(spoken at the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City, 21st October 1983)
In October 1983 a Synod of Bishops was held in Rome with the theme ‘Penance and Reconciliation’. During that Synod, Kiko Argüello, the initiator of the Neo-Catechumenal Way was invited to speak. This is his intervention at the Synod. Very interesting address full of hope and vision. Fifteen years have passed from that date and God has been faithful, developing this charism into a very fruitful tree, surprising everyone, Kiko included. It is all the work of the Holy Spirit.
Holy Father, Dear Fathers of the Synod,
I think that it is almost impossible to give a comprehensive view of the neo-catechumenal way in such a brief report. However, I will try and with this purpose in mind (insofar as the limits of time permit) I will trace what the apostles did in the primitive church.
Keryma implies itinerary
Having been transformed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost they went from synagogue to synagogue in small teams of an itinerant nature, announcing the KERYGMA, the central nucleus, the Word of Salvation, with a call to conversion:
“The one whom you have crucified out of ignorance, while demanding mercy for a murderer, God has raised from the dead and has given the name that is above all other names, the name of Lord, the KYRIOS. And to that fact we are witnesses. Repent and believe the Good News and the Lord will send you from heaven what was promised, the Holy Spirit that was promised for you!” (cfr. Acts).
When this was preached with power, those who were listening to it were confronted with an event: Jesus is the Lord, only in him do we have salvation. He was raised from the dead, he has conquered death so that we may have access to a new life, eternal life. Those whose hearts were touched by the Holy Spirit accompanying the apostles in their mission, would ask, “What must we do?” St Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 38).
In the primitive church baptism wasn’t something magic, much less instantaneous, especially for the gentiles (cfr. M. Dujarier: Breve Histoire du Catechumenat, Abidjan 1980 and A History of the Catechumenate: Sadlier 1979). It meant entering a way of initiation to faith (which was later to be called a catechumenal way). Through catechesis, rites of admission, scrutinies, imposition of hands, exorcisms, signs such as salt, the white robe, and so on, people were gestated into a new creation formed by the Holy Spirit through Baptism.
They were taught how to enter into the history of salvation which God makes present in every generation. They were called to believe in the suffering Servant of Yahweh who will come again as the Son of Man, as the prophet Daniel announced, to judge the living and the dead. They were taught to submerse themselves in the Cross of Christ, confessing their sins, that is their attitudes and actions which are contrary to the love which God has shown in his Son on the Cross, taking on himself the sins of the world without resisting evil. In fact, he offers himself for those who are wicked, for his enemies. “In truth, it is not easy to die even for a good man… but what proves that God loves us, is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners” (Rom 5: 7f).
Love for the wicked, for the enemy, for anyone who opposes you in any way, who destroys you; this kind of love is a new love appearing on the earth, a love which scandalizes, because the world believes that the sinner and those who do evil should not be loved, as this is the same as sinning with them, participating in their sin. The world believes in seeking justice, it believes that you must fight against the wicked and wipe them off the face of the earth. But God’s justice has been shown in Jesus Christ as mercy. This does not only mean compassion – in Israel the word mercy is “rahamin” which comes from the root “rehem” which means “matrix”, that is to regenerate, to be born again, as Jesus says to Nicodemus.
This submersion in the death of Christ was symbolized by the triple immersion in the waters of Baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This was done in the faith that God would give them a new awareness that comes from heaven and would destroy the body of sin which has killed, and is killing, the author of life because it sets itself up as God. It was done in the faith that they would be raised up to a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. They were taught to clothe themselves in the sanctity of God, and so they were then given a white garment – a sign of the divine life in them. They were taught through the catechumenal way to walk constantly in conversion, so that they were called the people of the way, and their Christianity was called “THE WAY” (See note b, Acts 9: 2 in the Standard Version of the Jerusalem Bible.) Through Baptism they entered the Church, a Christian community, the risen body of Christ who had conquered death, which gave them freely the capacity to love in a new dimension. This was shown in signs that meant salvation for all: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Christ loved us by letting himself be killed by our evil action, without resisting: like a lamb led to the slaughter. Jesus tells us that now we can love the enemy, that we can offer the other cheek, if someone robs us of something, we should not ask for it back, etc. He asks us to show everyone that the love of Christ crucified is living in us. St Paul says, “Every day we are like lambs led to the slaughter.” And: “Always, wherever we may be, we carry with us the death of Jesus, so that it can be seen in our body that Christ lives, so when we die the world receives life” (cf 2 Cor: 4-10).
