The Pope and the movements
Memories and perspectives of a Meeting
“Let us give thanks to the Lord for this springtime of the Church brought by the force for renewal coming from the Spirit.” John Paul II, speaking on 31 May 1998, was referring to the unforgettable Meeting that had taken place the previous day. More than two hundred thousand people, belonging to some fifty ecclesial movements and new communities, had come to Rome from the four corners of the world to bear witness, around the Successor of Peter, to their experience of Christ. They were people who, like everyone else, have to deal, day by day, with an existence made up of suffering and fatigue, of love and disillusionments, of struggle and hope; but who have experienced in this existence the life-changing strength that comes from encounter with Christ.
This had happened to Rose, a girl from Uganda, member of Communion and Liberation. After months spent, during the war, as a nurse in Kampala Hospital, she had this to tell:
“They asked me to look after the AIDS patients and the vagabonds. At first I refused. Then one day, while saying the Angelus, I asked myself: “What does mean for me that ‘the Word was made flesh’? If Christ came among us, he came also for those who are dying and those who are sick. Then I went out into the streets of the city, and I began to gather the sick, the abandoned children, the prostitutes, the poor. Once, I saw lying on the ground a man covered with flies and filth. People told me to move away because he gave signs of madness. I was almost fainting... I took him home, I looked after him. Today he is working with us for the homeless children.”
This happened, too, to Silvia, from the Community of Saint Egidio. She spent some months at the side of Nicoletta, who was seropositive and pregnant in a Roman hospital.
“They had advised her to have an abortion, but she did not want to. “This baby”, she said, “is the one beautiful thing that has happened in my life.” Silvia began visiting her. They became friends. And that “desperate” life became a new existence, communicated also to others. Nicoletta became completely blind, but the lesson of love had left its mark. She was in touch with her parents again, and she gave birth to Francesco. Silvia confided: “I had a clear sensation that Christ was passing throught the wards of that hospital. Nicoletta did not “make it”, but, in the mercy of God, I am sure that her life was not lost.”
This is what we are told also by a look from Pascal, a handicapped boy taken in by the “Arche” Communities founded by Jean Vanier.
“The presence here of Pascal”, Marie-Hélène states, “is worth more than a thousands words. We have to help the handicapped to take their place at the heart of the Church. The guests at the banquet of the Kingdom are not the rich, but the crippled, the lame, the blind...”. An enquiry made at parish level in Paris showed that the handicapped represent only one per cent of the communities, whereas in civil society they are ten per cent. “And where are the missing nine per cent? We want to go in search of them, because the Church needs them.”
To go in search of the suffering, as did the members of the Emmanuel Community, who went to work in the refugee camps of Rwanda in 1996.
“At first”, they recall, “twenty people took part in our Mass. A year later, they were three thousand. With us there was a couple in whose family 46 people had been killed in the ethnic conflicts. On a certain day the mother of one of the assassins came to the camp. When she saw the couple she was afraid. But they reassured her and accompanied her to her children. The woman was amazed and asked them where they had found the strength to pardon. “It is thanks to Jesus and to prayer that we are given this strength. Would you like to pray with us?” “Yes”, they said, “teach us to pray”. Then they opened the Gospel and began to read together the words: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you...”.
Love is the answer to man’s deepest search for meaning. A love that finds a full and sublime expression in marriage. This is stressed by a Mexican priest from the Marriage Encounter movement:
“A couple who genuinely love one another”, he says, “are a challenge for a priest. Through them Christ says to me: “Love the Church as they love one another.” This is a caress that God gives to my priesthood.”
Experience of Christ brings in this way the passionate desire to bear witness. Even at the cost of life. This was the case of the priest who went for seven hundred kilometers through the forests of Rwanda clasping a little bag that contained the Blessed Sacrament. He comforted the wounded and blessed the dead. He was made prisoner, beaten, tortured. But he managed to survive. When he was asked how he had been able to bear the weight of the bag for all those kilometers, he replied:
“It was not I who carried Jesus, but Jesus who carried me.”
These were some of the testimonies given during the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements that preceded the Meeting of May 30, as an integral part of the event of Pentecost 1998.
Joy and gratitude for the gift they had received, the commitment to lead their members towards full Christian maturity and to strengthen their missionary drive, the determination to keep alive the ecclesial communion of that May 30 that had become a “movement” among the Movements, their shared expression: these were the elements emerging from the exchange between the representatives of these same Movements during the meeting convened by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on November 7 last, to consider the repercussion and follow-up to Pentecost ‘98.
This great demonstration brought before the eyes of the world the image of a Church that is a Mother who welcomes and appreciates every charism; her capacity to bring diversity into unity; the missionary vitality of the laity; the catholicity of the Ecclesial Movements and the New Communities, in their transparent and strong witness to the fatherhood of Peter.
The unanimous amazement at this gift of the Spirit and the memory of an event from which there can be no turning back, must now find expression in the urge to take responsability for the tasks that inevitably derive from every gift of God.
The message of May 30 must be spread; it must be a subject for meditation that will grasp its full significance; theological and pastoral, as well as juridical reflection on the reality of the Movements must continue. This experience must be brought to the level of the local Churches and subjected to careful consideration on the part of the Bishops; it must be used as a basis in the preparation for the Great Jubilee.
After the repeated interventions in which John Paul II has expressed support and encouragement for the Ecclesial Movements, it therefore seems important for the Bishops to have an opportunity for expressing and comparing their experiences, concerns and expectations in relation to the participation of the Movements in the life of the various local Churches. For this purpose a Seminar of reflection and dialogue concerning the Ecclesial Movements is being organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity in collaboration with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Bishops. The Seminar is planned for June 1999. About a hundred Bishops from all parts of the world will be invited.
Further information about the event of Pentecost 1998 is available in a photographic album and a video, both entitled:
Rome, 30 May ’98. The Pope and the Movements. Together. The album presents fascinating pictures of the day and extracts in four languages (English, French, Italian and Spanish) of the addresses of John Paul II and of the interventions and testimonies of the participants. Available from the Pontifical Council for the Laity. Price: US $ 6,00.
The video was prepared by Massimo Morelli under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and produced by CTV, Euphon, Finchiara and RAI. It is distributed by Messaggero di Sant’Antonio Publishers. Price: US $ 12,00.
The Proceedings of the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, held in Rome from 27 to 29 May 1998 will be published next in various languages.