creativity of the Spirit of Christ, it does indicate a concrete ecclesial reality with predominantly lay membership, a journey of faith and a Christian witness which bases its own pedagogical method on a precise charism given to the person of the founder in specific circumstances and ways" (27 May 1998).

Four elements

Thus the pope identifies four elements. An ecclesial movement is, to his mind: a concrete ecclesial reality; composed mainly of lay people; proposes a way of faith; and is based on the charism of the founder.

This is a broad definition. Various charismatic communities would fit this description. In Australia the Emmanuel Community in Brisbane and the Disciples of Jesus Community, based in Canberra, are two examples. Movements like Focolare and Communion and Liberation, founded in Italy, also fall within this definition. Couples for Christ from the Philippines and Jesus Youth from India are other examples.

While many of the new movements identify with this definition, some groups resist the description. Opus Dei, for instance, prefers not to be considered as one of the ecclesial movements. The Neocatechumenal Way, likewise, prefers not to use the description. The Charismatic Renewal similarly sees itself as not so much a movement as a grace for the Church. It nominates the fact that there is no founder to the Charismatic Renewal and it has no formal structure or membership. These are all valid comments.

The term "Ecclesial Movements" or "New Movements" is an elastic term which defies tight definition. However, one can use the term to capture the experience of the Church at this time where many groups are emerging which incorporate an inner renewal of Christian life, unite in some form of common life, and have an apostolic orientation.

Pope John Paul II saw the significance of the ecclesial movements and spoke in more general terms of them in 1981. By 1987 he recognised the apostolic dynamism of the movements and saw them as a significant presence in the Church: "The great blossoming of these movements and the manifestations of energy and ecclesial vitality which characterise them are certainly to be considered one of the most precious fruits of the vast and profound spiritual renewal promoted by the last Council" (2 March 1987).

In 1998 he said that the movements "represent one of the most significant fruits of that springtime in the Church which was foretold by the Second Vatican Council". He went on to add that the movements have "a very precise – we can say irreplaceable – function in the Church." In his encyclical letter, Redemptoris Missio, 1990, the Pope saw the movements as "a true gift of God both for the new evangelisation and for missionary activity properly so-called" (n. 72). He spoke of the movements as "a new Pentecost for the Church".

The source of a movement is a charism which is given to the founder. A charism is as the word implies a gift, a gift for the Church. Thus a charism is for the Church. The notion of charism which received special notice in the Constitution on the Church in Vatican II, is of vital significance when speaking of the movements. It proposes that movements are not merely human undertakings, but have a divine source, an inspiration, which is usually incarnated in the spiritual vision of the founder.

Pope John Paul often referred to the complementary role of charism and institution. He saw them as "mutually complementary". In his 1987 address to the movements he said, "In the Church, both the institutional and the charismatic aspects, both the hierarchy and association and movements of the faithful, are co-essential and share in fostering life, renewal and sanctification, though in different ways".

Church as movement

In recognising the phenomenon of the movements Pope John Paul II proposed the notion of the Church as a movement. It is an interesting proposal. In a homily in 1981 (27 September) he said, "As you know the Church herself is a movement".

Here the Pope is proposing that we see the Church as a dynamic reality living under the influence of the Holy Spirit. He clearly recognised in the movements such a manifestation. He linked celebrations with the movements with the liturgical feast of Pentecost, realising that the movements are but a contemporary realisation of the outpouring of the Spirit which gave birth to the Church.

It is true to say that without the Holy Spirit there would be no Church. And indeed the Spirit remains the "soul of the Church". Pope Paul VI, in a latter section of Evangelii Nuntiandi, spoke eloquently of the vital role that the Spirit plays in the ongoing life and mission of the Church.

The Pope comments: "In fact, it is only after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost that the apostles depart to all the ends of the earth in order to begin the great work of the Church's evangelisation", and adds a little later, "It is in the 'consolation of the Holy Spirit' that the Church increases. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. It is He who explains to the faithful the deep meaning of the teaching of Jesus and of His mystery. It is the Holy Spirit who, today just as at the beginning of the Church, acts in every evangeliser who allows himself to be possessed and led by Him" (n. 73).

The Pope recognises that something of particular significance is stirring in the Church in our day when he comments, "We live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit". This was said in 1975. The insight of the Pope has been realised as the years have progressed.

