Groundswell: The Pope, the New Movements, and the Church

On Pentecost, 1998, 300,000 members of the world’s apostolic movements filled the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square in Rome and spilled out down the Via della Conciliazione. There were Communion and Liberation members, whose philosophically exuberant approach to the Faith is like the jazz music they’re famous for promoting at a yearly festival: eclectic riffs on familiar themes. There were Regnum Christi members, project-oriented Mexicans and Americans whose regular uniform includes business dress and a calendar-book organizer. There were the smiling Focolarini, whose apostolic projects include organizing café conversations with small groups of Jews, Muslims, and Protestants. And there were members of the Neocatechumenal Way, Schonstatt, Cursillo, Legion of Mary, Emmanuel Community—more than 50 groups in all.

Many Catholics who had never encountered the movements were shocked by the giant, jubilant crowd of young Catholics waving flags and cheering for Pope John Paul II. Before that day they were the misfits of the Church. They weren’t religious orders. They weren’t parish organizations. They were lay-driven groups who helped in their parishes while also looking to leadership outside the diocese for direction and inspiration. Most had official constitutions approved by Rome, but the Church didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

This pope, however, understood them, for he was one of them. The Vicar of Christ told them: “Today I note, and for this I am happy, a more mature self-awareness” among the movements. “You represent one of the most significant fruits of this springtime of the Church foretold by the Second Vatican Council…. Your presence is encouraging, since it shows that this springtime is moving forward, showing the freshness of the Christian experience, based on a personal encounter with Christ.”

History’s Lessons

The pope’s words were surprising—and maybe a bit unwelcome to many in the institutional Church. How could he offer such encouragement to these groups so early in their formation? The institutional Church has always been suspicious of the movements—and it has good reason to be, as Msgr. Ronald Knox’s classic book Enthusiasm demonstrates.

In it, Knox traced the history of organized Christian fanaticism—a history nearly as old as the Church itself. Groups of “enthusiasts,” as he termed them, have always been with the Church. These movements have tended to emphasize one aspect of the Faith while crowding out the others, and are often led by earnest zealots who are both persuasive and eccentric. Fearing fanaticism—even cultism—many parishes, some dioceses, and even a few faithful universities have barred the movements.

But others have embraced them. Prelates like Atlanta’s Archbishop John Donahue and Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput have sought ways to harness the movements’ energy to their archdioceses’ goals. In September, Boston’s Archbishop Sean O’Malley explained how the educators’ conference. He praised the apostolic movements “for their success at communicating a deep spirituality to their members in the context of close-knit communities.”

The pastors and bishops who welcome the movements will tell you that the difference between enthusiasms and movements is their relationship to the Church. The pope, for his part, agrees. “Since the beginning of my Pontificate I have attributed great importance to the path of the ecclesial Movements, and I have been able to appreciate the fruits of their widespread and growing presence in my pastoral visits to parishes and my apostolic trips,” he said at Pentecost. “I have noted with satisfaction their willingness to put their own energies at the service of the See of Peter and of the local churches. I have noted them as a novelty that has not yet been accepted and valued adequately.”

Karol Wojtyla, Lay Leader

To understand what the movements are and why the pope so confidently calls them an initiative of the Holy Spirit, it’s important to see their story from the beginning. And if you read the story of the movements alongside George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, you can see how closely Karol Wojtyla’s history and the history of the movements are intertwined.

Weigel reports that in 1941, a parish priest deputized Jan Tyranowski to organize a lay group that could minister to parishioners as Gestapo raids diminished priests’ activity. Tyranowski was a man ahead of his time. The “gentle tailor-mystic” felt convicted during a sermon by the words, “It’s not difficult to be a saint.” He changed his life after that: He made a vow of celibacy as a lay person, developed his own spirituality, and found he could connect with young people.

