The media never talk about it and even in the Church community many mistakes are made in its regard. And yet the Neo-Catechumenal Way is an initiative that is bound to have a profound influence on the Church in the third millennium. There are about a million people in more than a hundred countries who already belong, thousands of priests and dozens of seminaries throughout the world, thousands of parishes that have decided to take to the Way. And the growth rate shows no sign of slowing. The Catechumenate is an ancient formula but as offered today its flavor is so novel that people can be so startled to the point of indulging in real persecution of the Way and of the two people who started it all, the Spanish painter Francisco Argüello, known as Kiko, and Carmen Hernandez. This hostility contrasts with the steady and public encouragement that the Neo-Catechumenal communities have been given and continue to be given by John Paul II, as they were already by Paul VI. Currently Kiko Argüello and the other people in charge of the Way are busy drafting a statute to give it definitive shape within the Church.
What is the Neo-Catechumenal Way?
KIKO ARGÜELLO : It is a path to conversion whereby one re-discovers the riches of baptism. The current process of secularization has led a great many people to abandon the faith and the Church. Perhaps that is the reason the Lord prompted us to set up formation itinerary through which we can help renew the Council and pave a way for those who have drifted off.
The Neo-Catechumenal Way does not aim at being a movement in itself but at helping the dioceses and parishes to open up a path of initiation that purposes to evangelize the people of today. It's worth noting that in his Letter Pope John Paul II says: 'I recognize the Neo-Catechumenal Way as a way of Catholic formation valid for modern society and times' and expresses his hope 'that brothers in the episcopate, along with their presbyters, will appreciate and help this work for the new evangelization'. It's an instrument at the service of bishops and parish priests to bring back to the faith the great many who have abandoned it.
What is the link between the Neo-Catechumenal Way and the catechumenate of the early Church?
ARGÜELLO: In the early Church, in the midst of paganism, a person who wanted to become a Christian had to follow instruction in Christianity that was called the 'catechumenate' from the word 'catecheo' which means 'I resound' and 'I listen'. But we might ask: 'Listen to what?' Not just God speaking through the Scriptures: a catechumen is somebody who has learned to listen to God speaking throughout history. Among the eastern religions which claim to overcome the passions by taking flight into transcendence through techniques of prayer (as does Zen philosophy, the Tao and Buddhism itself), and the divide between the sacred and the profane in natural religion in the West, which entails a divorce between religion and life, the great revolution of Christianity is the Incarnation, God who becomes man in the concrete history of mankind. The Fathers say that what befits a Christian is not humility, obedience or even sanctity but discernment, without which neither humility nor obedience nor sanctity exists. Discerning what? The divine action in our history. Discerning the snares of the devil and the reason why certain things happen to us and what sense they have ... There lies the meaning, the renewal of the post-baptismal Neocatechumenate. Christ says to the Samaritan woman: 'Believe me, woman, the moment has come when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father ... The moment has come, and it is this, in which the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and ,truth. Because the Father seeks such worshipers.' In a Christian initiation the catechumen discovers that we are the true temple and our life is a liturgy of holiness, the ritual of which is the Book of Psalms. But before everything the catechumenate of the early Church was shaped out of a synthesis between Word, Changed Life and Liturgy. What the early Church had was a kerygma, a proclamation of salvation. This proclaiming of the Gospels was done by itinerant apostles such as Paul and Silla and brought about a moral change in those who heard it. They changed their lives with the help of the Holy Spirit accompanying the apostles. This changed life was sealed and helped through the sacraments. Concretely, baptism was given in stages. The Neo-Catechumenal Way wants to bring back that 'gestation', that synthesis of Kerygma, Changed life and Liturgy.
Why is it called "Neocatechumenate"?
ARGÜELLO: Basically because it is offered to people who are already baptized but who haven't had enough Christian instruction. Even the Catechesi tradendae states that the situation of very many Christians in parishes is that of 'quasi catechumens'. When we were called in 1974 by the Congregation for Divine Worship to look again at the rites for the first baptismal vows, there were scholars there who were drafting the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum under the charge of Monsignor Bugnini, the Congregation Secretary. Even though there were some who wanted to call us 'catechistic communities', in the end we agreed on the name 'neo-catechumenate'.
