Role of the Christian Family in Announcing the Gospel in Today's World

Author: Giuseppe Gennarini


Giuseppe Gennarini

The followingarticle 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 1985).

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 pueblosjovenes, 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 with you".

A community has also been born in Hamburg in the district of St Pauli, well known for drugs andprostitution, 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 Sheep".

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 wego each day to celebrate the Eucharist with each family in turn. I have never seenso 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 Jesuswho enters into and saves their personal history, taking their problems on himself. In the sacrament you really feel thestrength of the passage of the Lord who saves and who puts us in communion with God's action in our lives".

This year Father Claudiano and Giuseppe prepared seven childrenfrom the three familiesfor 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 whosepurpose 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, allthe 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 inher".

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 secondwave 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".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 October 1987, page 18

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