When Pedro Schoch and his family moved from Madrid to Maryland in August, they left behind a circle of friends who not only shared their language and culture but also their deep religious faith. It felt then as if they were abandoning an extended family, the people who made up their spiritual community.
“It was a big decision,” said Schoch, an aerospace engineer and president of GMV North America, a Spanish engineering company headquartered in Madrid. “We were sort of sad because we were leaving our Schoenstatt family in Spain, the many families in the movement.”
After moving to Rockville, where his company’s U.S. affiliate is based, the Schochs were excited to discover that there were other followers of Schoenstatt — which was founded in Germany a century ago and is one of the oldest Catholic lay movements — living in the region.
“We realized there was a group of people here who shared our beliefs and we reached out to them,” Schoch said. “Because it is a family-oriented movement, we felt really welcome. In a way, it felt like coming home.”
The Schoenstatt movement has been growing steadily in the D.C. area, where there are about 200 formal members and 2,000 more loosely affiliated apostolates. Many of them attended a special Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception Friday to celebrate the centennial of the movement’s founding.
Since the movement is attempting to establish itself throughout the United States, “we thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the 100th anniversary in the nation’s capital,” said the Rev. Jesus Ferras, spiritual adviser to the Schoenstatt movement in Washington and a member of the Secular Institute of Schoenstatt Fathers in Austin.
The D.C. celebration is the first scheduled in this country; others will follow this year in New York, Austin, Houston and other U.S. cities, as well as in other world capitals, Ferras said. He traveled from Austin to Washington this week to take part in the Mass, celebrated by Bishop Barry Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington. The Rev. William Byrne, secretary for pastoral ministry and social concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington, delivered the homily.
“As we celebrate 100 years, we realize the movement is mature and able to continue to grow in the church and to form lay leaders to serve the local church and share their faith, live their faith, and give testimony of their faith to the world,” Ferras said.
The Schoenstatt movement was founded by Joseph Kentenich, a German-born Pallontine priest who spent three years in the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, for defying the Nazis. Kentenich is now being considered for sainthood.
The movement — named for the valley of Schoenstatt, near the city of Koblenz, Germany — emphasizes spiritual renewal through the example and intercession of the Virgin Mary. In her role as mother and educator, Mary is believed to bring followers closer to God by teaching them how to live and follow the teachings of Jesus.
Unlike other Marian movements, which are focused on piety, prayers and devotions, Schoenstatt followers believe that they enter into a two-way “covenant of love” with Mary, Ferras said. They believe that Mary actively exercises her influence on them, he said, and that they are actively working to become leaders for the church. A common refrain in the movement is: “Nothing without you Blessed Mother. Nothing without us.”
Major centennial celebrations will occur in the village of Schoenstatt in October. Also that month, Schoenstatt members will have a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
The Schoenstatt is active in 110 countries and has several million followers, mainly in Europe and parts of South America, including Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay. Followers in Europe and South America are considered a driving force in the renewal of the church.
Membership in the movement has been growing in the United States — in Austin, Miami, New York and Milwaukee. Kentenich lived in Milwaukee for a time during a Vatican-ordered separation from the Schoenstatt movement while it was investigated by the church.
The local movement is relatively young, about 20 years old, and most of the growth has occurred in the past decade. The local following is made up largely of Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, with a sprinkling of followers from the Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Now that they have established a foothold here, Schoenstatt leaders want to build a permanent shrine that will be an exact replica of the original Schoenstatt shrine in Germany. The shrine is at the center of the movement and holds great significance for followers.
“In every country where the movement is established, there are replicas of the original shrine,” Ferras said. “It is place of grace that actually becomes a huge place of pilgrimage for all the faithful that come to seek God through the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Like the original, replica shrines —there are more than 180 of them around the world — are small, modest chapels dedicated to Mary and “can barely fit 30 people,” Ferras said. Larger facilities, or pilgrim centers, are often built next to the shrine to accommodate visitors and activities.
Hugo Caceres, coordinator of the Schoenstatt movement in Washington, said followers participate in educational and social outreach ministries of their local churches and parishes, including Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda, Md., St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Annandale, Va., and the National Shrine in the District.
Caceres, who is a director for Paraguay at the Inter-American Development Bank, coordinates Schoenstatt support activities for members who lead family groups, couples groups, youth groups and mother groups in the D.C. area. Many of the activities are related to the movement itself.
“For example, we hold spiritual retreats,” Caceres said. “Self-education is a very important concept in Schoenstatt spirituality. It means we’re working toward becoming new people; individuals who have a covenant with the Virgin Mary and are trying to get closer to Christ.”
Followers strive to apply the teachings of the church and Schoenstatt spirituality on a daily basis, and they continually seek spiritual nourishment to become better people in all spheres of their lives, he said.
Schoch and his family have become immersed in the local Schoenstatt community in the short time that they have lived in the area. He and his wife, Almudena, lead the movement’s local family ministry and are responsible for organizing prayer groups, spiritual retreats, and family-centered activities that support the religious and spiritual growth of married couples and their families.
“We believe counseling and taking care of the family and providing elements for their strength is something we can do for the Catholic Church and for American society,” Pedro Schoch said. “A society that has strong families is a healthy society.”
Although they keep in touch, via Skype, with their Schoenstatt family in Madrid, they are very much at home with their extended faith family here.
“We are part of them,” Schoch said. “We have a big family here and in Spain and worldwide.”