SuperCatholics SuperCatholics?

Sizing up the new lay movements

ONE SUNDAY MORNING Alexis Crow heard a homily at her local Newman Center that changed her life. As the University of Wisconsin sophomore listened to a young seminarian share his vocation story from the pulpit, something tugged at her heart.

“I didn’t realize God was still calling people,” Crow says. “The priests and nuns I knew growing up were all older. Seeing and hearing a young seminarian got my wheels turning—I had never thought of having a vocation before.”

Crow told her parents she thought she might have a religious vocation and plugged into discernment retreats in her local diocese. She visited convents and researched different religious communities and finally decided to live out her vocation as a consecrated woman with the lay movement Regnum Christi.

Crow made promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and gave up her possessions. The only item she owns now is a crucifix.

Movers and Shakers

Communion and Liberation
Founded: 1954, in Milan under the name Gioventù Studentesca (Student Youth); the name “Communion and Liberation” first appeared in 1969.
Founder: Father Luigi Giussani (1922-2005).
Worldwide membership: A presence in 75 countries, approximately 2,000 members in the U.S.
Charisms: Focuses on education to Christian maturity; collaboration in the mission of the church in all the spheres of contemporary life.
Challenges: Some say members tend to idolize the Middle Ages as a time when the faithful best unified faith and daily life.

Founded: 1943, in the midst of World War II.
Founder: Chiara Lubich (1920- ).
Worldwide membership: 87,000 (membership ranges from committed lifestyle in small communities to collaboration in various activities).
Charisms: Ecumenism and unity; recognizing Jesus’ presence in the midst of gathered people, strengthening the family unit.
Challenges: Some observers complain that an excessive cult of personality surrounds Lubich; some fear the thousands of non-Catholic and non-Christian Focolare members will gain ecclesial influence.

Legion of Christ/Regnum Christi
Founded: 1941, in Mexico City.
Founder: Mexican-born Father Marcial Maciel (1920- ).
Worldwide membership: 30,000 members in 20 countries including 600 priests, 2,500 seminarians, 1,000 consecrated laypeople.
Charisms: A Christ-centered spirituality—seeking to know Christ in the gospel, Eucharist, and the cross.
Challenges: Recent sexual abuse allegations have tarnished Maciel’s reputation; the movement has been banned from one U.S. archdiocese and one U.S. diocese and continues to draw criticism for its aggressive vocational recruitment and fundraising.

Founded: 1968, in Rome.
Founder: Andrea Riccardi (1950- ).
Worldwide membership: 50,000.
Charisms: Prayer, international conflict resolution, communicating the gospel, solidarity with the poor, ecumenism, dialogue.
Challenges: The movement experienced criticism from Algerian bishops and the Vatican Secretary of State in the late 1990s for what some say was inadequate handling of conflict resolution in Algeria.

When she needs shoes or clothes the Regnum Christi leadership purchases them for her. She travels from her Regnum Christi community in Oxford, Michigan to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, working to establish Regnum Christi-sponsored clubs for teenage girls.

Throughout the day she follows the movement’s regimented prayer schedule, which includes daily Mass, a morning offering, and personal meditation.

For Crow, 26, this lay movement, sponsored by the Legion of Christ, a religious order of priests, felt like a natural way of life.

Moving on in
Crow belongs to one of the church’s “new ecclesial movements,” the multiplicity of international lay movements that came to prominence during the 20th century, especially during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. John Paul II enjoyed a close relationship with the movements’ leaders and frequently praised their work in his speeches and writings.

While the movements vary widely in structure, membership requirements, and charisms, most share some common characteristics. Each has a specific itinerary of formation and prayer, and each has a particular outreach such as evangelization, care for the poor, or international conflict resolution. They have grassroots beginnings, mostly European origins, and often conservative theological underpinnings. Most arose outside the bounds of a mainstream parish. In a few cases, controversy surrounds some movements’ practices and recruitment methods.

The close relationship the movements enjoyed with John Paul II was no coincidence, says University of Toledo professor of religious studies Richard Gaillardetz.

“A leitmotif in his pontificate was the new evangelization—not only the traditional evangelization of individuals but of the culture,” Gaillardetz says. “It reflected the spirit of Vatican II, which emphasized reading the signs of the times and dialogue between the church in the world. At their best, the movements are faithful to this vision.”

