Massimo Faggioli on Iuvenescit Ecclesia

Pray Tell recently spoke with Massimo Faggioli about the new document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Iuvenescit Ecclesia. Anthony Ruff, OSB, conducted the interview.

What’s your first impression of the new document?
Despite the less than convincing translation into English in some passages (not gender inclusive), it is a very interesting document that explains well Francis’ shift in the attitude of Vatican towards the new ecclesial movements and communities: from an almost totally unproblematic “laissez faire” policy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to a much more cautious and balanced approach under Francis. John Paul II and Benedict XVI saw in the movements the best (or only) effective reaction against secularism. They thought that their energy needed almost total freedom – freedom not from the papacy, but from their local bishops. (Of course their policy towards other movements like the “basic ecclesial communities” in Latin America was a different story…).

This letter encourages “a fruitful and ordered participation of the new groups in the communion and the mission of the Church” – which means that Francis’ assessment is that the participation of these new groups to the communion and mission of the Church has not been free from problems so far.

Why is this document appearing now? What is the need or the problem addressed?
In these last few years a few problems have become very visible in the relations between some movements and the bishops. This had become clear already at the Bishops’ Synod of 1987… but the bishops who brought that up, among them Cardinal Martini of Milan, were rebuffed. Recently, the clash between the Neocatechumenal Way and the Bishops of Japan during the pontificate of Benedict XVI was unprecedented. (This is one of the incidents I mentioned in my first book on the movements Sorting Out Catholicism). Francis is clearly aware of this case and others: in his pontificate every time he receives a movements he always cautions and warns them about the danger of sectarism, of creating a parallel church. (I pointed this out in my most recent book The Rising Laity). This letter makes very clear that there must be a “proper exercise of the charisms in the ecclesial community” because there is no Church of the charisms vs. Church of the institution.

Is the document balanced, that both sides (bishops and movements) have to give a little? Or is it reigning in the movements a bit?
The letter talks about recognizing “a convergence in the recent Magisterium on the coessentiality between the hierarchical and charismatic gifts” and therefore it is a balanced document. But it is a new balance between the episcopate and the movements – a balance that in my opinion was lacking during in John Paul II’s approach to them. The letter Iuvenescit Ecclesia re-reads Lumen Gentium (especially paragraph 4, see below) in light of the post-conciliar developments, the flourishing of the movements in these last fifty years. But also emphasizes Lumen Gentium par. 12, which is one of the favorite of Francis because of the non-sectarian “ecclesiology of the people” – a key idea in Francis.

There is also a call for respect of the hierarchy from movements that have sometimes seen themselves as autonomous from the bishops. A most important passage is the following: “When, however, a gift presents itself as a ‘founding” or ‘originating charism’, this requires a specific recognition so that the richness it contains may be adequately articulated within the ecclesial communion and faithfully transmitted over time. Here emerges the decisive task of discernment that appertains to the ecclesial authorities.” The document talks clearly about the right of the faithful “to be informed by their pastors about the authenticity of charisms and the trustworthiness of those who present themselves as recipients thereof”.

Does this document express the ‘spirit of Francis’? Or is it curia bureaucratese? What is the tone of it?
What is new is the straightforward way this document talks about charisma (which is conspicuously absent from the Code of Canon Law, for example) and its way to be honest about those cases when there is a “disordered exercise of the charisms.” It talks about “coessentiality between hierarchical gifts – of their nature stable, permanent, and irrevocable – and the charismatic gifts.”

The letter also gives eight criteria to discern the healthy ecclesial nature of the charisms:

  1. the primacy of the vocation of every Christian to holiness;
  2. commitment to spreading the Gospel;
  3. profession of the Catholic Faith;
  4. witness to a real communion with the whole Church;
  5. recognition of and esteem for the reciprocal complementarity of other charismatic elements in the Church;
  6. acceptance of moments of trial in the discernment of charisms;
  7. presence of spiritual fruits;
  8. the social dimension of evangelization.

Under John Paul II there was already a list similar to this one, but this new list is more cautious about the idea that new movements always bring energy and life to the Church: they can also create division in the Church. Number 6 will be particularly challenging for some movements: it is a realistic document that does not lie about how difficult it is for new movements to be recognized by the Church.

This isn’t a legal document – do you think it will have much effect?
It is early to tell its effect. But it seems that the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life have also been involved in the drafting of the document in some way. It is interesting to see the parallels drawn in the document between the new movements and the history of the “exemption” for religious orders.

There is a very interesting admonition about ordained members of new movements that seek ordination to serve only their movement (par. 22) – a very well-known problem that so far has been officially denied by the Church leadership – and an interesting phrasing about the danger of having the movements creating a “parallel” path in the Church (par. 23). This is something that came up at the 1987 Synod, but no pope before Francis had the courage to talk about. There is also the clear intention of Francis not to create new precedents in the recognition process of new movements.

How do your books contribute to this discussion?
My two books on the subject are among the rare attempts to talk about an issue that is both historical and ecclesiological, and on a topic that is sensitive . (I still remember the reaction of Opus Dei in Italy when my first book in Italian was published in 2008!) When I started writing about the movements almost fifteen years ago, there were only two kinds of contributions about them: those apologetically in favor of the movements because written by members of the movements, and those fierily against the movements, often written by former members. It is a complex phenomenon that deserves an historical and theological nuanced analysis. It is a reflection which is in some way part of the Church’s discernment about this new element of the life of the Church.

What inspired you to write on the topic? Have you had experiences yourself with the movements?
Giuseppe Alberigo, my mentor, invited me to do research on them. I had spent the first few years of my academic life doing research on the bishops and the episcopate. In the church of John Paul II the bishops and the movements were on opposite fronts, especially in Europe, until John Paul and Benedict started appointing bishops clergy coming from the movements. They did this not just to reward the movements, but also to reshape the episcopate in a more obedient and “orthodox” way. But this appointment policy has become a big problem in some dioceses. (The biggest one probably in Lima, Peru, but also in my own diocese of Ferrara in Italy.) This letter of the CDF under Francis is a new appraisal not only of the movements per se, but also of the role given to the movements by his two predecessors.

Lumen gentium:

4. When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost in order that he might continually sanctify the Church, and thus, all those who believe would have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father. He is the Spirit of Life, a fountain of water springing up to life eternal. To men and women, dead in sin, the Father gives life through him, until, in Christ, he brings to life their mortal bodies. The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple. In them he prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted sons and daughters. The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which he unified in communion and in works of ministry, he both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with his fruits. By the power of the Gospel he makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly he renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, “Come!”

12. The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to his name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of humans but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.

It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as he wills, he distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church, according to the words of the Apostle: “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to everyone for profit.” These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are perfectly suited to and useful for the needs of the Church. Extraordinary gifts are not to be sought after, nor are the fruits of apostolic labor to be presumptuously expected from their use; but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.


  1. it seems that the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life have also been involved in the drafting of the document in some way.

    Odd. I thought I read somewhere a couple of days ago (Mickens? Global Pulse?) that not only had the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life been sidelined and not involved in the drafting, but its Cardinal Prefect was left sitting in the audience at the press conference.

    1. @Paul Inwood:

      What makes you so sure that Mr. Mickens had any access to credible information on how this document came about? He, apparently, didn’t even know that it was in the making, or that it would be published when it did.

      Also, what is so horrible about “sitting in the audience at the press conference”? Clearly, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz had no problem with it. In fact, when talking to the reporters afterwards –and I too read this somewhere — he said he came because this document is also important to his congregation, but gave no indication that he/his Congregation had been “sidelined” and therefore, he is miffed about it. Had that been the case, he would surely have said so, as he did in regards to the LCWR investigation saga.

      I understand that it is a very fine line, but there has to be a line nonetheless between raising legitimate and important questions, and always looking for things to criticize, or worse yet, creating scandal when there is none, no?

  2. Could a reader please suggest a primer on the Neocatechumenal Way? Perhaps there might be a book which covers theology and liturgy in a volume. Part of my escape from the throne room involves quite a bit of reading, even if I should be reading for my diss. instead. (Distractions, procrastination, old friends.)

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      Brief edit: I would be interested in a primer even if it is written in French, Italian, or German. Regretfully, I can’t read the proceedings of the Japanese bishops 🙁

  3. Which “new communities” are the subject of this document? I suppose it would include groups like the Neo-Catechumenate Way and the Focolare Movement? Would it also encompass orders such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ?

  4. Very timely post. Thank you. I am teaching a graduate course on Lay Ecclesial Ministry (different, but somewhat related) and the question about lay movements came up and I had this information at my fingertips, thanks to Praytell. And, I purchased and I am reading, The Rising Laity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *