Communities walk together lighting The Way

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • December 1, 2006
TORONTO - Every Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. about 60 ethnically diverse members of the Neocatechumenal Way gather in the parish basement of Immaculate Conception Church in Toronto waiting for Mass to begin.

"I've been walking since I was small. The community has answers to life you can't find anywhere else," said Kaila Dupuis, 16, who plays guitar for the music ministry along with her 13-year-old brother Joshua.

The Way, as members refer to the movement, is a path of conversion for mainly baptized adult Catholics interested in deepening their faith. Generally, people join by word of mouth.  

Francisco (Kiko) Arguello, a convert from atheism, founded the movement in 1964 in Palomeras Altas, a shantytown in Spain. After his conversion he trained as a catechist and lived among the poor, spreading the Gospel message.

Today, the Neocatechumenal Way is present in 105 countries. As of 2001, 16,700 communities exist in 5,000 parishes and 880 dioceses, according to the official Neocatechumenal Way web site.   

A Saturday evening out for most young people doesn't usually involve attending a two-hour long Mass. And as Dupuis explains, it's not always easy.

"Sometimes I don't want to come to church. But something would be missing. I wouldn't be at peace."

A community forms when about two dozen people commit to an intensive two-month catechesis twice a week headed by a pastor and lay couple. Upon completion the community meets on a weeknight either at a parish or home to discuss the word of God and on a Saturday evening for Mass.

Elizabeth Vaugua, 15, tries to attend the weekly Bible-based formation and Mass with her five siblings. It's helped her learn how to live out her faith daily.

"Whenever I feel sad, I can open the Bible and God talks to me and I relate it to my life," she said.

"I've been here since I was born. I like it, but I think some other people would appreciate it more if they join when they're older. As I got older I got my own community. I could see it with the eyes of an adult."  

William McCulloch, 23, an aircraft mechanic with Bombardier Aerospace, joined two years ago at the invitation of family friends. While his parents have stopped coming,  McCulloch has stayed. He drives in from Brampton twice a week to be with his community.

"What keeps me here is we're growing together," said McCulloch. "Before I wasn't big on the whole communion thing.... I was more close-minded."

A trademark of the Neocatechumenal Way is its variation on Mass. Everyone at Immaculate Conception parish sits in foldout chairs in a semi-circle around a table draped in a white tablecloth sprinkled with plastic flowers around the edges. 

Before Mass begins and before the first and second reading a lay person gives a few comments to help worshippers better receive the Word of God. In between the Gospel reading and the homily the floor opens up for personal reflections about the Gospel passage, called an echo. The sign of peace is moved from the end of the eucharistic prayer to just before the offering.

In preparation for Communion the priest divides the Body of Christ, a loaf of unleavened bread, into small pieces, then distributes it to the congregation still seated around the table.  Everyone keeps the Eucharist on the palm of their hand until the whole community is served and then those gathered consume the Eucharist together.   

After the closing comments, the congregants rejoice by dancing in a circle around the table.

All these variations are meant as a teaching tool to help congregants better experience the eucharistic mystery.  

"We were allowed and given permission to include all these additional things because the structure of the Mass is the same; it's just additions or help," said Fr. Hector Vila, rector of Canada's only Redemptoris Mater Seminary, one of 46 seminaries worldwide affiliated with the Neocatechumenal Way. The seminary houses 25 seminarians and is located on the grounds of Toronto's St. Augustine's Seminary.   

The Neocatechumenal Way is not without controversy. In 2005, Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued a letter to the Way with a list of rules from Pope Benedict XVI to be obeyed. They were asked to join their home parish at least once a month for Mass to prevent division between their parish and their Neocatechumenal  Way community.

"We try not to make big modifications, the only thing is to include the members of the Neocatechumenal Way with the parish. In its essence there is nothing we've been doing that is contrary or different than the official church teaches," said Vila.

Also, by December 2007 the communities must phase out the practice of receiving communion seated around a table. But when asked about that issue, Vila said, "I don't think it says that concretely."

Despite any controversy the movement appears to be growing. Last January the Pope commissioned 200 "families in mission" to establish the church in countries where it is non-existent or to help strengthen existing communities. This brings the number of "families in mission" to more than 500 worldwide. Six of these families are stationed in Canada, three in Montreal and three in Vancouver.

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