The Neo-Catechumenal Way

Stefano Gennarini

Since he was unable to come personally because of unforeseen important commitments, Kiko Argüello sent one of his closest collaborators, Stefano Gennarini, the author of this article. A PhD in theoretical physics, Stefano has journeyed on the Way for the past thirty years. He has carried out and continues to carry out a wide range of activities on an international level.

I would like to start by introducing myself to show what the Neo-Catechumenal Way meant for me. I was born in Milan into a Catholic family. My father was a journalist who for many years worked as a producer on Italian television. After school I studied theoretical physics. After the publication of my thesis, while working as a researcher at University, I went through a deep crisis. I realised that the faith my parents had handed on to me had left deep within me a profound stamp of the person of Jesus Christ but it wasn’t enough for me in terms of living as a Christian.

In other words, I realised that to be a Christian meant to love God with all one’s heart, mind, strength and love your neighbour as yourself, but I realised I was
bourgeois and selfish with all the jealousies that are found within academic circles. A family friend and spiritual director, Fr. Giuseppe Dosetti, suggested to me to leave my university job and go to study theology in Germany.

I lived in Tübingen during the years of contestation around 1968. It was the time that Prof. Küng was expressing his dissent from the Catholic Church. Prof. Ratzinger became a reference point for a group of which I was a member. Immediately after my licence in New Testament studies under Prof. Schnackenburg, I started on doctoral studies. But a deeper crisis than the one I experienced after studying physics awaited me.

Through the grace of God I remained orthodox from an intellectual point of view, but my life was not grounded in Jesus Christ. I had set out to look for a more adult faith in theology but I ended up finding another university career! So I became deeply frustrated and I almost resented the Church because of what I perceived to be her inability to transmit faith into my life. It was in this context that I met the catechesis of the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

When I returned to Rome at Christmas ’69, all my family was following the catechesis lead by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernandez – they initiated the Way – together with Fr. Francesco Cuppini in the parish of St. Luigi Gonzaga.

I was quite sceptical and hesitant about it but I went along. And it was a surprise for me because what I encountered was a preaching that was prophesising about my life and revealing it to me. It showed me why I was incapable of giving myself truly to God and doing his will – it was because I was circled by fear of losing my life, fear of death. The letter to the Hebrews says: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2:14-15). There is an enemy that holds us in slavery and this is the slavery of sin, that being closed in on our selfishness, our incapacity to love, obey God and do his will and lose our lives.

But at the same time the preaching was proclaiming to me that Christ came to break this circle through his death and resurrection. Through this preaching the face of Christ that I had known in my childhood and adolescence was recomposed. Perhaps it was because I had suffered much in Germany during my theology studies that I said “Amen”. I said “yes” to this word – that it would happen in me.

That’s how God began to work in my life. I found myself in a community that I had not chosen, made up of people who were very different from me in terms of culture, age, social class and way of thinking, but they had all adhered to this preaching. After about two years the Lord called me to put myself at the service of the Gospel as an itinerant preacher of the Way. Seeing the fruits of conversion in the life of my brothers and sisters in the community and the communion that God created between people who were so different, I left everything and set out to evangelised wherever the bishops required. This brought me to Austria, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia. For some 25 years now I have been in Poland from where I also co-ordinate the teams that work in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union.

It was born among the poor in the shanty dwellings around Madrid at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Through two individuals whom, through different ways, God had brought to live among the poor – Kiko Argüello, an artist who had converted from atheistic existentialism and Carmen Hernandez, a missionary who had a licence in chemistry and theology – God wanted to give the Church an instrument of evangelisation in order to contribute to the renewal wished for by the Council.

In these very poor and often degrading surroundings where all abstract language fell flat, Kiko and Carmen found they had to give reasons for their faith because people were asking them. The Lord helped them to rediscover a living word, a
kerygma that was linked directly to life. Welcoming the proclamation of the gratuitous love of God by these people who were full of sins, brought about a change of life and created communion. A community came to life in which you could touch the power of the Holy Spirit. A first seed was born – the proclamation of the kerygma, a living liturgy in which the Word celebrated was realised in a direct and surprising way in the life of individuals and the community.