In 1998 Pope John Paul II said, in relation to this notion, that the Church "in a certain sense may be called a movement herself since she is the realisation in time and space of the Father's sending of his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit" (27 May 1998).

Church teaching

In the 1980s the Church began serious dialogue with the movements as a whole. There had been dialogue with various individual movements in the past, particularly as founders began discussing with the Church their status within the structures of the Church, but by the 1980s the Church began to call the movements together and commence a deeper reflection on their identity and their place in the Church.

An international meeting with ecclesial movements took place in Rome in September 1981. A second meeting took place in March 1987. The third was 1998. In 1999 there was a follow-up meeting of bishops ("the ecclesial movements in the pastoral solicitude of bishops") in Speyer (Germany).

These meetings were significant in that they laid the foundations for magisterial statements which became vital indicators of the growing relationship between the Church and the movements. Movements became seen as a gift for the Church and the Church, in entering into dialogue with them, drew them to her heart. This was a process of great importance both for the movements themselves and for the Church. We will track some of the key outcomes of this process.

It was shortly after the international meeting with the ecclesial movements that John Paul II presided over the 1987 Synod of Bishops on the theme of the role of the lay person in the Church and in the world. No doubt the experience with the movements influenced the Pope's contribution to this synod. His interventions were connected specifically with the role of movements in the Church. In particular his post synodal apostolic exhortation, Christifideles laici, explored the "ecclesial criteria" for movements. He provided a set of expectations as to how movements can be soundly in and with the Church.

He listed what he called "Criteria of Ecclesiality" (n. 30). They well capture what are in fact the defining elements of the new ecclesial movements:

• The primacy given to the call to holiness – the Pope recognised that movements must be instrumental in leading its members to holiness. There must be "a more intimate unity between the everyday life of its members and their faith."

• A responsibility for professing the faith – here the Pope saw that authentic movements do not just teach the faith but enable their members to profess the faith.

• A witness to a strong and authentic filial communion with the Pope. The Pope is "the visible principle and foundation of unity."

• Conformity to and participation in the Church's apostolic goals. The movements are to be united with the missionary spirit of the Church.

• A commitment to a presence in human society. The Pope here is conscious that the movements need to have an awareness of contributing to the strengthening of human culture.

He concludes this consideration of the "Criteria of Ecclesiality" by saying he expects "their verification in the actual fruits that various group forms show in their organisational life and the works they perform". The Pope expects a lot of the movements!

The second gathering of the new movements and communities in 2006 came together under the theme of the "Beauty of being a Christian". This theme reveals an aspect of what the new movements have brought to the Church. They have helped their members to rediscover the beauty of being a Christian, and the members of the new movements can give a witness to the world of the beauty of being a Christian.

Human person

Our society has deconstructed the human person. The forces of feminism and homosexuality, in particular, have sought to propose another way of being human which blurs the true nature of the human person, especially in the character of masculinity and femininity. While the Church can propose in its teaching the true understanding of the human person, it will be the living witnesses to this truth that will speak louder than the teaching.

There is a need for a reconstruction of the nature of the human person. It must be a reconstruction from the heart. The new movements through their work of evangelisation and formation can help people be truly recreated according to the truth of who they are in God - what God intends them to be by virtue of their Baptism. This is another vital service that the new movements can bring to the Church.

Pope Benedict addressed this theme during his homily to the gathered members of the new movements in St Peter's Square at the Vigil of Pentecost. He said, "Dear friends, we want to be these children of God for whom creation is waiting, and we can become them because the Lord has made us such in Baptism. Yes, creation and history - they are waiting for us, for men and women who are truly children of God and behave as such.

"Time and again in history the advent of the Holy Spirit has brought the experience of the beauty of being a Christian to those swept up in the moments of Grace - the monks in deserts, the monks living under the Rule of St Benedict, those inspired by the ideals of St Francis of Assisi, those seeking to live the Imitation of Christ, the students of Paris reaching out to the poor, and now those called to a new way of holiness in the movements in the Church".

'A New Wine and Fresh Skins, Ecclesial Movements in the Church' (ConnorCourt, $24.95, ISBN: 978-1-92142-146-4) is a new book by Bishop Julian Porteous.

Bishop Porteous is an auxiliary bish op in the Sydney Archdiocese and was formerly Rector of Sydney's Good Shepherd Seminary.

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