Document - Contribution for a living parish

Unity of Experience that
Derives from Baptism

Here are some excerpts from an address by consultant Giorgio Feliciani, Professor of Canon Law at Catholic University of Milan, at a meeting of the Council for the Laity with the Movements and New Communities.
Rome, June 19, 2004

by Giorgio Feliciani

In this talk, I mean to offer some reflections, from the juridical and canonical point of view, which I hope will be useful for clarifying the complex question concerning parishes and ecclesial movements or new communities.
I have limited myself to very generic indications, since each movement, characterized by its own proper, specific identity, is notably different from the others, and the parishes, in their turn, are anything but homogeneous. Think, for example, how varied their relevance can be in the life of the Church in different countries, or of how differently they are concretely organized in metropolitan areas and in rural and mountain villages.
Since, in tackling the question, a crucial role is played by what each person may already have in mind about the phenomenon of movements and new communities and of the parish as an institution, we had better make some preliminary clarifications.

It’s a well-known fact that theologians, canon lawyers and sociologists have formulated various definitions of an ecclesial movement. Amongst the many opinions, not always in agreement, the safest method is to stick to the essential indications given by the magisterium. Very synthetically, in light of the teaching of John Paul II, we can identify at least three characteristics which, taken together, can distinguish the movements and new communities that, in the Pope’s view, manifest “the freshness of the Christian experience founded on a personal encounter with Christ,”1 from other ecclesial aggregations.
The first of these is without doubt constituted by that essentially charismatic nature which prevents them from fitting adequately and exhaustively into juridical schemes of an associative kind. In other words, the movements can certainly give rise to associations, but they themselves are not associations. For the decision to belong to a movement is so personal and existential as to make any formal enrollment unnecessary and in any case insufficient, since it consists in allowing oneself to be “taken up” in the “spiritual experience” of the founder.2

The charism proper to the movements has, moreover, in the Pope’s judgment, the peculiarity of regarding not a determined category of the faithful, but the baptized as such, helping him to rediscover and live his baptismal dignity and vocation.3
Finally, the third characteristic: The decision to belong to a movement carries with it a commitment that, since it is in function of the realization of one’s own Christian vocation according to a particular charism, tends to invest and determine the entire existence of the person who adheres in its every aspect; for it implies, according to John Paul II, “ a profound convergence of faith and life.”4
As regards the parish, the question is simpler, since the ecclesiastical magisterium and canonical legislation offer precise and detailed definitions of this. However, it is worthwhile to highlight some facts.
As we know, in many parts of the world the parish has for some time been in difficulty, so much so that many hope for a revitalization, and innovations of an institutional nature have been proposed, such as, for example, the so-called pastoral units.

On the other hand, the parish seems to be indispensable. In fact, the Church authority never misses a chance to confirm its trust in the validity of this historical form of local community. We have only to recall that the most recent post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Gregis (October 16, 2004), recognizes in the parish the ecclesial community “eminent among all those present in the diocese”(no. 45).
Now, the very fact that the parish community is qualified as eminent indicates clearly that it is not the only community. This is fortunate, because the parish is not capable of tackling all the needs of evangelization in the contemporary world. In this sense, the Apostolic Exhortation Christifedeles laici (December 30, 1998) spoke expressly, stating that “the Church's task in our day is so great its accomplishment cannot be left to the parish alone.... There are many other places and forms of association through which the Church can be present and at work. All are necessary to carry out the word and grace of the Gospel and to correspond to the various circumstances of life in which people find themselves today. In a similar way there exist in the areas of culture, society, education, professions, etc., many other ways for spreading the faith and other settings for the apostolate which cannot have the parish as their center and origin.” (no. 26).

