By John L. Allen Jr.
Back in July, Pope Francis famously said he wants Catholics to go out and make a mess.
“I want a mess in the dioceses!” the pope said, almost shouting, in a talk to a group of young people in Brazil for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day festival. “I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street!”
Over the years, few outfits have had a better track record of making messes than the Neocatechumenal Way, a lay movement founded in Spain in 1964 by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández. The controversial group seems to win friends and ruffle feathers in roughly equal measure.
Created to offer post-baptismal formation for Catholics who want to deepen their faith, admirers see the Neocatechumenate as “New Evangelization” in action – high-octane, aggressively missionary, and phenomenally successful.
Organized into parish-based communities of 20 to 50 people, the Neocatechumenate today claims a worldwide following in excess of one million in 124 nations. The movement also has about 2,000 priests, operates around 100 seminaries, and sponsors thousands of “families in mission” who spread the faith to the four corners of the world.
The group tends to be especially effective with young people and families. During the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell said that of the 110,000 international participants, 40,000 were from the Neocatechumenate.
To critics, however, the Neocatechumenate is emblematic of what can go wrong when fervor shades off into fanaticism.
Over the years, the group has been accused of excessive control over members’ lives, playing fast and loose with both Church teaching and the liturgical rules, fostering a cult of personality around Argüello and Hernandez, and dividing parishes by insisting that members attend their own Saturday evening services rather than the usual Sunday Mass.
Those accusations haven’t just come from the usual line-up of embittered ex-members and liberal activists in the Church. They’ve been leveled by a number of bishops, from Bishop Mervyn Alexander of Clifton in the U.K., who in 1994 called the Neocatechumenate a form of “spiritual enslavement,” to Archbishop Luigi Bommarito of Catania in Italy, who in 2001 said the movement “strips the flesh from people’s consciences by asking questions that no confessor would ask.”
The Neocatechumenate has been kicked out or seen its activities restricted in a surprising number of places, including Japan, the Philippines, Nepal, as well as a number of individual dioceses in both Europe and North America.
That background lent special significance to the encounter on Saturday between Pope Francis and roughly 10,000 screaming “Neocats” in a Vatican audience hall.
On the one hand, as a bishop from Latin America, Francis certainly knows the retail-level success the Neocatechumenate has enjoyed. It’s among the few enterprises that’s had much luck stemming the erosion of Catholic populations in Latin America to the Evangelicals and Pentecostals.
On the other hand, Francis is also a Jesuit, and relations between the “new movements” and religious orders over the years, to put it politely, haven’t always been the best. Moreover, the Neocatchumenate also has a reputation for being on the conservative side of most Catholic issues, at a time when Francis seems to be steering the Church into the center.
As veteran Vatican writer Luigi Accattoli put it in the Feb. 2 issue of Corriere della Sera, in his first session with followers of the movement Francis both “praised them more than other popes” and also “criticized them with greater severity” than other popes.
Francis repeatedly thanked the group for its “ardor” and its “witness.” He also complimented them for their commitment to families. Seeing lots of kids in the hall, Francis at one point asked parents to hold up their babies. Suddenly the Vatican’s Aula Nervi, as Accattoli described it, turned into a “galaxy of infants.”
Francis also applauded the Neocatechumenate’s missionary drive.
“The Church is grateful to you for your generosity,” he said.
Backing up his own point, Francis personally handed out crucifixes to 414 Neocatechumenate families who were leaving for missionary posts in places such as China, Mongolia, India, and points beyond.
At the same time, the pope also said he wanted to lay out three “simple recommendations” to the group, and anyone who knows its history will readily grasp what he had in mind.
First, the pope said, it’s more important for the group to be in communion with the local church and its bishop than to uphold all the particulars of its own spiritual path.
“Communion is essential,” Francis said. “Sometimes it can be better to renounce living in every detail what your own path demands, in order to guarantee unity among the brothers who form the one ecclesial community, of which you must always feel yourself a part,” he said.
Translation: If local pastors or the bishop asks you to join everybody else for Mass on Sunday, do it. If the Vatican tells you to play by the liturgical rulebook, do that too.
Second, Francis urged the Neocatechumenate to respect the local cultures in which the group wants to put down roots.
Learning foreign languages is helpful, the pope said, but “much more important will be your commitment to learning the cultures that you meet, recognizing that the need for the Gospel is everywhere, but also [recognizing] the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and the history of every people.”
Translation: Don’t ride into places such as Japan, or Nepal, and insist that in addition to becoming Catholic, everybody also has to become Spanish or Italian.
Third, the pope asked the Neocatechumenate to foster internal freedom and to respect those who decide to leave the group.
“Everyone’s freedom must not be coerced,” he said, “and the eventual choice of anyone who decides to seek other forms of Christian life … outside the [Neocatechumenate] must be respected.”
Translation: Lighten up internally, and when somebody leaves, don’t swing into action like a K Street lobbying firm specializing in character assassination.
I’ve provided informal translations here for people who may not have being following the vicissitudes of the Neocatechumenate closely, not because the pope’s language was in any way unclear. Trust me – the 10,000 people in that hall knew exactly what he meant.
It remains to be seen whether the pontiff’s admonitions will have an impact in the experience people have of the Neocatechumenate. Perhaps by positioning himself as friend rather than foe, however, Francis at least may have ensured himself a serious hearing.
John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr