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A Vatican rebuke to the Neo-catechumenal Way?

Pope Benedict's meeting at the Vatican last Thursday with members of the Neo-catechumenal Way, including 200 families who will soon depart on evangelising missions in various countries, especially in Latin America, was particularly important this year.

This meeting came a few weeks after the Vatican issued instructions directing the Neo-catechumenals to change certain liturgical practices that they had adopted. These instructions were contained in a December 1 letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, published in late December in the Italian press.

As expected, the meeting with the Pope was as warm and as celebrative as ever. Benedict XVI spoke about the mission of these families. He also stressed the importance that this "apostolic activity aims to situate itself within the bosom of the Church, in total harmony with her directives and in communion with the particular Churches where you will go to work, fully evaluating the richness of the charisms that the Lord has generated through the founders of the Way."

The Pope also referred to the liturgical norms. "I am sure," he said, "that you will attentively observe these norms, which are based on liturgical texts approved by the Church. By faithful adherence to all Church directives, you will render your apostolate even more effective, in harmony and full communion with the Pope and the pastors of dioceses."

Many commentators had described the directives as a rebuke to the movement. The Catholic World News agency said that "the Vatican directive marks the first significant crackdown on liturgical abuse since the election of Pope Benedict XVI." The critics say that the norms follow previous criticism by several Church circles. In August 2004 the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica - which is regarded as semi-authoritative, since its contents are approved in advance by the Vatican Secretariat of State - wrote of the "dangers" of the Neo-catechumenate approach.

On the other hand, exponents of the Neo-catechumenal Way took a different position and publicly welcomed the Vatican's dispositions on the celebration of Mass within the Way's communities. Giuseppe Gennarini, a spokesman who is in charge of the Way in the United States, told the Rome-based Catholic news agency Zenit: "For the first time, the Vatican has accepted several variations to the way the Eucharist is celebrated within the context of the Neo-catechumenal Way, as licit adaptations to help contemporary man to better receive the grace communicated by the sacraments."

The whole debate can be looked at as an example of the classic discussion about whether a glass is half-empty or half-full. It is a fact that the members of the Way will have to change some of their liturgical practices. On the other hand, some wanted the Neo-catechumens to lose much more than they have lost. The members of the Way, understandably so, are finding comfort because the core of their liturgical celebration not only has not been touched but has now been approved.

From comments found in several dispatches of different news agencies it is clear that the new norms were preceded by discussions and negotiations between the Vatican and the Neo-catechumens. One of the most controversial aspects of the Way was the holding of its weekly liturgical celebration - and also the celebrations on special occasions especially Easter - during a different time and place than the rest of the parish.

Many used to say that this was divisive and elitist. That practice has drawn criticism that the Neo-catechumenate has separated itself from the diocesan structures, holds exclusive services from which other Catholics are barred, and does not honour the Sunday Sabbath. These norms approve this practice in substance but modify it accidentally. Now the Neo-catechumenate communities must participate in Sunday Mass in a local parish at least once a month.

The Neo-catechumenate communities, like the Ambrosian rite, give the sign of peace before the offertory. Cardinal Arinze informs the Neo-catechumenate leaders that they may continue this practice. The group had previously received an indult from the Vatican for this practice, and the Congregation for Divine Worship said that indult would remain in effect "pending further instructions."

Gennarini says that "to understand the magnitude of this concession, we must remember that only a few weeks before the signing of this letter, the prefect of the congregation had explained to hundreds of bishops attending the Synod on the Eucharist that no one would be allowed to change the place of the sign of peace. In fact, several bishops' conferences had requested such a variation, but it has never been allowed."

There are also a number of minuses or restrictions included in the Vatican norms. These stipulate that any remarks that precede the Scripture readings at Mass should be brief, and in keeping with the General Instructions for the Roman Missal. Neo-catechumenate leaders have frequently delivered lengthy admonitions before the Mass readings.

The homily must be delivered by an ordained priest or deacon - not by lay leaders, as has often been the case at Mass in the lay movement. If lay people are called to add their own testimony, their contributions must not "assume characteristics that might cause them to be confused with the homily."

The Neo-catechumenates must change the manner in which Communion is received, to conform to regular Church norms. In their own Eucharistic celebrations, the members of the movement received Communion while seated around a large table. The group also uses a loaf of bread for the Eucharist, and passes a large chalice around the table. This manner of distributing Communion had been widely criticised, although it had also been cited as a model by prelates participating in the Synod on the Eucharist last October.

Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agana, Guam, said the entire Church should consider adopting some of the Way's liturgical practices, including restoring "the 'breadness' of the bread," by using the "unleavened bread used in the ancient and primitive Church rather than the wafer-thin, mass-produced bread we use as hosts for our people today."

And, he said, when a priest carries the Eucharist to people who are seated, it fosters more of a sense of community. "What sort of a banquet does one go to which requires you to stand rather than sit?" Archbishop Apuron asked.

The Vatican is of a different opinion and the directive clearly indicates that these practices should not be imitated; Cardinal Arinze gives the group a transitional period of two years, within which their practices must be brought into line with liturgical guidelines.

Since its foundation in Spain in 1964 the Neo-catechumenate has occupied a special role in the Church. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have expressed admiration for the movement's ability to revive the faith of lapsed Catholics. Leaders of the movement report that 70 per cent of their members are baptised Christians who had abandoned the practice of their faith, and needed the special charism of the Neo-catechumenate to draw them back. In just over 40 years the Neo-catechumenate has established 16,700 communities in 880 dioceses spread across 100 countries.

In Malta the Neo-catechumenal Way is followed by thousands.

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