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This article is part of an occasional series exploring some of the new movements and ecclesial communities that have arisen in the Church.
By Meghan Dorney
Emerging from a spiritual crisis and seeking to bolster his faith, a young Spanish painter, Francisco (Kiko) Arguello, left behind his success to live among the outcasts of society in the slums bordering Madrid. It was there, while the Second Vatican Council was taking place, that Arguello searched for the meaning of his life by sharing in the suffering of the poor. In this simple experience, the Neocatechumenal Way has its origins.
Inspired by the life of Charles de Foucauld, who followed Christ by living among the poor in Algeria, Arguello began living in a dilapidated shack and working menial jobs in the shantytown of Palomeras Altas in 1964. He passed his free time singing psalms and reading the scriptures. He lived simply, “not demanding anything of anybody,” said Daniel Ohman of the Neocatechumenal Way in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Other shantytown residents — many of whom were thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes — became curious as to why Arguello would voluntarily reside in such conditions. Seeing that his faith allowed him to live contently without material comforts, they began to ask him how God could answer the suffering in their own lives.
Arguello “saw that the questions they asked were real questions and he saw that the Gospel had an answer,” Ohman said.
As word of Arguello spread, people increasingly came to him with questions about faith and God. Faced with this spontaneous following, Arguello felt he somehow had to answer their needs. He began to read the Bible and hold simple liturgies with them. Slowly, a small faith community began to form.
Arguello was amazed that people who were completely estranged from the Church, “responded [to the word of God] because they had nothing to defend,” no illusions of their own virtue, Ohman stated. They came to see that God loved them as they were in their poverty and wretchedness. Once they accepted this, their lives began to be transformed as they left behind their ways of crime and violence.
At that time, Arguello encountered Carmen Hernandez, a missionary trained in theology. “She saw that what was being accomplished here was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — to have a community like the Holy Family of Nazareth, living in humility, simplicity and praise,” Ohman said.
Joining Arguello, Hernandez contributed her theological knowledge to develop more structured liturgies to meet the spiritual needs of the people in the shantytown.
Archbishop Casimiro Morcillo of Madrid took notice of what was happening in the slums outside of the capital, an area that had been nearly impossible to evangelize. Learning that the shantytown was scheduled to be demolished, he contacted Arguello and asked if what he had started there could be implemented in the parishes.
Through this post-baptismal itinerary for adults, the people in the parishes began to rediscover their faith. The Neocatechumenal Way took root in the Archdiocese of Madrid and eventually spread around the world. Today, the Neocatechumenal Way is present in over 100 countries and in more than 900 dioceses.
In 1997, Pope John Paul II urged the initiators of the Neocatechumenal Way, Arguello and Hernandez, to draw up a formal statute saying, “The Lord has put a precious treasure in your hands ... This is a very important step that will lead to its formal juridical recognition by the Church and it gives you a further guarantee of the authenticity of your charism.”
In June 2002, the Holy See approved the statute of the Neocatechumenal Way as a way of Christian initiation for the universal Church. The statute recognizes the Neocatechumenal Way not as an association, but as a baptismal catechumenate for baptized and non-baptized adults.
On that occasion, Arguello underscored the fact that the Neocatechumenate has been approved as “an instrument that the Holy See offers to bishops so that, in response to modern atheism, the baptism of Christians can be strengthened.”
“Today almost all the episcopal conferences are speaking about the need for a post-baptismal initiation. And they find it very difficult to realize it in practice,” he continued. “With this statute, the pope courageously offers a means of initiation and a post-baptismal catechumenate validated by more than 30 years of a way full of fruits.”
The Neocatechumenal Way acts “as an instrument for the bishop and a tool for the parish priest” to help people in their diocese grow in faith, said Ohman. “When you are baptized, you are given the seed of faith, but how is this faith going to be nourished?”
After a series of introductory catecheses, those who wish to join the Neocatechumenal Way begin to celebrate a mid-week Liturgy of the Word, a Saturday Vigil Eucharist and monthly retreat in small groups of approximately 30 to 50 people.
“Part of the inspiration of the Neocatechumenal Way is to experience a community — each parish as ‘a community of communities’ — so that nobody is anonymous; nobody is left out; nobody is a mere spectator, but is a participant in the ongoing work of the Church,” said Ohman.
“The Neocatechumenal Way began very simply and developed into this charism of Christian initiation ... as a way of rediscovering the ancient catechumenate,” the early Church’s process of preparing catechumens for baptism, explained Ohman. “It’s a way of initiation through stages.” Through these stages, the Neocatechumenal Way helps people to fully practice and nurture the faith they received at baptism, he said.
“In the process of formation we discover what this baptism means, through listening to the Word of God, through celebrating the liturgy, especially the Eucharist and through community,” he continued.
Often times, those who have been catechized become active in the ministries of their parish, said Ohman. “Having received the mercy and love of God you want to live it in some way,” he explained. “You live it by becoming involved in the pastoral work of the parish.”
Some feel called to evangelize outside of the parish, Ohman said, becoming missionary catechists, who bring the charism to other parts of the world. Others become what are called “mission families,” who leave their homes and live in spiritually poor or dechristianized areas to serve as models of Christian families.
“The charism of the Neocatechumenal Way is missionary,” Ohman explained. “It is not something for ourselves to keep. It is something to spread.”
Similarly, the Neocatechumenal Way is also “fertile ground” for vocations to the priesthood and to contemplative religious life, Ohman said.
In March, addressing the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Rome, the pope thanked the Neocatechumenal Way and its initiators for the large number of vocations to the priesthood they have inspired. In the past 20 years, over 1,000 men from the Neocatechumenal Way have been ordained, and 1,500 more are currently studying for the priesthood, Zenit news agency reports.
In addition, over 2,000 young men and women are attending vocational centers to discern a call to the priesthood or religious life.
The Neocatechumenal Way first came to the Archdiocese of Boston in the late 1970s at the invitation of the late Msgr. Peter F. Hart, then pastor of St. Clement Parish in Somerville, and has been present in several parishes over the decades. Currently the Neocatechumenate is present in Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in East Boston. Over 150 members participate in both English and Spanish-language groups.
The Neocatechumenal Way helps one “to experience the grace given in baptism, to live a life of faith trusting in God for all things,” Ohman said. It is “a way of seeing that God loves you as you are.”
More information on the Neocatechumenal Way, is available at: www.camminoneocatecumenale.it/en/