The Way's founder, Kiko Arguello, has written a book that is dramatic, intense, and deeply personal.
Kiko Arguello was a young, successful Spanish artist in Spain in the early 1960s who had lapsed from his childhood faith but who was desperate to find a spiritual meaning to life. He writes, “I couldn’t be indifferent as to whether God exists or not, it was a matter of life and death.” He briefly flirted with Marxism; disillusioned by its lack of a spiritual vision he did what traditionally the saints have often done: he decided to live in a notorious shantytown, a “descent into hell”, where he daily experienced the seemingly intractable problems of the poor: violence, alcoholism, disease and despair. He took with him his guitar and a Bible and slept on a mattress on the dirt floor of a shack. The question that consumed him was: how did the early apostles spread the Gospels? How could he preach effectively to people living in such degradation?
A meeting with Carmen, a lay missionary who was also drawn to living among the poor led to the founding of the Way. They based it on three things: the word of God, the Eucharist and the Christian community. They both felt that the usual parish structure that had developed over centuries was not adequate as a “school for Christians” – especially the outcasts, gypsies, tramps and slum dwellers who did not fit into normal society.
They realised you cannot evangelise others without personal conversion. This required proper formation in the faith as well as ongoing catechesis, regular prayer, study and Bible reading. The idea of the “Christian community” was born. Its purpose: the evangelisation of those far from the Church, modern secular men and women whom the parish structure could not reach. Members of the Way recognise the need to form Christian communities of love, for it is only through love that others will be drawn to the listen to the “Kerygma” and be transformed by it.
Kiko’s book is not a detailed, chronological history of this new movement; he doesn’t include a description of its development around the world or its numbers, though he does mention casually that 300,000 young members attended the World Youth Day in Madrid and that the Way is – amazingly – preparing to send thousands of priests to China. His writing is dramatic, intense, deeply personal and poured out from the heart; the story of how one man allowed the Holy Spirit to work within him and thus do extraordinary things. I do recommend it.
One of the key aspects of the Way is members’ sense of mission. Being a Christian, they believe, is never a matter of private, weekly devotion; it is always outgoing, evangelical and bound up with renewal and conversion. Only at the end of the book did I get a glimpse of the problems such a vivid and total form of Christian discipleship might pose in your average parish. Kiko comments, that “We have been persecuted and expelled from many parishes. Sometimes the Way is misunderstood and confused with a sect”. He doesn’t explain this further.
Having read the book I was curious to find out from an actual member of the Neocatchumenal Way how it impacts on one’s life. Elizabeth Flynn is a longstanding member of a London community. She tells me that as a young adult Catholic she spent some years among Evangelicals, drawn to their warmth and fellowship. She was attracted to their uninhibited way of talking about a personal relationship with Jesus and their enthusiasm for conversion. But she knew they lacked authority and eventually she joined Crux, a small Catholic study-group. But it still “wasn’t quite what I was looking for”. Finally she went along to a community of the Way that was meeting in the parish of St Charles Borromeo. “From the very first evening I knew I was in the right place” she tells me. That was in 1993.
At every session she attended she heard something new “that drew me further on.” She emphasises that they are clear about Church authority and completely obedient to the Church’s magisterial teaching. “The way they preach makes the Bible come alive” she feels, and that she has come to a much closer knowledge and love of God through the Scriptures, as a result of membership.
Elizabeth believes that joining the Neocatechumenal Way has changed her life in every way. “Life is full and rich and even suffering makes sense” she says. She also has “a much deeper relationship with God than I could ever have imagined possible.” She adds that she is much more confident about “putting my head above the parapet and letting people know I’m a Christian.” She thinks the kind of Christian formation and support she receives simply isn’t available in the wider parish. She tells me the Way is also largely successful in keeping teenagers and young people within the Faith. It encourages large families because “the teaching is uncompromisingly open to life.” There are many vocations and thus a hugely expanding number of seminaries worldwide.
I ask her the question about what seems to be the source of much discontent: why do they celebrate their own liturgy? Elizabeth says that they participate in the parish liturgy but also have their own mid-week liturgy, so that members of the community who have undergone catechesis together can deepen their bonds with each other in their continuing journey of faith. It gives them “the opportunity to share, after the Bible readings, what God is saying to them through his Word. This needs to be done within the enclosed group so that privacy can be maintained.”
She is clear that they do not want to be a special group within the parish and that they try to blend in. She sums it up: “We’re Catholics living the faith, radically, in the parish.” It strikes me that this might be enough to make other parishioners, who are less zealous or committed, feel challenged and disturbed. But I also have the uncomfortable feeling that this is actually what God demands of all of us. After all, wasn’t Jesus radical? And aren’t his teachings still radical and uncompromising today – for those who have ears to hear?