The following article on the Neocatechumenal community appeared
in Italian in the daily edition of L'Osservatore Romano on 31 July 1987,
and is presented here in translation.
"God has sent me to this district where there are so many people
whose lives are destroyed, to make me—who has so many times doubted
the love of God—share the experience of St Thomas: to put my hands
into the wounds of Christ, which are these poor people". This is
how Peter and Maureen, an English couple with six children, summed up
the experience of their first months of being sent to a part of London
so notorious that milkmen, postmen, taxi-drivers and even the police do
not want to go there.
They are one of the couples of the neocatechumenal communities who
were sent by the Pope at the end of a Eucharistic celebration at
Castelgandolfo on 28 December 1986 to various cities in the north of
Europe to begin a new form of evangelization aimed directly at the many
"lost sheep" who no longer have any contact with the parish
and with the Church.
In July these families met together in a "live-in" at Porto
San Giorgio (Italy) with the itinerant teams who work throughout Europe
and with the founders of the neocatechumenal way: Kiko Arguello, Carmen
Hernandez and Fr Mario Pezzi, to see how the situation was progressing.
This experience is a direct reply to the appeal of the Holy Father
during the Symposium of European Bishops in October 1985 for a
"second evangelization" of the world and particularly of
Europe. "Europe, find yourself. Rediscover your soul".
On that occasion John Paul II described a Europe torn from east to
west by the phenomenon of secularization: family crises, the spread of
abortion, a declining birth rate, the loss of moral values and of every
point of reference in a race for material well-being. This crisis is
also reflected in the Church: the crises of vocations and defections,
compromises in doctrine and morals, the spread of dissent, the tendency
to assimilate the gospel to "the spirit of the world". The
Holy Father proposed therefore, "an effective work of
evangelization", a return to the "very first apostolic
model" with the contribution of "lay people with an authentic
missionary spirit". It is necessary, the Pope continued, "to
seek where the Spirit blows. Some symptoms of this breath of the Spirit
are certainly present; in order to find, sustain and develop them, it
will sometimes be necessary to leave behind atrophied schemes to go
where... the fruits of life according to the Spirit are being
produced" (see L'Oss. Rom. English edition of 21 October
A few months before the Synod on the Laity, which intends to identify
precisely where "these fruits of life according to the Spirit"
are, these families' experience seems to be a concrete response to
today's needs. These families are not going out in order to conduct
sociological or economic works but, in the context of a society where
faith seems to have disappeared, leaving people abandoned in a moral and
existential desert, to make present in the cell of the living Church an
"ecclesial implant" in the manner of evangelization of the
Church's first centuries when St Paul was accompanied in his work by
families (like Aquila and Priscilla) or when St Benedict transplanted
whole families in mission lands.
Up to now fifteen couples have left Italy: nine were invited by
bishops in northern Germany, three in Scandinavia, two in London and one
in France. To these have been added three couples sent from Madrid by
Cardinal Suquia to the shanty towns, the pueblos jovenes, on
the outskirts of Lima in Peru.
The first three families who left at the beginning of 1986 for
Strasbourg, Hamburg and Oulu (Finland) are already beginning to reap the
first fruits. Giuliano and Danielle and their two children went to live
in a tower block, a large dormitory building on the outskirts of
Strasbourg, accompanied by a priest and a young man. They spent a lot of
time visiting their neighbours, inviting them for a drink and talking
with them. In June of this year they invited those they had come to know
to listen to a catechesis in their apartment. People who had left the
Church years ago came, and a new community was born among those who had
been distant from the Church. The Bishop of Strasbourg, Mons. Brand, who
is following this experience very closely, has visited the community
several times and, meeting them recently, said: "You are not a
parallel Church; you are the Church. Do not be afraid, the Church is
A community has also been born in Hamburg in the district of St Pauli,
well known for drugs and prostitution, where over a year ago Gigi
and Maria and their seven children went to live. The community is
composed of atheists, former drug addicts, alcoholics, as well as
divorced people and ex-prisoners. For a catechetical centre Gigi and
Maria rented a shop where wool had been sold. This store, formerly
called "The Black Sheep", was re-named "The Lost
In Oulu Oscar and Paola, with their six children, decided in March to
invite the people they had got to know—neighbours, parents of their
children’s school friends—to listen to a catechesis. "After two
meetings nobody came any more", said Paola, "and I began to
cry, thinking 'what on earth am I doing here?' But the Lord was saying
to me: 'Here I want to do something new. Your plan must be destroyed.
