Pope Francis on September 16, 2021, had thanks for the work of lay Associations of Faithful, Ecclesial Movements, and New Communities but also a warning.
The Holy Father’s came in a presentation to the participants in the Meeting with the Moderators of the Associations of Faithful, of Ecclesial Movements, and of New Communities, organized by the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life, on the theme “The Responsibility of Government in Lay Aggregations: An Ecclesial Service.”
The Pope started by thanking those present: “Thank you for your presence as laymen, men and women, young people and elderly, committed to live and witness the Gospel in the ordinary reality of life, in your work, in so many different contexts: this is the vast field of your apostolate, it’s your evangelization.”
Francis went on to stress that the groups represented at the gathering are legitimate: “you have a true and proper ecclesial mission. You seek, with dedication, to live and make fruitful those charisms that the Holy Spirit, through the Founders, has assigned to all the members of your aggregate realities, for the benefit of the Church and the many men and women to whom you are dedicated in the apostolate. I’m thinking, especially, of those that, finding themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies, experience in their flesh abandonment and loneliness and suffer due to the many material needs and moral and spiritual poverty.”
In addition to addressing a number of governance/structural issues for the associations, the Pope warned of a subtle obstacle to their work: disloyalty.
“There is, then, a real obstacle to Christian service, and this is very subtle: disloyalty,” the Pope said. “we find it when someone wants to serve the Lord but also serves other things that aren’t the Lord (and behind the other things, there is always money).
“It’s somewhat like playing a double game! In words, we say we want to serve God and others, but in fact, we serve our ego, and we bow to our desire to appear, to get recognition, appreciation . . . Let’s not forget that true service is free and unconditional, it knows not calculation or pretension.”
Here is a translation of the Holy Father’s address to those present at the Meeting.
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The Holy Father’s Address
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning and welcome!
I greet warmly His Eminence Cardinal Kevin Farrell and I thank him for the words he addressed to me. And thanks to all of you for being present despite the hardships due to the pandemic — and sometimes of the “not good humor” that perhaps this Decree has sown in someone’s heart! However, we go forward together. I greet and thank those taking part in the video connection, many of whom were unable to travel because of the limitations still in place in many countries. I don’t know how the Secretary was able to return from Brazil! Later, he’ll have to explain it to me.
- I wished to be here today first of all to thank you! Thank you for your presence as laymen, men and women, young people and elderly, committed to live and witness the Gospel in the ordinary reality of life, in your work, in so many different contexts: this is the vast field of your apostolate, it’s your evangelization.
We must understand that evangelization is a mandate that stems from Baptism; the Baptism that makes us priests together, in the priesthood of Christ: a priestly people. And we must not wait for the priest to come, the priest to evangelize, the missionary . . . Yes, they do this very well, but one who has Baptism has the task to evangelize. You have reawakened this with your Movements, and this is very good. Thank you!
In the last months, you have seen with your eyes and touched with your hand the sufferings and anguishes of so many men and women, due to the pandemic, especially in the poorest countries, in which many of you are present. One of you was talking to me about this. So much poverty, misery . . . I think of us here in the Vatican who complain when the meal isn’t well cooked when there are people that have nothing to eat. I’m pleased because you haven’t stopped, you haven’t failed to bring your solidarity, your help, evangelical witness even in the hardest months when the infections were very high. Despite the restrictions due to the necessary preventive measures, you didn’t stop, rather, I know that many of you multiplied your commitment, adapting yourselves to the concrete situations that you had and have before you, with that creativity that stems from love, because one who feels loved by the Lord loves without measure.
This “without measure” is what happens in these critical moments. And we have seen this “without measure” also in many Sisters, in many consecrated women, in many priests, and in many Bishops. I’m thinking of a Bishop who ended up being intubated for being always with the people. Now he’s recovering slowly. It is you and all the People of God that sided with this, and you were there. None of you said: “No, I can’t go, because my Founder thinks otherwise.” Then, no Founder: the Gospel was here, which called and all went. Thank you so much! You were witnesses of “that (blessed) common belonging from which we cannot subtract ourselves: belonging as brothers” (Meditation in the Time of Pandemic, March 27, 2020). Either we are friends or we are enemies!” “No, no. I detach myself: either brothers or enemies.” There is no middle way.