In what state of health is the Neo-Catechumenal Way?
ARGÜELLO: The Neo-Catechumenal Way has spread to 105 countries over the five continents, with almost 15,000 communities. It is also represented in 800 dioceses and 5,000 parishes. It has helped to open 35 diocesan missionary seminaries throughout the world. There are families with children who leave everything friends, home, work - to set off for the more difficult areas of the world. At the moment there are over 400. It is very heartening for us to see the number of young people who want to rediscover and ripen their faith through the Neo-Catechumenal Way. We are thankful to the Lord of all things, though there's no lack of persecution and the necessary difficulties.
You mention families belonging to the Way who leave everything to go off on missions. Why do they do it?
ARGÜELLO : Out of gratitude. Because they've been saved and they want to let others share in that salvation. The outskirts of so many cities, in South America for example, have been invaded by sects. Bishops have asked for help, given the fact of huge human settlements without a Church presence. So families are sent, with the blessing of the Holy Father, who through their witness and the Word begin to evangelize in the poorest areas and form small Christian communities. Then bishops, also thanks to the Redemptoris Mater seminaries, send priests, and so new parishes are born, giving a chance to lots of people who had gone over to the sects to return to the Church, as is happening in fact, for example, among the poor waterfront people of Guayaquil in Ecuador, among the 'Pueblos jovenes' of Lima in Peru, among the miners of Coronel in Chile, etc.
Concretely, where have you chosen to set up the Way?
ARGÜELLO : We didn't choose anything. The Lord has led us through a series of events from the shanty towns to the parishes, by the express wish of the Archbishop of Madrid and the pleas of priests, and there we are engaged in the task the Lord has entrusted to us. Just think of the great need for catechesis that exists in the Church. We desperately need to rediscover what it means to be Christian, what it means to receive eternal life, what it means that Christ has conquered death. Encountering Christ or not encountering him isn't the same thing at all. People who have not encountered Christ are constantly coming up against the fact of death and it limits them and they have no reply to it, because no man has defeated death. Those who have encountered him and have received the Holy Spirit from heaven have eternal life within them, Christ's victory over death, which enables them to face up to the fact in a new way, I mean, to go beyond death. It's an enormous thing. When we are baptized we are asked: 'What do you ask of the Church of God?' Answer: 'The faith'. And again: 'What does faith give you?' 'Eternal life.' It is not a metaphor. Eternal life is in us. Saint John says: 'Whoever hates his brother is a murderer and no murderer has eternal life'. Faith enables you not only not to hate your brother but even to love your enemy. We say: 'You are Christian? Show that you have eternal life'. And how does it show concretely? In what? On the Way, the testing out of this takes place gradually in stages and through scrutinies, in line with the early practice of the catechumenate, re-proposed again today in the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum, wherein chapter IV it says that this way of proceeding, these stages, can be applied to those who are already baptized but insufficiently catechized or not confirmed.
We are about to enter the third Christian millennium. What most worries you about the period we are going through?
ARGÜELLO : We are immersed in a mass media, technological, audio-visual culture. According to the statistics every Italian spends three hours and 40 minutes a day in front of the television. In some American countries the figure reaches nine hours. If one conducts a serious analysis of what people get from films, soaps, variety, discussion programs, etc., what emerges? That people are actually receiving every day in constant fashion an anthropology, a 'catechesis' so to speak, contrary to Revelation. The real challenge of the third millennium is what we can call the 'anthropological revolution', which invades us, at subliminal levels as well, with values that run counter to Christian ones. Concepts such as nature, body, sexuality, family, sin ... no longer have any Christian content, How is the Church replying to all of this if in our parishes, for the great majority of Christians, there's almost nothing but Sunday Mass?
The problem is that this dominant way of thinking is making its way among Christians as well, the mentality is influencing the Church also. Jean Guitton, the French philosopher who was a friend of Paul VI, told me of a dramatic confidence the Pope made to him: "Let me tell you a fear of mine, "he said. "There is a danger that non-Christian thinking may work its way into the Church. And that one day it may become prevalent"...
ARGÜELLO : It's true. Some time ago in New York we organized a conference of bishops centering on the worry I mentioned earlier. An Australian bishop told me of an episode that gives backing to what we're saying. He was convinced that something had to be done to oppose this 'dominant way of thinking' and decided to produce a television program against the legalization of euthanasia. He brought together the committed lay people of the diocese to see how they might reply to the media bombardment on the issue. He was stunned to discover that his committed laity were all in favor of euthanasia. They all thought like the television. Where is it possible to listen to a catechesis, get instruction that can stand against this culture? If we don't set up a serious education in the faith, inevitably in the end we'll come to think in the way imposed on us by the means of communication. That is why I believe that the Way, like the new Church groups and movements, is of great importance. Only an adult faith can find a reply to the fact of secularization surrounding us.
During the recent Italian Eucharistic Congress held in Bologna the founders and those in charge of the movements and the new Church bodies met for the first time. What was the significance of the gathering?
ARGÜELLO : It was very important. We are witnesses to a great event: the Holy Spirit is breathing on his Church, despite our sins, to assist it. Our experience throughout the world is that we have always found help in other groups and movements, from Communion and Liberation in the universities, the priests of Opus Dei in the parishes, the Focolarini, the Charismatics, etc. It is important and a source of enrichment, to know how to help oneself: within diversity there is just the one mission we all have towards the world. Saint Paul says God constituted some people as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelizers and teachers to serve to edify the Body of Christ so that we may all achieve the state of perfection, the full maturity of Christ (cf Ephesians 4, 11-13). The difficulty and problems arise in the parishes when we come across groups of lay people and certain priests who have a different anthropology and even a different Christology and ecclesiology.
One hears often that these Church groups are a little shut in on themselves. And some bishops have asked that they should be open towards each other, without quarreling or rivalry ...
ARGÜELLO : It's an outside judgment that I don't believe corresponds with reality. Our experience is quite the opposite. It's like when the disciples came to Jesus and told him, 'They do miracles but they are not of us' and he replies, 'Do not prevent them. No one can do miracles in my name and speak ill of me'. We find that's how it is all the time: everything that is stirred within the Church by the Holy Spirit gives us help. It's the outsiders who say we are divided, that there are problems.
Why is this hostility almost automatic whenever anything new is born in the Church? You have come across it, as has almost every movement ...
ARGÜELLO : It's a normal reaction, I think it's a sociological fact one has to accept. In fact, whenever anything new comes up everybody wonders 'Who are they? What do they think? Do they think they're better than anybody else?' Sure enough, we have undergone persecution within the Church, it has happened and is happening in various places. But I always think of Saint Ignatius Loyola who was asked on his deathbed what his hopes were for the Society and he replied: 'Persecution'. As for myself, I think of persecution as a very great grace. It's the only thing in which I resemble Christ a little. As for the rest, nothing, since I'm a very great sinner
Is the hostility slackening now?
ARGÜELLO: Yes.I think that bishops and parish priests know us better and are seeing the practical results: families back together, young people in Church, vocations for the seminaries, etc. In Paris in August, during the meeting with the Pope, there were a great many young people from the new Church groups, including 50,000 from the Way. At the end we had a meeting about vocations led by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, and 5000 young people stood up and offered themselves for seminaries and monasteries. What is taking place has surprised even us.
Some years ago I happened to come across a confidential document of the Congregation for Catholic Education. The cardinal who then led it stated that he had conducted an inquiry in reply to your request to open diocesan seminaries for missionaries. The majority of the experts consulted were against it. More or less they said: "You can't let a movement have charge of a seminary". John Paul II himself intervened to settle the question and entrusted seminaries to you. There are now 35 of them scattered throughout the world. Why seminaries, and how did they come about?