On his return from the Council, the then Archbishop of Madrid, Casimiro Morcillo came into contact with this small community in the shanty dwellings (made up of gypsies, thieves, ex-prisoners…) and was deeply moved. He wanted this seed to be brought into the parishes recommending this be done by putting the parish pastor at the centre. The experience spread in Madrid and other dioceses in Spain. In 1968 they were invited to Rome and with a letter from the Archbishop of Madrid for the Cardinal Vicar Dell’Acqua, they began the Way in a few parishes. From there it spread in all the dioceses through catechists chosen from the first communities and in many other dioceses, countries and continents through teams of itinerant catechists.

It is in the parishes that this Way took the form of an itinerary “of catholic formation valid for our society and humanity today”. Some changed. The proclamation was welcomed; it aroused a great response of joy; a community was born.

But many of our parishioners did not know one another. We are so used to wearing masks in order to be accepted. We pretend to be better that what we are. But we don’t really know what’s within us, our deepest reality. Kiko and Carmen came to realised that the proclamation of the
kergyma was not sufficient. The tripod – Word, liturgy and community – experienced in the shanty dwellings was not enough. There was also a need for a journey in order to reach an adult faith, a journey of kenosis, descending right down into one’s reality in order to know oneself and experience the power of the gratuitous love of God. This journey would help people to see with their own eyes that Christ really descended with us right down to the depths of our poverty and enabled us to recognise the old man that is in us in order to put him to death in the waters of our baptism with the help of the Holy Spirit. And to do this every day as the Church invites us to do at the Easter Vigil.

In other words, they realised that a journey/Way of rediscovery of Baptism was necessary, one that would be like the catechumenate in the early Church. It would be gradual, made up of various stages. It was also necessary to keep in mind that people had already been baptised and so there was a need to nourish this new creature that had re-awakened through proclamation of the
kerygma. It was necessary to help the grace of Baptism to grow through the food of the Word and the Eucharist. It was a question of preparing a womb into which the seed of Baptism could develop to the point of an adult faith that is needed to carry out the mission of the Church today. The Way was shaped like a post-baptism catechumenate lived out in a system of small communities.

The relationship with the Roman Congregations and the Pope was of decisive importance. They supported and helped us. In 1971-72 when Kiko and Carmen had their first meeting with the Congregation for Worship both sides were surprised. Kiko and Carmen learned that the Church, following the wishes of Vatican II, was about to publish the
Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum. The fourth chapter of this document also envisaged the possibility of adapting this Ordo to people who were already baptised. The surprise on the part of the Congregation was seeing how God had given life in the Church to a reality that was already putting all this into practice.

In 1974, after receiving sufficient documentation, this Congregation published a note in which it said that just as after the Council of Trent God had brought about charisms in order to bring it to fulfilment, so too today after Vatican II.

‘An excellent model of this renewal is to be found in the “Neo-Catechumanal Way”… The goal of the communities is to render visible in the parish the sign of the Missionary Church and they make the effort to open up the way towards evangelisation of those who have almost abandoned Christian life. To this end, the members of the communities seek to live more intensely the Christian liturgical life by starting from a new catechesis and catechumenal preparation. They follow along a spiritual journey (way) all those phases that in the early Church the catechumens followed before receiving the sacrament of Baptism. Since they are dealing not with people who are to be baptised but with baptised, the catechesis is the same bu thte liturgical rites are adapted to the state of baptised Christians according to the directives already given by the Congregation of divine Worship”.

The experience of more than 30 years has shown that the Way, as a post-baptismal catechumanate, opens up a missionary pastoral in parishes that calls those who are far from the faith to faith. That’s why it’s necessary in parishes to bear witness to an adult faith in a community that constitutes a sure reference point as the
General Directory of Catechesis puts it. Today many traditional Christians live out their faith in a childish manner as the divorce between religion and life shows. It’s necessary to have a process of true conversion, a journey of growth in faith in order to give those signs of which Jesus Christ speaks in the Gospel: love, shaped on the dimension of the cross (“Love one another has I have love you; by this all will know you are my disciples” Jn 13: 34-35) and the sign of unity” (“May you be one, so that the world will believe that God sent me” cf. Jn 17:21).