Tyranowski formed the Living Rosary, which shared many of the characteristics of modern lay movements. Its weekly meetings were run by lay people in homes, not by priests in parish halls. By 1943, there were 60 members separated into four groups led by “animators” who reported to Tyranowksi. One of those group leaders was Karol Wojtyla.

Weigel quotes the future pope when he describes the group:

Tyranowski represented a unique lay combination of personal holiness and apostolic zeal, a kind of life “that was completely unknown to us before.” What drew them was his ability to “shape souls” by showing how “religious truths” were “not interdictions [or] limitations” but the means to form “a life which through mercy becomes [a] participation in the life of God.” To do this with adolescents—with their distinctive combination of self-assurance and self-doubt—was no mean accomplishment.

If, in the 1940s, the Living Rosary had been called to Rome for a meeting of lay movements, it wouldn’t have been alone. (I’m indebted to Jay Dunlap’s Envoy article “The Dramatic Rise of Lay Movements in the Twentieth Century” for my information on the movements’ origins.)

• In 1917, Polish Franciscan Rev. Maximilian Kolbe started the Militia of the Immaculata.

• In 1921, Dubliner Frank Duff heard Pope Pius X’s call to “have in each parish a group of laymen who are truly apostolic, doing the work of Christ,” and founded the Legion of Mary.

• In 1933, New Yorker Dorothy Day began the Catholic Worker Movement.

• In 1941, Mexico City seminarian Marcial Maciel founded what would become the Regnum Christi movement’s priestly arm, the Legionaries of Christ.

• In 1943, a young Italian lay teacher, Chiara Lubich, founded Focolare.

• In 1948, in Majorca, Spain, the Young Men’s Catholic Action Group’s plan to renew itself was so successful it became the Cursillo Movement.

Wojtyla applied the lessons of the Living Rosary when he became a priest in 1946. Father Wojtyla created an informal group that called itself Rodzinka (Little Family). Members called Wojtyla Wujek (uncle). This small core group, in turn, fed a larger group called Srodowisko, which the pope translates as “milieu.” It grew to 200 members.

It was only later that Wojtyla would learn that other Catholic groups centered on college life and married couples were forming around the world and that they were formalizing their structures.

In Barcelona, Spain, young Rev. Gabriel Calvo developed a program in 1952 for married couples: Marriage En-counter. And in Milan, Italy, Rev. Luigi Giussani began a program in 1954 for students that became the Communion and Liberation movement.

In Boston, a diocesan priest with a college football background, Rev. Jim Flanagan, formed a community of priests, sisters, and lay people in 1958 which is now SOLT Ministries (Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity).

The Pope of the Movements

The rest is history—or providence. Wojtyla, product and progenitor of dynamic lay groups, would become a bishop and be sent to confer at the Second Vatican Council. In the 1964 council debate on the laity, reports Weigel, Archbishop Wojtyla forcefully intervened, echoing the themes of his own first pastoral letter.

He insisted that lay people’s mission wasn’t conferred on them by their participation in lay groups but by their baptismal responsibilities. He complained of lay people who, when they speak of the Church, “do not seem to be speaking about themselves.” He emphasized the unique ability of lay people to evangelize the culture and, Weigel explains, “made a strong pitch to include young people and their unique apostolate in any conciliar document on the laity.”

It was the debut of the future pope’s lay message: All laity are called to holiness. Some find lay movements helpful, some don’t; neither is in a superior position. Lay people aren’t an adjunct to the clergy and shouldn’t conceive of themselves as “Father’s helpers,” nor should they reduce their role in the Church to being liturgical gofers. The Church needs them to be artists, musicians, journalists, lawyers, doctors, teachers, mothers.

