Throughout the Church’s history there have been shifts in the expression of her life. These shifts are often, if not always, accompanied by renewal in the life of the Church. While small regional shifts are not uncommon, those that affect the whole of the Church encompassing the world are rare. There have definitely been two. Arguments can be made for more and we are currently in the midst of one. The two universal shifts are the monastic and the mendicant. Both of these were prompted, not by men looking at the world and saying, “I have to do something about it,” but rather by men whose hearts longed for God: Anthony, Pachomius, Basil, Benedict, Francis, Dominic, the hermits of Mt. Carmel. These men were not seeking to make great changes to ecclesial or social life. They simply longed for God, and in that longing they turned from the world and sought Him above all else. It wasn’t a preservation, a program, an organized social action, or a tactical maneuver. It was simply the beloved seeking the Lover. These movements, the monastic and the mendicant, sprang forth from this movement of love in their founders.
For the past couple of years there has been much digital ink spilled concerning the topic of what is called the Benedict Option. Unlike the above movements, the Benedict Option lacks the movement of love. Instead, it is a movement of preservation, and it is rather limited in scope to Western Christians in developed countries. Because of its limited vision and preservationist attitude, it also fails to see the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church today. This work of the Spirit began more than 100 years ago, and has been nurtured and strengthened by the Spirit throughout the 20th century to our day. Like the monastic and mendicant movements, it is a work of God that has encompassed the world, continues to grow stronger, and is becoming ever more influential in the life of the Church. Astonishingly, in another generation or two it quite possibly will exercise an influence comparable with (dare I say greater than) religious orders, both monastic and mendicant alike. These are the ecclesial movements, and while some do include priests and religious, they are on the whole lay. These are movements like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, and Opus Dei. This shift in the Church also includes secular orders, third orders, oblates, associations, etc. that are connected in varying degrees to religious orders. These groups are growing with great speed. As the number of religious decreases more responsibility will have to move to the lay members of these orders.
The future of the Church and with it society lies in these ecclesial/lay movements, not in the Benedict Option or the Dominic Option. Rather than promoting new “options” and debating their merits, perhaps we should just ride the current the Holy Spirit has set the Church on.