In order to give these signs, there’s a need for a life that has conquered death. In order to love the enemy, to love the sick wife, to live in the measure of the cross, it’s necessary that this gift given to us in baptism–this new creature–becomes adult. In order “to be one” it is necessary that all the barriers that divide us (age, culture, social class) be knocked down so that in the community the Church as the Body of the Risen One may appear. And why are love and unity a sign that can also call those far away? Because they make present the victory over death, Christ’s resurrection. For me to give my life for a person I don’t like, for a person who does not give me life, it is necessary that I have eternal life in me, that life which has conquered death. We can bear witness that thanks to those signs it is possible to transmit faith to children (something that’s so difficult today!) and gradually as the brothers and sisters grow in faith, the communities draw many other people and the net fills.

The Neo-Catechemenate Way is offered to the diocese and parish as an itinerary of formation in the faith, a post-baptismal catechumenate. Upon request from a bishop or parish pastor, a team of catechists made up of a presbyter and some lay people begin the catechesis that opens up an itinerary of formation. All the Way is based on the tripod that I’ve already mentioned – the Word, Liturgy, Community and it develops in four phases:

Firstly, the proclamation of the
kerygma in various forms is essential in the initial catechesis that leads to the setting up of a community. In this phase the hermeneutical, Christological and existential keys are given so that the Word celebrated can become flesh in the life of the persons. People are helped to discover the Paschal Mystery as the centre of the sacraments (penance and Eucharist). After the community is set up, the catechists move on and the community is entrusted to the pastoral care of the parish pastor. The community meets twice a week in order to celebrate the liturgy of the Word and the Sunday Eucharist on Saturday evening. It also meets once a month on Sunday for a retreat. The catechists return about once a year in order to meet the community and continue the stages of the post-baptismal catechumenate.

The pre-Catechumenate is a period of
kenosi in order to reach the humility, that is truth, in order to help the brothers and sisters to renounce idols of the world (money, sex, power…), in order to begin to understand the meaning of the cross in their history and put God at the centre of their lives.

The Catechumenate is a period of interior simplification to reach the point of abandoning yourself to the will of God. Brothers and sisters are helped during this period by being presented with the prayer of the Office, the Creed and the Our Father.

The period of election is the time of preparation for a solemn renewal of baptismal promises during the Easter Vigil, a time of illumination and gratitude of the work of salvation wrought by God in life. During this whole process which lasts for about ten years, there is a gradual deepening of one’s knowledge of Scripture, Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium as well as the moral life and life of prayer.

I’ll conclude with two citations from the Pope that highlight the fruits of the Way: “After more than twenty years of life of the communities spread in the five continents,
° taking into account the new vitality that animates parishes, the missionary impulse, and the fruits of conversion that arise out of the itinerants’ commitment and, lastly, the work of families who evangelise in de-Christianised zones of Europe and the whole world;
° in considering the vocations that have arisen from this Movement to religious life and the presbyterate and the birth of diocesan colleges for the formation of priests for the New Evangelization such as the Redemptoris Mater college in Rome;
° having reviewed the documentation that you presented to me and in taking up the request made of me.

I recognise the Neo-Catechumenal Way as an itinerary of Catholic formation that is valid for society and modern times”. ‘Your “Way”…is carried out in small communities in which “reflection on the Word of God and participation in the Eucharist…form living cells of the Church, renew the vitality of the Parish through mature Christians capable of bearing witness to the truth with a radically lived faith”. These communities help people to experience the Church as the Body of Christ in which, through sacramental signs, God extends his salvific action to people of every generation. It is not difficult to see the fruits of the Neo-Catechumenal Way: reconciled families who are open to life and grateful to the Church and who offer themselves to bring the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I myself have had occasion to present the Crucifix to families who are leaving for the poorest and most de-Christianised areas. Many vocations are now arising from these areas. Young women embrace the religious and contemplative life. Young men set out towards priesthood in local seminaries and in the missionary diocesan
Redemptoris Mater seminaries that help churches where, because of the scarcity of clergy, there are serious difficulties. In this way the wish of Vatican II is fulfilled: “Priests, therefore, should recall that the solicitude of all the churches ought to be their intimate concern…. For this purpose there can with advantages be set up some international seminaries….” (PO, 10). I exhort you to remain faithful to the charism that God has entrusted to you for the good of the whole ecclesial community by contributing, through your work, to a deeper rediscovery of the Christian initiation of adults’.

Today the Neo-Catechumenal Way has spread to 900 dioceses in 104 countries with 16.000 communities. The Pope has sent out 300 families to 50 nations. 1500 seminarians are preparing in 43 diocesan missionary
Redemptoris Mater seminaries in various parts of the world. There are very many vocations to the religious life.