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Pope John Paul II tours St. Peter's Square on May 30, 1998 (left) during a meeting with Ecclesial Movements and New Communities, which drew an estimated 250,000 participants. He encouraged the growth of populist lay movements like Communion and Liberation (Comunione e Liberazione, right), founded in 1954 by Father Luigi Giussani. Father Giussani (far right, in 1956) died in February at age 82.
Pope John Paul II tours St. Peter's Square on May 30, 1998 (left) during a meeting with Ecclesial Movements and New Communities, which drew an estimated 250,000 participants. He encouraged the growth of populist lay movements like Communion and Liberation (Comunione e Liberazione, right), founded in 1954 by Father Luigi Giussani. Father Giussani (far right, in 1956) died in February at age 82. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini; AP Photo)

Movement people

John Paul II cultivated the lay-led faith 'movements' in the Catholic Church. Will the next pope be able to control them?

ROME -- In 1943, as World War II was cutting its destructive arc through the Italian city of Trent, a 23-year-old schoolteacher named Chiara Lubich experienced a religious awakening that would eventually lead, among other things, to thousands of young people with backpacks and sweatshirts arriving in Rome this month for the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Lubich's epiphany was a simple one: She should read the Gospel closely, try to alleviate human suffering, and work to unite the people of the earth. She quickly brought her close friends into the fold, and her message began to spread. By the late 1940s, Lubich had enough followers in Italy to populate a summer encampment in the Dolomite mountains, and by the 1960s her movement, called Focolare, or ''hearth'', was establishing beachheads beyond Europe.

Today Lubich's movement claims 100,000 core members and between 4 and 5 million adherents around the world. It has bought land and settled at least 20 small towns, including one in upstate New York.

Impressive as the numbers are, the ''Focolarini'' are even more important for the quiet and massive shift they embody in the power structure of the church. Focolare is among the largest of the organizations called the ''new ecclesial communities'' - international Roman Catholic movements made up chiefly of laypeople, with the style and rhetoric of liberal grassroots groups but deeply orthodox theological underpinnings - whose expanding role in the Church represents one of most controversial, if least understood, legacies of John Paul II.

There is no clear definition of a ''new community'' in the Catholic Church, and no worldwide membership totals. The Pontifical Council for the Laity, which handles the Vatican's relationships with these groups, publishes a directory of organizations that runs to 300 pages and includes groups from Marriage Encounter to the International Association of Catholic Pharmacists.

The most important of these communities, however - such as Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenal Way - all share certain characteristics. They arose locally, outside the traditional life of the Catholic parish, and grew worldwide under charismatic leaders such as Lubich. Their members are chiefly laypeople, and while they may still attend Mass at parish churches the groups serve almost as an alternative congregation. Though more populist and inclusive than Opus Dei, a secretive movement of priests and laymen granted the status of ''personal prelature'' by John Paul II, they too have their own meetings, initiation processes, and readings. They receive little public scrutiny, financial or otherwise, and they owe their current robustness to the strong support of John Paul II.

Today it is virtually impossible to attend a major religious event in Europe without encountering hundreds, if not thousands of movement members dancing in fields, carrying banners, wearing matching baseball hats. They have been out in force in Rome since the death of the pope, many clamoring for his quick canonization.

To some observers, John Paul II's open embrace of the ''movements'' amounted to the creation of an energetic global parish, millions strong, whose primary allegiance went over the heads of local church leaders and straight to the pontiff himself. The result, for the next pope, will be an unpredictable force that any reform-minded pontiff will likely find difficult to control.

On the day of John Paul II's funeral, I sat on a hillside overlooking the Circus Maximus next to Jacob Macasaet, a 23-year-old with unruly black hair topped by a baseball hat. Macasaet is originally from the Philippines, one of the countries with the largest Focolare presence outside Europe, but has lived for nearly two years in Loppiano, a Focolare-run town in the Tuscan hills which has Focolare-run schools, a Focolare-run farm, and Focolare-run workshops that turn out a huge line of baby furniture. Like much of Rome, the Circus Maximus had taken on the look of a Catholic youth festival, and Macasaet sat on one end of a banner reading ''Santo Subito'' - ''Saint Immediately,'' referring to John Paul II.

