Neocatechumenal Way's Statutes Sized Up by Canon Law Expert

Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Professor at University of the Holy Cross

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ROME, JUNE 30, 2002 ( The Holy See formally approved the statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way last week. Here is an assessment of the statutes by Juan Ignacio Arrieta, professor of canon law in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Among his other duties, he is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.

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Canonical observations of Professor Juan Ignacio Arrieta

By a decree of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way were approved on the 29th June. This brings to a close an interesting process of institutional reflection on the reality of the Way, brought to completion with the encouragement and blessing of his Holiness John Paul II, who sometime ago requested that the work be finished so that the Neocatechumenal Way could receive a juridical expression within the law of the Church which conformed to the apostolic reality which this Way represents.

As may be recalled, it was the Pope himself who last year, with his letter of the 5th April, addressed to Cardinal James Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, entrusted to that dicastery of the Roman Curia the work of bringing to a conclusion the process of juridical approval of the statutes of the Way. By doing so he assigned to this dicastery the necessary competence in relation to other interested dicasteries of the Curia.

The drafting of the statutes of the Way was concluded, therefore, in close dialogue and collaboration between the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the leaders of the Way. The final text was approved therefore by this dicastery which in this way was exercising the mandate given by the Holy Father. As well as this, in the above letter, the Holy Father expressed his wish that, once the statutes were approved, even if in this case it was not a question of an international association of the faithful, it would be the role of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, as distinct from other organisms of the Holy See, to continue to accompany the apostolic activity of the Neocatechumenal Way.

The text of the document approved «ad experimentum» for a five-year period — an elementary prudence normally employed by the Holy See when giving juridical approval to whatever kind of institution — clearly shows that the principle task accomplished in these years of work on the statutes has been that of reflecting, in an orderly way and in writing, using juridical terminology and with complete faithfulness, that concrete experience of Christian life which is the Neocatechumenal Way, in the manner in which it has developed throughout the five continents from the ’60s onward. The statutes are nothing other than the synthetic expression of a reality which already has a life in the Church and they have made present, yet again, the fact — something inevitable, and indeed often necessary, in the life of the Church — that life precedes law. This is why the approval of these statutes by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, which acts in the name of the Holy Father, represents above all the confirmation of an apostolic praxis lived and consolidated in recent years.

A program of formation, not an association

The statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way which have been approved consist of 35 articles divided into six sections, plus a final indication regarding the process of revision of the statutes. The above-mentioned articles basically describe the principle contents of the catecheses of the Way, the means of and the times for their transmission, the organization of these catecheses in various stages and relations with the local Church authorities.

Attached to the normative body of the text are about a hundred notes which refer above all to texts from Scripture, from the Fathers of the Church or from the magisterium; texts which in these years have been of fundamental importance in giving shape to the various aspects of this experience of Christian life. It follows that these notes, taken together with the text, are of particular importance for an adequate interpretation of the meaning of the articles which constitute the main body of the statutes.

In these statutes, the Neocatechumenal Way is considered neither as an association, nor as a movement, or as a grouping of persons who establish among themselves a special formal link for achieving particular objectives in the Church. Those who know the Way are well aware that none of this corresponds to the reality of its apostolic experience.

Indeed, those who are well informed understand that, in this particular case, a canonical option along the lines of an association would have altered the fundamental elements of the Way, compromising essential aspects of its apostolic dynamism. Therefore, rather than describing a juridical entity already codified in the law of the Church, these statutes limit themselves to presenting the juridical expression of the reality lived in the Way, obviously in the context of what is stipulated and required by the Church’s structure and canonical order.

If we ask, however, what is the concrete juridical form of the Neocatechumenal Way which emerges from these statutes, after a careful reading of the document we can quite simply reply that what this text contains is nothing other than «a Neocatechumenal Way.» This is what the first article of the statutes affirms, using the truly definitive expression of Pope John Paul II in the letter of 30th August 1990, published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (82 [1990] 1515): «I recognize the Neocatechumenal Way,» as the Pope said at the time, and as the first article repeats, «as an itinerary of Catholic formation, valid for our times and society.»

In fact, these statutes constitute a kind of catechetical directory which describes a program or, if you wish, a way of integral Christian formation of a liturgical-catechetical nature, given that it is primarily based on a personal liturgical experience and on a catechetical formation incarnated in the life of the Christian. Furthermore, the statutes contain all the fundamental guidelines for organizing, directing and conducting this concrete program of formation.

It is a program of formation which is offered to every diocesan bishop, who, according to canon law (Canon 775 §1), is the competent authority for the coordination of initiatives for catechesis in his diocese. At the same time, as a guarantee of the authenticity of the program and the method of formation, and to maintain the necessary contacts with the authority of the Church at different levels, the Holy See entrusts the leadership and the coordination of the activity of the Way to an international responsible team.

From what we have said it can be seen that the statutes do not attempt to describe formal elements — new rights and duties, which in reality do not exist — for those who follow this way of formation, but, rather, simply wish to describe the contents that are to be transmitted and the means by which this formation is to be given.

There is no need to deny that the Neocatechumenal Way in fact clearly consists of a grouping of persons: One has only to think of the small communities formed in parishes which remain substantially stable over time. Nevertheless, we must emphasize that this phenomenon, in the case of the Way, is not of an associative type. The same thing happens, for example, within the formative structure of a language school or any other kind of school. In these situations there certainly appears a system of stable relations among the students who follow the courses over a period of years. However, this does not mean that the students establish relationships of a juridical nature among themselves, however intense these human relations may be.

