This week I was pleased to join the ACBC Commission for Church Ministry to address leaders of lay movements from across the country on the possibilities and challenges evoked by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Movements that were in attendance included Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Focolare Movement, Antioch, the Cursillo Movement, Lay Carmelites, and the Mariana Community among others.
Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation has already been well covered by commentators, various conferences and symposiums so I will only share in this post some of the broader issues that were raised with the movements, a form of Christian community in which many find a compelling charism and new forms of spiritual living.
Ecclesial movements, which are predominantly but not exclusively lay in membership, have been one of the outstanding developments in the life of the Church in the twentieth century and may well present as a significant form of Christian community in the decades to come if they are able to align themselves for growth in a changing ecclesial situation.
After outlining some very real challenges for parishes in the Australian context – including but not limited to diminishing Mass attendance, the age of attenders and absence of youth, our dependence on Catholic migrants for their vitality, and the reality of low participation rates among second generation Australians, that is, the children of these migrants – I went on to contrast the Australian Church to the American and European situation.
The parallels between the Australian and American contexts are stronger than what might first be assumed. In both countries, the Catholic Church established itself within a predominantly Protestant settlement that was the result of British colonisation and saw the oppression of an indigenous population. The Catholic Church then thrived in each nation through the development of parallel infrastructure to the State (e.g. schools and hospitals) and grew with subsequent waves of migration. Both countries have large rural contexts which can be sparsely populated and are shaping the exercise of pastoral ministry in the Church; both have seen increasing structural change in Catholic parishes and dioceses over the last decades, have been impacted by the scandal of abuse crises, and are experiencing increasing disaffiliation with religion and Catholicism in particular (the disaffiliation rate in Australia is around 20,000 people a year, 20,000 who choose no longer to identify as ‘Catholic’ at all).
However, one significant difference I would suggest is that the development of ministry in the United States is two to three decades ahead of the Australian Church. While there has been significant institutional support for the development of lay leadership in the U.S., including the emergence and training of pastoral life coordinators/directors in parishes and specific theological treatment of lay ecclesial ministry in the USCCB’s Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, as well as strong growth in the diaconate – the U.S. has some 15,000 active deacons serving 17,000 parishes – the Australian Church is yet to make significant forays into these possibilities.
The result is that the American Church is some twenty years ahead in the development of ecclesial ministries which has buoyed the life of their parishes while the Australian Church is some twenty years further down the track in terms of decline, with an attendance rate that makes the U.S. weekly participation rate of 30% seem (almost) a success.
The European story also differs from the American one. Parishes are largely moribund in Europe and this has explained to a great degree the growth of the ecclesial movements which have flourished ever since the Second World War. Many of these groups owe their existence to the well of lay participation in the Church initially fostered by Catholic Action and then given further energy and legitimisation by the Second Vatican Council and then the pontificate of John Paul II.
Bottom line? With the development of lay ministry and the diaconate lagging in the Australian Church and our parishes in a more immediately dire position than in the U.S., our future may look decidedly more European than American with the upshot that lay movements will find only greater opportunities for growth and perhaps stronger official backing in the years ahead.
Unless there is an unprecedented influx of Catholic migrants into Australia or the development of lay ecclesial ministry surges forward with programs of training and formation, all of which demands funding and organisation, our parishes will continue to experience decline and in some cases their very existence will be at risk, opening up possibilities for other forms of Christian community which the ecclesial movements represent.
You can read my more detailed reflections on the pros and cons of such a scenario, growing ecclesial movements in the midst of the local church, in this article written for Compass Theological Review. It is no secret that whenever popes address the movements they raise the risks of spiritual elitism, separation from parish communities and the real challenge of inculturating their charism and service in contexts which may vary from their places of origin. If they are to flourish, movements will need to mature in their ecclesial integration.
In his treatment of mission in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis underscores with relevance to ecclesial movements that the Church’s identity comes about by its focus on something other than itself – its focus on Christ whose body it is and is called to be, and the world for whom that sacramental body exists as a sign and reality of hope. Endowed with a charism or a compelling narrative of holiness, ecclesial movements are called to look outward for their identity can only grow through an expanding engagement with others within the Church and beyond it. Pope Francis insists
[These charisms] are not an inheritance, safely secured and entrusted to a small group for safe-keeping; rather they are gifts of the Spirit integrated into the body of the Church, drawn to the centre which is Christ and then channelled into an evangelising impulse (Evangelii Gaudium 130).
A further point that was made at the ACBC gathering was that movements have arisen out of specific historical circumstances that have required a Christian response and therefore movements are no strangers to a world-engaging mission that connects creation with redemption, nature with grace, and the historical with the transcendent. If the movements are able to adapt and carry their original charism or genius into social and cultural circumstances that are altogether new, these movements can well support the Church in preparing laity to take their place in the contemporary world as disciples, in that world-transforming mission which Pope Francis promotes with urgency.
Unsurprisingly, many ecclesial movements emerged in the wake of the world wars and crises of the twentieth century, calamities which saw not only an uncharacteristic surge in priestly and religious vocations but new forms of lay association as well. For example, the Focolare Movement emerged from service to the poor and deprived in the bomb shelters of post-war Italy, while closer to home the Knights of the Southern Cross finds its origins in the struggle to ensure Australian Catholics had access to jobs and were free from discrimination on return from the First World War.
Lay movements may be especially well placed to offer appropriate resources, a life of prayer and programs of lay formation directed toward Christian engagement with the world because they themselves have arisen in response to specific needs and hungers in human society and culture.
I also recommended that lay movements, who are rapidly ageing as are our committed Mass attenders, explore creative forms of collaboration with dioceses and with one another in order that their charism or spiritual vision can extend beyond the one or two generations of leaders which have sustained their groups to date. It is a truism that institution without charism grows weary and mundane while charism without institution and structure risks eccentricity or parochialism. Lay movements can work together with dioceses and provide much needed inspiration and creative forms of spiritual living while dioceses can support movements in their access to parishes which remain, notwithstanding the reality of decline, the experience of the Church for the vast majority of Australian Catholics.
It is true that some movements have gained a reputation for drawing members away from local parishes, especially when they insist on celebrating separate liturgies or else absolutise their own spiritual experience to the exclusion of others forms of Christian life and prayer. However, in my experience, many members of movements, including Catholic Charismatic Renewal for one, have assumed leading roles in parish life and ministry and can be particularly effective in their outreach to those who are on the margins of faith. As Pope Francis himself underscores, it is a sign of great hope when lay associations and movements ‘actively participate in the Church’s overall pastoral efforts’ (Evangelii Gaudium 105), an opportunity which I sense will only grow in the Australian Church.
To conclude, the insufficiencies and unclaimed potential of the present will suggest, in its prophetic utterance, the ‘more’ of the future for the Australian Church. The movements may well take their place in that future with the dynamism, practical intelligence and spiritual gifts of their past. Let us move towards that new possibility with a spirit and the confidence of joy.
Note to readers: For those interested in learning more about the ecclesial movements, their development and implications for the Church, read David Ranson’s Between the ‘Mysticism of Politics’ and the ‘Politics of Mysticism’: Interpreting New Pathways of Holiness within the Roman Catholic Tradition (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2013) or an upcoming publication by Massimo Faggioli, Sorting Out Catholicism. A Brief History of the New Ecclesial Movements (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014).