Rome Offers Reassurance to Anxious Neo-Cats

The Tablet [New York]
January 14, 2006

MORE THAN 200 families who are followers of the Neo-Catechumenal Way were to receive the support of Pope Benedict at a ceremony this week to launch their work as missionaries to countries throughout the five continents.

The commissioning ceremony, set for Thursday at the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, has been seen as papal approval for the 40-year-old group in light of reports that the Vatican had recently "cracked down" on its liturgical practices.

The Italian daily Il Giornale recently reported that the Neo-Catechumenates had been "called to task" by the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), based on a letter that the congregation's prefect, Cardinal Francis Arinze, had written to the group's leaders.

In that two-page document, dated 1 December, the cardinal informed the Neo-Catechumenates of "decisions of the Holy Father" concerning some of the particular ways the group's communities celebrate Mass. Shortly after it printed its interpretation of the CDW letter on 27 December, though, the paper backtracked and, after printing a letter by one of the Neo-Catechumenate leaders, admitted that it had involuntarily misreported some of the group's practices.

In his letter to the Neo-Catechumenates, Cardinal Arinze listed six "decisions" on liturgical points that he said had been taken by the Pope after an 11 November audience with the Way's leaders. A senior Neo-Catechumenate member in Rome told The Tablet that the group's leaders Spanish layman Kiko Arguello; his wife, Carmen Hernandez; and Fr Mario Pezzi were pleased by the positive encouragement the Pope gave them at a November audience and saw the CDW letter as further support for the group's liturgical practices.

Cardinal Arinze's letter asks the Neo-Catechumenates, who usually celebrate small group Masses on Saturday evenings, to participate in the Sunday parish liturgy at least once a month; it insists that only deacons or priests give the homily, while allowing the possibility for lay people to give reflections at certain moments points of the Mass; it allows the group to continue the practice of exchanging the Sign of Peace before the Offertory; it gives the Way a period of time to adapt to the "normal way" of receiving Communion, rather than the group's current practice of reception while sitting; and it says the group must use a range of Eucharistic Prayers, rather than just the second one.

The senior member of the Way said its leaders were "dumbfounded" when they read Il Giornale's report that the group had been called to order. He said the Way had maintained close ties with the last two Popes, pointing out that Joseph Ratzinger, when still a professor at Tubingen in the 1970s, was instrumental in facilitating the Way's presence in the Archdiocese of Munich, where he later became archbishop.

The group, founded in 1964, does not consider itself a priestly fraternity nor a lay movement, but an "itinerary of Christian formation" that provides close-knit initiation and accompaniment to people who mostly have had little experience with the Catholic Church. It claims to have some 20,000 small communities connected to parishes in 900 dioceses across 190 countries. The Way, which serves only at the request of the local bishop, also operates 65 seminaries throughout the world. The Vatican approved the group's statutes "ad experimentum" for five years in 2002.

Robert Mickens, Rome


Reject 'culture of death', says Pope. BENEDICT XVI has concluded his first Christmas as Pope by urging people to say "yes" to life in Christ and "no" to today's "widely dominant culture of death", which he compared to ancient, pagan Rome "where death, cruelty, and violence were entertainment".

In a homily last Sunday at a Mass in which he baptised 10 infants, Pope Benedict said this "anti-culture" of death "is seen in drugs, in flight from reality, in self-delusion, and in false happiness that is manifested in lies, deceit and injustice".

"It is demonstrated in a sexuality that becomes pure amusement without responsibility, that turns the human being into a 'thing' instead of a person. It is seen in contempt for others, contempt for solidarity and contempt for a sense of responsibility for the poor and the suffering."

The homily was a catechesis on the Sacrament of Baptism, which the Pope called the child's initiation "into a company of friends that will never abandon him, in life or in death".

Pope Benedict baptised five baby boys and five baby girls all children or grandchildren of Vatican employees at a eucharistic liturgy in the Sistine Chapel. The occasion was the Feast of the Lord's Baptism, the final day of the liturgical season of Christmas.

Robert Mickens, Rome


Archbishop upbraids Benedict over Zimbabwe. Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo has admitted reprimanding the Pope last June about positive remarks Benedict XVI made to Zimbabwe's new ambassador to the Holy See. Although the incident occurred when Zimbabwe's bishops visited the Vatican at the end of that month, it only came to light in a late December interview with the outspoken archbishop.

Pope Benedict's remarks were made during an official welcome address on 16 June to David Douglas Hamadziripi. Although he suggested to the ambassador that "particular concern must be shown for the poor, the disenfranchised and the young," he also told him that "with the elections of 31 March, Zimbabwe made a new beginning in confronting the grave social problems which have affected the nation in recent years". In fact, the elections, which gave Mugabe's Zanu-PF party sufficient majority to amend the constitution, were widely regarded as being rigged. In addition, the Government had begun demolishing the homes of the poor around the country. Archbishop Ncube told the Pope on 27 June: "Seeing that you were so optimistic in your speech, it may be that you don't know what's happening: when I left, they were smashing houses," the Los Angeles Times reported on 31 December.

Speaking to The Tablet on Monday, Archbishop Ncube said that on that first ad limina meeting on 27 June he had also personally given the Pope an A4 double-sided sheet of paper providing details of the Zimbabwe situation from the perspective of the majority of the population. It referred to demolitions, the stealing of traders' goods, political repression, galloping inflation and a worsening food crisis.