You can see it all in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. The movements as we know them grew from Vatican II—in part because Archbishop Wojtyla planted the seeds. The council called for resourcement, a return to the sources of Christian life. Movements obliged. In Madrid, Spain, Kiko Arguello revived early Church ways of teaching the faith in 1965 in his Neocatechumenal Way. In 1967 in Pittsburgh, Catholic students at Duquesne University formed the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

The council also called for aggiornamento, a translation of the gospel message for our times. That’s what movements do best. Rev. Alphonsus Maria Duran’s Phoenix offshoot of the Cursillo Movement took on its own identity in 1964 as the Miles Jesu movement. In Rome in 1968, Andrea Riccardi founded the Community of Saint Egidio to expand and apply the Church’s social teaching.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Wojtyla became Cardinal Wojtyla, and he continued to nurture his Srodowisko members. In 1977, he was kayaking with friends like Stanislaw Rybicki, known from the early days of the group. In 1978, Rybicki’s wife came home to find her husband in tears. “Wujek became pope,” he told her.

“He went from a kayak to the Bark of Peter,” Rybicki told Weigel—from the helm of a lay movement to the helm of the Church.

The Open Secret

So when Pope John Paul II looked over the crowd at Pentecost, 1998, he saw no reason to be afraid. He knew these people. He’d even grown to rely on them. The movements had given the pope an opportunity to move his agenda forward despite the foot-dragging in the older institutions of the Church.

When dioceses and parishes worldwide were distracted by liturgical experimentation and were mired in dissent, lay movements were on the ground energizing Catholics. While institutions of the Church split between progressives who pressed social causes and conservatives who defended Church teaching, these movements quietly melded the two. And only the pope, who mentioned them often, seemed to notice.

A three-year research project by a team led by sociologist James D. Davidson of Purdue University tracked trends of belief and fidelity among Catholics in the 1990s. The research and the resulting book, The Search for Common Ground: What Unites and Divides Catholic Americans, were widely regarded as a thorough examination of lay attitudes—and the growing age gap.

But in 1999 when I described some of the remarkable growth of the movements to Davidson, he looked surprised. I asked him if he had included these movements at all in his research. He hadn’t.

His book showed a breakdown in orthodoxy among young Catholics in parishes. It didn’t account for the remarkable growth of orthodox groups that didn’t originate from parishes. His research couldn’t see the crowds headed to Pentecost, 1998.

When Peter Steinfels wrote A People Adrift, experts nodded in agreement—but young Catholics shook their heads at how out of touch Church old-timers had become. They pointed out how focused and energized the Church looks from a young perspective in a National Catholic Register article titled “Not Adrift.” In it, Peter Wolfgang argued that there are movement programs available for every stage of life, from nursery school to marriage—online; on video and in person; in parish halls, college campuses, and bars. There are exciting initiatives for every apostolic calling from evangelization to peace promotion.

But it’s not surprising that Steinfels didn’t know about them. The Church still hasn’t understood the movements well enough to even measure them properly. According to a 2002 study done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were an estimated 27,400 lay affiliates of Catholic religious orders—up more than 2,000 in just two years. But the description “lay affiliates of Catholic religious orders” is a phrase that captures third-order Catholics, not the movements. They remain an open secret.

Overcoming Tensions

While the movements have often operated under the radar screens of some in the Church, they had been identified and rejected by others. They had received council- level acceptance at Vatican II (the council established a curial office for the laity to track the movements), but decades after the council, at the 1988 Synod on the Laity, Miloslav Cardinal Vlk of Prague said that still, “The movements were regarded with fear, uncertainty, and a degree of rejection.”

I asked priests associated with lay movements why some clerics have been less welcoming than the pope. Rev. Lorenzo Albacete, 63, the national ecclesiastical director of Communion and Liberation, told me, “From the ‘left’ we are suspected of being fundamentalists, doctrinal and moral crusaders, whereas from the ‘right’ we are suspected of being too naively tolerant of anti-Catholic or even Christian ideas or causes. The rest in between see us as simply incomprehensible.”

He added, “This is precisely what has wounded the Church, from outside as well as from within, from left to right. We do not play that game. We do not identify with causes. We propose no ‘new way.’ We propose only what were the original constitutive elements of the Christian event.”