- As members of Associations of Faithful, of International Ecclesial Movements, and other Communities, you have a true and proper ecclesial mission. You seek, with dedication, to live and make fruitful those charisms that the Holy Spirit, through the Founders, has assigned to all the members of your aggregate realities, for the benefit of the Church and the many men and women to whom you are dedicated in the apostolate. I’m thinking, especially, of those that, finding themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies, experience in their flesh abandonment and loneliness and suffer due to the many material needs and moral and spiritual poverty. It will do us all good to remember every day not only others’ poverty, but also, and first of all, our own. There is something of Mother Teresa that often comes to mind. Yes, she was a Religious, but this happens to all of us if we are on the way. When you go to pray and don’t feel anything. I call it that “spiritual atheism,” where all is dark, all seems to say: “I’ve failed, this isn’t the way, this is a great illusion” — the temptation of atheism, when it comes during prayer. Poor Mother Teresa suffered so much because it’s the devil’s revenge; because of the fact we go there, to the peripheries, where Jesus is, in fact where Jesus was born. We prefer a sophisticated Gospel, a distilled Gospel, but that’s not the Gospel, the Gospel is this. Thank you. It will do good to all to think of these poverties.
You are also, although with the limits and sins of every day — thank God that we are sinners and that God gives us the grace to acknowledge our sins and also the grace to ask for or go to a confessor: this is a great grace, don’t lose it! — though with these limits, you are a clear sign of the vitality of the Church: you represent a missionary strength and a prophetic presence that makes it good for us to wait for the future. Together with the Pastors and all the other lay faithful, you also have the responsibility to build the future of the holy faithful People of God. But remember always that, to build the future, doe snot mean to flee from the today that we are living! On the contrary, the future is prepared here and now, “in the kitchen,” learning to listen and to discern the present time with honesty and courage and with willingness for a constant encounter with the Lord, a constant personal conversion. Otherwise, one runs the risk of living in a “parallel world,” distilled, far from the real challenges of the society, of the culture, and of all those people that live next to you and that await your Christian testimony. In fact, to belong to an Association, to a Movement, or a Community, especially if they make reference to a charism, must not lock us in a watertight situation, to make us feel secure as if there were no need for an answer to the challenges and changes. All of us Christians are always on the way, always converting, always discerning. So often we find so-called “pastoral agents” that are committed Bishops, priests, Sisters, laymen [he says “compromised”]. I don’t like that word, a layman is either committed or he is not, laymen being active in something. However, we find some that confuse it with a tourist trip or confuse the way by turning in on themselves away, without being able to go forward. The evangelical way isn’t a tourist trip. It’s a challenge: every step is a challenge and every step is a call of God, every step is — as we say in our land [Argentina] — “putting the meat on the grill,” going forward always; we are always on the way, always converting, always discerning to do the Will of God. To think of being “the novelty” of the Church is a temptation that often comes to new Congregations and new Movements and, therefore, think that they are not in need of changes, which can become false security. Novelties are also quick to grow old! Therefore, we must go ever deeper in the charism to which we belong, to reflect always together, to embody it in the new situations that we are living. Required of us to do this is great docility, great humility, to recognize our limitations and accept to change the way we do things or think are outdated, or methods of the apostolate that are no longer effective, or forms of organization of internal life that have revealed themselves to be inadequate or downright harmful. For example, this is one of the services that General Chapters always give us. When [the ways and methods] aren’t good, they must be revised in assembly. But now we land on the point, what you expected.