From this we can conclude that the formation of faith in the early Church developed in three basic stages:
A kerygmatic stage which is strong and bears witness (the Gospel says that it should be done without purse or knapsack or sandals, or anything): a stage to arouse faith.
Second, a prolonged stage which is didactic and catechetical, in which the Kerygma becomes grounded in the personal daily history, in learning how to walk in the glorious Cross of Jesus: the way of life.
Then, third, a homiletic stage in which once baptized, they were exhorted, urged, reminded of the way they had come, and were encouraged to continue to walk in constant conversion – because the catechumenate does not exhaust Christian life, but exemplifies it.
A Living Charism Today
Here in a brief synthesis, in a few lines, is what the Lord is doing with us:
We are announcing the Kerygma in parishes all over the world in small itinerant teams, at the center of which there is always a presbyter. These teams start out from their own local Church, they have nowhere to lay their heads (itinerants sell all their goods and leave everything), they give their lives for this service, for this new cult which leads back to the living God hearts that have gone astray (cf Rom 1:9).
The first kerygmatic stage takes place in the parish over a period of two months. A call is made with strength to convert to this Suffering Servant, to the way of truth, to the happiness offered to man in the name of Jesus, to the possibility of total love, of giving oneself completely. Every man knows from his own reason that love is truth and that one finds fulfillment by giving oneself, by helping others, forgetting oneself, by transcending one’s “I” into the “you” of the other. If many people in the world today are bewildered and fall victims to sects and ideologies, it is because they are presented with the ideal of ‘giving’ as fighting against injustice or doing away with suffering. We believe that in today’s world, Christianity is a proposition which must be put anew to everyone, both those in the Church and those outside the Church.
Within the environment of this kerygmatic preaching, and after having announced the forgiveness of sins, since the majority of the people in the parishes are baptized, they are invited to seal their conversion in the sacrament of penance as a second Baptism. They are invited to hand over their own sins to Jesus made present in the person of the priest, by confessing them so that they can be destroyed in his body which has died and is risen, and to receive, through absolution and the imposition of hands, the forgiveness of sins, which comes from God, and the strength of the Holy Spirit which restores us to the grace of baptism and reintroduces us once more into the new creation. At the end of the celebration, in a room adjoining the Church, there is an agape which expresses the joy of returning to God, as in the feast for the prodigal son. At this point in the catechesis we begin to see the first miracles of conversion – people who haven’t been to the sacrament of penance for years return to confession with joy, regaining a peace which they haven’t had for years and in some countries where the sacrament of reconciliation had almost disappeared it is being rediscovered.
After the announcement of the kerygma, the kerygmatic stage is completed with the handing over of the bibles by the bishop, and the formation of a community of 40 – 50 brothers and sisters after the Eucharist. Now the way is begun: entering into the second catechetical stage. The immediate task becomes to discover the biblical language through which God reveals himself to man: this language is basically historical and existential rather than abstract and conceptual. And this takes place not in discussions but by means of the celebration of the Word presided over by the presbyter, in the conviction that the Holy Spirit is present in these celebrations and is the true teacher who sanctifies us and leads us little by little to the complete truth.
Experience has shown us that in order to learn to walk in conversion, a ‘place to be converted’: a ‘uterus’ is essential – that is a womb in which gestation can take place – and this is the small Christian community. In this community, which is always presided over by a presbyter, the catechumens can be initiated into the mystery of the Church as a body beautifully constructed of joints and ligaments, with its ministries and charisms: the presbyter as head of the community, the responsible as deacon, catechists, children’s teachers, widows, virgins, families, etc. A sociological reality emerges very similar to that of the Church read about in the Acts of the Apostles, one which makes this Word become closer and more real.