On the other hand, for example, in this language school, a definite program of teaching has to be followed, and those responsible for ca
rrying it out, the professors and the directors of the school, must keep to a methodology already clearly established, accepting the obligations which follow from the respective positions of formation or of direction which each occupy.

In the same way, in the itinerary of formation represented by the Neocatechumenal Way, no new juridical relationships are established, other than those that each of the faithful already has in virtue of his belonging to the Church. Therefore, in these statutes a list of rights and duties of those who benefit from this activity will not be found. Instead, there is a fairly precise indication of the tasks that the catechists, or those who, in complete freedom, make up the various teams of those in charge, must perform. All of this, as I have said, is a direct consequence of the nature of the Way, which in no way corresponds to the characteristics of an association.

The structure of the statutes

Having said this, we want to describe, in summary form, the content of the statutes which have now been approved. The first title describes the «Nature and Implementation of the Neocatechumenal Way,» and is made up of four articles which outline the central organizational aspects of the Way, in keeping with what John Paul II has affirmed on every occasion, regarding the identity of this Christian experience.

The first article informs us that the Neocatechumenal Way is made up of a grouping of spiritual goods — catechetical itinerary, permanent education, service to the work of catechesis, etc. — placed at the service of the bishops as a form of implementation in the diocese of Christian initiation and permanent education in the faith, according to the indications of the magisterium of the Church, in a spirit of communion with and service to the local ordinary and the whole Church.

This formation is conducted in the dioceses under the direction of the diocesan bishop, and, obviously, also with the guidance of the international leadership team of the Way, which the Holy See has indicated as the guarantors before the Church of the identity of this formation.

The second section, «The Neocatechumenate or Post-baptismal Catechumenate,» with its 17 articles distributed over four chapters, forms the central axis on which the statutes are based and represents a concise and detailed encapsulation of the catechetical content, of the formative elements and of the time frame over which this formation is given.

In this section the fundamental elements of the Neocatechumenate are described — those for whom it is intended; implementation in the parishes, etc.; the beginning of the formative itinerary; its development by means of Word, liturgy and community; and the general description of the three different phases which compose the itinerary of formation.

Among the articles of the second section, mention must be made of the «Initiation and Formation to Priestly Vocation,» where we find reference to the «Redemptoris Mater» diocesan seminaries, which is useful for understanding their essential characteristics and their relation with the Neocatechumenal Way.

Article 18 begins by quoting a passage from the «General Catechetical Directory» (No. 86), where it notes that, like any other catechetical itinerary, the Way is also «a means for awakening vocations to the priesthood and of particular consecration to God in the various forms of religious and apostolic life and for enkindling a special missionary vocation in the hearts of individuals.»

This is precisely the apostolic context from which the relationship between the Way and the «Redemptoris Mater» seminaries emerges: seminaries which are erected at the wishes of the respective diocesan bishops, in agreement with the leaders of the Way, and according to the norms approved by the respective diocesan bishop, in conformity with the current «Ratio fundamentalis institutionis sacerdotalis.»

We are talking, therefore, of diocesan seminaries for the formation of candidates to the priesthood, who are then incardinated for the service of their respective dioceses. Their only unique characteristic is that a specific element of their formative «iter» is participation in the Neocatechumenal Way. It is clear, therefore, that these seminaries must remain marginal to these present statutes. In every aspect they come under the universal norms regarding the formation of candidates to the priesthood and the incardination of secular clerics.

The third section examines the collaboration in the renewal of the life of the parish offered by the communities which have finished the itinerary proposed by the Way, and which, from that moment, enter a process of permanent education in the faith. The fourth section is particularly dedicated to the baptismal catechumenate and to the special care required by catechumens and neophytes.

The fifth and sixth sections of the statutes go deeper into the organizational aspects and the forms of service for catechesis. The fifth section, «Forms of Service to the Work of Catechesis,» deals principally with the subjects who, in the diocese, are to intervene in following the activity of the Way.

It deals, first, with the diocesan bishop, who is the one who authorizes the implementation of the Way in the diocese, who watches over it so that the Way develops in accordance with the requirements of canon law, presides over the more important rites of the Neocatechumenal itinerary, guarantees a reasonable pastoral continuity in the parishes where it is present, etc.

The text then deals with the role of the parish priests and presbyters who exercise the pastoral care of those who follow the Neocatechumenal Way, who normally are not presbyters formed in the «Redemptoris Mater» seminaries. The text then speaks of the catechists and their formation, of the itinerants — catechists and presbyters — who offer themselves in response to the call of far-off dioceses, and of the families on mission who, upon request of the bishops, establish themselves in dechristianized areas or in places where it is necessary to achieve the «implantatio ecclesiae.»

Finally, the sixth section contains two articles related to the current composition of the «international responsible team of the Way» and to the future substitution of its members by means of election. The leadership team is currently composed of the initiators of the Way, Kiko Argüello, Carmen Hernández and Don Mario Pezzi, presbyter of the clergy of the Diocese of Rome. The norm provides that, in future, after the death of the initiators, a reasonably large college of people will proceed to elect those who, following confirmation by the Holy See, will assume this function for a period of seven years.

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