I asked him why he was watching the funeral on a large-screen television instead of joining the throng in St. Peter's Square.

''It's the same,'' he said, smiling. ''Your intention is being one with them, with the youth, expressing this joy and giving thanks.''

On the field below, dozens of members of the Neocatechumenal Way - or, to its members, simply ''the Way'' - performed their distinctive circle dance, hypnotically stepping around a guitarist and drummer, in and out, in and out.

Despite their resemblance to fans at a Phish concert, most of these groups are staunchly conservative in their doctrine, emphasizing traditional virtues like obedience to authority over new interpretations of the Gospel.

A key Focolare initiative, for instance, is the New Families Movement, dedicated to shoring up heterosexual marriage. The vast Communion and Liberation has thrown its weight behind conservative politicians in Europe; recently, it loudly denounced the European Union's failure to embrace an anti-abortion, anti-gay commissioner that Italy's government nominated for a key post. Members of the Neocatechumenal Way undergo an esoteric adult commitment process that is intended to echo initiation rituals in the earliest church.

Some critics see these groups as cults. In 1995, Gordon Urquhart, a disaffected former Roman Catholic priest and Focolare member from Britain, published ''The Pope's Armada,'' which portrayed Focolare, the Neocatechumenal Way, and Community and Liberation as powerful networks that use classic mind-control techniques to shape the lives of young initiates. (The groups, for their part, say that even their strictest rules are no different from time-honored practices of monasteries.)

Even in areas where the groups have less overt power, their independence from local bishops, and their Protestant-sounding rituals and readings, have caused tension in many parishes. A few bishops have even mobilized against the groups - famously, Bishop Mervyn Alexander of the Clifton Diocese in England, who found the Neocatechumens ''disruptive in the parish'' and kicked them out.

John Paul II sent a clear message directing these groups to respect the authority of bishops and priests. But he also, more powerfully, made broad gestures of direct support. At a 1998 gathering in Rome of ''the Pope and the Movements,'' he publicly welcomed Lubich (now 85) and the founders of other major movements and, in a remarkable speech before one of the largest crowds ever gathered in St. Peter's, compared their rapid growth to the founding of Christianity itself.

Group members interviewed in Rome last week expressed a uniformly strong sense of a personal bond with the pope. Father Kaz Chwalek, a Stockbridge-based priest in the Divine Mercy movement, said: ''In 1981, after the Holy Father was shot, his first visit was to the Shrine of Merciful Love in Colle Valenza near Todi, Italy, where he spoke of the importance of the message of mercy.''

Says Bill Neu, who lives under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a Focolare town in upstate New York: ''He knew the Focolare already in Poland before he was elected pope.''

In part, this affinity springs from John Paul II's deep belief in the experience of the divine in daily life. But some see another, more strategic side to the pope's cultivation of these lay groups, which has helped him centralize power in the Vatican.

Assessing the pope's legacy in a German magazine, the liberal Swiss-born theologian Hans Kung - who himself was disciplined by the Vatican in 1979 for questioning papal infallibility - put it bluntly: ''In keeping with his ideal of a uniform and obedient church, the pope sees the future of the church almost exclusively in these easily controlled, conservative lay movements.''

Any potential reformer who inherits the papal keys, however, is unlikely also to inherit John Paul II's particular ability to hold sway over millions of impressionable young enthusiasts.

Luca Diotallevi, an Italian sociologist who has studied the proliferation of religious movements in the European church, sees the pope's embrace of these groups as a ''resistance'' strategy that counteracted the decline of the Church in public opinion while compromising the traditional authority structure.

''The first years of the successor are going to be very, very difficult...,'' said Diotallevi. ''He will have to deal with the strange powers born within the Church, like the movements and like Opus Dei. And he will have to restart the ordinary work of the Church.''

Stephen Heuser is a Globe editor living in Rome. Email

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