Bad History, Bad Guide. The Strange Liturgy of the Neocatechumenals
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Among the new movements that have arisen within the Catholic Church in recent decades – on the "dangers" of which an editorial in "La Civiltà Cattolica" sounded the alarm on August 19, 2004 – there is one that is under closer observation than the rest: the Neocatechumenal Way.
Begun in 1964 in Spain by Francisco "Kiko" Argüello and Carmen Hernández (see photo), the Way has seen impressive growth throughout the world. On June 29, 2002, the Holy See approved its statutes. But that did not end the scrutiny. That same year, on September 21, John Paul II reminded the heads of the Way:
"It now falls to the appropriate dicasteries of the Holy See to examine the catechetical directory and all the catechetical, not to mention liturgical, practices of the Way itself."
In effect, the catechisms written by Kiko and Carmen, which provide a model for all of the Way, have never been made public, and are still under examination by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Written "in a somewhat chaotic way, with unclear theoretical formulations, with recourse to paradoxes, using images more than concepts" (this is one evaluation of the original draft, made by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy), these catechetical writings have lent themselves over the years to accusations of doctrinal error, which a reviewed and corrected publication should put to rest.
But such a publication still seems a long way off. Notably, up until now there has been only a synthesis of the first fifteen catecheses and the following two days of life in common; that is, of the birth phase of each new community: two months out of a span of fifteen years, which is the minimum duration of catechesis in the Way.
The synthesis was made public – evidently at the behest of Kiko and Carmen, and using their unpublished texts – in Italy at the end of 2004, by a priest of the Way, Piergiovanni Devoto, in a book entitled: "The Neocatechumenate: A Christian Initiation for Adults," printed by the Chirico publishing house in Naples.
The book is an open apology for the Neocatechumenal Way, in response to the criticisms advanced up to now, even by authoritative bishops and cardinals, before and after the approval of the statutes.
Lending weight to this apology is the ardent preface written by Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, president of the pontifical council "Cor Unum," and even more so the innumerable attestations of esteem made by John Paul II, which are compiled in the second part of the book.
But there is one point upon which this apology remains weak. And it regards the liturgical practice of the Way.
The Neocatechumenals customarily celebrate the Sunday mass on Saturday evening, separately from the parish community to which they belong.
That's not all. Given that each Neocatechumenal community corresponds to a precise stage of the Way, each community of twenty or thirty persons has its own mass. If there are ten communities in a parish, on Saturday evening there will be ten discrete masses, in separate locations.
Since 2002, the statutes approved by the Holy See have obligated these masses to be "open also to other members of the faithful" (art. 13.3), but in point of fact nothing has changed.
And then, above all, it is the way in which the masses are celebrated that draws strong reservations both within and outside of the Vatican.
On October 17, 2004, John Paul II decreed "the year of the eucharist" for the entire Church, with the purpose of revitalizing the celebration of the mass.
To this end, he wrote the apostolic letter "Mane Nobiscum Domine," having already published in 2003 the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," followed on March 25, 2004, by the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," by the Congregation for Divine Worship,"on some matters that must be observed and avoided in regard to the most holy eucharist."
There is a glaring contrast between the encyclical, the instruction, and the indications for the eucharistic year on the one hand, and the liturgical practices of the Neocatechumenal Way on the other.
The book "authorized" by Fr. Devoto seeks to defend the Way from some of the recurrent accusations: in particular, that it obscures the sacrificial nature of the mass and minimizes the permanent real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread.
And to justify the liturgical praxis of the Way, the author refers to unpublished texts by Kiko and Carmen, in which they recount to their disciples their own highly particular history of the mass, according to which the great merit of the Way is that of restoring the celebration of the mass to its original purity.
But this historical reconstruction – with the practices which are derived from it – is itself the most questionable point of the apology.
Here by way of example are some passages taken from pages 71-77:
"Over the course of the centuries, the eucharist has been fragmented and crusted over, repackaged to the point at which we did not see anywhere in our mass the resurrection of Jesus Christ"...
"In the 4th century, with the conversion of Constantine and the entry into the Church of pagan masses that neither understood nor lived Easter, Christianity became the official, and thus protected, religion of the empire. The emperor and his court also went to church to celebrate the eucharist: thus were born the rites of entrance solemnified by songs and psalms which were eliminated over time, leaving only the antiphon, which constitutes a real and true absurdity"...
"Analogously, place was made for offertory processions, in which there emerged the conception of natural religiosity, which tends to placate the divinity through gifts and offerings"...
"With the passage of the centuries, private prayers were inserted into the mass in notable quantities. The assembly was no more, and the mass had taken on a penitential tone, in stark contrast with the paschal exultation from which it had emerged"...
"And while the people lived out the privatization of the mass, the erudite elaborated rational theologies which, although they contain the essence of revelation ‘in nuce,’ are wrapped in philosophical garments foreign to Christ and the apostles"...
"So it is understandable why Luther emerged, making a clean break with everything he believed was a purely human addition or tradition"...