ARGÜELLO : Here again it was the Lord and one sees his hand in the pattern of events. The Pope had already sent more than a hundred families to the more difficult areas of South America and the world. These families were forming Christian communities, and many people were coming back into the Church from the sects. Given the lack of clergy, however, and the difficulties the local priests had in going to these poverty-stricken areas where there wasn't even a church building, after a good many attempts - both with the Roman Seminary and by forming a group backed by the Rector of the Capranica Seminary, Monsignor Luciano Pacomio, who helped us a great deal - we decided to make the situation of these families known to the Holy Father. We didn't intend to found any kind of congregation or movement, but rather to bring together the parishes out of which these families had come for the mission. So we suggested to the Pope that a missionary diocesan seminary be opened from which the presbyters might be sent anywhere. At the end of the meeting the Pope stood up and said it was a good thing necessary for the Church and should be done. That's how the 'Redemptoris Mater' seminaries came into being. The second thing to say is that they are true diocesan seminaries and missionary. Which means that it's the bishops who are in charge and responsible for the priests. The special nature of the seminaries lies in the fact that the presbyters can be sent by the bishop all over the world, thus reducing the scarcity of clergy in many dioceses. Providentially it was also noticed that Council documents, Number 10 of "Presbyterorum ordinis" for example, suggest the opening of international missionary seminaries to meet the need for clergy. As for the rest, I understand the experts' reaction but the confusion lies in the term 'movement', because we, as I said earlier, do not feel we are a movement but a Christian post-baptismal initiation which begins and ends in the parishes with the making of adult Christians. I, for example, as a catechist have already finished the Way in various parishes. The brethren who have followed this Neo-Catechumenal way and have completed it do not constitute an association or a congregation, or anything of the sort, but are adult Christians in the parish carrying on the pastoral work of the bishop. It's obvious that the small community as such doesn't disappear, given that today it's the salvation of the family. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recently wrote in his book The Salt of the Earth that it is very difficult today to live the faith on one's own and he suggests that the Church open paths of faith in small communities where Christians may help and sustain each other. And in the Letter sent by the Holy Father John Paul II to Monsignor Paul Josef Cordes, the novelty lies in his recognition that the Neo-Catechumenal Way is a Christian initiation for adults of the catechumen type and that he does not take it for a religious order, an association or a movement. More than once in the history of the Church men and women have striven to re-awaken the spirit of the Gospels in the people of God without having perforce to circumscribe it in a religious order. Perhaps the times weren't ripe for it. But today, after Vatican II, the contemporary situation of atheism and secularization puts the Church in a position where the catechumenate needs renewal, both for the non-baptized, and for those who, baptized as children, need to re-discover the riches of their baptism. Paul VI also, on his first meeting with the Way in 1974, said: 'To live and promote this 'reawakening' is what you call a form of 'post-baptism catechumenate' which in the Christian community of today can renew those effects of maturity and ripening which were brought about in the early Church by the period of preparation of baptism. You set it afterwards: before or afterwards is a secondary matter, I would say. The fact is that you aim at the authenticity, at the fullness, at the sincerity of the Christian life. And that is a very great merit which consoles us enormously...'.
If a parish priest calls you in to open the Way and is then replaced by another who doesn't want you, how do you react?
ARGÜELLO: We obey.Sometimes the brethren have to endure the lack of understanding of the new parish priest for years. Sometimes when the new pastor finds these communities he doesn't want them and gets rid of them, especially in Latin America where the priest is changed every few years in the parishes of the religious orders. If they can, the catechists invite the brethren to follow the Way in another parish, but what we never do is make a parallel Church. The re-discovery of baptism always means the re-discovery of the Christian 'primum' which is: 'As I have loved you', that is, love for one's enemy, bearing the sins of those who get rid of the communities. In such cases we have often seen heroic behavior in the brethren. The problem of many priests, aside from Liberation Theology and the differing ecclesiologies that arose after the Council, is not knowing where to place the importance of charisms in the Church.
Which is where?
