One of the main spiritual fruits of being Church, especially in this day and age, is certainly that of having ecclesial movements and faith communities.
These movements and communities are a blessing to the Church, not merely instuitionally but to us, the members of Christ’s Body. As Saint John Paul II said in his apostolic exhortation concerning the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the World, Christifideles Laici: “We can speak of a new era of group endeavours of the lay faithful” (no.29). These groups utterly show the great “richness and the versatility of resources that the Holy Spirit nourishes in the ecclesial community, and so great is the capacity of initiative and the generosity of our lay people” (no.29).
Because these ecclesial movements and faith communities come out of the Church, the Holy Spirit leads fashions their heart in a way that they feel the need to help her get well from her own sickness. In this I am powerfully reminded of the prophetic words spoken by Pope John Paul I during his general audience of Wednesday 13 September 1978: “The Church is also a mother. If she continues Christ, and Christ is good, the Church too must be good; good to everyone. But if by chance there should sometimes be bad people in the Church? We have our mother. If mother is sick, if my mother by chance should become lame, I love her even more. It is the same, in the Church. If there are, and there are, defects and shortcomings, our affection for the Church must never fail”. And here is the heroism that both these ecclesial communities and faith communities are called to demonstrate before the Church and the world at large, keep loving a sinful Church to help her become more humble and serving as Our Lord Jesus Christ surely is!
The new springs of hope which emanate from the ecclesial movements and faith communities remind everyone that the radicality of the Gospel can still be possibly lived nowadays, particularly in this prevailing culture wherein everything seems to go provided that one gets the popular support to thrive at all costs. Being a Franciscan I cannot not extol God’s grace in Saint Francis of Assisi, who, as a founder of one of these movements, keeps being remembered for his sine glossa, “without gloss”, approach to the Bible as he recorded in his Testament: “And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me”. To put it more direct, Francis reasoned in the following way: God said it. I believe it. That settles it.
However, in his radicality, Francis felt that he was part of the Church. Thus, he did not want to do anything without the approval of his beloved Mother Church. He craved for the approval by “the Lord Pope”. Thus, these lay groups get purified and solidified when they conform to the “criteria of ecclesiality” as Christifidelis Laici rightly points out. Such an ecclesiality cements these movements and communities with the ecclesial characteristic of “communion and mission” (no.30). Hence, all this calls for “clear and definite criteria for discerning and recognizing such lay groups” (no.30).
The apostolic exhortation about the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and in the World, lists them in the subsequent manner in number 30:
“- The primacy given to the call of every Christian to holiness, as it is manifested ‘in the fruits of grace which the spirit produces in the faithful’ and in a growth towards the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity. In this sense whatever association of the lay faithful there might be, it is always called to be more of an instrument leading to holiness in the Church, through fostering and promoting ‘a more intimate unity between the everyday life of its members and their faith’.
– The responsibility of professing the Catholic faith, embracing and proclaiming the truth about Christ, the Church and humanity, in obedience to the Church’s Magisterium, as the Church interprets it. For this reason every association of the lay faithful must be a forum where the faith is proclaimed as well as taught in its total content.
– The witness to a strong and authentic communion in filial relationship to the Pope, in total adherence to the belief that he is the perpetual and visible center of unity of the universal Church, and with the local Bishop, ‘the visible principle and foundation of unity’ in the particular Church, and in ‘mutual esteem for all forms of the Church’s apostolate’. The communion with Pope and Bishop must be expressed in loyal readiness to embrace the doctrinal teachings and pastoral initiatives of both Pope and Bishop. Moreover, Church communion demands both an acknowledgment of a legitimate plurality of forms in the associations of the lay faithful in the Church and at the same time, a willingness to cooperate in working together.
– Conformity to and participation in the Church’s apostolic goals, that is, ‘the evangelization and sanctification of humanity and the Christian formation of people’s conscience, so as to enable them to infuse the spirit of the gospel into the various communities and spheres of life’. From this perspective, every one of the group forms of the lay faithful is asked to have a missionary zeal which will increase their effectiveness as participants in a re-evangelization.
– A commitment to a presence in human society, which in light of the Church’s social doctrine, places it at the service of the total dignity of the person.”
When the latter criteria are met these ecclesial movements and faith communities can be likened to a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock (Matt 7:24-25).
On the other hand, the Church, as a caring mother, needs to assist, educate, protect and correct, where necessary, these ecclesial movements and faith communities. As her children they need her loving attention and, God forbid, if they are left by themselves until they disintegrate or take the wrong path. As Jesus said in John’s Gospel: Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit (John 15:2). Moreover the Church cannot afford abort these ecclesial communities and communities of faith from her maternal womb or disown them from her motherly care. They are her own children by God’s grace too! Otherwise, the Church would not only be abdicating from her responsibility to care for them but also obstructing God’s Spirit from touching the lives of their members together with those who, through their living witness of faith of both word and deed, will believe in Christ (see John 17:20), including people who have become estranged from the instituitional Church.
Christifideles Laici diligently harps on this essential point when it openly guides the Church’s Pastors: “The Pastors of the Church even if faced with possible and understandable difficulties as a result of such associations and the process of employing new forms, cannot renounce the service provided by their authority, not simply for the well-being of the Church, but also for the well-being of the lay associations themselves. In this sense they ought to accompany their work of discernment with guidance and, above all, encouragement so that lay associations might grow in Church communion and mission” (no.31).
A very wise pastoral attitude they can easily, humbly, and persistently adopt and discerningly put into practice is that proposed by the Prophet Isaiah concerning the Servant of Yahweh: a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench (Is 42:3). And, as Pope Francis said in his homily of January 1 2015, “the Church is herself God’s great family, which brings Christ to us.” That Christ which gives peace, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, communion, commission, an ever second chance, and prepares and sends for mission. Let us be all, Church and ecclesial movements and faith communities together, One Church, One Journey!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap