The Surprise of an Encounter

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


Ratzinger at the Bishops' Seminar on Ecclesial Movements, June 16-18, 19999: two hours of questions. Notes from the replies of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Publisher & Date

Communion and Liberation, June 16, 1999

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the protagonist for two hours of a lively debate late afternoon, May 16th, at the seminar organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity on "Ecclesial Movements and New Communities in the Pastoral Care of Bishops," held in Rome until Saturday, just a year after the Pope's meeting with the movements, which gathered together half a million people. Cardinal Ratzinger answered questions put to him by an assembly of over one hundred bishops and cardinals from all over the world. Here is a synthesis.

Urged by H.E.Bishop Stanislaw Rylko (Secretary of the Council for the Laity) to discuss his own personal experience with the movements, Ratzinger recalled that his first contacts date to the middle of the 1960s. He spoke of the encounter with the Neocatecumenali (Neocathecumens), who restored to a central place "Baptism, the sacrament that is somewhat forgotten in the Church, while it is the foundation of our faith, at a time when the family and the school function less and less as an initiation into the faith," and of how in the 1960s he came into contact with Communion and Liberation: "We found Father Giussani and his followers in the universities; in the epoch of the Marxist revolution, they did not respond with a form of reaction or a conservative attitude, but with a revolution that was fresher and more radical, that of Christian faith." And again, of the encounter with Rinnovamento dello Spirito (Renewal of the Spirit): "I thus had the joy and the grace of seeing Christian youths touched by the force of the Holy Spirit." "In a moment of fatigue in which a 'winter of the Church' was being spoken of, the Holy Spirit created a new spring. It was a response also to two negative experiences underway in Germany: in the academic world, theology was growing increasingly distant from an enthusiastic faith, becoming exactly like the other disciplines, 'coldly scientific,' reduced to a phenomenon of oppression of the faith on the part of a unilateral reason; and a growing bureaucratization of the Church."

The dialogue then continued with questions from the bishops.

Are we moving toward an institutionalization of the movements?

This has happened in the past. Think of monasticism or Franciscanism. A certain amount of structure is essential for a more orderly effect and an integration into the life of the Church. But it is necessary to be careful that institutionalization not become an armor around life; it is necessary that the institutional element not extinguish the Spirit.

What relationship is there between the institutional and the charismatic dimensions?

The bishops are not only an institution. Without the charismatic dimension you can't be a good bishop. They are the ones with the grace to perceive authentic charisms. The ultimate judgment is up to the bishop, in communion with the episcopal corps and the Holy Father. One presumes that the bishop feels the responsibility not to extinguish the Spirit, but that he possesses the necessary discernment. It is his task to discern and aid the movements in purifying whatever is necessary. Because if the source is the Holy Spirit, its concretizations are human, they introduce the human element. The bishops thus have the task of discernment to help the movements find the right path for peaceful unity and to help the parish priest to be open to them, to let themselves be surprised by these forms that are brought forth by the Spirit.

And what is the relationship between parishes and movements, between parishes and communities of people?

It is necessary to safeguard the unity of the faithful, who are one Church and not many churches. It is very important to keep the awareness of being part of one sole Church alive, so that the phenomena that emerge can be at the service of this one Church in which there is room for everybody. Christianity is not a group of friends who separate from each other, but persons found by the Lord; that is, brothers and sisters. Accepting one's brothers because you are all united by the same faith, even if you don't like them, is elementary.

Forty years ago there was a Catholic culture that sustained the faith, but now it has been destroyed. What can we do?