ARGÜELLO: I think, as the Pope told us at the January meeting, that institution and charisms are co-essential in the Church. When the institution refuses to accept charisms its arteries harden and the people suffer. And when a charism refuses the institution it becomes a sect or splits away, as one saw with Peter Waldo at the time of Saint Francis.
You spoke earlier of persecution and difficulty. There are many objections raised against you as well. Can we look at them in detail?
They mainly concern the liturgy ...
ARGÜELLO: The liturgy plays a highly important role in gestation towards the faith. It is through it that grace touches us and the new man is born. The sacraments give and increase grace. The whole renewal brought about by Vatican Council II has a fundamental core: the full and fruitful participation in what the sacraments mean and achieve. Let me give an example: if you go to a fountain (meaning grace) with a basket you bring it back empty; whereas if you go with a bucket you come back with a bucketful. The fount is always the same but the result is diametrically opposed. Many people go to Mass and take the sacraments but with little participation. That is why it is important to educate the participants into experiencing the richness of the sacraments with the greatest possible fullness.
Are you saying that your essential aim is a fuller participation in the liturgy?
ARGÜELLO: Precisely. Ours is an attempt at experiencing it as fully as possible, so that the people participating sanctify themselves. If young people don't understand or don't know how to live what is happening, sooner or later they stop going. Whereas if we manage to make them understand what's happening by explaining the meaning of certain signs, that is, if we help them really to participate, then gradually they open up to the action of grace and receive the gratuitous gift that the sacraments give and which will help them be saintly, be Christians. Christianity is not Pelagianism, an effort of will alone, but a liberation, a new creation which we receive gratuitously through the merits of Jesus Christ who suffered and gave his life for each of us. For example, how can one educate a young person of today in Christianity without rooting it in the Easter of the Lord? That's why it's fundamental that the Easter vigil be experienced in all its fullness, so that the sacrament yields its meaning. Educating people in the signs, in the fast, in the night, in baptism by immersion to teach them to die with Christ and rise again with Christ, to pass over to the other shore, turning them into heavenly 'pilgrims', Easter people, in a new exodus that helps to lead the people of this generation to heaven. Many times we come across difficulties because in many parts of Spain, for example, the vigil is reduced to evening Mass with hardly any congregation because most of them are away on holiday. What's to be done so that young people don't go on holiday but stay the night to die with Christ and rise again with him? In France, for example, in certain parishes, the date of the Easter vigil is changed and it is celebrated on return from the holidays. But our feeling, as already happens in many parishes, is not to have a parallel or our own vigil but to renew the Easter vigil with all its force and sacramental fullness of the signs, as the Roman Missal says. But to do that there's need of a path, sacramental propaedeutics. Pope John Paul II once said that he saw the community as a 'sacramental laboratory' where the liturgical renewal of the Council could gradually be brought about.
The fact of celebrating the liturgy behind closed doors has also often created problems for you. Some bishops have prevented you from saying Mass in their dioceses ...
ARGÜELLO : We don't do the liturgy behind closed doors. It's simply that we have a course to follow. If one goes to university one knows that there's a first year, a second year and so on. And I suppose that sophomores know that they're not going to be put in the fourth year but in the first. We too have a course with stages, two periods. The early catechumenate had first a pre-catechumenate, then the catechumenate, election, and neophytism. All terms that indicate moments of passage. The problem is that for about 16 centuries there's been no catechumenate in the Church. No one knows what it is any longer. We are among those who are recuperating it after 16 centuries. So, it's obvious there's a lot of ignorance about what the catechumenate is and about what we do. And distrust arises, sometimes among parish groups who don't understand us. What the Gospels tell in the parable of the prodigal son happens again, the elder brother won't come in, scandalized by the fact that his father has killed the fatted calf for that fellow there who spent all his father's money on prostitutes, and so he can't stand the feasting and the dancing. We see in the Gospels that it's the father who goes out to talk to him. He mediates and says: 'Your brother was dead and has come back to life...'. The point is that in some parishes in northern Europe, for example, various members of parish councils don't have this anthropology, that is they don't believe that lapsed and secularized people, people who have abandoned God, are dead inside. That is why they don't understand the effort we make to bring the lapsed back to Christ and they're scandalized by Sunday Mass being celebrated in community on Saturday evening with all the richness of the signs wished for by the Council (for example, communion under the two species of bread and wine, as we've been granted by the Holy See). Even if we tell them that these people have need of mediation, of sacramental propaedeutics, that they are lost sheep, very often it's pointless. And yet over 30 years of the Way these celebrations have shown themselves to be a marvelous means of instruction for experiencing the Easter mystery, helping the brethren to pass from death to life, with the genuine fruits of conversion, especially among the young who, through the force of these Eucharistic rites, have been rescued from the drugs and the madness of Saturday night discos. These celebrations have been the source of thousands of priestly and religious vocations, Not least because in the Neo-Catechumenal Way, throughout the world, there are people who had drifted a long way from the Church, very wounded and sick, who were extremely weak and who had to be lifted, as the Good Shepherd does on his shoulders, so as to be carried home to his Father's house. That is the spirit of the Way: not to step over anyone's corpse. It isn't that mankind is for the Neo-Catechumenal Way, but that the Way is for mankind.
