Pope John called for a new Pentecost: are the new movements God's reply and the
true expression of Vatican II?
by Fr Ian Ker
I think it is time to say that there is a very widespread sense of disillusion among Catholics
about the situation in which the Church now finds herself. Conservatives, while accepting the teachings of the
Second Vatican Council, deplore many of the things that have happened since the Council. Liberals, on the other
hand, resent that there have not been more changes of the kind that they regard as legitimate developments of Vatican
There are, however, a growing number of Catholics who belong to neither of these two groups. I refer to the members
of the new so-called "movements", which,
interestingly enough, tend to be regarded by both conservative and liberal Catholics with suspicion, if not hostility.
These movements are usually called "lay movements" but this is a very misleading misnomer, since their members in fact include priests and religious
Indeed, it is that very fact which I consider to be so significant. After all, whether we think of the pre-Vatican
II clerical Church, in which the laity were second-class citizens, or of the contemporary Church in which the rights
of the laity are so much talked about, what is taken for granted is that the Church is divided into clergy and
laity, with religious as a slightly awkward appendage, Not only is the Church constantly defined in these terms,
but a polarity and tension are also assumed to exist almost of necessity.
A couple of years ago I was preparing a lecture on Newman's On Consulting the Faithful
in Matters of Doctrine. It was reprinted a few years ago with a foreward by the late
Archbishop Worlock, in which he took it for granted that this classic text is about the laity in the Church. This
indeed is such a common misapprehension that it is sometimes called by mistake "On
Consulting the Laity in Matters of Doctrine". Now, like all misunderstandings, there
is obviously some truth in it.
Newman was indeed appalled by how clerical the Church had become in the 19th century, and the essay certainly arose
out of his view that the bishops should be willing to consult lay opinion over matters that affected the laity.
It is also, of course, true that in the course of the article he often refers to the laity. But as I re-read On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine; I became aware that what
Newman is really talking about are rather "the faithful", that is, faithful baptised Christians.
Newman's first book had been on the Arian heresy in the 4th century, and here he employs his scholarship to show
that the faith does not belong to the bishops alone, who at this most critical time in the Church's history largely
failed to teach and uphold the orthodox doctrine. But as I read through the many examples he gives from the primary
sources, it dawned on me that much of the evidence he cites shows that among the faithful are to be included both
priests and religious. Indeed, when Newman came to reproduce the substance of the article many years later in an
appendix to his book on the Arians, he paradoxically and remarkably includes the clergy among the laity! These
are his words: "And again, in speaking of the Laity, I speak inclusively
of their parish priests (so to call them), at least in many places; but …we are obliged to say that the governing
body of the Church came short…" In those days, of course, the parochial system had
not yet been established and priests were called presbyters. Nor had the term "religious" yet been coined, but there were a number of "monks" and "holy virgins"
among the instances Newman cites of the faithful upholding of the Catholic faith against the Arianising bishops.
In other words, in this famous article Newman is really talking about bishops on the one hand and all the baptised
faithful, including priests and religious as well as laity, on the other hand. What does it all matter? It matters
because Newman is here looking at the Church which had not yet become clericalised and which therefore does not
really have the concept of the laity as such. Of course, I am not saying that the word "lay" did not exist from patristic times to denote someone who was
not ordained. But I am suggesting that our modem preoccupation with the laity arises out of an overly clerical
idea of the Church.
Although, as I have said, Newman does not use the word laity, when he is true to his patristic sources, he is,
as the title of the article indicates, really talking about what the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the
Church, Lumen Gentium, calls "The whole body of the faithful", and citing St Augustine, "the whole people . . . from the bishops to the last of the faithful".
He is drawing attention to the fact that in the crisis of the Arian heresy, that part of the faithful, that is,
the bishops, which has the primary responsibility for proclaiming and safeguarding the faith, to a significant
extent failed to do so. But since the faith belongs to the whole body of the faithful and not only the bishops,
it was preserved by the other parts of the faithful - the laity but also the clergy and religious.
The refusal of the bishops of Vatican II to accept the draft constitution on the Church prepared by the Roman Curia
was undoubtedly the turningpoint in the Council. But my impression is that many people seem to think that the Council
substituted a democratic model of the Church for the old Tridentine hierarchical model. I believe there is a widespread
assumption that Lumen Gentium begins with "The People of God", which is in fact the subject of the
second chapter, and that 'The People of God"
is synonymous with the laity. The clear implication of this misinterpretation is that the hierarchy is answerable
to the laity in the same sort of way that a democratically elected government is answerable to the electorate.
