Its name is “Iuvenescit Ecclesiae” (The Church rejuvenates) and it is a small – but long time in the making – document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was presented June 13, and aims at reiterating the importance of ecclesiastical movements within the Church, while asking them to be faithful to Rome. It is not insignificant that Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo sat among the audience at the Holy See Press Office for the presentation. They are respectively Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for the Institute of Consecrated Life.

Why is their presence not insignificant? Because the document drafted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can be a basis for the reform of the so-called mutuae relationes – a reform the Congregation has been working on for some years.

“Mutuae relationes” is a 1978 document including directives for the mutual relations between bishops and religious in the Church.” During a closed-door meeting with religious superiors in Nov. 2013 –which La Civiltà Cattolica reported Jan. 2014 – Pope Francis said that the document “was useful at the time, but now it is out of date.”

The Pope said that “the charisms of the various Institutes need to be respected and fostered because they are needed in a dioceses,” but that there were still problems to be overcome. For example – he explained – when a religious institute leaves a diocese, the bishop “often finds himself suddenly left with a hot potato in his hands,” but that on the other hand bishops should “not view religious institutes simply as useful instruments,” but come to know and appreciate their unique charisms.

It’s been three years now that the Congregation for the Consecrated Institutes is working on a revision of mutuae relationes. That means that the document on the charism of movements of the Church was a good test to understand the relations between center and peripheries: the document has been on the works for 16 years, and it is the fruit of a very long reflection.

Which are the issues developed in the document “Iuvenescit Ecclesiae”? First of all, it underscores that there can be no contraposition between the Church as an institution and the Church of charity, between the hierarchical Church and the Church of the charisms, between the institutional Judaic-Christian Church and the Pauline Church.

The common thread of the document is that hierarchical gifts and charismatic gifts are co-essential. Which are the hierarchical and charismatic gifts? The first are those conferred by the Sacrament of ordination (Episcopal, priestly and diaconal), while the second are freely distributed by the Holy Spirit.

The document reads that Church and movements are “complementary”, if the relation between the two is part of a “fruitful and ordered participation” in the charisms of the communion of the Church, which does not authorize them “to withdraw the obedience owed towards the ecclesial hierarchy”; nor does she “bestow the right to an autonomous ministry”.

Anyway, the contraposition of hierarchical and charismatic gifts is considered a mistake. According to the document, a Church “of the institution” should not be opposed to a Church “of charity”, since in the Church “the essential institutions are also charismatic” and “the charisms must, in one way or another, be institutionalized to have coherency and continuity”.

All the movements are called to arrive at an ecclesial maturity. In a nutshell, the document asks the movements to be fully inside the life of the Church, to stay in communion with bishops and shepherds and to follow the indications of the latter, as the new realities are “sources of joy” but are also called to “relate positively with all of the other gifts present in ecclesial life”, so as “to promote them generously, and to accompany them with vigilant paternity” of Pastors “in such a manner that all contribute to the good of the Church and to its evangelizing mission”.

The document also requires a legal recognition for the ecclesial movements. This legal recognition is given on the basis of the “respect for the particularity of individual charismatic groups, avoiding juridical straitjackets that deaden novelty”; and also on the basis of the “respect for the fundamental ecclesial regimen”, favoring “the effective insertion of the charismatic gifts into the life of the Church”, but avoiding the danger that the entities “might be considered in some way as running parallel to the ecclesial life or not ordered in relation to the hierarchical gifts”.

The CDF’s document goes beyond, and describes the relations between the Universal Church and particular parts of the Church as “constitutive”, since while the charisms are given to all the Church, “the dynamism of these gifts must actualize itself in the service of a concrete diocese” and they represent  an “authentic opportunity” to live and to develop the Christian vocation of each person, whether this be marriage, priestly celibacy, or ordained ministry”.

Also consecrated life – the document reads – “is located within the charismatic dimension of the Church”, since the spirituality of institutes “can become for both the lay faithful and the priest a significant resource enabling them to live their own proper vocation”. This final passage links the charisms of the movements with the charisms of the Congregation, marking a common interest in the so called mutuae relationes.

The revised Mutuae Relationes document may follow the same red line. That is, an exaltation of the charisms combined with the need for more coordination with the central authority of the Church.

These details reveal that Pope Francis’ Church is really a “Holy Hierarchical Mother,” as Pope Francis loves to describe her. Beyond the narrative on synodality and collegiality, Pope Francis is in the end following the path of a strong ecclesial identity already threaded by his predecessors.

This path can be glimpsed from the CDF’s document. Iuvenescit Ecclesiae is both an encouragement and admonition to ecclesial movements: an encouragement to keep on being the “salt of the earth” and an admonition to stay within the Catholic Church and not be self-referential.

In the end, after the speeches the Pope delivered to Renewal with the Spirit and Communion and Liberation – which sounded like a slap in the face of the charisms – the Catholic movements felt somehow brought to a situation of crisis. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is thus offering a new reason of being, that is always linked to the Church’s tradition.

There are other details showing that within the same Pope Francis’ pontificate there is a wide and strong movement working to focus on Universal Church issues, rather than on local issues.

The Congregation for Catholic Education, for example, is focusing on an important initiative: following the big congress on Catholic Education in the World that took place in the Vatican in Nov. 2015, the Congregation is working to establish a directory to put together all the Catholic schools, in order to have – according to a Vatican official involved in the preparatory meeting – a “pragmatic application of the Ex Corde Ecclesiae”.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the Heart of the Church) is the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities: it provides guidelines for universities to be included in the vast range of Catholic institutions of learning. In the end, it means that the Christian orientation cannot be a happenstance — it has to uniformly develop all over the world.

The directory will also watch attentively over the reform of mutuae relationes as well as over the Iuvenescit Ecclesiae: many Catholic Institutions are in the end owned by religious congregations, and some of them are entrusted to members of ecclesial movements.

This way, Pope Francis’ pontificate can be also described as a pontificate that carried forward the work on fostering a Catholic identity. This aspect has been alive despite Pope Francis’ preaching of an “outbound-bound Church”, his love for popular movements and even his words that insinuated the possibility of a dismantling of the Roman Curia to transfer power to local dioceses.

Recently published Iuvenescit Ecclesiae, together with the upcoming directory and the revision of the mutuae relationes are documents that go beyond Pope Francis’ wish to “evangelize evangelicals”, to make of every meeting a message. They also go beyond the same Pope Francis’ criteria for the outward-bound Church.

The documents show that a balance between center and periphery is being sought, after the apparent imbalance to peripheries of the first months of the pontificate. At the very beginning, there were also expectations for a Canon Law reform to face the decrease in religious life vocations.

As always, the internal discussion is quite lively. On one side, there is the “Hidden Vatican”, working for reforms and at the same time trying to preserve Church unity and coherence; on the other hand, those who do not consider the importance of the Church as an institution, and consider her only from the mere perspective of a “Church of charity”, even delocalized, thus de facto subscribing the notion of “Church NGO” that Pope Francis always decried.

The outcomes of this discussion are yet to be seen. Certainly, the future Church will be shaped by these awaited outcomes.


One Response to Pope Francis, institutional Church or Church of the charity?

  1. James scrive:

    “… and aims at reiterating the importance of ecclesiastical movements within the Church, while asking them to be faithful to Rome.”
    Ah, if but Rome might be faithful to the revelation it holds from the hands of Jesus Christ.

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