ROME, January 13, 2012 – As on other occasions in the past, this January as well, on Friday the 20th, Benedict XVI will meet in the audience hall of the Vatican with thousands of members of the Neocatechumenal Way, with their founders and leaders, the Spaniards Francisco "Kiko" Argüello and Carmen Hernández.
One year ago, at the audience of January 17, 2011, the pope told the enthusiastic audience that the thirteen volumes of the catechism in use in their communities had received the longed-for approval, after a very lengthy examination begun in 1997 by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, and after numerous corrections had been introduced, with about 2000 references to parallel passages of the official catechism of the Catholic Church.
Next January 20, however, the leaders and members of the Way expect from the supreme authorities of the Church an even more ardently desired "placet." The official and definitive approval of what is their most visible, but also most controversial, distinctive trait: the way in which they celebrate the Mass.
THE FOUR ELEMENTS
The Masses of the Neocatechumenal communities have always been distinguished by at least four elements.
1. They are celebrated in small groups, corresponding to the different stages of advancement on the catechetical journey. If in a parish, for example, there are twelve Neocatechumenal communities, each at a different stage, there will be twelve Masses, celebrated in separate places more or less at the same time, preferably on Saturday evening.
2. The surroundings and furnishings trace out the image of a banquet: a table with the participants seated around it. Even when the Neocatechumenals celebrate the Mass not in a parish hall but in a church, they often ignore the altar. They put a table in the middle and sit around it in a circle.
3. Each of the biblical readings of the Mass is preceded by an extensive "monition" on the part of one or the other of the community and is followed, especially after the Gospel, by "resonances," or personal reflections by a substantial number of those present. The priest's homily is added to the "resonances" without being distinguished from them.
4. Communion also takes place in banquet form. The consecrated bread – a large unleavened loaf, two thirds white flour and one third whole wheat flour, prepared and baked according to detailed rules established by Kiko – is broken and distributed to those present, who remain in their places. After the distribution, it is eaten at the same time by all, including the priest. After this, the priest goes from one person to the next with the chalice of consecrated wine, which everyone drinks.
There are also other peculiarities, but these four are enough to understand how different in form and substance the Masses of the Neocatechumenals are from those celebrated according to the general liturgical rules. A difference that is certainly more pronounced than that between the Masses in the ancient Roman rite and in the modern rite.
The Vatican authorities have repeatedly sought to bring the Neocatechumenals back to greater fidelity to the "lex orandi" in effect in the Catholic Church. But with a weak pulse and almost no results.
The strongest reminder came with the promulgation of the definitive statutes of the Way, approved in 2008.
In them, at article 13, the Vatican authorities established that the Masses of the communities must be "open also to other faithful"; that communion must be received "standing"; that for the biblical readings, only "brief monitions" of introduction are permitted, apart from the homily.
There is no trace of the "resonances" (permitted in the previous, provisional statutes of 2002) in this same article 13 dedicated to the celebration of the Mass. It is mentioned only in article 11, which, however, concerns the weekday celebrations of the Word, which each community holds with its own catechists.
The fact is that there has been very little change between the way in which the Neocatechumenals celebrate the Mass today and the way in which they celebrated it until a few years ago, when, moreover, the cups of consecrated wine were passed festively from hand to hand.
It is only in theory that their group Masses have been opened to other faithful as well.
Standing or seated, their convivial way of distributing communion is still the same.
The personal "resonances" of those present continue to invade and overwhelm the first part of the Mass.
Not only that. Kiko, Carmen, and their followers are counting on coming out of the audience with Benedict XVI next January 20 with explicit approval of all of this.
An approval with all the official blessings. Promulgated by the Vatican congregation for divine worship.
RATZINGERIAN AND ANTIPAPAL
With a Francis Arinze as cardinal prefect of the congregation, and above all with a Malcolm Ranjith as its secretary- as it was until a few years ago – such approval would have been unthinkable.
Cardinal Arinze, now retired, was the protagonist in 2006 of a memorable clash with the heads of the Way, when he enjoined on them by letter a series of corrections, which they blatantly disobeyed.
As for Ranjith – now back in Sri Lanka, as archbishop of Colombo – it is difficult to find a cardinal more seasoned in defending fidelity to the liturgical tradition. In the field of the liturgy, Cardinal Ranjith has the reputation of being more Ratzingerian than Ratzinger himself, his mentor.
At the head of the congregation for divine worship today is another cardinal who also passes as a staunch Ratzingerian, the Spaniard Antonio Cañizares Llovera.
But to judge by the document that he is believed to have ready for next January 20, this would not seem to be the case at all.
In fact, his giving the go-ahead to the liturgical "creativity" of the Neocatechumenals would only harm the wise and patient work of reconstruction of the Catholic liturgy that Pope Benedict has been carrying out for years, with a courage equal to the great solitude that surrounds him.
And it would provide another point for the accusations of the traditionalists, not to mention the Lefebvrists.
BETWEEN SHREWDNESS AND INDULGENCE
There is a shrewdness that the Neocatechumenals adopt when popes, bishops, or cardinals participate in or are present at their Masses: that of adhering to the general liturgical rules.
Cardinal Cañizares is not the only one to have fallen into this trap. Or to have believed that the liturgical excesses of the Way, if any, are minimal and forgivable, in comparison with the fervor of faith of those who participate in them.
Like him, many other cardinals and bishops look kindly on the Neocatechumenals, particularly in Spain. In the Vatican curia, they have a fiery supporter in the prefect of "Propaganda Fide," Fernando Filoni, previously the substitute secretary of state.
