Ecclesial Movements

Another aspect of reform, then as now, was the foundation of new religious orders pledged to the defense and expansion of the faith. In a famous passage, the nineteenth-century Lord Macaulay admired the resilience of the Roman Catholic Church, which "may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's." Explaining this resilience, Macaulay stressed how the church absorbed and coopted the dynamic spiritual experiments that arose among the faithful, experiments that in other churches, would have led to the creation of new breakaway sects. Even when the church was apparently at its weakest and most corrupt—especially when it seemed weakest—saints and reformers launched revival movements, which helped restore its power and confidence. Though their numbers were not huge as an absolute proportion of the overall population, such movements enjoyed a wholly disproportionate influence.

In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Reformation found most conspicuous expression in the Society of Jesus. But in recent times too, as European Catholicism has suffered repeated blows, so a spate of new religious orders and societies have arisen, many just as controversial as the original Jesuits were in their day. Among the most successful have been Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate, the Focolare, and Communion and Liberation, though smaller examples include the Sant'Egidio Community, L'Arche, the Schonstatt movement, the Emmanuel Community, and Regnum Christi. Whether the new wave of orders will enjoy anything like the same success as the Jesuits remains to be seen, but they have won the faithful support of both Popes John Paul and Benedict. In the mid-1980s, Pope John Paul publicly acknowledged "the great and promising flowering of ecclesial movements and I have singled them out as a cause for a hope in the entire church and for all mankind." In 1998, he welcomed representatives of the orders at a vast convocation that gathered at Pentecost, the day that marks the outpouring of the spirit upon the church. At another Pentecost in 2006, Pope Benedict addressed 300,000 members of the new movements gathered in Rome's St. Peter's Square.32

The best known of the new religious orders is Opus Dei, which attracted notoriety when the Da Vinci Code depicted it as a super-secret society pulling the strings of power behind the Vatican—arguably the most abundant free publicity that a religious group has obtained in modern times. Like most of the new movements, Opus Dei predates the second Vatican Council, and it bears the authoritarian and triumphalist stamp of the pre-Council world. The group was founded in Spain in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva, who earned the special affection of John Paul II. Through the pope's enthusiasm, Escriva earned a fast track to canonization, which was eventually granted in 2002: 300,000 attended the ceremony. Despite the Da Vinci Code's claims, Opus Dei is not a large movement, having perhaps 85,000 members around the world, in addition to 164,000 "Co-operators." Nor does it possess inordinate power in the higher reaches of the church: presently, only two cardinals are members, and just forty out of 4,500 bishops. Yet it does exercise influence, due largely to the intense involvement and commitment it requires of its members, and it reaches younger Catholics through universities and schools.33

At least as influential is the Neocatechumenal Way, founded in a slum area of Madrid in 1964 by artist Kiko Arguello, and by Carmen Hernandez, a former nun. The title refers to the ancient status of "catechumen" that prospective members of the early Christian church enjoyed before baptism, a period of study and initiation. The suggestion is that modern Christians too need to relearn the basics of faith through intense interaction with fellow members, and through regular retreats. The movement subsequently spread worldwide through enthusiastic proselytizing. By the early 1990s, the Neocatechumenate operated in 3,500 parishes, and claimed 80,000 members in Italian parishes alone. Today it reports activities in 6,000 parishes around the world, and a recent meeting with Pope Benedict involved an impressive roster of members and sympathizers, including five cardinals, thirty bishops, 1,100 priests, and 2,000 seminarians. In terms of its future influence, the seminarians are of course the most important element, but the group feels that overall numbers are unimportant. The image one always hears is that of leaven or yeast, which gives life to the much larger body. The group has a special commitment to parts of the world experiencing dechristianization, particularly in Europe.34

Apart from formal orders or societies, Spanish Catholicism is the source of other new structures through which people can interact, often using small group settings. One influential model is the Cursillo movement, which originated in Spain in the 1940s, in the traumatic aftermath of the civil war. Members gathered in small groups for a three-day weekend of prayer, discussion, and interaction that constituted a short course in Christianity, Cursillo de Cristianidad. The course idea has since spread across denominations, and some 10 million people worldwide have participated.

Italy has also produced its share of new orders, which expanded mightily during the political and social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, when the country seemed ripe for open revolution. At the same time, the Catholic Church was experiencing the aftermath of the second Vatican Council, which opened up new possibilities to lay organizations. From this environment came the Sant'Egidio Community, a lay movement founded in 1968, which today has 50,000 members organized in small groups. Though mainly concentrated in Italy, the Community also has branches in a hundred other countries. Also influential is Communion and Liberation, which although notionally dating back to 1954 was effectively restarted in 1969. The group was founded by Fr. Luigi Giussani, who developed the Catholic presence in schools, colleges, and universities, and who tried to promote Catholic social principles in mainstream politics. The group operates today throughout Europe, with branches in seventy countries around the world.35

Also active has been the Focolare movement, which traces its origin to the visions and revelations received by its founder, Chiara Lubich, in Italy in the 1940s. The movement has influenced millions worldwide, though its core membership in the 1990s stood at around 80,000. The Focolare present themselves strictly in New Testament terms, with heavy use of agricultural symbolism: they plow and reap, and gather members like a bunch of grapes. The Focolare itself takes its name from the word for "hearth," where the spiritual fire is cultivated. Members cultivate prospective disciples, who are brought into ever-deeper levels of interaction and communion with the group, which they are expected to serve like faithful children. Characteristic practices include ritualized public confessions and retreats that serve as a kind of total immersion in the group and its doctrines.36

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