Lord, Renew Your Church

Review by Daniel Muth

Throughout her history, the Catholic Church’s children have continually recognized her need for reform and renewal. From the time of Moses, through the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, and the great reformist movements of the Maccabean era, our Jewish forbears labored to the same end. Our Lord himself, during his earthly ministry, spent no small effort critiquing one of these movements, Pharisaism, with which he was in general sympathy.

Ecclesial Movements and Communities
Origins, Significance, and Issues
By Brendan Leahy. New City Press.
Pp. 200. $16.95

Living a Spirituality of Unity
in the United States
By Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen.
New City Press. Pp. 224. $16.95

The Church, as the movement of reconciled Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2), Christ’s own Bride, consists of men and women — sinners all — who form a pilgrim people journeying through history. The characteristic errors of any age are to be countered by the self-sacrificing witness of Christians of that age. Like the Church herself, this witness will often begin quietly, as a small group or community. If the Christian Church is to be the Church, she must be always on the lookout for such groups and learn from and encourage them. She must also be prepared to critique or reject them if they are in error.

In Ecclesial Movements and Communities, Brendan Leahy, professor of systematic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, examines the phenomenon of a host of new ecclesial movements and communities that have sprung up in the life of the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th century (most began in Europe but now permeate the globe).

He cites the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI, pope emeritus) using the Franciscans as the clearest exemplar of an ecclesial movement: “[M]ovements generally derive their origin from a charismatic leader and take shape in concrete communities, inspired by the life of their founder; they attempt to live the Gospel anew, in its totality, and recognize the Church without hesitation as the ground of their life without which they could not exist.”

He also cites Australian Bishop Julian Porteous’s categorizing of movements as:

  • those started before the Second Vatican Council (the Legion of Mary and the Schoenstatt Movement)
  • those started after the Council (charismatic renewal, the Word of God Community, the Emmanuel Community, the Holy Trinity Community of Indonesia)
  • communities founded by clerics (Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, Regnum Christi, Communion and Liberation, and Kkottongnae, founded in Korea)
  • communities founded by laymen (Focolare, the Neocatechumenal Way, and the Community of Sant’Egidio)
  • communities that have taken the form of religious life (the Jerusalem Community and the Beatitudes Community)

This list offers just a sampling. Leahy notes that the Pontifical Council for the Laity lists 122 new movements, including Cursillo, the Foyers de Charité, L’Arche, and Teams of Our Lady. The book never provides a complete list and does not go into detail on the background or development of any of the movements or communities that are its subject.

The focus, rather, is on the place of such movements in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. Most arose in the 20th century, as an empowered understanding of the place of the laity in the Church was coalescing; this development was codified in the ecclesial documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Council’s understandings of the Church as Mystery, Communion, and Mission set the parameters for the hierarchy’s subsequent guidance and support of existing and developing movements and communities. International meetings of movements were held in 1981, 1987, and particularly on Pentecost 1998 to provide opportunities for development and clarification of their proper relationship to the wider Church, and, especially, their place in the life of the local congregation.

Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen’s Focolare (New City Press is Focolare’s publishing arm) traces the history and manner of life encouraged by its namesake movement, begun in World War II-ravaged northern Italy by a remarkable woman, Chiara Lubich. She began by meeting with friends in Trent in June of 1944 to pray for unity and an experience of Christ in an ever-deeper way. From such humble beginnings she founded a movement that currently numbers 140,000 core members and more than two million affiliates in 182 countries, acting together as, in John Paul II’s words, “Apostles of Dialogue,” encouraging unity within Roman Catholicism and such unity as is possible between Christian ecclesial communities, interfaith bodies, and even nonbelievers.

Focolare is in many ways representative of the movements discussed by Leahy. A winsome leader (Lubich) brings to life, via a particular charism (unity in Christ), people from varied walks of life (Focolare communities consist of men and women, young and old, clergy and lay) joined together in a structure flexible enough to allow community involvement in multiple ways (“Focolarini” live in community, married Focolarini share in the community’s life but live with their families, and adherents follow the manner of life but without as much regular contact with a Focolare house). Through its community and charism, the movement provides its members with training in the Church’s pastoral, apostolic, and evangelizing mission and thereby manifests the catholicity of the faith.

It is sobering to think that a movement such as Focolare — obedient to traditionalist leadership, uninterested in chic politics, and utterly devoid of narcissism or any desire to set Christ against his Church — has not emerged organically in the Episcopal Church for quite some time. Cursillo and the charismatic movement, both mentioned by Leahy, have taken hold — but they seem the exceptions that prove the rule. Both movements are heavily experiential, subjective, and, particularly when removed from the context of Roman Catholicism, wide open to any sort of leading or teaching, however flawed. Neither is organized sufficiently that it may be held accountable for how its adherents expound the faith once given (or fail to) and hence, not surprisingly, have been limited in what they have to offer the wider Church.

Renewal movements have been a constant in the life of the Christian Church. The vast majority of them have been monastic in one form or another. On the whole, the movements discussed by Leahy, and Focolare as presented by Masters and Uelmen, share much in common with these traditional forms of the Holy Spirit’s revivifying of his Church. They accept obedience to godly authority; share a common life in joy and self-sacrifice, open to creation while shunning the counterfeits of the world, the flesh and the devil; and, to one extent or another, maintain chastity as an essential ingredient. Anglicans who wish to recapture the spirit of Christian renewal should look to all three of these characteristics, helpfully presented in these encouraging books.

Daniel Muth, a resident of Leland, North Carolina, serves on the board of the Living Church Foundation.


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