3. The Decree “The International Associations of Faithful,” promulgated on June 11 of this year, is a step in this direction. But does this Decree imprison us? Does it do away with our freedom? No, this Decree spurs us to accept some change and to prepare the future stemming from the present. At the origin of this Decree is not some theory on the Church or on lay Associations that one wishes to implement or impose. No, it is not that. It’s the reality itself of the last decades that has shown us the need for the changes that the Decree asks of us. And I’ll tell you something about this experience of the last decades of the post Council. The Congregation for Religious is studying Religious Congregations, the Associations born in this period. It’s curious, it’s very curious, there are so many, so many with a novelty that is great, that have ended up in very hard situations; they have ended up under an Apostolic Visit, they have ended up with foul sins, police stations . . . `and they are doing a study. I don’t know if this can be published, but you know better than me these situations, because of clerical gossip. There are so many and not only these big ones that we know of and that are scandalous — the things they have done to feel themselves a Church apart; they seemed to be redeemers! — but also little. In my country, for example, three of these have already been dissolved and all because they ended up so filthy. They were the salvation, no? They seemed . . . always with that [red] thread of disciplinary rigidity. This is important. And this led me . . . This reality of the last decades has shown us a series of changes to help, changes that the Decree asks of us. Hence today, starting in fact from this Decree, you are reflecting on an important topic, not only for each one of you but for the whole Church: “The Responsibility of Government in Lay Aggregations: An Ecclesial Service.” To govern is to serve. The exercise of government within the Associations and Movements is a subject that is particularly at heart for me, especially considering — what I said before –the cases of abuse of various natures that were verified also in these realities and that always have their root in the abuse of power. This is the origin: the abuse of power. Not rarely in these years, the Holy See has had to intervene, initiating not easy processes of improvement And I’m thinking not only of these awful situations, which make noise, but also of those sicknesses that stem from the weakening of the foundational charism, which becomes tepid and loses the capacity to attract.
4. The government posts entrusted to you in the lay aggregations to which you belong, are none other than a call to serve. But, what does it mean for a Christian to serve? On some occasions I have been able to point out two obstacles a Christian can meet on his path that hinder him from becoming a true servant of God and of others (cf. Morning Meditation at Saint Martha’s, November 8, 2016).
- The first is the “desire for power” — when this desire for power makes you change the nature of the service of government. How many times we have made others hear our “desire for power”? Jesus has taught us that he who commands must become like one who serves (cf. Luke 22:24-26) and that “if one wants to be first he must be the servant of all” (Mark 9:35) that is, Jesus reverses the values of worldliness, of the world.
Our desire for power is expressed in so many ways in the life of the Church, for example, when we believe, given the role we have, that we must take decisions on all the aspects of the life of our Association, of the diocese, of the parish, of the Congregation. Delegated to others are tasks and responsibilities for specific realms, but only theoretically! In practice, delegation to others is empty because of the desire to be everywhere. And this desire for power annuls every form of subsidiarity. This attitude is awful and ends up by emptying the ecclesial body of strength. It’s a bad way to “discipline.” And we have seen so many. And I’m thinking of the Congregations I most know — Superiors, Superiors General that eternalize themselves in power and do a thousand things to be re-elected and re-elected, even changing the Constitutions. And behind this is a desire for power. This doesn’t help; this is the beginning of the end of an Association, of a Congregation. Perhaps someone thinks that this “desire” doesn’t concern him; that this doesn’t happen in his Association. Let’s keep present that the Decree “The International Associations of Faithful” is not addressed only to some of the realities present here, but it’s for all, none excluded, for all. There are no more or less good ones, perfect or not perfect ones: all the ecclesial realities are called to conversion, to understand, and to implement the spirit that animates the dispositions that are given in the Decree. Two images come to me regarding this, two historical images, a Sister who was at the entrance of the Chapter and said: ”If you vote for me, I’ll do this . . . “ They buy power. And then, a case that seems strange to me, such as “the spirit of the Founder has descended upon me.” It seems like a prophecy of Isaiah! “He has given it to me! I must go forward alone and only because the Founder has given me his mantle, as Elijah to Elisha. And you, do the voting, but I am in command.” And this happens! I’m not talking of fantasies. This is happening today in the Church.
