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THE NEOCATECHUMENAL WAY
(Overview)

        The Neocatechumenate movement was launched to assist the Church renew herself in response to Vatican II. The movement holds that in reaction to the great changes in our society - particularly secularism - the Church must gradually become more of a community and return to the example of the early Christians.
        They celebrate the Eucharist with unleavened bread. Their Masses last at least two hours. They gather in communities and have created a grass-roots network for evangelization. To spread the Gospels, these itinerant catechists go into houses and through the streets. Hundreds of their families have left on mission to various parts of the world, and diocesan missionary priests are trained in their seminaries. They are the offspring of the Second Vatican Council and their retort to secularism has been forceful - and successful. Their "Way" is a return to the first Christian communities. More than 50% of their members have entered the movement from outside the Church. In spite of opposition from parish priests and bishops, John Paul II, as Paul VI and John Paul I before him, supports them vigorously. We are speaking of the Neocatechumenate movement - a reality which now includes more than 13,500 communities in 4,000 parishes and 650 dioceses in more than 90 countries.

History of the Movement

        Two dynamic Spaniards are the founders of the Neocatechumenate movement: Francisco Arguello, better known as Kiko, and Carmen Hernandez, who once studied to become a nun .
        Born in 1939, the "existentialist" Spanish painter Kiko did not start out as a practicing - or even believing - Catholic. On November 2, 1980, recounting his history during his meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Martyred Canadian Saints parish in Rome, he stated: "God permitted me to experience the absurd - atheism - until he had mercy."
        Upon his conversion, Kiko began to frequent catechism courses, and for years he also trained as a catechist. Finally, convinced of Christ's presence among the poor, he went to live with the poor of the Palomeras Atlas shanty town in Madrid. In 1964 he started his "Way," following in the footsteps of Charles de Foucauld. At this stage, Kiko's sole possessions were a guitar, a crucifix, and a Bible.
        It was among the poor of Palomeras that Kiko encountered Carmen Hernandez; they joined forces to establish the bases for what they would eventually call the Neocatechumenate Way. Carmen Hernandez, who held degrees in Physics and Theology, had already been teaching for nearly eight years in a religious missionary institute. While awaiting a missionary assignment Bolivia, she had been living an analogous experience to Kiko's. One of Hernandez' main concerns had been the liturgical reforms instituted by Vatican II.
        In 1968, Kiko and Carmen came to Rome where, with the support of Rome's Vicar-Bishop Cardinal Angelo dell'Acqua, they first launched their movement in the Canadian Martyrs' parish.
        Their work soon aroused the interest of the Vatican's Congregation of the Liturgy and Sacraments. After a period of examination, the Congregation published a laudatory article in its official journal Notitiae.A few years later, the Congregation officially defended the movement against accusations of heresy by a group of traditionalist Canadian priests.
        One of the Congregation's advisors wrote in his report: "I would like to point out another aspect of this catechesis, or rather Neocatechumenate Way. As a historical scholar of ancient catechesis, I can say that Kiko's and Carmen's endeavor to realize the Catechumenate for our times has been successful. Personal experience has allowed them to intuit the profound validity of Church institutions in the first three centuries, permitting them to translate these into a new structure, which assumes the most important elements of early Christianity, yet employs them in a new context: conversion of the baptized who never made the personal choice of faith... I find all of this positive, and thereby conclude my judgment by inviting the responsible members of the Sacred Congregation of the Clergy to encourage this movement, guiding it with comprehension and paternal indulgence, so that it remain as it is - a service to authentically renovate the parish communities."
        Years later, on May 9, 1986, Kiko and Carmen were summoned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to respond to a series of questions regarding their views on hermeneutics, pastoral work and doctrine. After thorough study of their responses, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger informed them that his Congregation wished to assist them, and proposed linking the movement to a Vatican congregation to provide a juridical basis. Kiko and Carmen fervently desired the official support of the Holy Father. As a result, John Paul II nominated Bishop Paul Josef Cordes, Vice-President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, to act as the Pope's delegate ad personam to the movement and intermediary with the Vatican Congregations.
        On August 30, 1990, Pope Wojtyla sent Cordes a letter appreciating the Neocatechumenate movement's "correctness and good intentions" and recognizing the movement as "a Catholic path and initiative which is valid for our times."

