Sect 'cannot possess the seminary': Priest explains about Neocatechumenal Way

Pacific Sunday News/August 3, 2014

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

An attempt to transfer the title of one of the Guam Catholic Church's largest real estate assets, the former Accion Hotel in Yona, has become a focal point in recent discussions about the local church's financial transparency and leadership shakeup.

The controversy started weeks ago when an anonymous group of Guam Catholics issued a public challenge for Archbishop Anthony Apuron to release audited statements of the Church's income, liabilities and assets, particularly the state of ownership of the former Accion Hotel.

The 100-room, oceanside hotel was bought more than a decade ago for $2 million, and could be worth $35 million to $75 million depending on estimates. It now is being used to host the Redemptoris Mater Seminary and a theological institute.

Monsignor James Benavente, who was recently fired from being the rector of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica, was one of several directors on the Archdiocesan Finance Council who were fired in 2012 after they voted against the proposed transfer of title to the property, documents state. Archbishop Anthony Apuron had written a letter to the council advocating the title change, documents state.

Businessman Richard Untalan, Sister Mary Stephen Torres and former government of Guam budget official Joe Rivera were the finance council officials who were fired.

The finance council members voted against the title transfer after a legal counsel for the archdiocese at the time cautioned that such action "would place a huge cloud on the title."

"Do you really want to risk title to the property conservatively valued at $75 million," the legal counsel wrote to the finance council members at the time.

A November 2011 joint letter from the fired finance council members makes reference to the legal counsel's concerns in expressing to the archbishop their sentiment.

Had the transfer of title occurred, the property would be in the name of the seminary, which is being run by representatives of the Neocatechumenal Way.

Apuron critic and Jungle Watch blogger Tim Rohr recently stated that the Neocatechumenal Way "pulled (the archbishop's) strings for nearly two decades."

Charles White, a Guam resident who also writes a blog, called the Thoughtful Catholic, said the recent controversies in the local Catholic Church can be linked to the Neocatechumenal Way.

"There is a bigger issue at play here: The imposition of the Neocatechumenal Way upon the Catholic Church in Guam," White said.

Father Pius Sammut, of the Neocatechumenal Way, in a response to questions from the Pacific Daily News, said even with a title transfer, the archbishop would still have all the power over the property.

To those who say the Neocatechumenal Way controls the archbishop, Pius said: "these comments demean the archbishop as if he does not have a mind of his own."

Questions and Answers

Here are excerpts of the answers from Father Pius Sammut.

Question: What is your response to those who say that the Neocatechumenal Way controls/has a major influence on Archbishop Anthony Apuron?

Answer: Sincerely, I believe that these comments demean the archbishop as if he does not have a mind of his own. I am confident that the archbishop takes his own decisions and he does it after long moments of prayer and consultation with his various organizations. ... I think that he did not sell the seminary building, not due to any external influence, but due to the simple fact that a seminary and a theological institute are an immense spiritual wealth for the Archdiocese and Canon Law (the Law of the Church) enjoins all bishops to open a seminary to form priests ...

Q: There are some people in the Guam Catholic community who believe that there's a rift between those who are and aren't part of the Neocatechumenal Way, and examples of this divide include the recent removal of Monsignor James Benavente and Father Paul Gofigan. What are your thoughts on this?

A: The removal of Father Gofigan and Monsignor Benavente have nothing to do with the Neocatechumenal Way. In the first case the motivation, as far as I know, was that he was harboring a convicted sex offender. Father Gofigan, I believe, made an appeal to Rome and we have to wait for their decision.

In the case of Monsignor Benavente, I believe, it was a matter of putting in order a situation of improper accounting as the recent documents released by the archdiocese show.

To attribute these decisions to the Neocatechumenal Way seems to me that it is an effort to try to find a scapegoat and not deal with the reality of the problems; to second guess the decisions of the archbishop is not the way to answer to these problems, which seem serious and in need of an answer, especially by the authority who has the responsibility of the archdiocese.

Going back to the "rift," we need to keep in mind that many of the people in the communities are people who were not going to church, or who were in crisis and youth: these people are coming back to the church. I like the image of Pope Francis where he compares the church to a field hospital: In a hospital there are many units, but there must be a ward also for those who are very seriously wounded or need an emergency room.

If you do not mind me saying this, recent discussions regarding the Neocatechumenal Way smells of racism, xenophobia and hatred of non-islanders as if they should not be here: curiously enough, those most vocal in this "debate" are people not born in the island. Catholic means universal and I believe that this petty parochialism is not the spirit of Guamanian Catholics.

Q: Did the Neocatechumenal Way attempt to influence the transfer of title to the former Accion Hotel property in Yona from the Archdiocese of Guam to an entity whose officers are members of the Neocatechumenal Way?

A: Actually it is the other way around. The purchase of the Accion Hotel was proposed by the Neocatechumenal Way to the archbishop, because in order to start the seminary and an institute, there was a need for rooms for 30 to 40 seminarians, 10 faculty professors, four classrooms, a library for 20,000 volumes, a chapel. The money for the purchase of the hotel was donated to the archdiocese by an off-island benefactor who offered it with the explicit intention of erecting the seminary and the theological institute. The previous owner of the hotel sold it for just $1.9 million with the proviso that the building be used as an educational facility. Actually, the archdiocese did not put down a penny.

Regarding the transfer of the title, the legal adviser of the archdiocese, five years ago, asked that the title be transferred to the Redemptoris Mater Corp. to respect the intention of the donor and to safeguard the property. This corporation is a 'corporation sole' where there is only one member, namely the archbishop, who has all power. He is assisted by a board of directors who (oversees) the daily administration. The only member, namely the archbishop, chooses all directors. Then there is a board of guarantors that guarantees that the corporation follows the original purpose for which it was created. The Archbishop chooses, confirms, or dismisses freely these guarantors.

So the Neocatechumenal Way does not and cannot -- by reason of its statutes -- possess the seminary but simply ensures the formation. ... The whole discussion on the property of the Accion Hotel began two to three years ago because certain individuals wanted to sell the building to pay their debts. Actually the archdiocese is only supporting 3 or 4 percent of the seminary's budget, while the rest is supported by Catholics from all over the world including different foundations and Propaganda Fide.

Q: To the lay people's understanding, what is the Neocatechumenal Way, and how does its practices differ from Catholic traditions on Guam?

A: The Neocatechumenal Way has been recognized by Pope Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis as a "gift of the Holy Spirit " for the Church. Saint John Paul defined the Neocatechumenal Way as an "itinerary of Catholic formation valid for our times and our society." The Neocatechumenal Way is an instrument to reach out especially to the people who have left the church and the youth.

The Holy See has allowed a few concessions in the liturgical celebrations to help especially those who are returning to religious practice after years of being away so that they can participate more actively to the sacraments.

Q: What message would you like to send to Guam as a community of diverse faiths?

A: I think that this campaign of disinformation is detrimental to everybody. Hate speech is always bad and does not help. The fact that in Guam has arisen a seminary, which is helping the formation of priests for Guam and for the entire Pacific, is a sign of the importance of this island in the plan of God.

Father Manuel Solorzano, a Jesuit priest who was killed in 1684 in Hagåtña while preaching the Gospel, wrote to his father who tried to convince him to abandon the mission, "cielo son las ariana," or "paradise are the Marianas." By this he meant that giving his life to announce the Gospel and being killed for it, was his paradise.

We all need to go back to this spirituality: to save one soul is worth my life. We should help each other in this because our youth and the families are all suffering today.

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