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Ecclesial Movements and Communities:
Origins, Significance, and Issues

by Brendan Leahy
New City Press, 200 pages, $16.95

Retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tells a story of a conversation he once had with Pope John Paul II, when he pressed the late pope to explain his support of the “new movements,” the bewildering galaxy of new organizations in the Church, such as Opus Dei, Focolare, and Communion and Liberation, that critics often deride as Catholic cults. John Paul said that the movements fill a serious pastoral gap in the European church, with special effectiveness among the young.

He added that an American bishop perhaps couldn’t fully understand the movements, because in the United States the renewal of parish life called for by the Second Vatican Council had taken off, but had not across much of Europe. The anecdote does not really tell the full story. The pope also harbored a quasi-mystical faith in a new “springtime of the Spirit,” of which he saw the new ecclesial and lay movements as a leading edge.

If nothing else, the story captures the perplexity that some American Catholics often have felt about the movements, which have become a familiar feature of Catholic life in other parts of the world. If the typical American Catholic were pressed to name a couple movements, he might only come up with Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ (strictly speaking, a personal prelature and a religious order, respectively, rather than movements), communities that cross the radar screens of Catholics in this country only because of their portrayals in the media.

Many movements with a high international profile, such as the Focolare, Sant’Egidio, Schönstatt, L’Arche, and Communion and Liberation, remain largely invisible to the American Catholic mainstream. Their membership here is often confined to a handful of expats from their countries of origin, along with a few American Catholics who have spent time abroad.

That limited exposure has fueled three persistent bits of American mythology about the movements. First, the movements skew to the ideological right, and are backed by the Vatican as part of a “moving the goalposts” campaign intended to make the church more conservative. Next, the movements are insular and uncooperative, representing a “parallel church.” Finally, the movements foster heterodox beliefs and practices, and are close to being cults.

There’s enough truth to these perceptions that one can understand their origins. They’re also far enough off the mark, however, to warrant classification as myths—and, in any event, they’re not the heart of the matter. What the movements truly embody is a sort of Copernican revolution in Catholicism about who, exactly, forms the front lines of the Church’s evangelical enterprise.

Though the point has always been latent in Catholic teaching and practice, today it is clearer, thanks in large part to the movements, that if the light of Christ is to penetrate the secular world and illuminate it from within, it will either be carried there by lay women and men, or it won’t be carried at all. The Copernican revolution, therefore, is to recognize the laity, not the clergy, as the primary apostles and missionaries of today’s Catholicism.

It’s common to refer to these new groups as “lay movements,” and in many instances they were founded by laity, although most also contain clergy. The common denominator tends to be that their aim is to mobilize a motivated corps of Catholic laity to take the Gospel to the street. Historically, religious communities have fostered “third orders” of laity who share their spirituality, but play a subsidiary role. With the new movements, this traditional pecking order, so to speak, is reversed. They offer a lively reminder of that wisdom of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, when asked for his opinion on the laity, famously replied, “Well, we’d look awfully silly without them.”

The value of Brendan Leahy’s Ecclesial Movements and Communities is that it surveys the major theological and ecclesiological questions raised by the movements without getting lost in the fog of their idiosyncrasies. A von Balthasar scholar, Leahy argues that the movements give flesh to the Swiss theologian’s notion of the “Marian principle” in the Church, meaning lived witness to the Gospel in the world in contrast to the “Petrine principle” of visible hierarchical teaching and governance.

Leahy, who teaches at Ireland’s famous national seminary of Maynooth, is a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin and, though not a member of a movement, acknowledges a special closeness to the Focolare. (His book is actually published by Focolare’s New City Press). The feel of the book is certainly in keeping with the irenic spirit of the Focolare, focused much more on the positive than the controversial.

He acknowledges, but never really engages, the various criticisms the movements have drawn over the years. It’s perhaps a sign of the their vitality that such criticism has percolated in wildly different quarters—from Gordon Urquhart on the Catholic left, who in the 1990s styled the movements as papal brown-shirts leading a right-wing putsch in the Church, to the more conservative commentator Sandro Magister in Italy, who faults some of the movements for heterodoxy and disobedience.

For example, Magister has complained repeatedly that the Neocatechumenal Way’s idiosyncratic style of worship (gathering around a table for the Mass instead of an altar, and having laity deliver “resonances” in addition to the homily) amounts to playing fast and loose with the Church’s liturgical heritage. Sant’Egidio, meanwhile, has long generated grumbling, sometimes from within the Vatican itself, that its high-profile geopolitical troubleshooting, which has earned the movement the nickname “U.N. of Trastevere” for the Rome neighborhood where it’s based, is a form of self-promotion that risks undercutting the Holy See’s own diplomatic initiatives.

One limitation of the book is that it doesn’t provide the detail needed for the “discernment of spirits” such criticisms suggest. Another is that it treats the movements as a single species of life, glossing over their differences, which may be almost as important as what they share. These outfits foster distinct spiritual paths, their internal organization is often singularly unique, and they tend to draw from extremely diverse sociological circles. The more worldly, center-left Catholicism of Sant’Egidio is a stark contrast to the utterly apolitical ethos of L’Arche or the more evangelical Catholicism of Communion and Liberation.

Yet these defects are also the greatest strength of the book, because Leahy doesn’t begin by presuming the movements are in need of justification or defense. Instead, his point of departure is the firm belief that they represent the latest instance of Catholicism’s capacity to generate new life just when the Church appears to be running out of gas. He persuasively describes the movements as a kind of “creative minority,” invoking the term coined by Arnold Toynbee of which Pope Benedict XVI is so fond.

The idea is that great civilizations sooner or later find themselves in crisis, and they either go into permanent decline or are renewed from within by creative minorities. Benedict describes Christianity as the creative minority in the contemporary West, and Leahy sees the new ecclesial and lay movements as a creative minority within the contemporary Church.

Ecclesial Movements and Communities hits the “reset button” on perceptions. Leahy does not take his cues on the movements from pop culture, the tribal politics of our time, or the complaints of embittered ex-members. Instead, he applies the frame of Catholic teaching and tradition, and in that light he sees the movements not primarily as a puzzle needing to be solved, but rather as a gift to be welcomed.

That shift in perspective does not answer all the questions one might ask, but it does seem like the basis of eventually getting the answers right.

John L. Allen, Jr., is senior correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter and author of its “All Things Catholic” column.