The challenges of the new movements


Peter Hocken who is a priest of the diocese of Northampton and author of several books on the charismatic movement writes 'We seem to be moving into a third phase in which the laity are not just leaven and witnesses by their lives but active proclaimers and mediators of the gospel and life in the Spirit'. This presents challenges for all of us in the Church, hierarchy and laity alike.

Something new is happening in the world of the lay movements. Probably most readers sense this newness whether it attracts or causes concern. What precisely is new? What has changed not only since the days of Pius XI and Pius XII but also since the Second Vatican Councils?

First, there is clearly a different tone and style in the most visible lay movements in the 1990s from the 1950s and 1960s. They are typically more militant and sometimes more confrontational than their predecessors. The confrontational style represents a sharper contrast between Church and world, with a greater confidence for impacting people and a reduced optimism in relation to world transformation.

Many of the new movements, particularly those fitting this profile, involve lay people, including the married, forming community and making forms of commitment previously restricted to religious and those in secular institutes. In some, members make commitments for life, often with explicit acceptance of their pastoral and authority structures.

Leaders in the new movements and communities often exercise forms of pastoral care, even if it is not called such, with patterns of teaching, formation and spiritual guidance. The sharper contrast between Church and world is also manifested in the directly evangelistic practice of many new movements, with the word 'witness' coming to refer, not simply to witness of life, but to the explicit proclamation of the gospel message.

This general sketch of what is new clearly applies more to some of the lay movements than to others. Of the pre-Vatican II movements, a few have retained their earlier ethos, though with a degree of adaptation to the more ecumenical and liturgical patterns coming from the Council. Some like the Foyers de Charité and Comunione e Liberazione, although pre-conciliar in origin, have become influential and international movements since the Council. Focolare, which was already well established before the Council, has taken on a strongly ecumenical dimension since, and is one of the new movements with branches in other Christian churches, as is Cursillo.

The new movements can then be seen as a modern mutation of forms of apostolic and consecrated life now extended to lay people. They express a more radical living of Christian faith than that required or expected of the faithful in general, with these more radical patterns being commonly expressed in forms of personal commitment avoiding the traditional language of vows.

Secularisation and Christian life

There can be little doubt but that traditional moral standards and Christian values have come under severe attack and have lost ground in recent decades, particularly in the Western world. While I have used the term 'secularisation' other words may better reflect major factors in this decline of civilisation, such as commercialisation, consumerism and hedonism. It seems most likely that the diminishing church attendance in many European countries, for instance, reflects a steady wearing down of Christian faith and its social embodiment in face of the overwhelming pressure of the media and the surrounding culture. This is the context in which Pope John Paul II sees the importance of the new ecclesial movements and communities within the Catholic Church, and the church leaders of Eastern Europe resist the effects of 'westernisation'.

This context explains the differences between the lay movements of the days of Pius XI and Pius XII and the new movements that are flourishing today. Such is the pressure of the neopagan world around us that only strong environments of faith and deep commitments stand much chance, first, of holding newly-converted young people and, secondly, reversing the tide so that the Church has more impact on society than society on the Church. If people are fed by the average television diet for twenty hours a week (a low estimate for most of the population), then how can we expect a seven to ten-minute homily and a 45-minute Mass each week to have greater influence on the thinking and the affections of even those who go to church regularly?

The new movements typically present a clear call to conversion of heart and life, and then provide an ambiance of faith support, a discipline to undergird daily prayer and regular study, and the vision of an alternative society.

Parishes and new communities

The relative 'successes' of the new movements present various challenges to our geographically based parochial and diocesan systems. In particular, they pose the question as to whether these frameworks can by themselves reverse the decline in faith-conviction and practice. The new movements bring the blessings and the dangers of intense religion and more explicit commitment. They are also free to specialise and to follow their own particular callings, concentrating their resources on specific areas of the apostolate. The astonishing variety among the new movements represents not only a great richness within the Church, but also a capacity to impact people and society in many different ways.

By comparison the world of dioceses and parishes can seem rather humdrum, maybe at times little more than the maintenance of essential services. Yet it is not hard to see that while new movements represent a new vitality within the Church, they cannot be the whole Church. New movements in a Catholic understanding exist to serve the existing organic unity of the Church. Thus, one of the criteria given in Christifideles laici for assessing lay associations of the faithful is their filial relationship to the Pope and to the local bishop (para. 30). There is then a challenge to dioceses and parishes to welcome new movements that serve the life and communion of the Church and a challenge to these movements to humble service of the whole Body of Christ. Both need to acknowledge their dependence on each other.

The challenge may be particularly acute in relation to young people, for whom the new movements and communities often have a strong attraction. Youth generally flourish in large enthusiastic gatherings, but often struggle where they are only a handful. Geographical boundaries and corporate loyalties mean little to young people, so there is a challenge to parishes and dioceses to let go of possessive mentalities, and to the movements to respect and serve the Church in each area, rejecting all temptations to see themselves as the real communion of the Spirit.

The tensions between parishes and the new movements are heightened, not only by the greater enthusiasm characteristic of the latter, but also by the inclusion of married people and families in the ecclesial movements and new communities. This feature sometimes makes these new bodies more direct competitors of the parishes in a way that was not true with religious institutes and congregations comprised only of celibate members.

