In a lecture at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Sept. 19, Ross Douthat, New York Times op-ed columnist and author of the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, questioned whether the organizational structure of the Catholic Church that divides countries into dioceses and dioceses into parishes remains optimal in our changing world. For the foreseeable future, we will have fewer priests and religious, and possibly fewer parishioners while we see younger generations delaying marriage and a slowdown in the formation of new households. As society goes through these demographic changes, Douthat pondered whether the Church might need to look for additional ways to reach single young adults who have grown up in the age of cell phones, the internet, and social media. How can the Church supplement parish life in ways that speak directly to the young adults of the 21st century?
In a related article on catholic.org, writing from the perspective of a convert from Evangelicalism to Catholicism, Deal W. Hudson, president of the Pennsylvania Catholic Network, wonders where to find a multitude of Catholics …”who really believe Christ is present in the Eucharist” and who “… honor Christ by dressing appropriately for church services, meet and greet all who enter to worship, make certain to follow up with visitors, and linger after services to enjoy fellowship with others…” More typically, he says that he sees Catholics who, quoting Cardinal Avery Dulles, “were at Mass because it was part of their ethnic and family identity, not because they had had life-changing experiences.” Hudson supposed that a Protestant visitor to a typical Catholic parish would wonder if “there was a parish, a Catholic community, of deeper belief and greater vitality, one that would extend the hand of welcome, even friendship to a stranger.”
Both Douthat and Hudson can find that the Catholic communities they envisage already exist among those who get involved in the parish beyond attending Mass and in the ecclesial movements within the Church; for example, those with which I am most familiar, Communion and Liberation, Focolare Movement, St. Egidio Community, and many others that exist. (See a partial listing below.) Parishioners involved in the various activities of the parish and diocese or in one of the movements usually are not the ones who zoom out of the parking lot immediately after mass. Aside from attending mass frequently, members of the ecclesial movements typically support both their parishes and the movements in both practical and spiritual ways.
The Catholics I observe whose commitment to living their faith has led them to become involved in an ecclesial movement as well as many who look to the parish for their primary source of spiritual formation, see Jesus truly present in the Eucharist and invite Him to consume them each day in their thoughts, words and actions. They recognize the presence of Christ in many other ways as well. From Matthew 25: 35-36 we know that he is present in the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, those in need of clothing, the sick, and the imprisoned. In other words, he is present in the poor: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40. From Matthew 18:20, we know he is present wherever two or more are gathered in his name. He is present in the descendents of the 72 disciples: “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me.” Luke 10:16. And he is present in the gospel as the incarnate Word of God. Who could count all the ways that Jesus makes his loving presence known to us through the people around us, through nature, and in many other ways?
As a member of the Focolare Movement (officially called the Work of Mary) since 1968 and at the same time, a member of the parishes where I have lived, my family and I have benefited from and contributed to both the local parish and diocese and the more global reach of the Focolare. The parish, diocesan, and other private Catholic schools provided education for my wife, me, and later for our children. The diocese supported the Newman Centers that played an important role in my religious formation and my wife and I met at Penn Newman. We receive all the sacraments through the parish and contribute to its support financially, spiritually, and practically.
The Focolare is an ecclesial movement based in the Catholic Church founded by Chiara Lubich in 1943, now with 2 million members in 192 countries. When I met the Focolare Movement at Rosemont College, it took a little while for me to think beyond the geography of the diocese but once I did, it opened a new world of spiritual growth, fellowship, and evangelization. Trying to live a deeply spiritual life and giving God the first place in our family life became easier because we had discovered a worldwide network of hundreds of thousands of people trying to do the same thing and as our family grew, we shared that experience with our four children and others. Not only did I find a community of believers in this movement who meet all the criteria described by Deal Hudson, but I found a vocation, a crystal clear calling from God, to show me the way in which he wants me to serve him during my time here on earth.
Like religious orders, each of the movements have a particular purpose with different degrees of involvement possible. For the Focolare, the goal is fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “that all may be one” (John 17:21) through a life of mutual love in communion with others. Like the different flowers in a garden, all make a unique contribution to the overall beauty of the Church.
The movements can never replace the parishes but they can serve the parishes especially in evangelization. Aside from their meetings and schools to go deeper into Catholic spirituality, they may also have apostolates that supplement those offered by the parishes. For example, in the United States, the Focolare specializes in the field of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, family life, youth programs, and various social initiatives. The St. Egidio Community that began at the St. Egidio Parish in Rome, is noted for its work for peace around the world and has been nominated numerous times for the Nobel peace prize. In addition to holding weekly catechesis meetings, Communion and Liberation works extensively with the poor and sick in various parts of the world. I have just scratched the surface of what the movements offer; their websites tell a more complete story.
Members of the ecclesial movements want to follow the guidance of Pope Francis, who told them at their traditional gathering at St. Peter’s in Rome on Pentecost 2013,“Just like John Paul II and Benedict XVI said, today’s world needs many witnesses. Not so much teachers, as witnesses. It’s not about just talk. It’s about talking through your actions. Living a coherent life — it’s precisely about a coherent life.” When it comes to living out this message, the Pope said the best way is by going out of one’s comfort zone.
The movements offer a way to go beyond geographic boundaries, get out of our comfort zones, and reach out to young adults. If Deal Hudson and his friends want to go to a Mass where people write and loudly sing liturgical music, greet every newcomer, linger and talk for 10 or 15 minutes after Mass, and take evangelization seriously, they should participate in a Mass at an event sponsored by an ecclesial movement. There they will find a vibrancy of faith for which they search, a faith reminiscent of that of the first Christians.
See a Vatican directory of international associations of the faithful.