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June 27, 2016

In the 13th century, the Franciscans and Dominicans would have been considered "new movements" in the Catholic Church. Not only were they new, but they also brought evangelical fervour to the Church which enabled her to respond to the signs of those times.

Renewal in the Church rarely comes from the hierarchy. One central function of the Church hierarchy is to preserve pastoral and doctrinal order in the Church. However, the Second Vatican Council and the current pontificate of Pope Francis are examples of when renewal has come from the centre.

Movements growing from tiny seeds are the Spirit's way of ensuring that an age-old Church adapts to society's droughts and storms. Movements reach out to those living outside Church structures and imbue in them the love of Jesus and a yearning for holiness.

Today, more than 100 new movements are flourishing, most of them run by the laity. They include organizations such as L'Arche, Focolare, the charismatic movement, Couples for Christ, the Legion of Mary and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Some of these movements are not of recent origin, but they do grow in the fertile earth of spiritual renewal and lay initiative.

Those who believe the present time is an arid period in Church history should take note of the new springtime bursting forth in the movements of recent decades. There was no golden age of the Church - at least not in the last 1,950 years - but in some eras the seeds of the Spirit blossom abundantly. Ours is one.

The current flowering exists despite - or, more likely, because of - the hard soil of secular culture which starves life and creation of their transcendent dimension. Oddly, the Spirit's seeds become stronger and more resilient when cast upon the least hospitable ground.

Yet, an in-built tension exists between new movements and the hierarchy. If the hierarchy loves flowers planted in straight rows, new movements want to flourish without order and oversight, and see abundant beauty in an expanse of wildflowers. Real conflict can arise between the Church's long-held practices and the movements' longing for spontaneous outbursts of colour and fragrance.

The Vatican's new document, The Church Rejuvenates, calls on dioceses and movements to collaborate. (See: Vatican urges bishops to respect gifts of new Church movements) Dioceses should avoid quenching the Spirit; the movements should avoid becoming a parallel Church running in competition with established structures.

New movements, if they are to survive, must eventually find a place in the Church's ordered world. However, lasting damage can be done if they are forced into too much structure when young and tender. Give the Spirit room to help the movement discover its full identity and purpose. The most brilliant flowers are nurtured patiently; once mature, they bloom throughout the many seasons of the Church.