Historically many lay Catholics have aligned themselves with religious orders as oblates or affiliates—for example, as secular Carmelites or Paulist associates—but since these groups function as an offshoot of a canonical religious body with its own rule, constitutions, and spirituality, they differ from a lay movement.
“The new movements grow from the ground up; they are almost all lay in orientation,” says Michael Downey, the cardinal’s theologian of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to approximately 100 lay movements. “The third orders—oblates, associates, and affiliates—take insights from a canonical religious institute and try to apply them to people in other walks of life.”

Downey says that although lay movements share some common characteristics, it’s difficult to evaluate them as a group. “We need to keep in check our tendency to put them all in the same pot,” he says. “That kind of lumping together does a great injustice to them. They are very different from one another.”

Come join us
While joining a movement like Regnum Christi is a highly structured process rooted in rubrics and extensive formation, joining other movements is simply a matter of showing up for the group’s communal prayer or ministry. Such is the case with the Sant’Egidio community, which is dedicated to friendship with the poor, interreligious dialogue, and international conflict resolution.

“You are part of the movement just being with us,” says Paola Piscitelli, a Sant’Egidio member in New York City. “It’s up to people what kind of relationship they want—it’s very informal.”

Community members in six different U.S. metropolitan areas from Boston to Minneapolis pray together and form long-term friendships with elderly people, most of whom live in nursing homes in low-income areas. The evening vespers service in each city is modeled after the nightly evening prayer in Rome, where the Sant’Egidio community is headquartered. (The movement takes its name from the Roman church of Sant’Egidio, where members first gathered in the 1960s.)

For Boston College graduate student Sarah Moses, a nine-year Sant’Egidio member, participation has enriched her faith life and friendships.

“It’s not just a volunteer project; it’s a relationship we live,” Moses says. “We truly are family with the poor.” Boston members share a Christmas lunch with elderly friends each year, a smaller version of the Roman community’s annual event, which draws hundreds of people.

Moses joined after learning of the movement’s role in negotiating the 1992 peace accords that ended more than two decades of civil war in Mozambique. The Sant’Egidio community’s prominent role in international conflict resolution since then has led to the nickname “The U.N. of Trastevere,” the Roman neighborhood in which the community operates.

How has a community with no statutes, no membership cards, and no formal governing structure emerged as a recognized international arbiter of peace? Members say it’s the spirit of the movement at work fueled by a commitment to uniting friendship and prayer.

A place to call home
While the movements unite their members on a global level through shared prayer and similar ministries, members say a sense of community on a local level was the reason they sought out a movement in the first place.

James Kovacs, a 30-year-old attorney in Chicago, tried a variety of groups before deciding on Communion and Liberation (CL), a movement of small faith communities that reflect upon the spiritual writings of their Italian founder, Father Luigi Giussani. Ironically Kovacs sought out the communal support of a lay movement just as he was preparing to leave Catholicism behind and join an evangelical church instead.
“For whatever reason, I decided to learn more about what I was leaving,” he says. “In that process I was exposed to the need for a really supportive community in trying to live out the faith.”

Kovacs, who looked into both Opus Dei and Regnum Christi before settling on CL, says a sense of community is often lacking in some parishes, which is why he turned to a movement for support.

Sharon Mollerus, a CL member in Duluth, Minnesota, belongs to a parish but enjoys the closeness in her CL community of 15 people.
“A community has to have a certain intimacy,” Mollerus says. “Even in parishes groups like this form. But when there are thousands of people involved, you can’t get to know everybody at the 11 a.m. Mass.”

The merging of movements and parishes doesn’t always happen smoothly, however, says Piscitelli, an Italian native who, along with her husband, started the New York Sant’Egidio community.

“The reaction of people was very skeptical,” Piscitelli says. “They thought, ‘It’s Italian—it’s not for us.’

“In Italy belonging to the church was never identified as belonging to a parish, and there are fewer options there,” she says.

“In a sense St. Francis started a movement that didn’t identify with the parish,” Piscitelli says. “But in Sant’Egidio we have never wanted to be outside the church—we are children of this church. We are not starting our own church and trying to save the world—we need the church, and our choices have always been within the frame of the church.”

Holier than thou?
Though the leadership and members of most movements say they do not intend to establish a “church within the church,” they may inadvertently have that effect, say some observers.

“It’s easy to applaud these groups in wanting to associate with other Christians who take their faith seriously, those who understand that to be a Christian means being marked for a dramatically different way of life,” Gaillardetz says. “But the shadow side is it can encourage a kind of elitism, a sense that the only way one can grow in Christ is to associate exclusively with other likeminded, committed Christians.”

This gives short shrift to the diversity within the Catholic population. “St. Paul said that those who are strong in faith have a special obligation to the weak,” he says. “Not that they should separate out and become a super-Christian community.”

While elitism certainly exists as a potential pitfall, what can be perhaps more damaging is the undermining of the traditional structures of parishes, dioceses, and campus ministry programs. In this regard, the group that has stirred the most controversy is the Legion of Christ and its lay movement, Regnum Christi.

The Legion of Christ and all affiliated apostolates have been banned from operating on diocesan property in both the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn wrote in a December 2004 Internet posting: “Our pastors continue to sense that a ‘parallel church’ is being encouraged, one that separates persons from the local parish and archdiocese and creates competing structures.’?”

The Columbus diocese parish bulletin announcements in November 2002 stated that the diocese did not support or endorse Regnum Christi, “as a result of concerns regarding some of its operating methods.” According to diocesan spokeswoman Robin Miller, Legion priests repeatedly ignored Columbus Bishop James Griffin’s request that they formally ask for faculties to minister there, which is common practice for religious order priests who come into a diocese.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, to go by the channels that are in place,” Miller says. “Despite several meetings and assurances with the provincial it didn’t happen.”

Other groups have expressed concern about the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi. In 2002 a group of 25 concerned ex-Legion priests and Regnum Christi members formed the organization ReGAIN (Religious Groups Awareness International Network,, an online resource “to inform and educate the public regarding policies and practices of the movement.” (The Legion responded with its own website,

ReGAIN members accuse the religious order of underhanded and sometimes aggressive recruiting tactics and misleading fundraising. The Legion has also come under fire in recent years since nine former Legion members accused its founder, Father Marcial Maciel Delgollado, 85, of sexual abuse. (The Vatican announced last May that there would be no canonical procedure against Father Maciel.)

Guiding light
Not all movements’ founders have faced such challenges to their credibility. Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement (the name means “hearth” or “fireside”), which works “for a unified world” through strengthening traditional families and dedication to interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, enjoys widespread celebrity status among Focolare’s 87,000 members worldwide. At 85, Lubich still speaks internationally and pens a monthly reflection for Living City, Focolare’s official publication.

For Focolare member Rebecca Cali of Westminster, Maryland Focolare has provided a concrete way to put gospel teachings into practice.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” she says. “I understand ‘Love your neighbor,’ but I was asking, ‘How do you do that?’ We learn from Focolare: You do that by being the first to love. It’s simple things that make the gospel come alive.”

Cali acknowledges that this teaching is not new. “Chiara would be the first to say, ‘I didn’t invent anything,’?” she says. “She shed light on a truth of the gospel that is already there, kind of like Thérèse of Lisieux did.”

Other members acknowledge that belonging to a movement gives them tools to put their faith into practice and that while they don’t necessarily reject mainstream Catholic life and thought, they’re looking to add an additional dimension to their faith life.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, the U.S. director of Communion and Liberation, agrees that most people inclined to look at a lay movement do so out of a search for something more.

“They have in common the realization that something is lacking in their lives—not that life is unbearable, but there is something in the heart they have to keep suppressing.” he says.

The teachings of CL founder Giussani provide a method for connecting Catholic teachings with everyday lives, Albacete says.

Though the new ecclesial movements have a ways to go before they work their way into the mainstream U.S. church, they’re an important phenomenon worth paying attention to. Pope Benedict XVI will meet with the lay movements in a large gathering on Pentecost this year and has expressed his hope that the event will be similar to one John Paul II convened in May 1998, when he met with representatives from 50 lay movements. (The event, held in St. Peter’s Square, attracted more than 100,000 people.)

Such a high-profile gathering may energize the membership of these movements, but how they will continue to grow and change within the parish-oriented structure of the United States remains to be seen. For now, in looking at the movements in their diversity, it’s apparent that new ways of being Catholic continue to emerge and blossom as the larger culture and the church slowly change.

According to Gaillardetz, religious identity has always been an organic, living, emerging concept, and he hopes Catholics continue to embrace that.

“My hope is that we understand Christian identity as immersion in this great tradition of the church,” he says. “We recognize that a Franciscan spirituality is very different from the spirituality of Dorothy Day. We have a rich heritage, and to be Catholic means to be inclusive of the many ways of living out the gospel of Christ.”

Renée M. LaReau is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis, 2003). She lives in Columbus, Ohio. This article appeared in the February 2006 (Volume 71, Number 2; pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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