The Future that Works: Catholicism’s Fast-Growing Lay Communities

After great ecumenical councils, periods of confusion often follow. New types of saints and new religious movements attuned to the conciliar spirit suddenly emerge. Declining groups ignore or willfully misinterpret conciliar reforms—which are, after all, only more perfect statements of the same Faith—and strive unsuccessfully to thwart them. Thus St. Francis De Sales (d. 1627), the Tridentine champion who singlehandedly recovered much of Switzerland from the Reformers, wrote to St. Jeanne de Chantal after a particularly exhausting visit to an unnamed Alpine abbey that its nuns were too corrupt even for his persuasive powers, so he had left them to their own devices and inevitable decline. His Salesians grew and spread over Europe and beyond, while the unnamed abbey is now long forgotten.

The Dominicans and Franciscans are examples of new movements which suddenly emerged after another great council, Lateran IV. Monks without monasteries who preached and begged, they seemed bizarre, fanatical, and crude to their wealthy Benedictine contemporaries of the thirteenth century. Yet the Franciscans lived itinerant lives of poverty and charity, while the Dominicans proved faithful servants of the crusades and orthodox faith proclaimed by Innocent III’s Council and subsequent popes. The new orders grew prodigiously and bore fruit—the Franciscans numbered some 10,000 even before their founder’s death in 1226—while older orders either accepted the reforms or declined.

Vatican II is proving no exception to this pattern. The post-conciliar period has witnessed both the decline of old orders and the rise of new. While some orders complain of a “vocations crisis” and mock a brilliant pope who has need of them, new movements spring up and bear fruit. The new groups are now accused of simple-minded fanaticism, conspiracy, and excessive rigor. They are opposed by the same elements—both within and without the Church—who once aimed similar criticisms at the Jesuits, and at the Dominicans and Franciscans before them, and at the Cistercians before them.

Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and the Legionaries of Christ, to name the most prominent among the new movements, have a number of common characteristics which distinguish them from the declining orders, but perhaps their chief similarity is in their fidelity to the teaching of Vatican II, which is at once sacramental and lay-oriented in its proclamation of Catholicism. The new groups are “integrationists”: viewing Vatican II in the larger context of all Church teaching, they reject the fallacy that it displaces rather than enlarges upon previous Church dogma. The new groups follow the pope. They are educated, obedient to Church teaching, and on the front lines in disputes over abortion, contraception, and other pressing issues too often ignored. They receive many vocations and lay adherents. They teach, venerate Mary, promote Latin (except, interestingly, in the eucharistic prayer itself) and Gregorian chant, and follow the rubrics in the Vatican II Sacramentary. They are orthodox, predominantly lay and community-minded.

Opus Dei typifies the new movements. The Opus and especially its Priestly Society of the Holy Cross have begun to replace the Jesuits as the pope’s strong right arm, even as the Jesuits once displaced the Dominicans. The Opus, founded in Madrid in 1928 by Spanish Monsignor Josemaria Escriva, has 76,000 members worldwide, 3,000 in the U.S. It has 1,300 priests and 250 seminarians. The Opus can say with pride that it celebrated the virtues of Humanae Vitae at a Princeton conference two years ago and was pushed out of the Princeton Catholic chaplaincy in June for promoting orthodox Catholicism. Though it operates numerous schools and universities worldwide, Opus Dei’s flagship university is in Navarre, Spain.

The central intuition of the Opus is the sanctification of work, the notion that the lay Catholic, through the grace of God, works out his salvation in the day-to-day tasks of his chosen profession. He is charged with living a holy life within that profession but is also enjoined to evangelize the profession itself and to bring Catholicism by his example to colleagues and family.

Recently, the Holy Father summoned Opus Dei to a new missionary endeavor—the re-evangelization of the West and its culture. The Opus accepted the commission with enthusiasm and now sponsors numerous international conferences on the subject.

The Legionaries of Christ and their lay order, Regnum Christi, are similar. Founded in Mexico City in 1941 by Mexican Father Marciel Maciel and having only 240 priests worldwide, they nevertheless have nearly 1200 seminarians, educate 30,000 students, and operate schools and seminaries in Mexico and South America, the U.S., Ireland, Spain, and Italy.

