Covenant Communities in Light of Historical Foundations by Msgr. Bob Oliver

An Historical Perspective on New Waves of Communities

Covenant communities are a new form of Christian life that has connected Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Free Church confessions around the world. This contemporary inspiration is best understood within the long and colorful history of “movements” in the Christian churches together with the theology that undergirds our understanding of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. In appreciation of the profound role of Steve Clark in this movement of God’s grace, this short paper looks at these communities through the eyes of two great leaders during the years when they have been formed and grown, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Historical Foundations at the “First World Congress of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities,” held in Rome in May 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that:

…. apostolic movements appear in ever new forms throughout history – necessarily, because they are the Holy Spirit’s answer to the changing situations in which the Church lives…. One looking back at the history of the Church will be able to observe with gratitude that it has managed time and again in spite of all difficulties to make room for the great new awakenings.1

Church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo witnessed to the growth of communities formed by the faithful in the nascent Church. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the first great expansion of communities of the Christian faithful occurred, mostly among those connected to monasteries. This early movement became known as “Missionary Monasticism,” a first great wave that received the support of the papacy from Pope Gregory the Great (590– 604) to Pope Gregory III (731–741). 

Second wave of new communities

A second great wave of communities followed a century later under the influence of the monastery at Cluny. The “Cluniac reform” aimed for a renewal of the whole Church, inspiring all members of the Church to embrace a way of living the Gospel in a radical, new form, one adapted to new conditions in the Church and in society. Cardinal Ratzinger made a foundational observation in his address to the World Congress, underlining that renewed forms of life always lead to new inspirations for the vita apostolica, new ways to answer the call to the Gospel mission amid new challenges and needs. During these years Christians came together in small communities across Europe, helping one another to follow Christ, living the Christian life in radical fullness. Their response led to an explosive new apostolic life, which came to include the great missions of Patrick in Ireland, Augustine in the British Isles, the Irish monks in Germany, and Cyril and Methodius to the Slavic world.

Third wave of new communities

A third wave of new communities was an important part of the many great renewals during the Middle Ages, especially in connection with the new mendicant religious orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. These orders revitalized consecrated life with a sweeping vision for the Gospel life, a vision that was addressed to all Christians. Cardinal Ratzinger remarked:

[Francis] wanted simply to call the Church back to the whole gospel, to gather the “new people,” to renew the Church with the gospel. The two meanings of the word “evangelical life” are inextricably intertwined: whoever lives the gospel in poverty, giving up possession and progeny, must at the same time proclaim that gospel.2

 Laypeople formed many new communities connected to the new religious orders. They wanted to live the Gospel life and to evangelize the people among whom they lived in the quickly changing social environment of western Europe. To live radical lives and to give themselves to the Church’s mission, they developed new forms of community. Some were eventually recognized formally by Church authority, such as the “third orders” and “confraternities.”

Unsurprisingly, tensions arose in many places during these years and local synods and councils began to pass the first laws restricting laypeople from forming associations in the Church. A notable exception was Pope Innocent IV (1243– 1254), whose authoritative commentary upheld a right of the faithful to establish such associations within the Church. But it would take many centuries before this right was formally accepted by the Second Vatican Council.

Fourth wave of new communities

Beginning in the 15th century, a fourth great wave of new communities greatly influenced the worldwide expansion of the Christian faith to the Americas, Africa and Asia. This great missionary movement was again inspired by members of the faithful who wished to live new forms of the vita evangelica connected to a renewed zeal for the vita apostolica. New “missionary congregations” were soon formed to support their work for mission to continents not yet reached by the Christian faith.

This historical perspective sheds a helpful light on an unexpected quality of a new wave of Christian communities in the middle part of the twentieth century. Up until that time, communities of lay people were almost always connected to monasteries and to religious orders, inspired by a spirituality and a divine call to live in the world in new ways. Following the destruction wrought by World War II, a new, great flourishing of lay movements began with groups like Catholic Action, Cursillo, the Christian Family Movement, the Charismatic Renewal, and the Sword of the Spirit. Lay renewal communities were formed around the world proposing new ways for the Christian faithful to live a Gospel life, joined together in community and undertaking mission together.

Lay character of current new wave of communities

The lay character of these movements was the defining feature of this new wave of communities. Before Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law stated that “only associations erected or approved by ecclesiastical authority exist in the Church” (can. 686). As the future Pope Benedict XVI stated at the 1998 Pentecost gathering, however, “every irruption of the Holy Spirit always upsets human plans.”3 In 1965 the bishops gathered for the Second Vatican Council declared that associations established by the faithful are connected to the divine will for the Church and are a true “sign of communion and the unity of the Church in Christ.” These communities are truly “ecclesial.”4

With these foundations, Vatican II taught that “if the right relation with ecclesiastical authority is preserved, it is lawful for laypeople to found and run associations and to join those that exist.”5 In 1983, this principle was acknowledged and guaranteed in the new Code of Canon Law, which states: “The Christian faithful are at liberty to found and govern associations for charitable and religious purposes or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world; they are free to hold meetings to pursue these purposes in common.”6

 After identifying the main outlines of this rich history, Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged ecclesial movements and new communities to deepen their understanding of the unfolding of God’s plan by examining the theological foundations established by Pope John Paul II shortly after the new Code of Canon Law had been issued.

Theological Foundations 

The official recognition of communities of the faithful in Church law is firmly rooted in Christian theology. The theological science of “ecclesiology” is the study of God’s revelation (the “logos”) of the nature and mission of the Church (the “ecclesia”). The word “ecclesia” comes from a Greek verb signifying a “call” (kalein) from God. The Church is the response given by the people who hear God’s call with obedient faith and participate in the mission of salvation given by Jesus Christ.