After the events of 1968 there has been an explosion of secularism which has radicalized a process that had been going on for two hundred years: the Christian foundation has diminished. Think of the fact that up until forty years ago it was unthinkable to have legislation that treated a homosexual union almost like marriage. Now we must reformulate our reasons in order to reach once again the conscience of today's man and we must accept a conflict of values, in which we must defend mankind, not only the Church, as the Pope has written in many of his encyclicals. Faced with secularization, in the effort to be contemporary with today's man we must not however lose the contemporaneity of the Church with all times. For this it is necessary to have a very clear identity of faith, inspired by a joyous experience of God's truth. And thus we return to the movements, which offer this joyous experience. The movements have this specific nature: in mass society, they help us find, in a Church that could look like a great international organization, a home where we find the familiarity of God's family and at the same time we remain in the great universal family of the saints of all times. In our time, we note a certain prevalence of the Protestant spirit in a cultural sense. The protest against the past seems to be modern and to respond better to the present. In this, for our part, we must show that Catholicism bears the heredity of the past for the future, even if it does so going against the current in these times.

And when, as has happened in Latin America, theology was more important than faith and political action stronger than the experience of the contemporaneity of Christ?

If God and thus faith are no longer considered a reality, then human life is diminished, creating hatred and conflict. When God is discarded, man is amputated. If we rediscover a true faith which is the encounter with God, everything is inspired by this living center and calls forth also a social commitment; it works in society.

What presence of the Spirit is there outside the Church?

The Council speaks of it, as do the Fathers of the Church. We see that outside the Church, God is not absent. God does not neglect any place, any culture. We see that the sense of God is reborn, the sense of responsibility for others, love for others. These elements are present in religions. In Christianity, we have the fullness of the elements of the faith, but this does not mean that important elements are not also present elsewhere. There is an openness in the human heart. As bishops we must work to show not only the institutional juridical side, but also the side of the mystery which continues the humility of the Lord who deigns to be present as a living voice, a living presence. There is in the world a desire for a voice that does not speak for itself, but in the name of faith in God, which obeys the presence of God in the world. The Pope is this, he continues the humility of the Lord who speaks with instruments like us, which can also be inadequate.

What about the announcement of Christ in countries where it can provoke religious wars or violence?

We must witness to the Redeeming Lord who conquers solely by the force of conviction brought about by testimony.

On May 30, 1998, the first phase of the history of the movements was concluded, in which the question of making space for them (on the part of Church institutions) was addressed. Now we are in the second phase, that of the recognition of the substantial unity of the realities of the charisms with that of the institution. When the Pope says that "the Church itself is a movement," what does this mean for us bishops?

The bishop becomes less a monarch and more the shepherd of a flock, who stands face to face with his flock and is a pilgrim among pilgrims. As St. Augustine said, we are all disciples in Christ's school. While remaining the representative of a sacrament, the bishop becomes more a brother in a school in which there is only one father and only one teacher. He guarantees that the Church is not a market, but a family. He identifies the particular church and the universal Church. He is not the source of right and law, but acts as a guide and as a witness to unity in the context of the family-nature of the Church with one sole master. It is thus necessary to avoid the danger of an over-institutionalization; the many "councils," while useful, cannot be like a governing group that complicates the life of the faithful and makes them lose direct contact with their pastors. As someone said to me one day, "I would like to talk with my pastor, but they always tell me he's in a meeting!" We have to achieve a collaboration among all the components of God's people, so that the unity will be richer.

Will the Church be increasingly in the minority? And what is the importance of the movements?

The developments of the last fifty years show that religiosity doesn't go away, because it is an inalienable desire of the human heart. However, it is necessary that it not be misdirected, because then we would have religious pathology. For this reason, we have the responsibility to offer the true answer, and this is an historic responsibility of the Church in this moment in which religion can become a sickness that offers not God's face, but substitutes which are not healing. Even if in the minority, for us the priority is the announcement. In the West statistics speak of a reduction in the number of believers; we are living an apostasy of the faith, the identity between European-American culture and Christian culture almost dissolves. The challenge today is to keep the faith from retreating into closed groups, but to act in a way that it illuminate everyone and speak to everyone. Think of the Church in the first centuries: the Christians were few in number, but people listened to them, because they were not a closed group, but bore a general challenge for everyone that touched everyone. We too today have a universal mission: to make present the true response to the need for a life that corresponds with the Creator. The Gospel is for everybody and the movements can be a great help because they have the missionary impulse characteristic of beginnings, even though their numbers are small, and they can encourage the life of the Gospel in the world.

© Communion and Liberation


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