In reality, the first chapter of Lumen Gentium is called
'The Mystery of the Church", and begins by defining the Church as being "in
the nature of sacrament". The Church, then, is primarily sacramental, not hierarchical,
let alone democratic. Explaining why the Church is the primordial sacrament, the Council goes on to say that "the Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful as in a temple". The Spirit also bestows "upon her varied hierarchic
and charismatic gifts". It is very important that hierarchy and charisms are linked
together, both seen as proceeding from the Spirit. For among the "gifts" given by the Spirit to the Body of Christ, "the primary
belongs to the grace of the Apostles to whose authority the Spirit himself subjects even those who are endowed
with charisms". But while the apostolic authority in the Church which authenticates
the other charisms is clearly stated, nevertheless it is noteworthy how absent is any reference to either clergy
or laity in this chapter.
The same is effectively true of chapter II. 'The People of God" are those "who
believe in Christ" and who "are reborn…from
water and the Holy Spirit" in Baptism. In this "messianic
people" the Spirit "dwells in a temple". The baptised constitute "a holy priesthood", although this "common priesthood of the faithful" is carefully distinguished "essentially and not only
in degree" from "the ministerial or
hierarchical priesthood". Now this "priestly
community is brought into operation through the sacraments". First mentioned are
naturally the so-called sacraments of initiation - baptism, confirmation, and eucharist - which all the members
of the People of God receive; then penance and anointing are mentioned, also sacraments which all the faithful
would normally receive at some point or points in their lives; and then finally the two remaining sacraments which
not all the faithful do receive - holy orders and marriage. It is striking how the clergy are placed right among
the ordinary members of the People of God who receive the sacraments of the Church, which is itself of the nature
of a sacrament -"Those among the faithful who have received Holy Orders
. . ." Again, the Holy Spirit is emphasised, who not only makes possible the sacraments
but "distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank". And although these charisms have to be tested by "those
who have charge over the Church", this chapter studiously avoids talking in terms
of clergy and laity. In other words, it breathes the atmosphere of the scriptural and patristic Church rather than
the Church Catholics had become accustomed to over the centuries, and are still accustomed to - although people
like those who belong to groups like "We Are Church" seem to wish to replace a clerical with a lay Church.
In fact, it is not till chapter IV that Lumen Gentium
begins to treat of the laity as such. There are inevitably inconsistencies and tensions in Conciliar texts, and
nowhere more so than here. For what is so remarkable about this chapter is its singular lack of any sign of that
ressourcement or retrieval of the scriptural and patristic sources which lies at the heart of that theological
renewal without which Vatican II would not have been possible. The chapter begins by saying it intends to speak
of Christians who are called the "laity",
but, interestingly, no references are given to support the usage. Such scriptural references as there are do not
refer to the "laity" as such because
of course the word and concept were unknown to the New Testament writers. Significantly, there is only one reference
to the Fathers, a famous quotation from a sermon of St Augustine: "To
you I am the bishop, with you I am a Christian." Inevitably, the authorities that
this chapter relies on for the idea of the laity are modem papal statements. In other words, we are back in the
familiar clerical Church where the rights of the laity have to be upheld.
After Vatican II it was fashionable to talk about "implementing" the Council, and certain reforms could indeed be implemented by the authorities. But surely history
teaches us that the development and life of the Church cannot be understood without the charisms bestowed by the
In particular, we can see three great charismatic movements of the Spirit: the rise of monasticism in the early
centuries, the advent of the friars in the Middle Ages, and then in the 16th Century the charism above all of St
Ignatius of Loyola. We might even wonder if Trent could have been implemented without the Jesuits, the first of
many active orders of priests (and nuns) who, free of the restraints of the cloister and the choral office, were
so largely responsible for creating the kind of Church that had developed up to Vatican II.
According to Lumen Gentium, the charisms have to be subject
to apostolic authority. But again history shows us that it is the highest apostolic authority, the papacy, which
has often been more innovative and radical in discerning and encouraging new charisms in the Church than has the
more conventional and parochial episcopate which cannot have the same overview of the universal Church.
And what is so striking at this point in history is the deep interest of Pope John Paul II in the new movements.
Indeed, a book appeared a few years ago, written by a liberal Catholic, called The
Pope's Armada, which attacks the movements and the papal involvement in them.
In a recent article the same author has drawn attention to important initiatives undertaken by the Holy See, including
particularly the meeting the Pope had at Pentecost last year in St Peter's Square with no less than half a million
members of over 60 of the movements, in which John Paul II called them "a
reply raised up by the Holy Spirit" to the challenges of the new millennium. One
wonders if the Pope remembered John XXIII's prayer that the Council would lead to a new Pentecost.
After the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I, there appeared the phenomenon of so-called "creeping infallibility". Perhaps after Vatican II, at which
by contrast the role of the bishops as members with the Pope of the apostolic college was emphasised, a parallel
"creeping episcopalism" appeared.
Because many bishops came away from the Council with the idea that bishops and laity were now the important players
as opposed to the Pope whose wings had been clipped and the priests who were at the bottom of the Council's agenda,
there seems to have grown up the idea that the bishops together with the laity would now effectively be making
Lay people appointed by the bishops, sat on committees and commissions and were increasingly employed by dioceses.