Thus, while with the other Catholic movements the Vatican authorities are inflexible in demanding respect for the liturgical norms, with the Neocatechumenals they are more indulgent. For example, it is tolerated that, in their Masses, the "resonances" should continue to overflow, when instead the more powerful Community of Saint Egidio was ordered, years ago, to have the homily delivered exclusively by the priest, and no longer – as took place previously – by the founder, Andrea Riccardi, or by other lay leaders of the community.
This widespread indulgence toward the liturgical licenses of the Neocatechumenals has an explanation that stretches back to the beginning of the movement, and that it is helpful to recall.
"LUTHER WAS RIGHT"
In the liturgical field, more than Kiko, it has been the co-founder Carmen Hernández who has shaped the Neocatechumenal "rite."
During the years of Vatican Council II and immediately afterward, when she still wore the religious habit of the Misioneras de Cristo Jesús and was studying to obtain her degree in theology, Carmen became an enthusiast of liturgical renewal. Her teachers and inspiration were the liturgist Pedro Farnés Scherer in Spain and Fr. Luigi della Torre in Rome, also a prominent liturgist, pastor of the Church of the Nativity on Via Gallia, which was one of the movement's first locations in Rome, and Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, at the time the powerful secretary of the Vatican congregation for divine worship and the main architect of the postconciliar liturgical reform.
It was precisely Bugnini, at the beginning of the 1970's, who congratulated himself over the way in which the first communities founded by Kiko and Carmen celebrated the Mass. He wrote about it in "Notitiæ," the official magazine of the congregation for divine worship. And it was again him, together with the co-founders, who decided to call the newborn movement "Neocatechumenal Way."
From visiting with these liturgists and from loosely reworking their ideas, Kiko and Carmen drew their own personal conception of the Catholic liturgy, which they put into practice in the Masses of their communities.
There is a book by a Ligurian priest of the Way, Piergiovanni Devoto, that uses previously unpublished texts of Kiko and Carmen to make public this bizarre conception of theirs.
The book, published in 2004 with the title "Il neocatecumenato. Un’iniziazione cristiana per adulti," and given a warm presentation by Paul Josef Cordes, at the time the president of the pontifical council "Cor Unum," now a cardinal, was printed by Chirico, the Naples-based publishing house that also published the only work translated into Italian by Farnés Scherer, the liturgist who was the first to inspire Carmen.
Here are some of the passages of the book, taken from pages 71-77.
"Over the course of the centuries, the eucharist has been fragmented and crusted over, repackaged to the point at which we did not see anywhere in our mass the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .
"In the 4th century, with the conversion of Constantine, the emperor and his court also went to church to celebrate the eucharist: thus were born the rites of entrance solemnified by songs and psalms which were eliminated over time, leaving only the antiphon, which constitutes a real and true absurdity . . .
"Analogously, place was made for offertory processions, in which there emerged the conception of natural religiosity, which tends to placate the divinity through gifts and offerings . . .
"The Church has tolerated inauthentic forms for centuries. The 'Gloria,' which was part of the liturgy of the hours recited by the monks, entered into the mass when a single celebration was made of the two actions, and that the 'Credo' emerged with the appearance of heresies and apostasies. Even the 'Orate Fratres' is a culminating example of the prayers with which the mass was stuffed full . . .
"With the passage of the centuries, private prayers were inserted into the mass in notable quantities. The assembly was no more, and the mass had taken on a penitential tone, in stark contrast with the paschal exultation from which it had emerged . . .
"And while the people lived out the privatization of the mass, the erudite elaborated rational theologies which, although they contain the essence of revelation ‘in nuce,’ are wrapped in philosophical garments foreign to Christ and the apostles . . .
"So it is understandable why Luther emerged, making a clean break with everything he believed was a purely human addition or tradition . . .
"Luther, who never doubted the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, rejected 'transubstantiation,' because it was bound to the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of substance, which is foreign to the Church of the apostles and the Fathers . . .
"The rigidity and fixity of the Council of Trent generated a static mentality in the liturgy, which has persisted to our day, quick to be scandalized by any change or transformation. And this is an error, because the liturgy is life, a reality of the Spirit living among men. For this reason, it can never be bottled up . . .
"Having emerged from a legalistic and rigid mentality, we witnessed at Vatican II a profound renewal of the liturgy. The cloaks that had covered the eucharist were removed from it. It is interesting to see that originally, the anaphora [the prayer of consecration] was not written, but was improvised by the presider . . .
"The celebration of the eucharist on Saturday evening is not intended to facilitate Sunday recreation, but to go back to the roots: the day of rest for the Jews begins with the sighting of the first three stars on Friday, and the first vespers of Sunday for the entire Church have always been on Saturday evening . . .
"On Saturday, we join the feast with our whole being, to sit at the table of the Great King and taste even now the banquet of eternal life. After the supper, the day concludes with a cordial and friendly celebration . . ."
Is this supposed to be "the spirit of the liturgy" – the title of a key work by Joseph Ratzinger – that the Vatican authorities are believed to be about to confirm, with the practice that derives from it?
> Neocatechumenal Way
The Way is present in 1320 dioceses of 110 countries, with 20,000 communities and 78 "Redemptoris Mater" seminaries from which 1600 priests have come in twenty years. Of the communities, 500 are in Rome and 300 in Madrid. There are about 300,000 adult followers of Kiko and Carmen in all.
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