In concrete terms how does an actual Neo-Catechumenal community come into being?
ARGÜELLO : If a parish priest decides to adopt the Way he gets in touch with another parish where Neo-Catechumenal communities already exist or with the diocesan Neo-Catechumenal center. He is shown what the Way is and if he agrees he is sent catechists who will lead the Neo-Catechumenal Way along with him. The teams of catechists are always made up of a priest, who is the guarantor of the orthodoxy and ecclesiality of the message, of one or two couples and of a young person. The catechists talk to the church leaders, to the parish council, then they meet whatever movements are present in the parish and finally, during Sunday Masses, they offer an invitation to all the faithful. This is the moment of the kerygma, of the proclaiming of the salvation brought by the Lord. It's an echo of what the apostles did, when, transformed by the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, they went around the synagogues in small teams proclaiming the good news and calling on people to convert. It was strong preaching that confronted people with a fact, an event: Jesus Christ is the Lord, only in him can we find salvation. He died for our sins and rose again for our redemption, he has risen into heaven and intercedes for us so that we may receive the Holy Spirit, eternal life. To those touched by grace who asked, 'What must we do?', Saint Peter replied, 'Convert and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of all his sins; afterwards you will receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit'. That coincides with the phase we call kerygmatic, when the tripod Word-Liturgy-Community, on which the whole Neo-Catechumenal process is based, is displayed and gone through. This kerygmatic phase ends with a three-day retreat during which the community starting on the different stages of pre-catechumenate, catechumenate, election, etc. is formed, guided by the same team of catechists in communion with the parish priest. To the extent to which these brethren begin to grow in the faith and to give witness in their workplace and family, other people are drawn to the faith and ask to be set on the same path. And in this way a second, third, fourth community is formed .. . and there is a new situation in the parish, small communities all heading for conversion. In this way a pastoral campaign for the lapsed opens in the parish which, without wrecking anything and without imposing itself, presents the harvest of a Church in renewal that tells its fathers that they have been fertile for it was from it that they were born. After 30 years of the Way one of the results that makes it worthwhile is to see families knitted together again which, open towards life, become a real 'domestic Church' where the fundamental task of the family is carried out, that of handing on the faith to the children. It becomes fundamental in a domestic liturgy on Sunday mornings. In this liturgy parents read the Scriptures to their children and ask: 'What does this Word mean to you, for your life?' It's astonishing to see how the children are able to apply the Word of God to their own concrete experience. At the end the father and mother give a word or two of commentary based on their own experience and invite everyone to pray for the Pope, the Church, etc. It concludes with the Our Father and the peace, And the parents bless every child. Finding a moment of dialogue between the two generations is a very, very important thing these days. These families shaped on a Way of faith know how to hand on the faith to their children. The result of it all is to have almost one hundred percent of these children in the Church. From these families, almost all of them large, thousands of vocations for the seminaries and the monasteries are emerging. Let us thank the Lord our God.
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