The New Ecclesial Movements and the New Evangelization

Ecclesial Movements

Modern Schools of Communion

Andrea Riccardi


Prof. Andrea Riccardi is the founder of the St. Egidio Community. In his talk he traces the vitality of the Movements and their place in the Church. He highlights the spirit of communion that they are building up with the pastors of the Church.


Dear friends, I am very happy to be here on the first day of this congress organized by the Focolare Movement. I am pleased to meet with so many priests from around the world associated with the charism of the Focolare and other Movements. The title of this congress represents your common experience: "Ecclesial Movements and the New Evangelization." Indeed, dear friends, you have an important contribution to make on the most important frontier of the Church’s life in the third millennium: the communication of the Gospel.

I am happy to see you face to face and to get to know your experience. In fact, the Movements and new communities really feel a strong need to collaborate and meet together. Recently Chiara was in Trastevere, in Rome, at the Basilica of Santa Maria, where the community of Sant’Egidio prays every evening. Prayer is the first vocation of our community throughout the world, from Maputo in Mozambique to San Salvatore in Central America. It is the first work in a community that works in many parts of the world for the poorest, those the world considers on the fringes.

Chiara's visits have become a regular feature for us. In the course of her visits, we feel united in the diversity of our charisms. We support and complement one another. It is in that same spirit that I am with you today because what one Movement lives belongs to all the other Movements. This is not because of a marginal connection, but because of the profound communion that we are living together. We realize we are walking in the same direction, on the same path even though the manner of the walking seems and is indeed different. The direction of our journey, to communicate the Gospel, originates from the depth of our charisms. As we read in the Gospel, Movements usually begin from sharing the compassion of Jesus for the tired and sick crowds. It was to them that he sent his apostles to preach the Gospel of the kingdom. The Movements are born at different moments in the course of history. They are the Lord’s gifts of love for the people he desires to evangelize.

The first thing the apostles and the early community did after the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost day in Jerusalem was the communication of the Gospel. In the twentieth century, the principal characteristic of the Church’s life was to evangelize not only in countries where the Gospel never arrived, but also in “old” Christian lands. The institutions and social contexts that historically managed to communicate the faith have disappeared. At the same time, every new generation symbolizes a great opportunity to rediscover the words of the Gospel and to open its way of life to the presence of the Lord. For this reason, dear friends, it is correct to speak of a new evangelization.

We find ourselves in a very new world, a globalized world, without borders, and yet a world where unfortunately many walls are reappearing. Between the twentieth century and the new one, a new anthropological and historical shift has happened. As a result, evangelization in this new world is positioned between a global world and many closed factions. We are here, however, to speak not only about evangelization, but also to ask ourselves what are the responsibilities the new Movements have in evangelization?

Our program began with the words of John Paul II on that unforgettable Pentecost day of 1998. I repeat them: "I have often had occasion to stress that there is no conflict or opposition in the Church between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension, of which the Movements are a significant expresission. Both are co-essential to the divine constitution of the Church…”.

He was not speaking theoretically but reflecting the reality of our life. This is a reality that touches on the nature of being Church and has a direct bearing on evangelization in the contemporary world. Moreover, priests who through their ministry are in contact with the institutional dimension of the Church, and who – like you – are very connected with the charismatic dimension, are very attentive to this reality. Priests who participate in the charisms of Movements are living on the front lines. This can be a rich experience of exchange and at the same time it can be difficult.

In the long history of the Church this was not always as luminous and clear as on Pentecost day of 1998 in Saint Peter's Square. That Pentecost day represents a point of arrival and a moment of great theological and ecclesial clarity. I think we must make that speech of the Pope better known and reflect upon it more. Moreover, the problem of the relationship between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension of the Church is as old as the history of the Church. My desire as a historian tempts me to examine this long history and gather examples of this relationship. But this is not my purpose today.

Nonetheless, I would like to cite for you an episode from early in the history of the Western Church. It’s an episode narrated by Gregory the Great about an incident in the life of Saint Benedict who was at the beginning of that great charismatic Movement of men and women that became Western monasticism (the heart of the evangelization in many parts of medieval Europe).