In his 1988 “Letter to the Laity,” Christifideles laici (CL), St. Pope John Paul II wrote that the “ecclesiology of communion” will provide a solid foundation for understanding the place of lay communities in the Church today: “The profound reason that justifies and demands the lay faithful’s forming of lay groups comes from a theology based on ecclesiology.”7 Three principles define this ecclesiology of communion: mystery, communion, and mission. The Church lives within the “mystery” of the Triune God, is established in the world as a “communion” of persons, and is of its essence a “mission,” a people sent by the Holy Spirit to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The call to form Christian communities is a profound expression of this understanding of the Church, a call that the Holy Father stated can only be fully understood “from inside the Church’s mystery of communion.”8

The “mystery” of the Church is foreshadowed in our Lord’s words, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).9 Believers are joined to Christ, the true vine, and they become the instrument through which the Lord communicates the divine life of the Holy Trinity. John Paul II wrote that because the lay faithful are “made one body with Christ and are established among the People of God … they carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian people with respect to the Church and the world.”10 They share fully in the one vocation to holiness and in the call to evangelize the societies in which the Church lives.11

The heart of this mystery is “communion” in the love in God. God’s people are “called to relive the very communion of God and to manifest it and communicate it in history, in mission.”12 The very life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is freely offered to all those born of water and the Holy Spirit. Each is called to the radical newness of the Christian life and God’s own Spirit has come to dwell personally in their hearts, consecrating the faithful as a spiritual temple and making them sharers in the mission of salvation entrusted by the Father to Jesus.13

The “mission” of God’s church is universal, and it is essential to every Christian vocation and to every community formed by God’s people. Every follower of Jesus Christ is called, John Paul II exhorted, to the “mission to communion.” They are commissioned to this apostolate by the Lord Jesus himself, the one who has united himself to them as Head. In baptism, Christ anoints the faithful with the Holy Spirit, who in turn pours out upon them special gifts.14

Bringing these ecclesial dimensions together, the pope asserted: “From the acceptance of these charisms, arise for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world … in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”15 These foundations underlie the teaching of Vatican II that the Church of Christ is “missionary by its very nature,” having its origin in the mission entrusted by the Father to the Son and the Holy Spirit. This mission is given to all Christians, a call to live as a sign of communion in the world and to lead all people into union with God and with his people. In this way “communion begets communion” and the Church lives a “mission on behalf of communion…. Communion and mission are so profoundly connected with each other, they interpenetrate and mutually imply each other.”16

A response to a divine call of “communion” and “mission”

Pope John Paul offered the ecclesiology of communion as the essential theological foundation for understanding “the formation of groups of the lay faithful for spiritual purposes and apostolic work.”17 These communities are a response to a divine call, and their role in the Church is to live as a “sign” that manifests the “communion” and “mission” of the Church.

The Letter to the Laity cited St. Paul, who wrote that “the love of Christ impels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14, NAB), because God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The members of each community are to strive to manifest a life of communion in their relationships with one another, generously calling all people into the gift of divine communion.

In his own Address to the 1998 World Congress, John Paul II proclaimed again that new communities today meet the “urgent need for a strong testimony and a Christian formation that is solid and deep in today’s world,” finishing with a stirring summons to respond to the Lord’s call in our own time:

What a great need there is today for mature Christian personalities who are aware of their baptismal identity, of their call and mission in the Church and in the world! What great need there is of living Christian communities! This is where the ecclesial movements and new communities appear: they are the answer which has been raised up by the Holy Spirit to this dramatic challenge at the end of the millennium. You are this providential answer!18

Covenant communities partake in this rich history of inspirations of the Holy Spirit, forming a contemporary expression of an ecclesiology rooted in God’s call to communion and mission. In these communities the Christian faithful seek to respond to the divine call, accepting charisms given by the Holy Spirit to live a radical Gospel life and fruitful mission in this time of history. They unite themselves, seeking to live at the heart of the Church as communion and encouraging one another to strive for an authentic and lasting experience of the love of the Triune God. In a time where our contemporaries so often experience division and loneliness, this new form of Christian life focuses on developing deep personal relationships and helping brothers and sisters in Christ to answer the call of God’s love. In these ways, the members of covenant communities seek the gift of unity proclaimed by St. Paul to the community of Ephesus:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

Ephesians 1:3-10

This essay by Msgr. Bob Oliver is excerpted from Festschrift — Essays in Honor of Stephen B. Clark, Chapter 10, published by the Servants of the Word © 2023.  You can access all the  essays online or download a PDF copy.

Top image credit: Composite photos of Covenant Communities gather in Rome to celebrate 50th Anniversary of Catholic Charismatic Renewal – June 1st, 2017, courtesy of CCR.


  1. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements,” Communio, 25 (Fall 1998), 496-97.
  2. Ratzinger, “The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements,” 493.
  3. Ratzinger, “The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements,” 481. 
  4. Decree on the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, 18-19. 
  5. Apostolicam Actuositatem, 19. 
  6. Code of Canon Law, can. 215.
  7. Christifideles laici, 29e.
  8. Christifideles laici, 8. 
  9. All Scripture citations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted. 
  10. Christifideles laici, 9. 
  11. Christifideles laici, 16-17. 
  12. Christifideles laici, 9. 
  13. Christifideles laici, 10, 13
  14. Christifideles laici, 20. 
  15. Christifideles laici, 24. 
  16. Christifideles laici, 32. 
  17. Christifideles laici, 29.
  18. Pope John Paul II, “Address to the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities (30 May 1998),” in Pontifical Council for Laity, Movements in the Church, World Congress of Ecclesial Movements, 27- 29 May 1998 (Vatican City: Pontifical Council for the Laity, 1999), 223.

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