Who are the Neo-Cats?

The Tablet/January 6, 2001
By Elena Curti

The new movements in the Catholic Church have the Pope's strong support, but can draw controversy. The Neo-Catechumenate, in particular, while admired for its Christian commitment and missionary zeal, has been criticised for dividing parishes. The Tablet's reporter heard both sides of the story when she investigated.

In the last few weeks, a young Catholic couple have come to settle in one of the most deprived areas of Britain. They've left family, friends and a home in Italy to be a Christian presence in a part of London where many people battle to survive in a tough environment with no jobs and no hope.

Knowing these facts alone, most Catholics would consider this couple heroic and applaud their faith and commitment. They might view them rather differently, however, if they knew they were members of the Neo-Catechumenate. The movement, while admired by some, is regarded with suspicion by others. Neo-Catechumenate communities have been described as secretive and authoritarian, and their methodology has been compared to that of a cult, with accusations of psychological intimidation.

Most of the allegations arose from the controversy over the presence of Neo-Catechumenate communities in three parishes in the Clifton diocese. The bishop, Mervyn Alexander, decided after a lengthy inquiry in November 1996 that the communities had had a divisive effect. He issued a decree ordering them to integrate their activities with those of the parish as a whole and moved three parish priests who had been sympathetic to them.

Bishop Alexander told The Tablet that his views had not changed since the inquiry reported. Since then, the Neo-Cats generally may have gone quiet but they have not gone away. Their numbers continue to grow, and in some parishes they are active in preparing children for Holy Communion and Confirmation, pre-marriage and pre-Baptism courses: in fact, in any area where volunteers are needed and all too often in short supply.

In Britain there are 32 Neo-Catechumenate communities scattered in the dioceses of Westminster, Southwark, Northampton, Liverpool, Salford, Lancaster and Glasgow. Each ranges in size from 15 to 40 people. Many members have large families. According to one of their leading priests, this is their way of expressing their "openness to life".

There is also a House of Formation in Westminster with 18 seminarians, several of whom are studying for the priesthood at the diocesan seminary, Allen Hall. There has been considerable resistance to their ordination from a number of Westminster clergy who have strong reservations about the movement, but one Neo-Catechumen was ordained recently, and two more will follow shortly.

And then there is the family mission. In November in Rome, the Pope gave his blessing to more than 100 Neo-Catechumenate families who had volunteered to bring the gospel message to many different parts of the world. The Pope told them he was sending them out as models of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Wherever these families go, Neo-Catechumenate communities flourish and multiply. It's likely to happen in Brixton where the latest young family has settled. It has certainly happened in Peckham, where Lorenzo and Maurizia Lees arrived from Milan 14 years ago with their three children. There are now three communities there, numbering around 100 people and their children.

The Lees volunteered to take part in a mission together with parishioners and local religious communities. They had learnt English at school but were hardly fluent at that time. Lorenzo left a lucrative job as a photographer in advertising and they moved into a dilapidated flat on the North Peckham Estate. Members of their community donated furniture and helped them find their feet. Lorenzo contacted 80 companies before he found a job.

Despite the obvious hardship, they say they had the time of their lives. Very soon, the couple were out knocking on their neighbours' doors announcing the Good News. The Lees are powerful preachers who talk about their faith with an inspiring energy and spontaneity, and they say they found people who were hungry for spiritual food.

"The catechesis we received enables us to reach out to other people", says Maurizia. "Our calling is to help to open a way to faith to those who don't have it and to help deepen the faith of those who do. This can be done anywhere. "In the early Church the preaching of St Peter and the apostles came with a power that could touch the heart of a person. This is the 'Good News' and through the centuries right up to today it has carried the same power.

All we need is the faith and courage to proclaim it in a world where a new paganism surrounds us." Maurizia Lees, an architect by training, has made a beautiful home by converting two run-down terraced houses the family rent on the North Peckham Estate. They now have nine children, the eldest of whom is training to be a priest in Rome. The Lees are proud that their older children are high achievers and have all won scholarships to a public school. The couple are now a linchpin of the movement in Britain, co-ordinating catechesis throughout the country.