Who were these lay people? Well, they certainly weren't children (the prophetic child who called out. for the catechumen
Ambrose to be Bishop of Milan would not have been considered eligible for a parish council) nor were they uneducated
Instead, for the most part these professional lay people are articulate and middle class. I do not wish to denigrate
the work done by such people in parishes and dioceses, but only to point out that the charisms of the faithful
are not to be confined to people who are good at sitting on committees.
Significantly, the Pope reminded the English and Welsh bishops at their last ad limina visit that the baptised
have other charisms apart from helping the clergy in their clerical and ecclesiastical functions in "collaborative ministry".
If we look around the world today, there are only two kinds of Christianity - which are flourishing and growing
- the evangelical and pentecostal churches and the Catholic movements. What they have in common is that they are
both strong faith communities.
Like the early Church they spread because people are drawn both by their faith and by the community they offer;
the two are intertwined. I mention the early Church deliberately because in my view the most important texts of
Vatican II are those combined first two chapters of Lumen Gentium which recall the Church to a new, or rather old scriptural and patristic, vision of the Church. That
return is the real revolution the Council achieved.
As I have said, after the Council too many people forgot that its deepest "implementation" must be by the Holy Spirit.
And I am convinced that the movements are the implementation, the fleshing out of those crucial two first chapters.
They no more arose out of episcopal conferences and committees than St Francis received his call from the Bishop
I end with two connected points about the movements, the only one of which I know from personal experience being
Youth 2000 which actually began in this country and has spread to other countries.
First, what I have found as a priest associated with it, and I have heard the same about the other movements, is
that while ministerial priesthood, is deeply respected for its sacramental and preaching roles, there is absolutely
no clericalism. But secondly, on the other, hand there is no preoccupation either with being "the laity", with "collaborative
ministry", and with sharing in "decision-making". This is because it is the priests who are the collaborators if anybody is, and because they only
make the "decisions" that are appropriate
to their sacramental and teaching role.
Experiencing a movement like Youth 2000 is to realise the meaning of St Paul's words: "Now you together are Christ's body; but each of you is a different part of it. In the Church, God
has given the first place to Apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them miracles, and
after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages."
It is this apostolic and charismatic rather than clerical-lay institutional Church which the movements have succeeded
in recovering for the next millennium. It is their charisms which will be foremost in implementing the real ecclesiology
of Vatican II.
The recent Youth 2000 festival at Walsingham drew over 1000 young people, not all of whom could pay the cost.
Donations would be gratefully received by Youth 2000, 36 Church Drive, East Keswick, Leeds, LS 17 9EP.
Fr Ian Ker is parish priest of SS John Fisher and Thomas More, Burford.
Breathing life into the Church
No doubt part of the reason why the movements discussed in Fr Ian Ker's article are still not strong in English-speaking
countries is because the institutional Church, built so largely on the faith of Irish immigrants, has been relatively
strong. But those days are clearly coming to an end. Not even the Irish Church, with the spiritual equivalent of
rampant inflation, can live for ever on the spiritual capital accumulated over the centuries. In this country Mass
attendance has collapsed over the last 30 years, vocations to the diocesan priesthood are at an all-time low, and
the active religious orders are in steep, even terminal, decline.
It may be that the hour of the movements is corning in these islands. The late Cardinal Hume chose to ignore the
advice of his Council of Priests, and went ahead with the ordination of seminarians belonging to the most controversial
of the movements, the Neo-Catechuminate. Privately, he is known to have remarked to a group of priests during a
meeting concerning the crisis in vocations, that the new movements and communities were now the most fertile ground
for vocations to the priesthood.
The Cardinal had used his discernment as a pastor. It is surely time that all bishops now should show their readiness
and willingness to respond to the heart-felt plea of the Holy Father. Of course, there will be teething problems:
zeal can easily degenerate into spiritual elitism, for instance; where there is life there will be conflict and
tension. But clearly Cardinal Ratzinger was speaking in the name of the Pope when he warned that "our message to the local Churches, including the bishops, is loud and clear: they are not
allowed to indulge in any demands for absolute uniformity in pastoral organisation and programmes".
Bishops who complain about the centralising authority of the Roman Curia should remember that dioceses and parishes
can also be authoritarian and repressive if they insist on a pastoral monopoly and choose to ignore or frustrate
the charisms that the Holy Spirit gives to the baptised. These charisms are certainly, as the Pope has stressed,
subject to the hierarchical authority of the Church. But that is quite different from suggesting that all the charisms
in the Church must originate with the bishops or for that matter, parish priests. At the time of the Second Vatican
Council, which was often called Newman's Council, it was sadly noticeable how out of touch the bishops of this
country were with the new theological ideas coming from the Continent. It would be doubly sad if the same were
to be true today.
This article and editorial commentary first appeared in the 10 September
1999 issue of The Catholic Herald.
Copyright © 1999 Fr. Ian Ker
Tel/Fax: 44 (0) 1993 823 219
Address: 171 The Hill, Burford, OX18 4RE, England
Version: 14th October 2002