Institutional and Charismatic Aspects: Quasi Coessential to the Church's Constitution

Author: Cardinal J. Francis Stafford


Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity

New springtime of the Church is signaled by ecclesial movements

On the Vigil of Pentecost 1998 Pope John Paul II invited the members of the ecclesial movements and the new communities in the Church to meet at the Vatican. It was a unique invitation and a unique response, 500,000 persons responded. The Pope said to those gathered in the Square before the tomb of Peter: "[You] are the response of the Holy Spirit to the dramatic challenge at the end of the millennium". He asked the variety of new communities to give "a common witness" in the year dedicated to the Holy Spirit.

Your meeting here gives a similar sign. It offers a common witness to Portugal. You are focusing both on the meaning of your charisms for the Church's communion and mission and also on the relation between your gifts and the Church's hierarchy. Your charisms have surprised everyone since they first erupted two generations ago.

It would be useful to explore why these movements have emerged in the Church today. It is a key question. The Second Vatican Council and the 1987 Synod of Bishops raised the same question. The Pope raised it on the occasion of the 1998 Pentecost gathering.

Although I cannot respond to the question, Why now? I can suggest one pastoral reality. Their development indicates that the spiritual needs of many Catholic lay people are not being met through the traditional institutions of the Church. These spiritual needs, coupled with the challenges facing Christians in a secularized world, have led to the formation of the communities. Their spiritual hunger and their fulfilment through the gifts of the Holy Spirit have brought unexpected blessings to the Church and to society. The groups have been in the vanguard of the "new evangelization". They are experienced as "new in ardour, methods and expression" (Address of Pope John Paul II to CELAM, 1983).

The right of lay people in the Church freely to form associations is established in the canon law of the Church. This flows from the sacrament of Baptism, which calls the faithful to participate actively in the communion and mission of the Church. The Second Vatican Council teaches: "As long as the proper relationship is kept to Church authority, the lay faithful have the right to found and run such associations and to join those already existing" (Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 19).

Nevertheless, the new manifestations of the charisms of the Spirit in the Church are novelties. For several generations the priests and people have been accustomed to traditional structures for biblical nourishment and life: the parish and the Diocese. I was astonished during my first meeting with members of the Neocatechumenate in 1980. Not the least impressive aspect of their lives was their "unutterable and exalted joy" (l Pt 1:8).

It is clearly important to explore the relationship of the charismatic aspect of the Church to her institutional dimension. Consequently, I will comment on the core of the Message of Pope John Paul II at the 1998 gathering. It was startling. "The institutional and charismatic aspects are quasi coessential to the Church's constitution" (n. 4). The Pope rules out any ecclesiology which posits a radical tension or dialectical opposition between them. Rather he speaks of their ecclesial complementarity.

Two texts will illumine our understanding of this inescapable complementarity between the institutional dimension and the charismatic dimension of the Church. The first is an address by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1998; and

the other is a theme found in two texts of Pope John Paul II where he speaks of the relationship of the Marian dimension of the Church to her Petrine-apostolic dimensions.


Cardinal Ratzinger elaborates on the following text of Pope John Paul II. In the Second Vatican Council "under the guidance of the [Holy] Spirit the Church has rediscovered as constitutive of herself the charismatic dimension.... The institutional aspect and the charismatic are quasi coessential to the constitution of the Church, even if in a diverse way, to her life, to her renewal and to the sanctification of the People of God" (n. 4).

Immediately preceding the Pentecost meeting, Cardinal Ratzinger anticipated the Pope's teaching and elaborated a theological foundation. He said, "the fundamental question [is) how to determine correctly the theological location of these 'movements' within the structural continuity of the Church". I will summarize Cardinal Ratzinger's address.

He first discussed three hypotheses for clarifying the relationship. Subsuming these three theological methods under a generic phrase—"a dialectic of principles", he began by exploring the dialectic of institution and charism, then the dialectic of Christology and pneumatology, and finally the dialectic of hierarchy and prophecy. None proved fruitful. He concluded that, in proving the meaning of the Pope's teaching on the coessential aspects of the Church's constitution, "the foregoing reflections [on the dialectic of principles] ... yield rather meagre results".

He then used what he called "an historical approach, as befits the historical nature of the faith and the Church". Initially he looked at two perspectives of history: "Apostolic Succession and Apostolic Movements". He then moved on to discuss "the sole permanent and binding structure" which bears "significantly ... the name ordo".

