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Pope sees Spirit most alive in burgeoning lay groups.

ROME -- Even in his old age and frailty, Pope John Paul II looks more like a tired general than a weary pastor. And he's still waging what he believes to be the greatest battle of our times -- the fight against secularism.

One strategy has been to enlist conservative, like-minded bishops into his regiment. But he has also turned to a much more numerous and, dare one say, exuberant reserve of soldiers -- those who make up the church's lay movements. He has described them as a "genuine source of renewal and evangelization" and a "great spiritual resource for the church and humanity."

A large contingent of these movements came to St. Peter's Square on a recent warm Saturday to display loyalty to their leader. Whole city blocks around the Vatican were cordoned off. Tourist bus after tourist bus unloaded their multitudes, armed with guitars, backpacks and cameras. Off they went to "pope's house," as they called it, or what John Paul unabashedly pronounced "the center of the Christian world."

Never one to pass up a symbolic opportunity, the pope obviously wanted to point out where he believes the Spirit is most alive in the church today. The event organizer, American Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, estimated the throng at 280,000 people. As one old Roman hand noted: "It's the pope's way of showing his critics that the church is healthy and his proof that no major reforms are needed."

Organizers said this army of believers came from all five continents, representing some 56 different ecclesial movements and new communities -- groups that for the most part have grown up since the Second Vatican Council.

In the week that preceded their assembly, leaders of these movements attended a Vatican-sponsored international congress to discuss the theological and canonical nature of their groups. This was also an attempt to achieve greater harmony among the movements, which have for a long time lived in a state of competition and sometimes bitter tension among themselves.

Among those represented were mainline groups such as the Charismatic Renewal, Worldwide Marriage Encounter, the Cursillo Movement and Couples for Christ. There were also some more controversial groups such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Communion and Liberation and the Focolare Movement. Others included members of the Schoenstatt Movement, Regnum Christi (a lay branch of the Legionaries of Christ), the Secular Franciscans and the Rome-based Sant' Egidio Community.

When Pope John Paul arrived in the late afternoon for his two-hour appearance, Stafford praised him for calling together this "immense fleet of prayers" and said the throng was a "marvelous manifestation of the office of Peter." Only the pope "could have pulled together all these numberless and beautiful threads into a pattern of divine praise and thanksgiving and entreaty," the cardinal declared. He then likened these lay movements to religious communities of earlier centuries, specifically citing communities founded by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Philip Neri, saying the two came to the pope as "laymen" so he could discern the validity of their charisms. "The ties of the lay movements to you, Holy Father, are the guarantee of their ecclesial communion and universal mission," Stafford said.

The pope was addressed by, among others, founders of several movements that have enjoyed his special patronage, including Kiko Arguello, the Spanish founder and charismatic leader of the Neo-Catechumenal Way; Maria Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement; Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation. Opus Dei did not participate because it is no longer a lay movement but a "personal prelature," a church jurisdiction without geographic boundaries erected by the Holy See to carry out particular pastoral initiatives.

The most moving "testimony" was by Jean Vanier, the French Canadian who founded Communautes de L'Arche, a mushrooming of communities that seek to help integrate mentally handicapped persons into the life of society and the church. Of the four founders who spoke at the gathering, Vanier was the only one who did not tout the successes of his own group.

Pope John Paul then told his troops their presence was a "great common witness" of how the Holy Spirit is alive in the church today. Their purpose, he said, is to respond to "a secularized culture which foments and advertises models of life without God." However, the pope warned that no charism and no movement could be considered valid unless they "submit to the discernment of the competent church authority ... in trusting obedience to the bishops, to the successors of the apostles, in communion with the successor of Peter." The pope said this submission is "the necessary guarantee that the way you are traveling is the right one."

Days later, in a message to U.S. bishops in Rome for their ad limina visits (made every five years to report to the pope on the status of their dioceses), the pope said the spirituality of the lay groups represents the Marian dimension of the church, which "is prior to the Petrine or hierarchical dimension, as well as being supreme and preeminent." In real life, however, it is the Petrine dimension that decides the others' validity.

Many in Rome viewed the event as a preview of activities planned for the Holy Year of 2000.
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Title Annotation:Pope John Paul II's support for lay movements
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 3, 1998
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