An evangelical Catholic movement inspires commitment, stirs controversy

Jose and Maribel Martin and their eight children in the rectory of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Philadelphia. The Martins, missionary followers of the Neocatechumenal Way, a faith formation program, have been assigned to the South Philadelphia parish to help revitalize parish life in the neighborhood. Jose holds up the couple’s youngest son, Santiago, 4 months.

Two nights a week, Jose and Maribel Martin leave their eight children to a sitter’s care and walk the streets of St. Charles Borromeo parish on a mission to energize the Roman Catholic church.

In a South Philly neighborhood an ocean away from their Madrid birthplace, the couple traverse blocks of brick rowhouses and knock on doors, eager to spread the Gospel to whoever answers.

“It’s a call from the Lord,” said Martin, 38, who has been making these rounds for more than three years. “We don’t proselytize in the sense of saying, ‘Come join our church.’ We say, ‘We come from St. Charles, and we want to bring you this good news — how God changed my life.’”

At the invitation of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in 2014, the Martins and another missionary family settled in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to advance the Neocatechumenal Way, a program of immersive spiritual development practiced in small groups. Its followers make a lifetime commitment to not only study the Catholic faith, but also to share it. They do so with an evangelical zeal that is uncommon in traditional parishes — and occasionally unsettling for their congregations, including St. Charles’.

“The Way” began in Spain in 1964, but got the Vatican’s imprimatur only in 2008 under Pope Benedict XVI. It now claims more than one million adherents in 6,000 parishes worldwide, making it one of the “most important in a galaxy of new movements and associations” within Roman Catholicism, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University theology professor and author of two books on the subject.

In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the movement is a presence in a dozen parishes, with a total of about 300 followers. The first group was formed 25 years ago at St. Dominic in Torresdale.  The two congregations with missionary families — St. Charles and St. Michael, in Northern Liberties — also are led by priests schooled in the Way.  The movement operates more than 100 seminaries, one of which opened four years ago on the grounds of the former St. Louis parish in Yeadon.

In the St. Charles and St. Michael parishes, both of which had suffered flagging attendance, the missionary families “get to know neighbors, interact in different ways, on the street, in the supermarket, at a kid’s soccer game,” said Bishop John J. McIntyre, head of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Evangelization. “They might go to a public park and sing.”

In these fraught times for mainstream religion, he added, “there is a real need” for extraordinary effort, “especially in the West where practice of the faith is diminishing.”

But if the Way’s mission is to expand the ranks of  practicing Catholics and excite those whose faith has gone cold, it also has been, on occasion, controversial and divisive. In some parishes, congregants have complained that the small groups, meeting apart from the larger church community, are secretive; that they engage in atypical liturgical practices; that they do it all with fleeting regard for tradition. At St. Charles, some of those worries, and others, were laid out in a series of letters to McIntyre.

The Rev. Esteban Granyak, the Way-trained parish administrator, “started right away to change things in a way that was insensitive to what was already there and not considering the concerns of parishioners,” said Carolyn Jenkins, a lifelong St. Charles member who sits on the parish council and serves as a lector and eucharistic minister.

The evangelizing not only shook the status quo, but longtime staff members were let go, railings were removed from around an altar where parishioners knelt to pray, and sections of the church campus were set aside for use by Neocatechumens, Jenkins said.  Some members, she added, left in frustration.

“It wasn’t that we were necessarily against [the Neocatechumens],” Jenkins said. “It was just that we didn’t understand. No one explained the changes.”

Granyak declined to comment. McIntyre, however, acknowledged “tension in some long-standing parishes,” and attributed much of the concern to congregants’ wariness of something new.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Jose Martin holds daughter Lourdes at St. Charles Borromeo Church.

“We hope the priests can help parishioners understand,” McIntyre said. In St. Charles’ case, he added, Granyak has met with members to address “any missteps he may have made.”

Incorporating the Way into parish life requires a pastor’s strong guidance, said the Rev. Hugh Dougherty, formerly of St. Thomas More in Chester County’s South Coventry Township, which hosted its first Neocatechumenal group 15 years ago. Likening the Way’s followers to Eagles fans, he said, “People are enthusiastic [in their commitment], and sometimes enthusiastic people can be very irritating.”

Still, any local dissension pales next to disputes that have erupted in other parts of the globe.

In 2011, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan said in a statement that problems with the Neocatechumenal Way had resulted in “confusion, conflict, division and chaos.” Bishops there had attempted to suspend the Way’s activity, saying it failed to respect Japanese Catholic culture, but Pope Benedict insisted the two sides resolve their differences. The movement has also stirred controversy in the Philippines, and drawn criticism from bishops in the United Kingdom and Italy.

In October, Archbishop Michael Jude Byrnes of Guam closed the island’s Neocatechumenal Way seminary after finding four priests guilty of insubordination.

In other countries, when Neocatechumens arrive, “they tend to take over and create a tension within the local clergy and with local Catholics because it’s a movement based on a high level of commitment of the members,” said Faggioli, the Villanova professor.

Founded in the slums of Madrid 54 years ago, the Way is a product of a religious conversion experienced by Spanish painter and musician Francisco “Kiko” Arguello after visiting the home of a family cook. Distressed by the troubled life of the mother of nine, he moved in to protect her from her abusive, alcoholic husband.

In the suffering of the family, indeed the entire neighborhood, Arguello said he saw the life of the Christian savior.

“I saw Christ crucified. I saw Christ in Bertha…,” he wrote on the Way’s website.  He later met chemist and theologian Carmen Hernandez (who died in 2016), and the two started a ministry. Seeking to reach the poor, they formed a small Christian community that became the Neocatechumenal Way.

Followers complete an initial eight-week course of study aimed at deepening their faith, then join up with groups of about 30 with whom they study, worship and commit to evangelizing inside and outside the parish. They attend study sessions on Wednesdays and Mass in small groups on Saturdays.

Ed Fowler, a real estate appraiser from Elverson who became part of the Way 15 years ago, found the experience transformative.

“When you come to church, sometimes you feel like you’re walking into a crowd, not a community” said Fowler, 74, who helps lead the Way community at St. Thomas More. The small-group format helped him to develop a relationship with God “in a personal way,” he said.

Indeed, parishioners who are part of an increasingly diverse Catholic church often seek “ways to feel at home” in the congregations, said Tricia Bruce, an associate professor of sociology at Maryville College in Tennessee and author of  Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church. Also, new movements can create parish spaces where members can try something new that will make them excited to go to Mass, she said.

McIntyre said the archdiocese hasn’t yet been able to definitively assess the Way’s impact. “It’s a long process of building community” that “has born some fruit in terms of reaching different people,” the bishop said.

The Way reached Jose Martin after his mother’s early death devastated him as a teenager.  Now, he says, he is returning the favor. Before coming to Philadelphia, he and his family had one other missionary posting, in Denver.  “It’s been difficult to leave everything behind, our house, job, friends,” said Martin, who works as director of religious education at St. Katharine Drexel parish in Chester. “But the Lord has given us everything 100-fold.”

Asked about the impact he has made, he wouldn’t venture to guess, but said, “When you go to a home and someone there is fighting and you give them a word and they are helped, maybe they don’t come to Mass — but they have been helped.”