The Cardinal maintained that the offices entrusted to those in the sacrament of Orders carry tasks that are both universal and local. Those who hold the "office" of Bishop have the simultaneous responsibility both for a local ecclesial ministry and also for the universal mission of Christ's Church.

After reflection on the historical relationships of charisms and hierarchical offices in the Church, he concluded that the concept of apostolic succession "must be given greater breadth and depth". He stated that those ordained to the office of Bishop have responsibility for guaranteeing both the continuity and unity of faith and also for sustaining the dynamism of the universal apostolate. There is an "intrinsic unity" between the two obligations.

The Cardinal illustrated and defended his thesis of an intrinsic unity between the charismatic and hierarchical dimensions of the Church by describing five successive waves of apostolic movements following the ground-breaking work of the early monasticism of St Anthony and St Basil in the fourth century. These five historic movements reinvigorated the universalist aspect, or what one might call the Catholic mission and vision, of the Church's apostolic task even on the level of the Diocese.

The first wave was the missionary monasticism that flourished between the time of Popes Gregory the Great (590-604) and Gregory III (731-741). The second was the reform movement of monks associated with the Abbey of Cluny founded in the year 910 by Duke William of Aquitaine in a remote corner of the French duchy of Burgundy. The third is the spiritual force of the evangelical movements that exploded in the 13th century with St Francis of Assisi and St Dominic. The fourth wave was bound up with the Catholic responses to the division of Western Christendom at the time of the Protestant Reformation; these are the movements in the 16th century, led by St Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus in implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent. The fifth and last great wave was the emergence of strictly missionary congregations in the 19th century, especially among women, e.g., the Sisters of Mercy, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Mother Cabrini's sisters and others.

The Cardinal concluded his historical survey with three conclusions. First, there must always be missions in the Catholic Church that are not tied to the local Church alone, but serve the universal proclamation of the Gospel. Second, the Pope in any given time in history must rely on these ministries and they on him. And finally, the collaboration between the two dimensions, the Petrine and charismatic, completes the symphony of the Church's life.

The primatial authority, entrusted to the successor of Peter, exists partially in order to protect the new movements in serving the universal mission and the universal proclamation of the Gospel. The sacramental structure of the Church, ministerial Ordo of the Church, is the permanent core of apostolic succession with two components: the Christological and pneumatological, to which the personal charism of clerical continence is closely linked. Papal primacy ensures the orderly relation of these new charismatic groups with the traditional structures of Dioceses.

The Cardinal interpreted the presence and activity of the new ecclesial movements today as harbingers of the sixth wave of renewal analogous in their charismatic origin and nature to the previous five.

The Cardinal concludes with "an approach to a sort of definition" of "ecclesial movements". "Movements generally come from a charismatic leader and they take shape in concrete communities that live the whole Gospel anew from this origin and recognize the Church without hesitation as the ground of their life, without which they could not exist".

Finally, he offers six criteria for the discernment of their apostolic nature: rootedness in the faith of the Church; the will to stand by the successors of the Apostles and the successor of Peter; the will to live the vita apostolica, with its core being an appropriate living of evangelical poverty, chastity and obedience; the proclamation of the Gospel as the missionary element; love as the centre of the groups' truth and action; a deeply personal encounter with Christ which usually finds its origin in the flame of the Initial charism of the founder. These correspond to the "criteria of ecclesiality for lay groups" of the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (n. 30).

The Cardinal's reflections elaborated an understanding that the charismatic and institutional aspects are quasi coessential to the constitution of the Church. The exercise of the apostolic-institutional authority of the universal papal office is needed by the reforming movements on all levels of the Church, especially the local Churches.


The Pope's Pentecost Message, as we have just seen, focused on the two coessential aspects of the Church's constitution, the charismatic and institutional. Another teaching in two other texts throws further light on the complementarity of this relationship.

In his 1987 address to the Roman Curia and his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Mulieris dignitatem, the Pope makes reference to a theology of Christian experience based on archetypes and models of faith, founded in the relationship of Mary, Peter, John and Paul. In 1987 he said: "This Marian profile is also—even perhaps more so—fundamental and characteristic for the Church as is the apostolic and Petrine profile to which it is fundamentally united.... The Marian dimension of the Church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without in any way being divided from it or being less complementary". In 1988 he likewise wrote "that the Church is both 'Marian' and 'Apostolic-Petrine"' (n. 27). In these two allocutions, instead of speaking directly of the charismatic and institutional aspects of the constitution of the Church, the Pope chose rather to speak of "the Church in her essence" as having the Marian profile, the apostolic profile, and the Petrine profile. But there are close analogies between the Marian/Pauline profile of the Church and her charismatic dimension and between the Petrine/apostolic profile and her institutional dimension.