They base their lives and their work on their formation in the Neo-Catechumenal Way. As they talk about its spiritual potency, they are drawn into expressing a reservation about what they see as many Catholics' experience at Sunday Mass. "In a large assembly, it is not easy to listen", says Maurizia. "People get distracted. If you ask children after Mass what the Gospel was about, often they don't remember. In our liturgy, our aim is to help people to listen to the Word and take part. It is exactly like getting a physical push. We don't miss anything. Ask anyone afterwards: they remember every word."

Their local parish priest, Fr Paul Hendricks of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, is very well aware of the Neo-Catechumenate communities' ability to reach out to young people in particular. "Last year they did a catechesis, which is basically their recruitment drive to start a new community. I saw people there from the estate who were not practising Catholics and they included teenagers and people in their twenties. It was very impressive."

A community is formed when a group of people embark on a programme of catechesis called the Neo-Catechumenal Way. It is a course that can take 20 or more years to complete. Led by a catechist, it is marked by six successive stages, culminating in the renewal of the promises of baptism, usually at the Easter Vigil. A priest is said always to be present during the catechesis.

A close bond develops between people on the course who share their thoughts and problems on the spiritual journey. But members of the same family are very often in different communities as they will have embarked on The Way at different times and are at different stages.

The communities usually meet weekly and celebrate the Eucharist on a Saturday night. They attend Mass on Sundays with the rest of the parish, but the Neo-Catechumens tend to keep themselves to themselves. They may be active in parish life but their Eucharist is not always listed in parish bulletins. Nor do they address Sunday Masses to invite people to join them as, for example, the Society of St Vincent de Paul regularly does.

Inevitably, many people outside the Neo-Catechumenate regard its members as forming a separate community. Fr Hendricks says the dangers of this were well apparent in the three parishes in Clifton in the 1980s and early 1990s where he says the Neo-Catechumenate became the official voice of the parish and those outside felt squeezed out. He made it clear that the same thing would not be allowed to happen in Peckham. "The previous priest was more involved in the movement and there were a lot of fears among the parishioners generally that they would become second-class citizens.

When I arrived a year ago, I emphasised that the Neo-Catechumenate would not become the official programme of the parish. At the same time I have encouraged its members. It seems to be a good thing if there are certain safeguards and it is treated with caution."

The small communities are clearly seen as a great strength by the Neo-Catechumens, who compare them to the communities of the early Church. A major danger for the Church in big cities, the Lees say, is anonymity. "In the city we live close together but we don't know our neighbours", says Lorenzo. "There is the feeling that you want to defend your area and be on your own. Village culture, where everyone helps everyone else, just isn't there any more.

"The Church has to help people rediscover and receive the gift of communion. The parish has the potential to create communities where, for example, people will come forward and support a couple who are experiencing a crisis in their relationship and are in danger of separating, so as to help them stay together." A small and close community can also be oppressive, of course, and this has led to charges of authoritarianism. Fr Hendricks is a member of Inform, the organisation which monitors new religious movements.

He believes the Neo-Catechumenate shares many characteristics with sects. "They are organised in small groups where the personality of a leading individual can have a big influence on the other members. A group like this is very hard to leave. Because everyone in it is highly motivated, people can feel under excessive pressure to evangelise, for example, or to donate money", says Fr Hendricks.

Another priest who did not want to be named said this authoritarianism sometimes spilt over into coercion. "They are told that it is their duty as good Catholics to be open to life. For the women this can mean having a baby every year, which clearly goes beyond the teaching of the Church", he said. "The encyclical Humanae Vitae is very clear that Catholics should not have more children than they can cope with and fulfil their moral responsibility to be able to love and provide for them."