The experience of closeness to your realities has shown that it is beneficial and necessary to foresee a turnover in the government posts and a representation of all the members in your elections. In the context of consecrated life there are also Religious Institutes that, having the same people always in government posts, have not prepared the future. They have allowed abuses to insinuate themselves and are now going through great difficulties. I’m thinking — you won’t know it — of an Institute whose Head was called Amabilia. The Institute ended up by being called “odiobila” [odio means hatred] because the members realized that that woman was a “Hitler” with a habit.
- There is, then, a real obstacle to Christian service, and this is very subtle: disloyalty. We find it when someone wants to serve the Lord but also serves other things that aren’t the Lord (and behind the other things, there is always money). It’s somewhat like playing a double game! In words, we say we want to serve God and others, but in fact, we serve our ego, and we bow to our desire to appear, to get recognition, appreciation . . . Let’s not forget that true service is free and unconditional, it knows not calculation or pretension. Moreover, true service habitually forgets the things done to serve others. It happens — all of you have the experience, when you are thanked [and you say]: “For what?” “For what you did . . . “ “But, what did I do? . . . And then it’s remembered. It’s a service, period. And we fall into the trap of disloyalty when we present ourselves to others as the sole interpreters of the charism, the sole heirs of our Association or Movement — the case I mentioned earlier — or when considering ourselves indispensable, we do everything to keep offices for life or, again, when we pretend to decide a priori who should be our successor. Does this happen? Yes, it does happen, and more often than we think. No one is master of the gifts received for the good of the Church — we are administrators –, no one must suffocate them but must allow them to grow, with me or with him who comes after me. Each one, where he is placed by the Lord, is called to make them grow, to make them fructify, trusting in the fact that it’s God who works everything in everyone (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:6), and that our true good fructifies in ecclesial communion.
- Dear friends, in carrying out the role of government that has been entrusted to us, we learn, then, to be genuine servants of the Lord and of brothers; we learn to say: “We are unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10). Let’s keep present this expression of humility, of docility to the Will of God, which does so much good to the Church and calls for the right attitude to work in her: humble service, of which Jesus gave us the example, washing the feet of the disciples (cf. John 13:3-17; Angelus, October 6, 2019).
In the Dicastery’s document reference is made to the Founders. It seems very wise to me. The Founder is not changed, he continues, goes on. Simplifying it somewhat, I would say that it’s necessary to distinguish, in Ecclesial Movements (and also in Religious Congregations), between those that are in the process of formation and those that have already acquired a certain organic and juridical stability. They are two different realities. First, the Institutes also have a living Founder. Although all the Institutes — be they religious or lay Movements — have the duty to verify, in assemblies or chapters, the state of the foundational charism and make the necessary changes in their legislation (which will then be approved by the respective Dicastery), in Institutes in formation, instead, — and I say in formation in the widest sense: the Institutes whose Founder is living and, therefore, there is talk of the Founder for life in the Decree — in those that are in a foundational phase, this verification of the charism is more continuous, so to speak. Therefore, in the document, there is talk of a certain stability of Superiors during this phase. It’s important to make these distinctions to be able to move with more freedom in discernment. We are living members of the Church so we have the need to trust in the Holy Spirit, who acts in the life of every Association, of every member, He acts in each one of us. From here stems trust in the discernment of the charisms entrusted to the authority of the Church. Be aware of the apostolic strength and of the prophetic gift that are given to you in a renewed way.
Thank you for listening. And, another thing: when I read the draft of the Decree, which I then signed — the first draft –, I thought: “but this is too rigid! It lacks life, it lacks . . . But, dears, the language of Canon Law is like this! And here it is something of law; it’s something of language. But we must, as I have tried to do, see what this language means, the law; therefore, I wanted to explain it well. And also to explain the temptations that are behind, that we have seen and that do so much damage to Movements and also to Religious and lay Institutes.
Thank you for listening, and thank you to the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life for having organized this meeting. I wish you all good work, a good journey, and a good meeting. Say everything that comes to you to say from the heart about all this. Ask about the things you want to ask about, clarify the situations. This is a meeting to do this, to do for the Church, for us. And don’t forget to pray for me, because I need it. It’s not easy to be Pope, but God helps; God always helps.
© Libreria Editrice Vatican
[Original text: Italian] [Exaudi’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]