Forty years ago, during a Vatican II session on the Liturgy, a young Polish auxiliary bishop, Mgr Karol Wojtyla, said: "Christian initiation is done not with baptism alone but through a catechumenate during which the adult person is prepared to lead his life as a Christian. It is, therefore, clear that initiation is something more than the reception of baptism alone."
And at the end of the discussion on the Constitution for the Liturgy, one of the most important decisions taken was precisely that of reintroducing the catechumenate for adults, a process of gestation for the gradual reception of a new life (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 64).
It was at the same time that a Spanish painter, Kiko Argüello, after experiencing an existential crisis, discovered in the suffering of the poor and marginalised people of the slums of Palomeras Altas on the outskirts of Madrid the awesome mystery of the Crucified Christ that is present in the 'least' of the earth.
There he met Carmen Hernàndez, a Spanish graduate in chemistry and theology, on her way to evangelise the miners of Oruro in Bolivia. Together they brought into being a catechetical synthesis that would become the backbone of the process of evangelisation of adult people that was to become known as the Neocatechumenal Way.
Seventeen years later, on Septem-ber 5, 1979, Karol Wojtyla, less than a year after he was elected Pope John Paul II, met Kiko and Carmen, together with Padre Mario Pezzi, personally for the first time and invited them to Mass at Castel Gandolfo.
After Mass, he told them that during the celebration, thinking of them, he has seen Atheism-Baptism-Catechumenate, thus expressing his conviction that, in the face of modern atheism, baptism needed to be rediscovered through a catechumenate.
Four months earlier Pope Paul VI had stated in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, "Our pastoral and missionary concern... reaches those who, even though born in a Christian country, indeed in a sociologically Christian context, have never been educated in their faith and, as adults, are true catechumens."
The Vatican II decision to reintroduce the catechumenate for adults was somewhat ignored in the 1960s, as it unfortunately still is in various parts of the Christian world. But that decision led, in 1972, to the promulgation of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum, a document or schema that regulates the liturgical process of initiation for the baptism of adults.
During his Conciliar intervention of 1962 Mgr Wojtyla had said: "We are living in a period of dechristianization; it seems that believers, those once baptized, are not sufficiently mature to oppose secularisation, the ideologies which are contrary not only to the Church, to Catholic religion, but contrary to religions in general; they are atheistic, even antitheistic."
The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that modern sociologists have, in fact, often replaced the term secularisation with desacralisation. The lack of God, or of a divine 'presence' in man's life and in that of society in general, has become a fact that many take for granted.
The Church was, and still is, being faced with a position very much similar to that prevailing at its birth, a pagan world that had replaced God with so many idols that alienate man from his sacred call. The 'gods' of the Romans have become the 'idols' of today's society.
For this very reason, thought Mgr Wojtyla, the Church needed to recuperate the catechumenate that in the primitive Church was the motor for evangelisation. The already baptised had to recover the faith through a catechumenal itinerary so as to be ready to confront today's challenges.
All this led to an awareness within the Church of the need to reintroduce a process for the baptism of pagans that had been forgotten for centuries ending up as being central to the life of the baptised.
The nearly cursory suggestion in Chapter IV of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum of the possible use of some parts of the catechumenate for adults baptised but not sufficiently catechised evolved into a formulation that establishes the necessity of a post-baptismal catechumenate for all the baptised, as explicitly expressed in 1992 in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
At the time the idea was evolving, its practical application was being tested, even lived, in the several Neocatechumenal Communities that were springing up in several dioceses in Europe and beyond.
The first to take serious note of it was Mgr Casimiro Morcillo, Archbishop of Madrid. His visit to the community that had been born in the shanty town of Palomeras Altas helped him discern the action of the Holy Spirit. In blessing it he saw the fulfilment of the decision taken at the Vatican Council in which he had participated as one of the general secretaries.
Then, in 1972, the Neocatechumenate was studied in depth by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship which was in the process of publishing the Ordo for the Christian Initiation of Adults.
Mgr Annibale Bugnini, Secretary of the Congregation, and his group of experts were impressed that what they had been elaborating for years on the subject of the catechumenate for adults was already being put into practice. They saw the action of the Holy Spirit working among the poor. They realised that new hopes had been created for thousands of Christians who had queried the relevance of God in their lives and found that He was still alive and active in His Son Crucified and Risen from the dead.
Like the Christians of days of the Apostles and the Fathers, people were finding that Christ's Death and Resurrection was the only thing that mattered. They too could overcome the daily deaths brought about by their weaknesses and triumph over them by accepting God's will as Christ had done.
The primitive catechumenate lasted from two to three years, but many catechumens chose to postpone their baptism for a longer period. Those who expressed the desire to become Christians would spend a period of listening (they were called audientes) following which there would be a deeper instructive and probationary period meant to form them into adult Christians.
After two years of study on the liturgical-catechetical praxis of the Neocatechumenal Way, the Congregation published in its official journal Notitiae a note of praise recognising in the Way a gift of the Holy Spirit for the implementation of the Vatican II decision.
The 1979 meeting of John Paul II with Kiko, Carmen and Padre Mario was followed by another one, this time in public, on November 2, 1980, in the Roman parish of the Canadian Martyrs. This was the first parish that housed the first Neocatechumenal Community in Italy 12 years earlier.
Speaking to the brethren of the Neocatechumenal Communities, John Paul II said: "We are living in a period of radical confrontation which imposes itself everywhere... God and anti-god... an anti-god cannot exist, but in man there can be created the radical denial of God... in this our age we need to rediscover a radical faith, radically understood, radically lived and radically fulfilled... I hope that your experience was born in such a perspective and can lead towards a healthy radicalisation of our Christianity, of our faith, towards an authentic evangelical radicalism."
Eight years later, on January 31, 1988, addressing the Neocatechumenal Communities at the parish of Santa Maria Goretti, the Pope was even more explicit on the importance of the Catechumenate in the Church when he stated: "Through your way and your experiences you can see what a treasure the catechumenate as a method or preparation for Baptism was for the early Church. When we study Baptism... we see more clearly that today's practice has become always more inadequate, superficial... Without a pre-baptismal catechumenate this practice is not sufficient...
"I see here the genesis of the Neocatechumenate someone has - I don't know if it was Kiko or someone else - questioned himself: where did the strength of the early Church come from? And where comes the weakness of the Church today which has much bigger numbers? And I believe that he has found the answer in the catechumenate, in this way..."
Two and a half years earlier, on August 30, 1990, John Paul II had made a more definite affirmation in his Letter Ogniqualvolta when he officially recognised "the Neocatechumenal Way as an itinerary of Catholic formation, valid for our society and for our times" and called on bishops and priests to "value and support this work for the new evangelisation."
The road to more formal and stable recognition of the Neocatechumenal Way was now open. That definite recognition came on June 29, when the Holy See approved the Statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way, giving the Church an instrument to re-evangelise the baptised.
(To be concluded)
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