This story is about a big difficulty that arose between Benedict, a great charismatic, and a priest named Florentinus. This priest was envious of Benedict’s good reputation and the fact that many were attracted to him. His envy reached a point that the priest sent him a poisoned piece of bread. But God saved the father of the monks. Then the priest tried to defame him and test him. However, God protected the father of the monks. This episode is about a tension between an ordained minister who could not tolerate the charism (even to the point of wanting to suppress it) and a great charismatic man. That same tension can occur in reverse order. If a charismatic group with no sense of being a child of the Church arrogantly views itself as the perfect Church or has a messianic complex or does not look upon the ministerial dimension with love and veneration, forgetting the fact that in the house of God there are many dwellings (and among them new ways of living the same faith), these tensions are bound to occur. In fact, to live the co-essential nature of the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension of the Church means understanding that we are all children in the Church. An ancient Armenian saying of the fifth century states: "Let us recognize the sacred Gospel as our Father and the Universal, Apostolic Church as our Mother."

A great charismatic person of the 1200's, Francis of Assisi, has very significant expressions in this regard. They are fitting expressions of the genuine evangelical nature of his charism. Tommaso da Cealano recounts in his Life of the saint that during those difficult times the Pope had a dream before meeting Francis. ‘He dreamed that the Lateran Basilica was about to collapse and that a small, irrelevant religious, propped it upon his shoulders so that it wouldn’t fall. The Pope thought to himself: “Here is the one who, with his deeds and words will sustain the Church of Christ.”’ It is a marvellous image of the co-essentiality of charism and institution. That small man carried the immense basilica that was about to fall, without forsaking his littleness. It is an evocative image of co-essentiality becoming exceptional co-responsibility.

I cannot delay too long on this aspect of Francis, this great charismatic figure and great son of the Church as seen by his relationship with the Pope and his decision never to preach against the will of the local bishop. But I would like you to listen to words taken from his testament, written in 1226, the same year as his death:
“Then the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the Holy Roman Church because of their sacred orders, that if they were to persecute me, I would [still] have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon and came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live. I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I see the Son of God in them and they are my masters. And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they alone consecrate and which they alone administer to others.”

The Franciscan charism engaged so much of the thirteenth century Christian world, that it pushed it beyond the borders of Christianity. Its encounter with Islam went beyond the logic of violent counter-positions. At that time – as we know – the relationship between Islam and Christianity was represented by the war of the “holy-crusades”. But Francis took another direction. The Franciscan charism manifested a strength in communicating the Gospel. This communicative strength of the charism resided in its unity with the institutions and ministers of the Church at that time. Where this unity exists, where there is communion, the attractive and communicative strength of the Gospel of the Lord is multiplied. We are not speaking of a pastoral plan or project, but of something that comes from the depth of a living Church that breathes with both lungs in the immensity of both dimensions, without mortifying one or the other.

When co-essentiality between charism and institution is authentically lived, the entire Church becomes adorned with a particular strength. It’s a point on which I would like to conclude my reflection in a few moments. The charism of a layman, Francis (who was later ordained a deacon), attracted many priests, as we find out from the first companions of Francis and then in the development of the Franciscan Movement itself. Priests gathered around the humble Francis and were to be found in his Movement from the beginning. But, moreover, Francis’ charism transmitted the Gospel beyond the tired, feudal borders of ecclesiastical life into the heart of society; and carried it even beyond Christianity. This is an image we must keep in mind as we enter a new century.

It’s an image that was explicitly to be found in the talk of John Paul II at the vigil of Pentecost 1998. He reminded us that when charism and institution live together in unity, when there is freedom in service of the Gospel and love in differences, then the strength of salvation in the life of the Church, of communities and of individuals becomes evident. And this is what many priests who are associated with the charism of a Movement tell me. They feel more fulfilled as “priests”, better able to communicate the Gospel, stronger in their faith and fully at the service of the People of God. And many bishops and priests who do not belonging to the charism of a Movement, when they see the charism lived well in the Church comment on how the Gospel speaks in an eloquent manner.

Every charism has its own history. As children of the Church, all of them have value even though some of them might be more or less developed. The history of the last three or four years in which we have met many new communities and many new Movements has been a period of discovering the value of each reality – even if each is different – brought about by the Spirit. Every Movement has its own history and its own way of living the co-essentiality. Each represents an enrichment for all of us. For this reason the dynamic of the future of each Movement is not to become clericalized: it is not more ecclesial, if it is more clerical. A charism is not a surge that, good or bad, has to be absorbed. There is a fluctuation of the charism in life. Free and yet united, in strong communion with the institutional dimension and with the other charisms, each charism represents a great richness.

