Matthew Keegan examines the Neo-Catechumenate movement, and asks if it is a church within a church
IF YOU asked somebody what the Guardian Angels means to them what would you expect them to say? Many might think you were referring to the organisation of vigilantes who were started in New York as a deterrent against street crime. Or perhaps they would take you literally and admit to believing in their own spiritual bodyguard.
To its parishioners, however, the Church of the Guardian Angels on the Mile End road is the centre of a thriving NeoCatechumenate community. Neo what? Well might you ask, because although there are 200 or so communities in Italy, there are only 11 parishes in England where Neo-Catechumenate groups practise.
At present the movement is being criticised as a result of its teachings and is viewed with caution by more conservative priests and parishioners.
The movement came to this country 14 years ago from Spain where it originated. It was conceived by a painter called Kiko Arguello who harked back to the teaching of the early Christians. His ideal was a reaffirmation of baptismal vows after a lengthy period of preparation. Harmless enough?
But critics accuse the movement of secrecy, elitism, and being divisive within the parish. They cite examples of churches with separate masses and Bible study classes and priests who suggest to outsiders that, although welcome to attend the group's masses, it would be helpful if they didn't come next time.
Another arrow in the critic's quiver is the so-called "swimming pool." They are, in fact, referring to the fonts found in some of the NeoCatechumenate churches which form an important part of the re-baptismal process. Total immersion is carried out but has led to complaints from parents who favour traditional baptism.
Sandwiched between an amusement arcade and a Chinese restaurant stands the Church of the Guardian Angels. Fr Anthony Sacre showed obvious pride in his meticulously restored church, and rightly so as it would put many others to shame.
His flock is a dedicated one and this is reflected in the effort made by the parish over the past few years. Three years ago the churchgoers helped in the redecoration programme and completed the project in just six weeks, aided by an architect who is a member of the congregation.
The claims that the groups are elitist and secretive were strongly dismissed by Fr Sacre. He stressed that they comprise of not only British but also West Indians, Italians, illiterate and educated and that everybody is welcome to join. This was announced to the congregation after the Easter celebrations, where everybody was encouraged to take part in the twice weekly meetings.
Fr Brian O'Sullivan of the National Conference of Priests expresses reservations when questioned about the activities of the Neo-Catechumenate movement. "Any group within the parish that pursues its own separate spiritual growth could not be considered healthy for the overall community."
When the conference met two years ago it issued a statement that advised its members to treat the Neo-Catechumenate teachings with care, stressing that there could indeed be a divisive and elitist clement to their practices.
Fr Sacre's approach to his faith and parish has been markedly changed since he began to encourage the teachings of the Catechumenate. He admits that it has changed him profoundly, as well as his parishioners who have followed his example. "This was something that touched people deeply who had strayed from the Church, and for many they were spiritually transformed as a result."
Fr Sacre admits that as parish priest he does have the power to determine the way it is run, but he believes that the pros outweigh the cons. Since the groups began practising he has seen a revitalisation of the parish and a far greater family involvement within it, and concludes that for the family group the benefits are selfevident: "with parents who undertake the re-athrmation of their vows the effect on the children is tremendous; they know how to pray properly and are ready for confirmation earlier."
What this debate does raise is the question of how much influence the parish priest has over his parish. For those who object to the NeoCatechumenate groups within the community the only option they have is to go to the nearest non-Catechumenate parish and this must cause considerable frustration.
Those critical are also worried that the movement attracts people who are vulnerable members of society. They feel concern at the strong influence the movement exerts on such people and feel there has to be a special part of the parish set aside to answer their needs.
Fr Sacre sees a real need to renew faith within the community and believes this is of the greatest importance, in what is termed an "inner city" area. He considers it very important for his parish that he encourages a renewal of faith which will reach out to all of its members.
Perhaps what really worries its opponents is the NeoCatechumenate's absence of any official control. But Fr Sacre is well aware that he can only practise what his bishop will allow and, since there have been no objections so far, he is free to continue. The Pope has spoken out in favour of the work that the Neo-Catecumenates have undertaken and encourages their communities.
What emerges is a strong need for the role of the NcoCatechumenates to be identified within the parish community. Those involved are obviously sincere and dedicated people who see the Neo-Catechumenate teaching as a necessary part of their faith and as Fr Sacre says "they are finding answers for God in their lives and that must be a good thing."