ROME – One chronic blind spot in Catholic conversation in the United States concerns the “new movements,” meaning a galaxy of largely lay groups that arose in the 20th century and exploded after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The problem is, most Americans have never met any of these outfits and have only heard of the ones that make headlines.
Ironically, during the St. John Paul II years, the two groups that defined American impressions of the “movements” weren’t actually movements at all: The Legionaries of Christ, founded by the disgraced late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, and Opus Dei, founded by Spanish St. Josemaría Escrivá. The Legionaries are a religious order (though they do have an affiliated lay movement, Regnum Christi), while Opus Dei is a “personal prelature” under church law.
Because both the Legion and Opus Dei are conventionally seen as “conservative,” they were often styled as John Paul’s shock troops and thus “the movements” became part of the broader left v. right ideological tensions of those years.
Today the ferment over the movements (the real ones especially, not groups mistakenly perceived that way) has died down, largely because neither Pope Benedict nor Pope Francis has promoted and touted them the way John Paul did. As a result, there’s no longer an impression that they’re the pope’s beloved elder child, or that he’s turning his back on more established religious orders in favor of these upstart lay groups.
The lack of angst, however, doesn’t mean American awareness has improved to any great degree. In some ways, we’re a victim of our own success: Because parish life in the U.S. is remarkably healthy by global standards, the movements have never taken off in the States as they have in Europe or Latin America, and thus remain terra incognita for the typical American Catholic.
In Italy, however, you can’t take a walk without bumping into a new movement someplace, and that exposure teaches two great lessons:
- First, most new movements aren’t political at all, and they tend to stay out of whatever the broader debates in the Church may be at any given moment.
- Second, they often quietly fill critical gaps in the Church’s pastoral network due to shortages in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Recently these truths have been brought home for me by getting to know a movement that’s literally in my own backyard: The Silenzosi Operai della Croce (“Silent Workers of the Cross”), a lay association that also includes priests and consecrated men and women founded by Blessed Luigi Novarese in 1950.
“Silent” certainly describes these folks, because I lived next door to them for a year before really even knowing they’re here.
When I moved into Rome’s Monte del Gallo neighborhood in 2018, I began attending Sunday Mass at a small chapel that’s next door to my apartment building. Honestly, I assumed it was just another Roman parish and the regulars I saw every Sunday were just part of the standard crew you’ll find at pretty much any church in town.
Over time, however, I began noticing signs that something else was going on: A statue of Novarese in the back of the church, for instance, and prayer books left in the pews of the chapel stamped with “SOdC”, the Italian acronym of the movement.
Finally, I pulled aside the priest who acts more or less as the pastor for the chapel, Father Marco Castellazzi, and asked him to explain what this outfit is all about.
(While I was there, Castellazzi also generously agreed to offer a blessing for the newest member of the Crux team, Gus the Pug, who’s now the understudy to Ellis the Pug as our official corporate mascot. Like the good pastor he is, Castellazzi reminded us that blessings above all are for people, but that God’s love certainly extends to Gus too.)
As Castellazzi tells the tale, Novarese was a young Italian layman in the early 20th century who was struck down with a near-fatal case of tuberculosis, and then experienced what he regarded as a miraculous recovery. Initially he wanted to be a doctor in order to serve sick people, but later felt called to care for the souls of the sick as well as their bodies as a priest.
He studied at Rome’s famed Capranica Seminary, and, at the invitation of then-Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, he went to work for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 1942, remaining there until 1970. While he handled the usual bureaucratic work, he maintained his passion for care of the sick, promoting an approach that sees them not as problems to be solved but resources to be tapped.
(As a footnote, that makes Novarese an interesting counterexample to what’s often thought of as a tension in Catholic life between institutional and charismatic leadership. In effect, he was both for most of his adult life.)
Today, the Silent Workers of the Cross are involved in a wide variety of ministries, generally revolving around hospitals and other health care facilities. In the United States, they’re part of a place called “Mary Farm” in Palmer, Massachusetts.
As it turns out, the chapel where I attend Mass is attached to the movement’s headquarters, which they purchased from the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, better known as the “Graymoor Sisters.” Founded in New York in 1898, the order was originally Episcopalian but became Catholic in 1909. The sisters built their sprawling residence and chapel on Rome’s Via Monte del Gallo in the 1950s, when they were flush with vocations, and then sold it to the Silent Workers of the Cross when declines made maintaining the property impossible.
That transition speaks volumes about a quiet shifting of the plates in Catholicism today – a passing of the torch from religious communities to lay movements in many pastoral areas, without fanfare or political upheaval, but effectively saving the Church from having to abandon people it wants to serve.
The famed British historian Arnold J. Toynbee once wrote the following in his book Civilization on Trial:
The things that make good headlines are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract us from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But it is really these deeper, slower movements that make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions.
As it happens, I’m living right next door to a small piece of one of those deep, slow trajectories in the Church … and although they may not be a lot of help journalistically, I’m still glad to have them in the ‘hood.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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