On a day already meant to be celebratory for the Neocatechumenal Way, the Holy See gave the movement more reason to cheer as it announced its approval of the community's series of teachings. The Pope praised the community, but also gave them explicit instructions to work with local priests to carry out their mission.
Way members met in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall on Jan. 17 to witness the Pope bless families and priests as he sent them out to their new posts. Members and supporters of the Way, as well as people from its missions, initiatives and seminaries all over the world packed the venue to capacity.
The Neocatechumenal Way, an international religious community that bases its activity around "post-baptismal" Christian formation in parishes, was founded more than 40 years ago by Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez. Both founders were in Rome for the audience.
Playing his guitar and accompanied by an orchestra and choir, Kiko welcomed Pope Benedict to the audience hall by leading the crowd of thousands in song.
As they all prepared for the papal audience, the president of the Pontifical Council for Laity, Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, made the announcement that the catecheses, or teachings, of the Neocatechumenal Way had been officially approved by the Church.
The cardinal called it a “much awaited” and “very important” day for the community and its catechists.
“The Neocatechumenal Way,” Cardinal Rylko said, “acts according to the proposed writings of the founders ... which will have the title of Catechetical Directory of the Neo-Catechumenal Way,” he announced to thunderous applause.
The work to approve the teachings had already been done once. From 1997-2003, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) revised, modified and approved the teachings, which until that point had only been recorded from founder Kiko Arguello's talks.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Vatican department, saw to it personally that the Way put things on paper.
With the nod from the CDF and conditional approval for a normal five-year "trial period," full recognition of the Way by the Holy See came in 2008. Some remained unconvinced of the doctrinal approval, however, since no one had ever seen the official okay from the doctrine department.
Questions continued to come up about whether certain modifications of liturgical practices proper to the community had been approved by the Vatican. There was confusion about how the Way treats communion, why lay people were asked to preach and what reasons were behind the practice of Way members celebrating Mass "privately" on Saturday evenings.
The prompting led co-founder Kiko Arguello to request that the Vatican's doctrine department confirm their approval of the Way's methods.
Cardinal Rylko said he was authorized to make that announcement to the audience hall this morning. He explained that "so as to give greater security to the actions of the Neo-Catechumenal Way and to offer doctrinal guarantees to all the pastors of the Church," the CDF revisited the 13 volumes of teachings and approved them as the "Catechetical Directory of the Way."
The Pontifical Council for Laity, of which the cardinal is head, authenticated the doctrinal approval and archived the decree on Dec. 26, 2010, he said.
"Your catecheses have thereby received an important seal from the Church," he told them. "It is a compass, a sure compass according to which you will be able to walk."
The cardinal also thanked them on behalf of the Church for "the grand and important work" of "promoting post-baptismal Christian initiation in the Church."
Kiko Arguello, the group's cofounder, told journalists in a press conference following the audience that the new approval “is important because it gives us a guarantee that the theological, exegetical, liturgical formation” that the Way uses is recognized by the Church as “making a Christian.”
Bishop Zbigniew Kiernikowski of Siedlce, Poland—who was at the press conference as an apparent sign of solidarity—said that he has seen positive effects of the Way's catechesis in his diocese. Now that they can come with their word and "with this book," bishops will know that “this is no deception, not a fictitious thing,” he said.
If they believe the instruction they receive, bishops will give their “people a reality that can transform them,” the Polish bishop added.
Arguello added later that the announcement is "marvelous" because the decree approves the teachings for official proclamation. "It has been revised by the Holy See and completed. It's correct."
"This is from the Church!" he exclaimed.
But the Way still encounters bumps in the road when it comes to its relationships with local pastors, a fact that Arguello alluded to in his next statement.
The directory, he said, "will be very important because now a parish priest who says something, we can say, 'Look father what it says here on page 427, this was approved by the Church'."
"It's a great strength. It gives us a great strength."
The Pope familiarized himself with the community originally as an priest in 1973 in Germany and has long been at their side to guide them to full recognition in the Church. He sees something special in their work, and while being well aware of complaints against them, he continues to encourage them to continue their work while forming better relationships with priests.
"With these seals of ecclesial approval," said the Pope during the morning audience, "the Lord today confirms this precious tool which is the Way and again entrusts it to you so that, in filial obedience to the Holy See and the pastors of the Church, you may contribute with renewed energy and ardour to the radical and joyful rediscovery of the gift of Baptism, and offer your own original contribution to the cause of new evangelization."
The Church recognizes a "particular gift" of the Way to "insert itself" in the Body of the Church, he said.
"In this light," the Pope said, "I exhort you always to seek profound communion with pastors, and with all members of the particular Churches, and of the very different ecclesial contexts in which you are called to work.
"Fraternal communion between the disciples of Jesus is, in fact, the first and greatest witness to the name of Jesus Christ."
The influence of the group took an additional leap forward during the audience. Pope Benedict blessed the 230 Way families being sent out into the world on mission.
The Way's mission families had previously numbered around 600.
A couple from Spain with 10 children and another baby on the way were delegated to greet the Pope in representation of the many other mission families present. Their destination was to be the Ukraine, where they will work to evangelize in a local community.
The Pope handed an additional 13 priests a silver cross to go out and do the same.
These hundreds join over a million others around the world who carry out the Way's mission.
Asked at the press conference what the Way might do to counter some of the resistance it has found in the world, Arguello said that they will continue their work and do their best to improve understanding of who they are.
It's not something that you can just understand after "a half-hour talk," rather it's something you have to make people experience, said the co-founder.
For this purpose, the community has been hosting encounters with bishops and priests around the world to explain what they do.
Arguello reported success through past encounters with more than 200 bishops on the island of Santo Domingo and another 78 in India. On Jan. 26, they'll be meeting with more than 200 bishops from places including the U.S., Canada and Australia who "truly wish to know the way."
"What we do is make them truly know the Way."