As for the concept of parish, perhaps some clarification is appropriate as regards the presentation of the parish as a “community of communities,” a formula that has been recurring for some years now in ecclesial circles. We should note that this term is used by the Papal Magisterium with great care and discretion. See, for example, this quotation from the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (January 22, 1999): “One way of renewing parishes, especially urgent for parishes in large cities, might be to consider the parish as a community of communities and movements. It seems timely therefore to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships.” (no. 41).
The formula is therefore adopted as an indication of pastoral character and, in this sense, appears both indisputable and precious. For every Christian community, if it is truly authentic, on one hand tends to value and on the other hand is enriched by the broad spectrum of specific relationships which, in a dynamic of communion and with varying intensities, are established between its members on the basis of kinship, residential area, common profession, common place of work, convergence of human and ecclesial sensitivity, or legitimate preferences.

But this formula, “community of communities,” is not proposed, nor could it be proposed, as a definition of the parish reality. For, in this generic sense, it could lead us to consider the parish a kind of confederation of groups and communities. This kind of conception, if rigorously understood and put into practice, would lead to very grave consequences as an unacceptable limitation of the pastor’s ministry since, in this case, when dealing with individual Christians, he would necessarily have to use the mediation of the group to which they belong; or to the marginalization of any parishioner who does not belong to any of the groups. In a word, it could lead to a division of parish life into sections, incompatible with the image of the parish offered by the Council: a legitimate local community in which “the faithful are gathered together by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and the mystery of the Lord's Supper is celebrated, that by the Lord's body and blood the whole brotherhood may be joined together.”5
This communitarian nature of the parish, rediscovered and valued by the Council, exalts the figure of the faithful, of every single faithful, as the effective protagonist of parish community life. Note that this applies to any of the faithful, not only those with the gifts and time needed for commitment in parish activities, or even simply to take part systematically in them. It applies even to a sick person who can do nothing else but offer his suffering to God, or a mother who is almost entirely taken up with the care of her children whom she has to bring up and educate. In an activist conception of the parish, these people could appear marginal in the community’s life, whereas they constitute precious resources for it. In this regard, for example, John Paul II recognizes in the “educational ministry of Christian parents” a dignity comparable to that of the priests.6

After setting these premises, and before proposing some positive guidelines on the relationship between parishes and movements, we should point out a kind of approach to the problem that is quite often heard of in ecclesial environments. It can be summarized thus: the ecclesial movements were a real gift of God for evangelization at a time when the parishes had lost most of their attraction, but now it is absolutely necessary that the parishes, with the help of the movements, recover their traditional capacity for aggregation.
At first sight, this approach may seem quite reasonable, but, in actual fact, it misses the point or, at least, leaves room for ambiguity. It supposes that the movements in the Church have ultimately the same function as the parishes, while obviously privileging the latter. This would logically imply that the movements are useful only when the parishes are unable to carry out their mission adequately but, once this difficulty is solved, the movements would become superfluous. On the contrary, it is all too easy to see that parishes and movements have different tasks. The parish must assure the pastoral care of a specific, fixed group of faithful determined chiefly on a territorial basis. A movement has the aim of guiding and sustaining the journey of holiness of all those baptized who embrace its charism.
Now, if this is how things stand, we must also affirm that any attempt to tackle the problem of parishes vis à vis movements as if it were a question of defining the relationship between two institutions of an analogous nature is inevitably doomed to failure. For, as it is evident that any reality that arises in the context of a parish is subject to the authority of the pastor, it is just as incontrovertible that a movement, at least as we have described it above, is an ecclesial reality different from a confederation of parish groups guided by their respective pastors.

In order to solve this rather difficult question, we would do well to start from this teaching of John Paul II. “Being ‘members’ of the Church [and, we could add, of a parish or a movement] takes nothing away from the fact that each Christian as an individual is ‘unique and irrepeatable.’ On the contrary, this belonging guarantees and fosters the profound sense of that uniqueness and irrepeatability.”7 For one’s belonging to the Church is founded on Baptism and, as we have noted, the rediscovery of baptismal dignity constitutes one of the most important achievements of Vatican II, amply underscored by the present Pontiff’s magisterium.
So, we can affirm that the whole question is to be tackled at the level of the faithful and, more precisely, at the level of the individual faithful, who, previous to and independently of any theoretical reflection or pastoral planning, for some time, and in very many places, live wholly their belonging to a movement in the unity of their Christian existence and are living members of the parish community.
In this regard, we should recall with John Paul II that the movements, thanks to a “powerful announcement” and a “solid and deep Christian formation,”8 make those who take part in them rediscover their baptismal dignity, giving “origin to a renewed missionary impulse, which leads them to meet men and women of our times in the concrete situations in which they live.”9

This impulse, since it is constitutive of the Christian personality, is destined to operate in all fields and consequently regards not only the ambits of study, work, culture, socio-political commitment–where, incidentally, the work done by the movements seems to be irreplaceable–but also the place where people live. As Msgr Giussani observed in 1987 at the Synod on the Laity, the ecclesial movements “are historical forms with which the Spirit assists the mission of the Church today. The whole person of the faithful is invested, bringing forth a spirituality, a cultural position and a capacity of presence that facilitates the feeling of full catholicity that can benefit dioceses, parishes and environments.”10
Thus, the first and most important contribution that the movements can give to a parish community is the presence in its territorial ambit of what John Paul II defined “mature Christian personalities, aware of their own baptismal identity, of their own missionary vocation in the Church and in the world.”11 Therefore, they are able to offer to those they meet a meaningful witness of Christian life. This is the truly essential contribution, which, to a greater or lesser extent, it is always possible to offer, in a wide range of intensities and modes, depending on the concrete circumstances in which each person lives.
It is also evident that the encounters with people who live in the territory can be or remain purely chance encounters, but they can give rise to networks of stable friendships and relationships that, in the common passion for the Kingdom of God, generate one of those communities that we spoke of earlier in relation to the parish as a community of communities, and even suggest common initiatives and enterprises.
It is obvious, too, that if there are several people of the same movement in the parish, they will help each other in this missionary commitment. It is less necessary, and often less opportune, that these organize themselves in an autonomous and, as it were, closed group, since this kind of dynamic corresponds more to typically associative aggregations than to movements.

We still need to look at the question of the relationship with the pastor, the parish as an institution and all its initiatives. We can surely affirm that someone belonging to a movement has no special status as regards his parish. He has all the rights and duties of any parishioner, though with the greater responsibilities that, according to the parable of the talents, derive from the gift of the charism he has met and from the formation he has received. Here we come back to that “solid and deep Christian formation” which, according to John Paul II, is assured in the movements, thanks to the “pedagogic method” dictated by the charism proper to each of them.12 A formation of this type (but if we think about it, any formation that is authentically Christian) can certainly not neglect to educate the person to know and love the Church as a whole and, therefore, its institutional dimension, too. Consequently, whoever belongs in a conscious, responsible way to an authentically ecclesial movement cannot but refer, in so far as his situation allows, to the institutional Church as it is where he lives, making use of what it offers him and not failing, wherever possible, to offer it his collaboration.

In conclusion, the question of the relationship between parish and movements cannot be tackled adequately if approached as the relationship between two institutions. It must rather be approached from the point of view of the individual faithful, and more precisely of the parishioner, who has received the gift of sharing in the charism of an ecclesial movement and lives the charismatic dimension and institutional dimension of the Church in the unity of his Christian experience, both charism and institution being co-essential, as John Paul II recalled, to its divine constitution.13
1 Message to the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, May 27, 1998, no.2.
2 At the meeting with ecclesial movements and new communities, May 30, 1998, no. 6.
3 Ibid, no.7.
4 To the participants of the 8th international meeting of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships, June 1, 1998, no. 3.
5 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium no. 26.
6 Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, November 22, 1981, no. 38.
7 Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, no. 28.
8 At the meeting with the ecclesial movements, ibid, no.7.
9 Message to the World Congress, ibid, no. 4.
10 Now in L. Giussani L’avvenimento cristiano, Milan, Rizzoli, 2003, p. 25.
11 At the meeting with ecclesial movements, ibid, no. 7.
12 Message to the World Congress, ibid, no. 4.
13 Ibid, no. 5.