He was also concerned that the Neo-Catechumens had an exclusivist model of Christianity focused entirely on The Way with an excessive focus on sin. This was certainly one of the findings of the Clifton inquiry, which reported that The Way was represented as the only means of salvation. According to the inquiry panel, all those beginning the Neo-Catechumenate programme had to undergo a process of conversion in which a team of catechists from outside the parish would publicly castigate their commitment to God and suggest they had little or no faith. Great emphasis was placed on the sharing of the "inner self" with their brothers and sisters.

There were periodic scrutinies by catechists which caused people "considerable stress". The panel said there was little doubt that The Way had caused "some spiritual, personal and mental anguish for people". It also heard evidence to show that no members of the Neo-Catechumenate anywhere in Britain had at that time reached the end of The Way, which is supposed to culminate in the renewal of baptismal vows and the wearing of a white tunic. This was despite the fact that the first community at the parish of St Nicholas of Tolentino had existed for about 16 years.

"They can only find Christ in the Neo-Catechumenal Way", the priest told me. "They see themselves as radically different from other Catholics, without any understanding of the effect of this on other people. It's like working with alcoholics in denial. They are not open about what they teach. In their communities it is impossible to have a structure of accountability to the wider Church. They are completely closed and highly authoritarian", he said. THE Lees perceive the Church as struggling in a godless world which has lost its way, in a society where violence, abortion, pornography and euthanasia are tolerated. It is easy to see how this view can turn communities in on themselves.

"Each of the Neo-Cat communities is very much focused in on itself and has its own Eucharist," says Father Hendricks. "They tend to have a certain way of looking at things, a certain way of speaking, a certain attitude. It is something you notice. They tend to have a black and white attitude to conversion, for instance. For them it is something very dramatic. It's very difficult to put your finger on it but I suppose it is a difference of emphasis. It is something I need to be aware of and cautious about but I am equally sure that they are genuinely doing good."

The idea that women in the Neo-Catechumenate are pressurised into having lots of children is dismissed as "crazy" by Fr Alan Fudge, whose church in Ogle Street in central London has six communities and is a hub for the movement. He is equally dismissive of the claim that the movement is secretive. "If it was a secret organisation, I would throw it out of the parish", he said.

He is adamant, also, that the family mission evangelised, not to recruit people to the movement, but to tell the Good News of the gospels. "It's rather like the idea that Charles de Foucauld had. You plant a church simply through the presence of a Christian family", he says.

With regard to the Neo-Catechumenate's weekly Saturday evening Eucharist, he says anyone is welcome to come along but those who want to attend on a regular basis are advised to embark on a catechesis from the beginning. "It's rather like a university course. You can't start in the middle.

It might become a bit difficult if every week we had large numbers of visitors. Regulars might feel inhibited by the newcomers. Neo-Catechumens respond to what they have heard in the Eucharist very spontaneously", he explains. As for accusations that the movement is divisive, he insists The Way is just one form of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

"It is simply a way to renew faith. It causes more conflict because the Neo-Catechumenate, unlike some movements that arose after the Second Vatican Council, actually works within the parish."

In Ealing, west London, there are three communities and they have not been allowed to run a catechesis on parish premises for six years. The recently appointed abbot of the Benedictines of Ealing Abbey, Martin Shipperlee, would not comment on that directly, but said that he was aware of the Neo-Cats' unpopularity among some parishioners and had to take it into account. "They can be a bit unsubtle and their message can get a bit mixed but they are basically good people.

They are keen to help and they put time and effort into things", said Abbot Martin. "But you do need to make sure you are not letting them do their own thing. They have to be part of what exists already."

Yet this is a movement that the Pope holds in the highest regard. Several people I spoke to felt that as a relatively young new movement, it was bound to excite opposition and remain on the margins until it could gain wider acceptance. Fr Fudge drew parallels with the Church's early opposition to the Jesuits, Fr Hendricks with the opposition the Franciscans experienced.

On the other hand, the Neo-Cats' commitment to The Way and their own communities could tempt them to feel a perhaps unconscious superiority. For the Lees and other Neo-Catechumens, The Way has been the route to a deeper, more meaningful faith. In their zeal they cannot help but give the impression that they think it's the only way.

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