The Neocatechumenate's Charisma and Strength

        Before starting their evangelizing activities, Kiko and Carmen asked themselves: where did the strength of the early Church lie, and what accounts for weakness in the modern Church? The answers are to be found in the "Neocatechumenate Way" they eventually mapped out: post-baptismal Christian initiation realized with the methods and forms of the early Church.
        The Neocatechumenate movement has revolutionalized parish life in the churches to which it has been called. No longer do sociological criteria divide groups by age - children, adults, the elderly. Parishes rather become true communities of 30-50 individuals of diverse ages, social conditions, mentalities, and cultural backgrounds, growing together in faith and commitment. These communities act in the parishes with a "tripod" basis of catechesis (as suggested by Vatican II): Word, Liturgy, and Community.
        For the Neocatechumenate movement, the Word implies the proclaiming of the Gospel (Kerygma) anywhere and everywhere; the Liturgy represents the celebration of Faith, within which all the symbols of tradition are remembered; and the Community (Koinonia) signifies the communion between those who have heard the Word and those who live in the unity of love under the sign of the Cross.
        The Neocatechumenate community celebrates Mass with slight variations conceded by the Congregation of the Divine Liturgy and Sacraments (Note of December 19, 1988). After the three Scripture readings and before the homily, members engage in commentary, comparing their readings with their personal experiences. The homily then takes account of the observations made, corrects deviations, and stimulates reflection. Next, as in the Ambrosian rite, is the Rite of Peace. The rite of the Eucharist follows early Christian practices, using unleavened bread and wine.
        The re-discovery of the liturgy has been a determinant factor in overcoming cynicism and indifference, especially affecting Catholics in the prosperous and comfortable Western world. At present, thousands of parishes have passed from a state of limited activity to one of florid growth thanks to the Neocatechumenate. (In Spain in recent years, there has been a 17.5% growth in parishes with Neocatechumenate leadership). Neocatechumenate communities have been able to overcome two serious problems in today's Church: defections among the young and among couples.
        In the Roman diocese alone, where 25% of the parishes are Neocatechumenates, 50% of the members are persons 25-50 years - the age group most minimally represented in other Italian parishes. As for couples, the average birth rate in the Roman diocese is 3.11%, considerably higher than the national average of 1.2 children per woman.
        The teachings of Kiko and Carmen are based on two main Scriptural passages. The first refers to love: "As I loved you, so you should love one another... By this love, all will recognize that you are my disciples" (John 13: 34-35).
        The second passage refers to death. In Chapter 2 of the Letters to the Hebrews, it is taught that Jesus Christ has come to "destroy the mediator of death, the Lord of death, i.e. the Devil, and to free those, in fear of death, who were subjected to this slavery during life" (Hebrews 2: 14-15). This victory over death is the essential Christian message Jesus left us, and it is central to the teachings of the Neocatechumenate movement.

Stages of the Neocatechumenate Path

        Kiko's fundamental idea is that infant baptism is like a seed dormant, almost dead, within most Christians. It thereby becomes necessary to revive it through a period of "catechumenate," or rather "Neocatechumenate," as he calls it.
        The path foresees that the actual "Way" is comprised of six stages of initiation lasting for a total of at least eight to ten years. Passage from one stage to another is not automatic. A board of catechists conducts the examination. Failing may occur and the persons excluded may complain. This is why the Way may take longer than the usual duration of eight to ten years.
        The first stage is Kerygma, or rather the "announcement of salvation." The process begins when a priest decides to introduce the Neocatechumenate experience in his parish, through preaching by itinerant catechists. These lead introductory catechesis groups, which should eventually result in new communities of 30-50 people. If the limit of members is exceeded, other communities are created.
        Once established, the community begins the second stage: the Pre-catechumenate, or the period of Kenosis, in which persons consolidate their faith by following the path with others. The community has a Gospel service once a week, and on Saturday evening, the Eucharist. Once a month each member spends Sunday alone. The Pre-Catechumen period lasts two years, after which the catechists - founders of the community - return and in retreat for three days prepare the passage to the stage of Catechumen.
        The Catechumen period has two phases. In the first, the community perseveres in the Scriptures, the Eucharist, and community life until God becomes the center of each person's life. Each person gradually turns from all modern "idols" (money, career, relationships). After one year, the catechists once again return to effect the final passage to the Catechumen. At this point, the Catechumenate communities engage in profound individual prayer and reflection. Those officially declared responsible for transmitting their faith begin holding three types of meetings: in the family for the family, in the community for every member of the community, and finally in parish celebrations for all parishioners.
        The long catechumenate process teaches its adherents prayer, simplicity and thankfulness. The last phase is the renewal of the baptismal promises. In this phase, members become aware of the significance and reality of baptism, make their choice, and renew their baptismal vows. Once the Way has terminated, the groups return to the parish or dedicate their lives to missionary work.

The Neocatechumenate Movement Today

        In the mid 1980s the Italian Neocatechumenate communities numbered about 1,400 in more than 700 parishes of 160 dioceses. Currently - the data is from 1994 - they have reached more than 13,500 communities worldwide (even some in Russia), distributed in 4,000 parishes of 780 dioceses, in over 90 countries. Neocatechumenate communities in Italy number about 3,000, in 1,000 parishes in 185 dioceses - a world record.
        In the last few years, 24 Redemptoris Mater seminaries have been opened for those who receive vocations along the Neocatechumenate Way. New 1995 figures show that 1,020 Neocatechumenate seminarians are training 2,500 youth in different catechesis centers. In the Rome diocese alone, there are 86 itinerant catechists, 32 missionary families and 30 assisting nuns.

Popes Support the Movement

        Pope Paul VI, on May 8, 1974 during the Feast of the Madonna of the Rosary said of the Neocatechumenate movement: "What joy and hope you give us with your activities... Living and promoting this reawakening as a form of 'post baptism,' renewing in today's Christian communities the maturity and profundity of baptismal preparation in the early Church."
        Pope John Paul I met personally with Kiko and Carmen when he was still Patriarch of Venice in 1972, permitting them to open a community in his diocese, and encouraging the movement's progress in the following years.
        Pope John Paul II has always supported the movement, even in his days as cardinal of Cracow. He visited the Neocatechumenate community of Porto San Giorio on December 30, 1988, where, for the first time in our days, a Pope celebrated, the Pope praised the movement's "fruits" of personal conversions and missionary inspiration. In 1990, the Neocatechumenates received their first official papal recognition, in the letter to Bishop Cordes mentioned above.