At the same time the community helps you because it doesn’t allow you to hide your reality. After two or three years everyone knows you, everyone’s faults are known, you experience how difficult it is to love the other when he is annoying and troublesome. The Sermon on the Mount, which is the plan for all the catechizing, emerges as a word which constantly condemns us and shows us how little faith we have and the necessity we have for continual conversion: a necessity that the penitential celebration marks out along the entire catechumenal way. In fact this helps us to see our constant need of the Church who is like a mother continually nourishing us in the faith.
During this catechumenal time we pass through all the different stages of our Baptism, each putting in front of us the reality we have within us, so that through a free adhesion to the grace it gives, our Baptism can grow and mature. Time does not allow me to explain all the steps in the stages… The catechesis on the glorious Cross, the renunciation of the idols of the world, the initiation to prayer… the Traditio and the Redditio of the Creed, the handing over of the Our Father, etc.
In the third stage, the brothers who have been walking together for many years have now experienced in their own history the mercy and the love of God shown in the dimension of the cross. Enlightened by the Sermon on the Mount, we see that is we who have robbed honor from God, striking him on the cheek when we have made ourselves god; yet he has always offered us the other cheek. It is we who have betrayed God when we don’t understand suffering – a subnormal child, for instance – or use it to justify ourselves in our sin. It is we who have stolen what is not ours, using sexuality as we please etc… So that we begin to understand the “Logion” contained in Luke’s Sermon on the Mount which says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, which in this context means: Haven’t you experienced this wonderful love, this infinite love, which I have shown in your history, which takes on your sins, which forgives you a thousand, thousand times. Haven’t you seen that this love is the truth, is life? Well then, go and do the same: love those who do evil to you, so that you can be a son of your heavenly Father, who is good to those who are wicked and perverse. (cf Mat. 5; Luke 6). In this way, they learn to grow in the love God has for them and, maturing in faith, they come to a spirit of praise, of blessing, of having a grateful heart, which is fundamental to participating in the Eucharistic celebration.
The way is based on a tripod: the Word of God which is celebrated once a week, the Eucharist, which every Sunday offers us a covenant with God who is working in our history and training in the action of grace, and above all who is giving us Christ who, broken for us, makes present the Paschal mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ, the mystery of our redemption, so that we can be reconciled with God, pass to the Father, be fed by his love, and enter into his will which is always good and eternal happiness for each one of us. And, the third foot of the tripod is the community.
In these small communities, gradually appears a Koinonia, a communion, a sign of the new love, of charity. The community emerges in the secularized world as a universal sacrament of salvation. The cry, “Look how they love one another” is being heard again amongst men. The good news that the kingdom of God is amongst us is made visible and present in the Church. This has so much power that wherever these signs are seen, those who have been estranged from the Church have started to return. In Rome itself we have parishes with 10 or 11 communities, in which a real way of return to the Father has already been formed for modern man, secularized and atheist as he is.
To close, and given the difficulty of describing an experience of 14 years that has taken place throughout 77 countries, I would clarify three points:
l) The Neocatechumenate is not a movement in the normal sense of the word, but rather a time in which to lead people to rediscover their own faith, making them living members of the local Church, the parish and the diocese.’
2) If the whole catechetical process is to take place, a form of preaching is necessary which confronts man with the cross in his history, enlightens the meaning of it, and reconciles him to it.
3) We, like the two thousand parish priests who met in Rome to contribute to the Synod, have the joy of witnessing to this Assembly the miracles that God is working: many marriages which were destroyed have been rebuilt and made open to life; many young people have been saved from drugs and terrorism; many atheists have been converted; many vocations to the priesthood are emerging particularly in the countries where the way is more advanced; there is a detachment from riches and the joint ownership of possessions in the community; there is service to the diocese in catechesis at all levels, and often heroic witness given at work, etc.
I finish by thanking the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception who inspired this way, and the Holy Father and the Secretary of the Synod who allowed me to be here.
I ask the Fathers of the synod to pray for me, a sinner
note: The subtitles are not in the original text.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.