Don't worry! Your life doesn't belong to you. You are living my life,
not your own'. I understood that he was inviting me to sacrifice all my
plans as he invited Abraham to sacrifice his son".
At Pentecost Oscar and Paola baptized their sixth child. During the
celebration a Lutheran pastor who was present said: "You are
bringing here to Oulu a very different image of Christianity. Everyone
is watching you. You are a sign that the Holy Spirit exists. For two
years perhaps you will have to suffer in silence. But if your 'knowing
how to die' shows that your faith is authentic, you will see that
everyone will come running".
Esther, the sixteen year old daughter of Oscar and Paola, goes to
school but speaks no Finnish. "I am in a school where every young
person lives in isolation. Nobody speaks. I'm there and I don't
understand a thing, I feel that the devil is tempting me to be like
them, closed in on myself. But the Lord is inviting me to lean on
him". To hear the experience of this girl who is prepared to give
her life for another nation, accepting daily the suffering of not being
able to understand, makes one think of the young martyrs of the Church's
first centuries. More than the formation of a community, the miracle at
Oulu is that through this family, faith is appearing, that this family
is willing to give its life for this people, in such a difficult place,
full of the smells of the cellulose factories, in an area from which
everyone wants to escape.
The Cross of Christ, instrument of salvation
The success of evangelization cannot be measured by management
efficiency programmes because the instrument of salvation is the cross.
Even more than concrete results, these families are making faith present
in its characteristic of being—in the words of John Paul II—"a
paradox for the intelligence and life of man". This is taking place
in a society which seems to be breaking up in its search for pleasure
and flight from the smallest suffering, "distancing itself ever
further from the event of Calvary, from the cross", as Cardinal
Wyszynski said in 1974.
The hymn for Lauds for the feast of the Holy Family proclaims:
"O Family of' Nazareth, expert in suffering, teach the world
peace". Without faith the terror of suffering makes impossible
family life, bearing children, obeying, the very life of society.
The departure of the families has also had a strong positive impact
on their work places and on their families. Andrea and Gina with their
six children left this March for Hanover at the invitation of Bishop
Homeyer. "I'm a teacher of Latin and Greek in a school in
Rome", said Andrea. When I told my director, who had been my
teacher, that I was leaving in order to evangelize in the north of
Europe, he turned pale and began to cry. I found myself having to
encourage him. To give me the opportunity to say goodbye to my
colleagues, I organized a meeting with all the teachers in the school,
about fifty people. They asked me to make a speech and, not knowing what
to do, I opened the Bible and read the passage from Isaiah which says:
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to announce the
good news to the poor, to give sight to the blind...' Then I spoke
openly about my life; before beginning the neocatechumenal way I was
distraught and wanted to kill myself. Many of my colleagues, among them
atheists and marxists, were struck in a positive way. Others, however,
jumped on me: 'But how can you do violence like this to your children?'
I replied., 'But look, you decide everything for your children too: what
school they go to, what to wear... I've found eternal life and that's
what I want to give my children. I want to give them the best, the
freedom that I've found in Christ, the adventure of a life in the
service of others, the possibility of giving myself to others'. I
learned later from a priest in a parish near the school that one of my
pupils who had been away from the Church for a long time, had come back
to confession and now wants to become a sister. She had said to him, 'My
teacher has left everything—home, job—to go and evangelize. I've
never given anything to anyone and I think that to give a little of
myself to others must be happiness’".
These families left without any security, without knowing where they
were going to live. When they got there some slept for a while in a
gymnasium or basement. Others found a house right away through the
priest who had invited them. Most of them do not even know the language.
"In bringing me here the Lord has taken away all I possessed. To be
without work, to be dependent on others, not to know the language... is
a profound kenosis", said Piero, who with his wife
Elena and their six children, has gone to Bremerhaven. "Some parish
priests are surprised that we do not know the language, but I also see
this as part of going out as the poor, as the least of the least, not
like someone clever who has studied the culture and language... The Lord
is telling me. 'You think you know how to do things. Now I am leading
your life'. When he gives me the Spirit to accept this way of looking at
things, I am in very great peace; if not, I rebel".
Where do they find the strength to go on?