The problem about Movements is not their clericalization or their being absorbed. An ancient example of how this issue was dealt with can be found in the rule of St. Benedict – expression of the great monastic charism in the West that was a profound power of evangelization and humanization from the very early Medieval times. The Rule of St. Benedict deals in two chapters on the topic of priests who want to enter the monastery and share the monastic charism, and on the presbyteral ordination of monks. In the first case, that of the priests who enter the monastery, Benedict writes: “Should a member of the priesthood wish to enter the monastery, permission is not to be immediately granted. If he persists in his desire, he must know that he shall have to obey the Rule strictly.”

The point is that the priest who enters to become part of the community knows that he must live the charism in depth, represented by the Rule. The Rule and the abbot come first. What has to be avoided is that, because he is a priest, the ordained man considers himself over and above the charism itself.

On the other hand, from within the Benedictine Movement some monks can be ordained. And so the Rule states:
“Should the abbot wish to have a priest or a deacon ordained, he should chose from among his own monks. Those chosen must be worthy of the priesthood. The ordained monk must be neither arrogant nor proud. He must not do anything other than what the abbot orders, for he is even more subject to the Rule’s discipline. He should never use his office as an excuse to stray from the Rule’s obedience and discipline, but must forever strive to reach God.

He will keep his entrance rank except in the service at the altar…”

The ordained minister continues to be someone who shares in the charism (he keeps his place always!), and indeed – because he is a priest – he knows that he has to live the charism even more (to place himself more than the others under the discipline of the Rule). A priest – and this is the spirit of the Rule – cannot be less a monk, but because he is a priest he must almost live the charism more. Thus the monastery does not become clericalized, but rather through both the lay and clerical monks, the monastery revolves around the charism, represented by the Rule and the abbot.

We can see that the issue of the relationship between the two dimensions in the life of the Church, and that of priests belonging to charismatic Movements did not originate with us, but has its roots even in the first millennium. To resolve this issue in a unilateral manner – that is without communion – could end up in either a clericalization of the Movements or, at the opposite extreme, their absolutization in the Church where they see themselves as superior over other experiences or even over the ordained ministry itself. In this regard, I am again reminded of words from the Testament of Francis of Assisi:
“And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they consecrate and which they alone administer to others.”

After the Second Vatican Council and with John Paul II, the history of this issue has reached a particular point of maturation in the Church’s consciousness. However, this awareness, as expressed by the Pope during Pentecost of 1998, represents a great responsibility for all of us in the contemporary world. In what sense do we mean responsibility? I believe under two aspects: 1. communion in the Church and 2. the communication of the Gospel in the modern world.

A political and external reading of the life of the Church often portrayed almost a rivalry among the Movements, starting from their diversity. The experience that we have in dialogue, in unity and in mutual support among the Movements, makes us say the opposite. I do not see this rivalry except, perhaps, sometimes in some experience that is only beginning and is still immature. In fact, our experience is that the diversity does not motivate rivalry, but instead helps each one to see – exactly in the encounter with each other – the specificity of his own charism.

In order to remain true, a charism cannot claim to want to shape all of the Church upon itself in some messianic way. That would be an absolutization of the charism that wrongs the very gift that has been received. What has been going on in the life of the Church since Pentecost 1998 has been a profound growth in collaboration and friendship among the Movements. I say that because, together with Chiara Lubich, I have participated in this new stage that has developed into many meetings among the leaders of the Movements themselves. But this new stage has also led to a growth of friendship among people of different Movements.

This friendship had, of course, already been alive for years. A friend of mine of St. Egidio who works in a hospital told me how in a situation of great tension and disunity, other colleagues from different Movements came together. Life situations, witness of the Gospel and charity draw us near to those who participate in different spiritualities. The same experience is verified in the meeting with bishops, pastors and priests who are part of a Movement or who are related to the spirituality of a new Community.

A lived spirituality developes a taste for other charisms in the life of the Church in the sense of welcoming and receiving a stimulus from another charism, even if they do not belong to that spirituality. I have a lot of concrete experience in this regard that confirm this for me. I have seen priests of the Focolare Movement who were very concretely dedicated to getting the St. Egidio community started where they live, treating it as if it were their very own experience.