The Pope's references to the Marian/Pauline dimensions of the Church and her Petrine/apostolic dimensions offer another way of looking at the theological locus of the new groups. Because of the rich potential for offering insight into the constitution of the Church, I will briefly comment on his teaching.

The New Testament presents a constellation of four disciples who have become the representative paradigm of the Christian experience. They are Mary, John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul. By constellation, I mean that these four disciples of Jesus manifest the essential relationships and structures of the Church for all time.

What does this mean? The nature of the Incarnation requires that Jesus sustain his redemptive mission through a community, especially through those with whom he was intimately associated during his lifetime. Three of these Mary, John and Peter, were closest to him. The fourth, Paul, was self-described as "one untimely born" (1 Cor 15:8). These four persons compose what has been called the Christological constellation.

The law of the Incarnation requires that the continuing engagement of Jesus with his disciples after his Ascension should be in a human fashion. Jesus' experience of God is incommunicable in its fullness. Ascent to his Father (Jn 6:38f) is offered to those eyewitnesses who served him, who did not seek their own honour, and who were willing to hand themselves over to him and to others even to the point of martyrdom. They proclaim that they have seen, touched and heard the Father in Jesus.

The evangelical relationships of these four persons with Jesus and among themselves have set up a pattern or paradigm, which is valid and necessary for the community of disciples for all times. They have characteristics which take on a form normative for the Church in all times and places.

What is the pattern governing the relationships between the charismatic realities on one hand and Bishops and priests on the other? Meditation upon the fourfold constellation is useful in coming to understand the mission of these new ecclesial movements in the Church today. The Pope's two texts cited above give us a second point of theological reflection, one more rooted in the Holy Scriptures. He emphatically interprets them as charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. The relationships between the new communities and the hierarchical structure of the Church can be modeled upon the earliest community gathered around Jesus, especially Peter, Paul and Mary,

One of the Twelve whom Jesus condemned bitterly as a "scandal", "a stumbling block", has been placed by Jesus as the foundation-rock of the whole Church. The Petrine and apostolic succession rests on an horizontal dimension in history beginning with Caesarea Philippi. Peter has the right to claim authority in doctrine and leadership and to demand the order of unity. This prerogative is his alone. But it does not isolate him from the others, especially the Pauline and Marian profiles of the Church. Briefly, let's look at them.

Paul also has a founding mission and has no less a continuing life and representation within the Church. Paul is foisted on the Twelve without having been chosen by them. Where Peter calls his followers to be "good shepherds", Paul describes himself as a "spectacle to the world, to angels and to men" (1 Cor 4:9). His calling was authenticated by them and he knew that this authentication was absolutely essential for his apostolic ministry.

The Pauline experience of faith and witness in the NT proceed vertically from heaven. His position, chosen directly by the risen Lord and accredited by the college of the Twelve, is unique in its own way and not open to succession except by analogies: there can be charismatic vocations, whose official recognition and acceptance into office are, so to say, compelled by divine evidence.

The Christological constellation of Peter and Paul offers a different and fresh view of the mission of the ecclesial movements within the Church. Now let us look at the Marian profile of the Church.

The Marian dimension of the Church points to the action of the charisms of the Holy Spirit, beginning with her fiat response to the word of God. There can be no genuine objectivity in the Church, that is, no persuasive exercise of the hierarchical office, that does not finally presuppose the Marian, the contemplative "abiding in", characteristic of the Holy Spirit and, in turn, of Mary. The distinct-but-united divine (institutional) Word and (charismatic) Spirit of the Father are revealed sacramentally-archetypically through the two disciples, Peter and Mary. The Petrine-hierarchical-institutional dimension of the Church always presupposes the dimension of the Marian-charismatic work of the Holy Spirit to which it owes its origin. The Marian dimension is brought to its fulfilment in the Petrine-sacramental dimension of the Church. The Marian and Petrine dimensions assume the conjunction of the objectivity and subjectivity, of the Word and Spirit within the Church.

Two perspectives on the new ecclesial groups, the sacramental nature of the apostolic succession and the Christological constellation, have been offered by the papal Magisterium. There are others. These two, however, give us refreshing points of view to continue our prayerful reflection on the new springtime of the Church which the ecclesial movements signal.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 April 2000, page 6

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