Rev. Michael J. Barrett, 52, is a priest of Opus Dei, which isn’t formally a movement but shares many of the same characteristics. He said that people are nervous about Opus Dei because they think of it as being shrouded in mystery.

“Those who come to know individual members of Opus Dei, however, discover that much of the ‘mystery’ surrounding Opus Dei is created by characterizations of the lay faithful that are false and ill-informed, usually based on hearsay,” he said. “Many times people have told me that they ‘know all about Opus Dei’ and disagree with what it stands for and how it operates. I always ask them: ‘Do you know anyone in Opus Dei, or have you ever gotten to know someone who belongs to the prelature?’ Almost all who answer this question say ‘No.’

I know how he feels. I’ve read and heard things about Regnum Christi that I have never experienced from 13 years in the movement. Some of the most common rumors: Members are supposed to strictly avoid all “outside” devotions, eschew contact with priests other than Legionaries, and never listen to pop music. A Regnum Christi friend and I laughed about these alleged rules as we flipped through my CD collection during the party we had after a Dominican priest enthroned my house to the Sacred Heart.

But the “new paradigm” and “false stories” explanations alone don’t account for all the people who are wary of the movements. Often, people can be put off by the movements because their members can be awfully off-putting.

Young people doing a new thing, filled with zeal, will make mistakes. Those who have seen nothing else to judge the movements by will judge them by the missteps.

A remarkable Newsday article from 1993 explained the phenomenon well: “Mary and I had four kids before we met the New Families” program of the Focolare movement, Tom Hartmann told a columnist in the Long Island daily. The program excited him and deepened his passion for the Faith. Soon, he was battling his pastor quite publicly about ways to better the parish.

He thought he was applying the lessons he learned from the movement to help his pastor. In reality, he had divided his parish. One portion of the congregation was on his side in one high-profile fight and the other backed the pastor.

Shortly thereafter, he and his wife went to FamilyFest, a Focolare-related conference. While there, he deepened his formation in the movement and was exposed to its larger aims and purposes—a vast outreach of ecumenical and charitable programs that today has reached tens of thousands and won the group the Templeton Prize.

“One weekday morning there was no altar boy, so I served Mass” for the pastor, Hartmann said. “During Mass, I realized I had to change. I had to stop competing with my pastor and try to love him. I knew I couldn’t receive the Eucharist unless I promised God I would love this man.”

He apologized to his pastor after Mass and had a heart- to-heart discussion with him.

“That little act of love changed our relationship,” he said. “We became very close friends. In the months to come, without me pushing him, he instituted some of the changes I’d proposed.”

It’s a situation movement members will recognize. In our first clumsy attempts to do the right thing we do some emphatically wrong things. We cringe later to think that we were so foolish—and that our error is now someone’s idea of what our movement is all about.

But what if there’s a problem that is endemic to the movement itself? There’s a remedy for that, too. “The bishops have the task of discernment to help the movements find the right path,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger told 100 cardinals, bishops, and some group leaders at a gathering in 1999.

It’s a task American bishops like Theodore Cardinal McCarrick have taken up. He organized a Mass for the movements at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Pentecost, 2002.

Which brings us back to Pentecost, 1998, where the movements rallied around the Church, and the Church returned the embrace.

“It was stunning,” reported Sheila Gribben Liaugminas in Voices. “My family just happened to be there at this event, on our own, by the sheer hand of Providence. Never in my twenty-some year career as a journalist have I witnessed anything like this. It felt like the rebirth of the Church. All day, all over Rome, from all directions, the multitudes just swarmed toward St. Peter’s Square in great masses, usually singing and waving flags.”

Liaugminas, an alumna of Time magazine, compared what she felt to the Transfiguration, the first Pentecost. “This was the Church the way she should be, the way she probably was in her first days, and who wanted to go back to the trenches after this?”

Who indeed.


  • Tom Hoopes

    Tom Hoopes is writer-in-residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Previously, he served as editor of the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine. He is the author, most recently, of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016).

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