The mission of the Legionaries and Regnum Christi is to spread the kingdom of Christ in modern society. Accordingly, the movement is heavily involved not only in education and urban centers but also in rural missionary work. For example, the movement has 500,000 Mayan Indians under its care in Mexico and Central America. Like the Jesuits, Legionary priests are trained to operate alone and for long periods of time in unfamiliar territory.

Communion and Liberation is best known in Italy. Officially founded in Milan in 1968 by Italian Monsignor Luigi Giussani, the central intuitions of the movement are that reason and the Catholic faith go hand in hand and that faith should be lived out—and bear fruit one-hundredfold—in society. The movement was in part a response to the European student movements of 1968, during which Communist students seized Italy’s universities. Today the opposite is the case: 90 percent of Italian universities are governed by C.L. students. Worldwide, the movement numbers about 70,000, primarily in Italy. C.L. began to operate beyond Italy only in 1988 at the pope’s urging, but it is already established in the U.S., Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and South America.

Communion and Liberation priests, who number between 500 and 600, are not a separate order but rather a society of apostolic life. They are secular diocesan priests united in the common purpose of living the spirit of C.L. There is by design no distinct spirituality or organizational structure to C.L. Rather, lay members are encouraged to pray the liturgy of the hours and participate as fully as possible in the sacramental life of their individual parishes.

Like Opus Dei and the Legionaries, Communion and Liberation sponsors virtually no corporate works. Rather, members undertake local projects, such as the founding of schools and businesses, at their own initiative. C.L. lay members and other persons of good will attend a weekly School of Community, even as Opus Dei lay members attend weekly Evenings of Recollection and Regnum Christi members attend weekly Schools of the Faith. C.L. adherents voluntarily immerse themselves in the uncompromising thought of a spiritual master: they read works by Monsignor Giussani and others, even as Regnum Christi members read the letters of Father Maciel and Opus members read The Way and the homilies of Monsignor Escriva.

Like its Opus counterpart at Princeton, a Communion and Liberation discussion group was recently excluded from the Berkeley Catholic chaplaincy by the chaplain himself. Perhaps its expulsion was a measure of its attractiveness. All three movements are extraordinarily successful in appealing to students, perhaps because they take a much more holistic approach in forming young people than the typical parish church. While parish churches make do with understaffed CCD programs—one hour per week with few teachers trained in theology—the new movements offer competent and often priestly instruction and mix the instructional with the social. More importantly, they set high standards and encourage prayer, spiritual reading, and reception of the sacraments of confession and holy communion.

The movements are overwhelmingly lay. Opus Dei is the only lay personal prelature in the history of the Church. The Legionaries, too, are far outnumbered by their lay order Regnum Christi, while Communion and Liberation, although it has several hundred priests, has no seminaries at all. It is ironic that these movements are constantly accused of ultra-traditionalism when in fact they would seem to be the foremost groups actively putting into practice Vatican II’s call for lay leadership in the Church and the secular world. The groups offer Catholic community, orthodox instruction, and frequent opportunities for confession and individual spiritual direction. With increasing frequency, they supplement confused college chaplaincies and enormous, overtaxed diocesan parishes.

But the Vatican II movements are not entirely lay. Even as the priests of Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ inhabit the niche in education and missions that was once exclusively the domain of the Jesuits, so Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have joined the Franciscans as the special servants of the destitute. As the medievals were utterly enamored and repelled by St. Francis, so are moderns captivated by Mother Teresa. The Missionaries now receive more vocations than any other religious order in the Church. They do the dirty jobs no one else wants: their American missions operate in, among other places, the Bronx, Watts, and south Chicago. The order is opening eight new centers in the Soviet Union, a house in Cuba, and is even negotiating to open a house in Stalinist Albania. Like the lay movements, the Missionaries are peculiarly modern in their emphasis upon secular disciplines. Their foundress insists that her novices learn English—the new universal tongue—and nursing as well as theology.

