The following item, from the Catholic Weekly, is not in the same class. Christ has come for us … is a conversation with Australian Neocat leaders. As you might expect, they have little of significance to say.
‘Christ has come for us …’
A conversation with Neocatechumenate Way colleagues Toto, Rita, Samuele and Fr Tony
By BRIAN DAVIES 17/08/2008
Spreading the Neocatechumenate Way: Seminarian Samuele Depedri (left) with Rita and Toto Piccolo and Fr Tony Trafford.
Toto: Kiko experienced a spiritual conversion. He came from a bourgeois family – middle class – studying art under Picasso. When he was about 20 he encountered the suffering of the innocent. He discovered their maid, a woman from the shanty town, crying: her husband was an alcoholic who beat her and took their money and their son was in prison. It affected him deeply, although he wasn’t at all religious, and he was saddened when he saw the pain and poverty of life in the shanty town. So this was the Kiko, studying to be a painter, whose experience of Christianity had left him with many doubts, but a lingering thought that if Christ were suddenly to return to Madrid he would surely live among the poor. Francisco – Kiko – came from an environment in which people were cynical about religion, people for whom life was an absurdity. He was with friends one day, partying, when he was challenged to paint a picture on a blank wall. He hesitated; then to his surprise began a portrait of Christ in charcoal. Reasoning hadn’t helped him find the presence of God, intuition had and Christ in the portrait seemed to be speaking to him about a different lifestyle – sex, drugs and alcohol were not really his place. So, without fuss, he went to live in the shanty town to share the lives of its people – the thieves, the prostitutes, the gypsies and the wrecks.
Q And Carmen Hernandez?
Her sister was a social worker in Palomerus who one day brought Carmen with her to help and she remained there with Kiko – two catechists working together – no romance – collaborating, committed to a statement John XXIII made that renewal of the church would come from the poor.
So reading the Bible aloud, praying each morning, the word of God became a powerful presence among these poor, coming alive in the shanty town. Christ had come to redeem them. The people were renewed – “Christ has come for us!”
Q So how did the word spread?
Toto: the Bishop of Madrid went to Palomerus to listen for himself and then encouraged Kiko to take his experience to the parishes, to those who believed they didn’t need a conversion because they were already Catholics whose religiosity was to go to church for a dialogue with God, but only an economic one – “help my job, help my children study, and so on”, but not to discover the Paschal mystery, not for the love of Jesus Christ.
Q So what is the Way?
Toto: The Way is for people to rediscover the faith of their baptism, like the adult catechumenates of the early Church – an adult faith. Rita and I came to Australia 32 years ago as a team, invited by the bishops and we began our work.
Q And the work?
Toto: The work is an open school of faith in the parish, giving catechesis for two months in meetings twice a week. We announce Christ to the people who want to listen to God. In the end we form a community and the community keeps in touch with each other … they meet twice a week – evenings – for bible discussion, Sundays at the Eucharist and once a month they go into a retreat. It’s a tripod of faith: the word of God, the Eucharist and liturgy, and the fellowship; we help them little by little to relive their baptism – to be baptismal catechumenates. In the early Church, if an adult person wanted to be baptised, they were not baptised immediately, but received catechesis sometimes for three or four years – some even had to change their lifestyle … say, army officers who could have been involved with pagan idols; today we leave the neocatechcumenate community by themselves, with the parish priest, and every three or six months we rejoin them for a day or two.
Q Is it correct that Neocatechumenates progress through stages …
Toto: No more than there is preparation for first communion or confession and confirmation, once all within the family within a Catholic society, but today society is so secularised, we have to generate a Christian community in which faith can grow.
Fr Tony Trafford: If you look at the earliest rites of Christian initiation for Catechumenates, stages were there from the earliest times of the Church – St Ambrose, St Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem – all the fathers of the church mention, one way or another, stages of initiation at which it was possible to discern whether their faith was growing or not.
Q So neocatechumenism is for the laity?