Why? It seems to me that in these last years we have become aware that diversity lived in love is a richness for the Church and for every charism. It is a widespread awareness among the Movements, but also among those who do not directly participate in the spirituality and life of the Movements. Many meetings and days of reflection, animated by the Movements and based on the unity among them, have given joy to numerous bishops. In some cases, the bishops themselves have organized these days. It’s not a question of coordinating and forming a Council of Movements. Rather it is something much more profound. After all, what is the use of coordination if the profound awareness of unity is missing, if love is not at the base, love that brings to light how each of the Movements is indispensable for each other?

Coordination, consultation and advisory bodies are nothing new in the organization of the Church. But here we are speaking of something more: it is a question of the true reception of the Council, as John Paul II proposes: that of a Church rich in charisms, proud of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but united and cohesive in love.

The Movements are not small Churches, ambitious to become a large Church. They are gifts that throughout the history of the 20th century the Lord has given to his Church. Every Movement has interpreted an aspect of the vocation of the Church itself in an original way: but it naturally returns this gift to the Church. Many priestly vocations born within the Movements are a gift to the Church. The witness of charity towards all, but above all towards the poorest is a gift to the Church throughout the whole world. The communication of the Gospel that is at the base of the missionary structure of the charism of the Movements is a gift to the Church.

The Movements are – to use a term of John Paul II’s in
Novo millennio ineunte – schools of communion. The common life itself among priests and laity, jointly sharing in the mission, in the spirit of a charism, is a school of communion. If the Movements are born from a charism and a founder, they move – at least those of the twentieth century – in the dynamic itself of communion. This communion establishes original, simple, direct methods to communicate the Gospel and to live it in an attractive way for many men and women, our contemporaries. This communion gives rise to a fullness of life that embraces the bigger and smaller Movements, Church institutions, ordained ministers, local Churches, parishes and religious communities. This fullness of life is eloquent, communicative by itself: it speaks of the beauty of the Christian life, communicates its evangelical foundation, engages others.

Unity among the Movements is not the construction of some kind of frontline of the most active forces of the Church. It is not that at all. Being united does not mean that we all speak the same language and do the same things. That would be a diminution of the idea of unity. Our profound communion is one that becomes solidarity in diversity and represents a richness in mission. After Pentecost, the first Pentecost at Jerusalem, the apostles were not heard speaking the same language, but were heard speaking in different languages. Yet their unity was profound, as was manifested with the address of Peter.

After Pentecost 1998, following the talk of John Paul II, we are not called to form some kind of united front: that would be too little. But we are called to love one another deeply, to become one, to understand that we have a mission together in the world, to sustain one another, but also to be ourselves, to make of our freedom an occasion to live according to the Spirit, to serve the Gospel, to edify the Church.

I say to each of our communities, especially to those that are more distant and in difficult parts of the world: you are never alone! In March of this year I was in Mozambique where I visited a good part of the 50 or more communities that have come to life in that country after the peace accord. This treaty was signed at St. Egidio and was mediated by us between the government and the guerrillas. It put an end to a war that had lasted 15 years and produced one million dead. To all of them I said: you will never be alone! But I also realized that also a Movement will never be alone: it is beautiful to know that someone is travelling along with you.

In the Gospels, Jesus sent his disciples on the first missionary journey two by two. Gregory the Great asked himself why Jesus did not send them out alone. His answer is that journeying one next to the other, communicating the Gospel together, and curing the sick, they could witness at the same time to the mutual love they shared together. They were to be recognized by that love. In that love between the two, Jesus was with them. Their mission was so effective that Jesus saw Satan fall from the sky and upon their return he welcomed them full of joy. Those two disciples are the sign of a journey that we are making together with the different Movements. The mission we accomplish along different roads, in different ways, will be more attractive and convincing because it is based in unity.

It is unity that will be able to tear down many barriers, to open wide new frontiers, to build bridges instead of walls in the life of the Church and in the world. I think of ecumenism, in which many Movements have a particular task. I am thinking of the dialogue of life, with people of the world religions. I am thinking of war and the other situations of tension. The experience that we can have, following Pentecost 1998, is that of living unity in a profound way. Ignatius of Antioch, a great bishop of the 2nd century who died a martyr, wrote: “when you come together, the strength of Satan collapses and his scourges dissolve in the concord that the faith teaches you.” There is a strength of love that is born from a profoundly lived unity. I am convinced that a new force is coming to life that is able to tear down many walls and divisions because when things move even an inch an earthquake can follow. Our contemporary world needs this deep earthquake of love and Gospel life.