The orthodoxy and enthusiasm for Vatican II, rapid growth, and modern character of these movements suggest that the Spirit is leading the Church along the general path they blaze. But where does the path lead, and what is the significance of the movements? Remarkably, none yet has a distinct theological character. The Dominicans have their scholasticism, the Jesuits their individualistic spiritual exercises and handbook theology, and the Cistercians their rigorous lectio divina. But the new groups have nothing so theologically particular. They do without. Instead, they offer a practical spirituality designed for busy homemakers and workers who want regular, communal opportunities for reflection and instruction.

If the new movements truly are the Spirit’s new soldiers for Christ, then their real meaning and theological contribution have yet to emerge. This is, however, the usual way of things: Francis, Ignatius, and Stephen Langton (founder of the Cistercians in 1098) were not renowned theologians, either. The theologians come later: Francis was followed by Bonaventure, Langton by Bernard, and Ignatius by his legions. Even Dominic was eclipsed by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Though the eventual direction of the Vatican II movements may not be apparent for some decades, however, the Council documents themselves are quite clear in their directions to the Church. Above all, the documents are striking in their liturgical and sacramental focus and special emphasis on biblical and patristic sources. The Church is presented as the sacrament of Christ, nourished continually by the Eucharist and the sacred page. The biblical and patristic emphasis suggests that today’s arid liturgy—which is not the liturgy described by the Council—is a temporary way-station between the sublime but increasingly remote Tridentine liturgy and its eventual successor, a simplified but still reverent and beautiful encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. The Council’s constitutions on the sacred liturgy and revelation also suggest that today’s approach to Scripture and preaching, which neglects the rich Christological and other typological senses of Scripture, will loosen its hold upon seminary faculties and pulpits. The current fashion cannot perdure. Its crude insistence that Jesus was ignorant of His mission, its skepticism towards biblical miracles, and disdain for passionate faith inspire neither preacher nor parishioner. A return to spiritual exegesis and emphasis on the sacraments is in the offing, and it is proclaimed by the Council itself.

The patristic Christians won a pagan world similar to ours through supportive communities, spiritual exegesis, catechesis, and liturgy. St. Basil shortened the Greek Mass to three hours. While his faithful arrived before dawn and before Mass to sing psalms, we moderns arrive late and fidget through the briefest of eucharistic prayers. But the new groups like the Legionaries do not behave this way. Like the patristic Christians, they often sing the liturgy. Their congregations sing Latin hymns even as Latin Christians sang Greek hymns. Their homilists try, though they do not always have the tools, to extract spiritual insights from the day’s readings. Communion and Liberation priests consciously emphasize not the moral, but the Christological and ecclesiological senses of Scripture. Though the work is still in its embryonic stages, these movements embrace Christian sacramentalism and rhetoric, the persuasive, spoken Word-made-flesh in the Eucharist. Consciously or not, they emphasize precisely what Vatican II emphasizes, and it should not surprise anyone that the Spirit sends them numerous vocations.

In sermons and encyclicals, the pope constantly warns Catholics to reject materialism, whether of the Western or Marxist variety. Materialism sees the surface reality as the only reality and the only good. Consequently, anything of material benefit is desirable and permissible. Abort the invisible baby but save the spotted owl. The opposite of materialism is sacramentalism, the notion that outer signs, though of undoubted importance, are good and useful above all because they point to and contain higher realities. Sacramentalism—in the Mass and the Bible—is the tonic for the age. The great leaders in the Church today take an especially sacramental view of reality, and particularly of the body. Thus Mother Teresa offends meliorists and Modernists everywhere when she maintains that countries with legalized abortion are the poorest countries, that birth control in India is dead wrong.

Lay Catholics need emphatic sacramentalism, profound and orthodox teaching and preaching, and close communities of Catholic principles. Eventually, those needs will be satisfied—the Council has spoken, and the new movements, who seem to heed its messages, are helping. The goal, set by the pope and magisterium, is to renew the Church, to re-evangelize East and West, and to transform materialist cultures.


  • Charles Helms

    Charles Helms holds a D.Phil. in Theology at Oxford University.

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