Toto: No, it’s for everyone to go back to their baptism. Fr Tony’s life is based on his baptism, as are the sacraments of marriage. The vocation of a nun is based on her baptism. We have to rediscover the richness, the fruits of baptism …
Fr Tony Trafford: what’s always impressed me is that the saints received the same baptism as I received … but look at their lives and look at mine … somewhere they have discovered in this same baptism immense riches that I haven’t discovered, but they must be there. As a pastor working in Bristol in England in a parish in a very poor area, the people were Catholics by baptism but broken, trapped in all kinds of vice, drugs, prostitution with no way out. Were they condemned to stay that way for the rest of their lives? I was convinced not, but I didn’t know what to do … then two Neocatechumenal catechists came to the parish and announced the possibility of something different … the ‘neocatechumenal way’. The parish priest and I thought this was an answer to our prayers … so we went with it. And how true it was: we saw people’s lives rebuilt – not because of any social efforts but because Christ had spoken to them of his love for them, as they were.
Q Rita, how did the Way come into your life?
Rita: When I was 19 studying at university in Rome, my faith was by hearsay. My parents believed in God but their main concern seemed to be money; they weren’t well off, but were trying hard to get there. I had one foot in the church and one foot already outside when the Neocatechumenal Way arrived in the parish and there I received something … not emotional, but something very real. I went to the two month catechesis sessions, with Toto – we were boy and girl friend – and then to a weekend retreat where the entire focus was on the Sermon on the Mount as the ultimate image of a Christian; then I realised I was a baptised Catholic, but not a Christian, so I knew I had to start a journey.
Q So Samuele – what brought you to the Way?
Samuele: When I was 15 my father forced me to go and listen to neocatechumenate talks in the parish. I didn’t want to. I was unhappy at the time, distressed and against my parents and scandalised because of problems in their marriage. I couldn’t understand why God didn’t help them yet both my parents wanted me – tried to help me – to keep the faith. What I wanted to do was to leave the Church. Anyway, my father said to me: ‘Before you do that, at least go and listen to the catechesis.’ So I went … I didn’t think I listened very well, but after the final weekend I was asked if I wanted to continue or not. I burst into tears. I cried. I knew God was really the answer to my unhappiness, to my disquiet; later I said to myself if Christ was the answer to my unhappiness why not become a priest and bring the good news and the love of Christ to others.
Q And you, Fr Tony?
Fr Tony: After several years as parish priest I felt it was time to move on to wherever the Lord wanted me. That was 11 years ago but I’m still a diocesan priest belonging to England. My bishop can call me back at any time. However in 1997 I offered to go anywhere in the world and at the time there was a request for a priest to go to Melville Island, in Australia’s Northern Territory, and I volunteered. So I went from Cheltenham in England – very posh – to Melville Island and the Tiwi people. I had several wonderful years there … fantastic … with the population – 700 – all Catholics. Then there was a vacancy on the Neocatechumenate team in Australia. I’d been in contact with Kiko and he asked me to fill the vacancy; January 1999, just on 10 years ago.
Q And, Toto, you and Rita have been married 33 years, been in Australia 32 years, raised a family and all the time spreading word of the Way as its leader in Australia?
Toto: No no, I’m not the leader, the team works as equals. We make a full team: a married couple, a priest and a young seminarian. I can be described as ‘responsible’. As a team we changed house every two or three months; our children were each born in different cities.
Rita: When we finished in Brisbane we went to Darwin, from Darwin to Perth and so on, with the children going from school to school. For instance, we lived in Melbourne in 10 different suburbs
Q So where does your income come from?
Toto: We live on providence. When we go into a parish to give catechesis we ask if it is possible for a parishioner to give us accommodation for a couple of months and food for the children … that sort of support. We live on providence.
Rita: It looks impossible, I know. Today we paid the rent for this house but we don’t know how we’re going to pay the next one because there is no regular income or I go outside in the morning and find an anonymous letter on the steps with $100 in it. God provides for us in different ways … some times not much … or just enough … sometimes for all to go and have a pizza, or sometimes – ‘not today’; very occasionally caviar … but it has been beautiful for our children to learn to live like that.
Q Does the diocese offer you help
Toto: No, no. We enjoy a special charism to live on providence, with no vow of poverty – a style of life to live on. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the children, we are not Australian citizens. We are on permanent visas; we are itinerants, travellers for the Neocatechumenal Way.