All the families have testified that their main support and
nourishment has been the sacraments: the Eucharist celebrated every week
in the family and frequent confession. Every family or group of families
is, in fact, accompanied by a priest and a catechist. "Every
Saturday", explains Fr Claudiano, a priest from Rome who, with
Giuseppe, a lay catechist, is looking after the families who have
settled in Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven and Wilhelmshaven, "we meet with
the families and every time it's a great feast. There are twenty-five
people counting the children. After the Eucharist we have an agape.
Then, during the week we go each day to celebrate the Eucharist
with each family in turn. I have never seen so strongly the power
of the sacraments. You can see a real transformation in the people, The
families come with all their difficulties: not knowing the language, the
children's school problems. Before the homily I dialogue with the
children to help them to see Jesus who enters into and saves
their personal history, taking their problems on himself. In the
sacrament you really feel the strength of the passage of the Lord
who saves and who puts us in communion with God's action in our
This year Father Claudiano and Giuseppe prepared seven children from
the three families for their first communion, more than were
making their first communion in the nearby Catholic parishes.
Through this experience Fr Claudiano is also discovering, in his own
words, a more dynamic form of being a priest in the service of the
evangelization of those who are separated. He feels a part of a body,
composed of various families, each of which is inserted into a totally
secularized area. He feels that with him there is an evangelizing
community and that, as presbyter, he is sustaining this body in its
mission, feeding it and healing its wounds.
An itinerant parish
In the midst of a secularized world a new kind of itinerant parish is
appearing; it goes beyond all the discussions about the roles of the
clergy and laity, presenting the world a body in which there are various
services whose purpose is to make visible to the world the body
of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. In. this experience we see the root
meaning of the word "parishioner"—paroicos, i.e.,
"stranger, pilgrim". Each of these families has an open house,
is a living community filled with children, and shows the world the joy
of a family. Contact with the neighbours who come to talk, to have a
drink, to eat, is creating around each family a community made up of
atheists, agnostics, Protestants, people with shattered lives, with two
or three marriages behind them, with drink problems. Another twenty-five
families are preparing to leave next January. Many bishops, not only in
Europe but also in America, Africa and Asia are waiting for them.
It seems that when St Maximilian Kolbe, whom John Paul II proclaimed
patron of our century, gave his life for a family, he was prophesying,
having seen from afar the fundamental role that the family would have in
the evangelization in the third millennium.
The problem could be to prepare new priests to accompany these
families during this time of kairos, this "favourable
moment" of the spirit. But the neocatechumenal way is giving rise
to many vocations. In some quarters objections have been raised about
the length of the neocatechumenal way, but these facts show how
justified is the pastoral choice of a long way that lasts many years, in
small communities like the Holy Family of Nazareth, where faith grows
during a journey towards the rediscovery of baptism. During this time
the various passages—stages of the neocatechumenal way—mature the
moral choices made in faith. In fact, all the families who have
offered themselves for this mission have had at least twelve years of
formation in the neocatechumenal way. Hearing them speak you can
understand how, having overcome many crises, won many battles, experts
in the struggle against the devil and well acquainted with his traps,
firm in faith, they are able to go into battle to free those who are
oppressed by the slavery of sin and to bring them into the freedom of
the children of God.
These families which are founding small communities like the Holy
Family of Nazareth in northern Europe are fulfilling the words spoken by
Cardinal Ratzinger during the retreat he preached in the Vatican in 1983
in the presence of John Paul II: "'Immersing oneself in Nazareth'
is the point of departure for a new idea of a poor and humble Church, a
family Church, a Church of Nazareth. The new covenant did not begin in
the temple or on the holy mountain, but in the Virgin's poor home... in
a forgotten part of 'pagan Galilee' from which nobody expected anything
good could come. The Church must always begin anew from here... ; she
cannot give the right response to the rebellion of our century... if
Nazareth is not a living reality in her".
Bishop Salimei, auxiliary of Rome, was present at the
"live-in" at Porto San Giorgio and, having listened to the
experiences, concluded: "I believed that your success depends on
having discovered the valid method that the neocatechumenate is. Today,
however, I have learned that your strength is not in your method, but in
your offering your life, your 'knowing how to die'".
When the Pope sent out the second wave of families to northern
Europe in December he emphasized the need for faith to appear on the
earth in this generation: "You need a deep faith to walk in today's
world as a family. You need great faith to walk as a family in the steps
of the Holy Family of Nazareth".