When the bishops met the Pope again on 2 July, the Pope told them that he felt better informed and supported both the bishops' pre-election statement, calling for a fair process, and their recent pastoral letter "The Cry of the Poor", which condemned "the gross injustice done to the poor" through the government campaign "Operation Drive Out Trash". But the Pope also commented that "the recent elections in Zimbabwe have laid the basis for what I trust will be a new beginning in the process of national reconciliation and the moral rebuilding of society". Many observers at the time were surprised that Pope Benedict appeared to endorse again the legitimacy of Zimbabwe's March elections. He also steered clear of issuing his own criticism of the Government's campaign, which was known to have left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. That same week the US bishops' conference condemned the Zimbabwe demolitions and suggested that the international community should pressurise Zimbabwe's government to stop them.

Archbishop Ncube was concerned that Pope Benedict, who in June had been in office for only two months, had been badly briefed by his Secretariat of State. Archbishop Ncube acknowledged that there was a positive side to maintaining good diplomatic relations between the Church and the Mugabe Government, but, "for me, every tacit approval is driving one more nail into the coffin of many Zimbabweans".

Ellen Teague


Priest granted trial after 20 years. ONE OF the most prominent priests to fall victim to the American sex abuse scandal, Mgr Charles Kavanagh, has won his battle for a canonical hearing.

"I am absolutely delighted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has granted my request for a full and fair trial," said Mgr Kavanagh.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said: "This is the first case of its kind that we've had. Because this is something new, we really don't know what it means."

Judicial investigation of clerical abuse remains a rarity. It used to be common for American bishops simply to transfer a priest accused of sexual misbehaviour with a minor, sometimes lying to the new parish about his record.

But in recent years it has become normal for bishops to suspend priests upon almost any accusation, often with public denunciation. That has been the fate of 12 priests in New York, and many more elsewhere, who have been refused a canonical trial by the Vatican, and if not removed from the priesthood, given the lifelong sentence of penance without any public ministry envisaged by the Dallas Charter.

In 2002 the Archdiocese of New York received a letter from Daniel Donohue, who claimed that, while a teenage student at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in the 1970s, he had fallen into an inappropriate friendship with Fr Kavanagh, the rector. He did not allege genital contact, but said that Fr Kavanagh had hugged him for lengthy periods, spied on him through a keyhole, and laid on top of him twice. These experiences shattered the faith of Mr Donohue. Mgr Kavanagh acknowledged being Mr Donohue's spiritual mentor and friend, but denied doing anything wrong. The Archbishop, Cardinal Edward Egan, duly suspended Mgr Kavanagh and asked the Vatican to bar him from returning to ministry.

But Mgr Kavanagh, who was pastor of the enormous St Raymond's in the Bronx, and vicar of development, or chief fund-raiser, for the Archdiocese of New York, did not accept Archbishop Egan's action. He tried to clear his name, and in 2004 publicly attacked the cardinal for refusing him access to his file.

The archdiocese will now have to vindicate its action before a panel of canonical judges, not in New York but in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mgr Egan having requested that the case be heard somewhere "more sedate."

Richard Major, New York


JPII's would-be killer to go free. THE TURKISH gunman who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981 was this week awaiting release after nearly 25 years in jail. Mehmet Ali Agca, who turned 48 on Monday, served 19 years of a life sentence in Italy for shooting and wounding the Polish pope in Rome in 1981.

He was pardoned at the Pope's behest in 2000, and extradited to Turkey to complete another sentence for murdering a Turkish journalist in 1979. He was due to be released from Kartal high-security jail on Thursday.

In the book Memory and Identity, released shortly before he died last April, John Paul II revealed how close he came to death in the attack, made as he was traveling through a crowded St Peter's Square in his open-topped "pope-mobile".

Agca, a far-right extremist described as a "cold-eyed killer", was arrested with the smoking gun in his hand after firing three bullets at the Pope from close range.

Pope John Paul believed the fact that his assassination attempt was unsuccessful was "a testimony to divine grace".

"He knew how to shoot, and he certainly shot to kill. Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting the bullet," he said.

Referring to the assassination attempt as "one of the last convulsions" of the ideological struggles of the twentieth century, Pope John Paul was convinced Agca was not acting alone. The suspected involvement of then Communist Bulgaria and Soviet intelligence was never proven, however.

Pope John Paul credited the Virgin Mary with saving his life; he was shot on 13 May, the anniversary of the first of the apparitions in Fatima. In 1984, he had the bullet fragment that was removed from his body placed in the crown of the Marian statue at Fatima.

The late pope publicly forgave Agca days after the near-fatal shooting, and embraced his would-be assassin in his Rome prison cell in 1983. When John Paul II died last year Agca was refused permission by the Turkish authorities to be allowed to attend the funeral of the man he came to call his "spiritual brother".

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said his council did not want to interfere with the Turkish court's decision that determined Agca had "paid his debt to justice".

On Tuesday, Agca's brother, Adnan, was quoted as saying that the would-be assassin wanted to meet John Paul II's successor.

Sabah newspaper quoted Adnan Agca as saying Mehmet Ali Agca was prepared to travel to Italy if Benedict XVI granted him an audience, or to meet the German Pope during his visit to Turkey later this year.

Michael Hirst


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