"When what a sacrament is, what a memorial is, is lost from sight, one proceeds to give philosophical definitions which not only cannot exhaust the reality that they contain, but are not even necessarily linked to the philosophy used to express them. Thus Luther, who never doubted the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, rejected 'transubstantiation,' because it was bound to the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of substance, which is foreign to the Church of the apostles and the Fathers"...
"The rigidity and fixity of the Council of Trent generated a static mentality in the liturgy, which has persisted to our day, quick to be scandalized by any change or transformation. And this is an error, because the liturgy is life, a reality of the Spirit living among men. For this reason, it can never be bottled up"...
"Having emerged from a legalistic and rigid mentality, we witnessed at Vatican II a profound renewal of the liturgy. The cloaks that had covered the eucharist were removed from it. It is interesting to see that originally, the anaphora [the prayer of consecration] was not written, but was improvised by the presider"...
"The Church has tolerated inauthentic forms for centuries. Thus it is seen that the 'Gloria,' which was part of the liturgy of the hours recited by the monks, entered into the mass when a single celebration was made of the two actions, and that the 'Credo' emerged with the appearance of heresies and apostasies. Even the 'Orate Fratres' is a culminating example of the prayers with which the mass was stuffed full"...
"The celebration of the eucharist on Saturday evening is not intended to facilitate Sunday recreation, but to go back to the roots: the day of rest for the Jews begins with the sighting of the first three stars on Friday, and the first vespers of Sunday for the entire Church have always been on Saturday evening"...
"On Saturday, we join the feast with our whole being, to sit at the table of the Great King and taste even now the banquet of eternal life. After the supper, the day concludes with a cordial and friendly celebration"...
The fruits of this questionable history lesson are visible in the liturgies celebrated by the Neocatechumenal communities all over the world.
The masses are almost always celebrated, community by community, not in the churches, but in parish buildings. Centuries of sacred art and architecture are thus nullified. And these are substituted by new decor typical of the Way, dominated by a large, square dinner table at the center of the room. The images used are in the style of the founder, Kiko, who is a Byzantine-influenced painter. And so are the songs. The musical accompaniment is provided by the guitar, defined as the instrument "closest to the ancient Hebrew psalter."
The celebration is formally open to all. In reality, at the moment of entrance there is an exchange of greetings, presentations, and applause, which acts as a barrier to those outside the community.
In the liturgy of the Word, each of the readings is preceded and followed by long "admonitions" from the catechists, which are then followed by "echoes" from many of those present. The priest's homily is barely distinguishable from the rest of the comments.
The eucharistic liturgy is also pulled free from the norms in order to represent instead the presumed physical actions of the primitive apostolic community: with a huge loaf of bread mixed and baked according to Kiko's precise instructions, with wine which passes from hand to hand in decanters, with a communion that takes place as fellow sitting diners eating and drinking around a dinner table...
The statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way were approved by the Holy See in 2002 on an "ad experimentum" basis for five years. The bishops are entrusted with the task of watching over their application.
Various bishops have expressed reservations, even recently: for example, that of Brescia, Giulio Sanguineti. In 2004, he wrote in a letter that "we must avoid that the eucharist celebrated in the Neocatechumenal communities be perceived as the 'true' eucharist in comparison with the one celebrated for all the faithful."
Other bishops are instead, and in growing numbers, enthusiasts of the Way. They admire its power of propagation and the flowering of vocations.
John Paul II is one of their most convicted admirers. In the Vatican, they receive strong support from Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
But the Neocatechumenals are meeting with some luck here and there even outside the Church. Since they constructed their worldwide citadel on Mount Korazym, above the Sea of Galilee, which was inaugurated by the pope in person in 2000 and is heavily visited by their pilgrims, they have been in great favor in Israel, especially in some of the circles of observant Judaism.
In 2004, the Neocatechumenal Way was even on the brink of receiving from the Israeli government the concession of permanent use of the hall of the Cenacle in Jerusalem. This concession was blocked in extremis. The Israeli government is now studying the idea of giving the use of the Cenacle to the pope.
Piergiovanni Devoto, “Il neocatecumenato. Un’iniziazione cristiana per adulti”, presentazione di Paul Josef Cordes, Chirico, Napoli, 2004, pp. 272, euro 16,50.
The official website of the Neocatechumenals, in multiple languages:
And the website of their citadel in Israel:
The Way is currently present in more than 900 dioceses in the world, with more than 17,000 communities in 6,000 parishes. More than 1,000 priests have been ordained into its ranks, and 1,500 others are being prepared in more than 50 "Redemptoris Mater" seminaries.
For a documented and balanced criticism of the Neocatechumenal Way, especially of its manner of celebrating the eucharist out of accordance with the general norms of the Church, see the essay by Pier Giorgio Liverani in this article on www.chiesa:
> Saturday Night Masses for Everyone! Carmen and Kiko's Church of Many Rooms (5.12.2002)
Pier Giorgio Liverani, of the diocese of Rome, is a director of Catholic Action and of the Movement for Life. He was once the editor of "Avvenire," the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference.
English translation by Matthew Sherry: > [email protected]
Go to the English home page of > www.chiesa.espressonline.it, to access the latest articles and links to other resources.
Sandro Magister’s e-mail address is [email protected]
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