Vatican: Lay Movements Are ‘Great Gift’ to the Church

Iuvenescit Ecclesia (The Church Rejuvenates) is the first major document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since Pope Francis’ election in March 2013.

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog has issued a new document affirming that while some might be hesitant in the face of new lay movements in the Church, they are a “great gift” in ecclesial life.

However, at the same time, the document stressed that these movements must respect the authority of the Church’s hierarchy, both local and universal.

Lay movements “are not to be considered optional in the life of the Church,” but are “to be considered as gifts of indispensable importance for the life and mission of the Church,” read the document, published June 14.

“In the essential work of the New Evangelization, it is now, more than ever, necessary to recognize and value the numerous charisms capable of reawakening and nourishing the life of the faith of the People of God,” it continued.

Quoting St. John Paul II, the document said these new movements provide “a providential answer” from the Holy Spirit to the need to communicate the Gospel in a persuasive way.

However, it also noted that a time of “ecclesial maturity” is needed for such groups to ensure their “full value and insertion” into the local Church and parish communities. This insertion, he said, must always remain “in communion with the pastors and attentive to their directions.”

The letter, titled Iuvenescit Ecclesia (The Church Rejuvenates), is the first major document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since Pope Francis’ election in March 2013.

Addressed to the world’s bishops, the letter was approved by Pope Francis March 14 and officially signed by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the congregation, and Archbishop Luis Ladaria, the congregation’s secretary, on May 15.

The main aim of the document, according to the letter itself, is to promote a “fruitful and ordered participation of the new groups in the communion and the mission of the Church,” with both her hierarchical and charismatic gifts in mind.

During the June 14 presentation of the document at the Holy See Press Office, Cardinal Muller said that the document has been in the works for “several years,” with the first studies beginning in 2000.

He said a challenge that every institution wanting to last through history must face is how “to stay young with the passage of time, that is, to renew itself, remaining itself without changing identity.”

Given this, “it seemed necessary to offer pastors and the faithful a sure and encouraging consideration of the relationship between these gifts that have enlivened the life of the Church, especially with the growth of movements and new ecclesial communities in the recent past.”

The 32-page document focuses on what it calls “recent realities” in the Church, which it described as “groups of the faithful, ecclesial movements and new communities.”

The majority of these movements typically involve lay Catholics who gather together in groups that promote specific gifts and characteristics, called “charisms,” within the Church, such as Communion and Liberation, Focolare, Regnum Christi and the Neocatecumenal Way. Some live in a way that is similar to religious orders, but don’t take vows.

These groups are all part of a wave of new movements and communities that sprung up for the most part after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council and tend to place a strong emphasis on lay leadership and missionary zeal.

New movements, the document said, “cannot simply be understood as a voluntary association of persons desiring to pursue a particular social or religious goal,” but are “powerfully dynamic realities” in the Church.

In fact, they are “capable of provoking a particular attraction to the Gospel and offering a proposal of the Christian life which, basically global in outlook, touches every aspect of human existence.”

However, the document also stressed that these new charismatic movements are part of the universal Church and, as such, are just as much a gift as the Church’s hierarchy.

New lay movements ought to be considered “indispensable” gifts for the life and mission of the Church as a whole, it read.

The document pointed the “co-essentiality” between hierarchical and charismatic gifts, stressing that “their opposition, and equally their juxtaposition, would be symptomatic of an error or insufficient comprehension of the action of the Holy Spirit in the life and mission of the Church.”

Church hierarchy, it reads, must respect the particular nature of each individual charismatic group, “avoiding juridical straitjackets that deaden the novelty which is born from the specific experience.”

However, these movements must also honor “the fundamental ecclesial regimen,” which promotes “the effective insertion of the charismatic gifts into the life of both the particular and universal Church.”

Bishops, on their part, have the “essential role” of discerning which groups are operating appropriately within ecclesial structures and how they are contributing to the life and mission of the Church.

The document points to the Sts. Peter and Paul as an example of what the relationship between bishops and movements should look like.

Both of the apostles demonstrated an attitude that is, “above all, one of favorable welcoming; they are convinced of the divine origin of the charisms,” but “they do not, however, consider these gifts as authorizing one to withdraw the obedience owed towards the ecclesial hierarchy, or as bestowing the right to an autonomous ministry.”

Paul, it said, “shows himself to be aware of the drawbacks that a disordered exercise of the charisms can provoke in the Christian community,” so he “intervenes, with authority, to establish precise rules for the exercise of charisms ‘in the Church,’ that is, in the gatherings of the community.”

Quoting the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, the document maintains that “he who has received the gift to lead the Church has also the responsibility of keeping watch over the good exercise of the other charisms … knowing well that the Holy Spirit distributes the charismatic gifts to whomever he desires.”

“The same Spirit gives to the hierarch of the Church the capacity to discern the authenticity of the charisms, to welcome them with joy and gratitude, to promote them generously, and to accompany them with vigilant paternity.”

However, the document noted that recognizing the authenticity of a charism isn’t always easy and provides eight criteria for discerning whether or not a charism is genuine.

One of the criteria is the “Profession of the Catholic Faith,” which stresses that “every charismatic entity must be a place of education in the faith and its fullness, 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, they must avoid venturing beyond the doctrine and the ecclesial community. Indeed, if one does not remain within these, one is not united to God and Jesus Christ.”

Also emphasized in the criteria is communion with the entire Church, including the recognition of and adherence to the Pope. This criteria requires “a 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 social dimension of evangelization was also listed as “a decisive factor.” Citing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the document said that this social component “cannot be lacking in authentic ecclesial entity.”

Maintaining good relations between the different movements requires “the real integration” of the charismatic group within the pastoral life of the local Church, the document said.

In order for this to happen, the different groups must “recognize the authority” of the bishops and “place themselves at the service of the ecclesial mission,” while the bishops, on their part, must “cordially receive that which the Spirit inspires … being mindful thereof in pastoral activities and esteeming their contribution as an authentic resource of the good of all.”