In many ways, the most dynamic Catholic movements have more in common than they realise with the Evangelical Protestant para-church movements, like Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth With A Mission, the Navigators, Operation Mobilisation and World Vision. The Catholic difference is the sense of ecclesial communion, celebrated in the Rome gathering, expressed in the sacraments and strongly emphasised by John Paul II. But they are alike in their modern forms of organisation, in their strategic planning, in their ability to develop a wide variety of gifts and ministries, and in their capacity speedily to deploy their personnel and move their resources anywhere in the world where they are needed and where there are promising openings.

Pope and bishops

These considerations lead on to the relationship of the ecclesial movements and communities to the the Pope and the Vatican on the one hand, and to the bishops and episcopal conferences on the other hand. As with the new religious orders of the past, these movements fit into Catholic life through direct relationship with the Holy See, and thus they raise once again the age-old controversies concerning degrees of exemption from local episcopal control. It is hardly a secret that some bishops are less enthusiastic about some of the new movements than the Holy Father.

It is important to try to look objectively at the issues involved in this feature of Catholic life. On the one hand, the long pattern of religious orders with degrees of exemption from local episcopal authority has provided the Catholic Church with a vitality that it would surely not have had without them. There is a close connection between these relatively autonomous bodies and the Church's missionary impetus. Territorially-determined units cannot easily develop and implement a missionary thrust elsewhere. The existence of these movements allows for both a practical flexibility and a framework for ecclesial insertion and supervision. On the other hand, the close alliance between a centralised papacy and international movements not under local church authority can breed an elitist arrogance in the movements and undermine the Church's collegial and episcopal structure, which is according to our faith jure divino.

These questions have obvious ecumenical repercussions. For instance, the Orthodox Church, which has a strong monastic tradition but no religious orders in the Western sense, is strongly hostile to this dimension of Catholic life, which it sees as a practical consequence of an exaggerated view of papal authority. On the other hand, as a Benedictine monk of Chevetogne not given to any form of ultramontanism once remarked to me, the Orthodox Church which has not had religious orders has not maintained a strong missionary tradition.

Theology of the laity

Examining the new elements in the lay movements and communities of today indicates a further development in the theology of the laity. Vatican II represented a clear development from the epoch of Pius XI and Pius XII with its grounding of the apostolate of the laity in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, and its clear distinction between the apostolate grounded in baptism, not needing the permission of the hirearchy, and lay sharing by delegation in the apostolate of the ordained.

The vision of the laity in Vatican II is primarily one of being a witness and a leaven in the world. We get the flavour of this combination in Lumen gentium:

'By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will. They live in the world, that is, they are engaged in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life which, as it were, constitute their very existence. There they are called by God that, being led by the spirit to the Gospel, they may contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially by the witness of their life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they must manifest Christ to others. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are so closely associated that these may be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer' (para.31).

Several developments in Catholic life, including the rise of the new movements, have altered this picture. The development of liturgical ministries, itself advocated by the Council has introduced a whole new level of lay participation. The important Vatican document Christifideles laici (1988) recognises in its section on 'The Ministries, Offices and Roles of the Lay Faithful' that 'It is ...natural that the tasks not proper to the ordained ministers be fulfilled by the lay faithful. In this way there is a natural transition from an effective involvement of the lay faithful in the liturgical action to that of announcing the word of God and pastoral care'. (23)

Important too has been the emphasis on evangelisation and the explicit proclamation of the Christian kerygma, stemming from Paul VI's Evangelii nuntiandi (1975)* The new movements, especially those issuing from the charismatic renewal, have been in the forefront of proclamation of the gospel by lay Catholics. The fruit of this ecclesial experience can be seen in the recent General Directory for Catechesis (GDC), which recognises the need for an 'initial' or 'primary proclamation' aimed at producing a basic conversion to Christ (47-49, 51-52, 56b-57)* and candidates for catechesis.

Thus in the last decade or two, we seem to be moving into a third phase, in which the laity are not just leaven and witnesses by their lives but active proclaimers and mediators of the gospel and life in the Spirit. In this development, the emergence of 'charisms' is playing an important role. The reintroduction of this concept (Lumen gentium 12) has been followed by a multiplication of charisms and a richer vision of the equipment of the whole Church for her mission. The charisms found among the laity are directly concerned with the building up of the Church, on which see Christifideles laici 24.

All these factors point to a new realisation of the laity in their full Christian dignity, sons and daughters of God, fed by Word and sacrament, and empowered by the Holy Spirit precisely as articulate believers. This development can be seen as an unpacking in 'the church's mission of salvation' (Lumen gentium 33) and of the implications of the dignity and the responsibilities of all the baptised. While it remains true that '.. it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will'(LG 31), we can now see that the way this calling was articulated in the past still contained a hidden deposit of clericalism, no doubt much influenced by the social and ecclesial structures of Christendom. It would seem that the biblical renewal through which the Holy Spirit is leading the Church involves this rediscovery of the full implications of conversion-baptism and Spirit endowment-confirmation for all the members of the Church. In this, the new movements are catalysts for something wider and bigger than themselves.


* The term 'evangelisation' occurs rarely in the Council documents. Where it does appear, it refers to missionary activity in the traditional sense.

* The framework of the GDC in which 'evangelisation' comprehends all stages (presence-initial proclamation- catechesis-mystagogy) no doubt reflects the Church's conviction that in the age of the Church everyone constantly needs to hear the gospel and to be called afresh to conversion.