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February 2000



It was reported that when the Holy Father last visited Australia, in 1997, he took Melbourne's Archbishop George Pell aside and asked: "How are the new communities going in Melbourne?" By "new communities" John Paul meant the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Charismatic Renewal, Focolare, the Emmanuel community and similar 'movements' of the type he has supported since his Polish days. In a Church as chaotic, divided and confused as ours, it is hardly surprising that while many agree with the Pope, there are also many prelates, priests and laity across the globe who respectfully but vigorously beg to differ with his optimistic assessment of the new communities. Whereas John Paul sees them as the "work of the Spirit", others with personal and often tragic experience of their beliefs and methods view them not as the work of the Holy Spirit, the Trinitarian source of peace and unity, but of an alien spirit of discord and disunity.

Those who support the new communities point, above all else, to their expansion and conversions and vocations associated with them. Indeed, a significant number of the seminarians in the Westminster Archdiocese today are Neo-Catechumenates. But this argument of 'truth by numbers' is no argument at all. Countless bogus apparitions and movements down the centuries right up to the present day have boasted conversions, vocations and huge followings in support of the righteousness of their cause, while simultaneously undermining the Faith through serious errors and failings. The Faith is not a numbers game. For all we know the Lord might be greeted on his return by a remnant Church consisting of a few dozen souls gathered round the pontiff in a mud hut in equatorial Guinea. No, despite its divine mission to "teach all nations" the Faith is not essentially about volume, but about obedience to the Truth and His Church. That is the only sure foundation of orthodoxy, peace and unity. So it is not enough to say, as the supportive prelates do, that tensions between the new communities and pastors are due to a lack of knowledge of one another. The fact is that the new Charismatic movements of different shapes and hues are either Catholic or they are not. And the much publicised "tension" many of them have provoked has not been a matter of misunderstanding those movements but, quite the contrary, of studying their origins, beliefs, methodologies and fruits and objectively assessing their 'charism' as Protestant rather than Catholic.

In the case of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, the late and renowned Passionist scholar Fr. Enrico Zoffoli made just such a study and we published his basic list of objections to the specific doctrines expounded by its founder Kiko Arguello in our April 1995 edition. This compromised of a string of quintessential Protestant errors which, it is no exaggeration to say, could have been compiled by Luther himself. In the November 1997 CO, we also published a strictly objective description of the liturgy of the NC Way by a former Australian NC seminarian. By no stretch of the imagination could the sort of Congregationalism described therein be construed as a Catholic Mass. In light of such objective critiques, claims of psychological manipulation and control by the NC Way and the divisions it has spawned in families and parishes become readily understandable.

The "charismatic experience", of course, is synonymous with "personal experience" which is the cornerstone of all the new movements ranging from the Charismatic Renewal through the NC Way to ALPHA and the charismatic mayhem of the Toronto Blessing which spawned ALPHA. "Personal experience," however, quickly becomes an absolute value, divorced from the institutional Church and reinforced by the emotional intensity and autonomy of small prayer groups or large revivalist-style assemblies. One has to personally experience, as it were, the impact of this "personal experience of Christ" on Charismatic souls to fully appreciate what it routinely does to their Catholic psyche. Take the young Polish woman of my acquaintance who showed all the signs of possessing a strong Catholic faith. While concerned to hear she was involved in a Charismatic prayer group, her Catholic upbringing and the fact that the group was part of a sturdy Polish chaplaincy gave me some hope that she might avoid the usual Charismatic pit-falls and simply deepen her prayer life in her own way. Before long, however, I heard that she was speaking in tongues. Then, some time later, when a mention of the "one true Church" elicited from her a look of extreme discomfort and firm protestations that the Catholic Church was not the only Christian Church possessing the fullness of truth, my heart sank. The subjective Charismatic experience had claimed another victim. And no matter how often you encounter it, you never get used to the shocking realisation that the fresh-faced, apparently committed and enthusiastic young Catholic before you is in fact no Catholic at all but a reprogrammed Taize Christian - a syncretist's dream.

We may well ask how it is, then, that the Holy Father and so many bishops and Catholic notables around the world support the Charismatic movement? Moreover, what can possibly explain the continued refusal of Roman authorities to take on board Fr. Zoffoli's definitive expose of the NC Way? The most obvious answer, of course, is that many of the Shepherds have also lost the Faith and are therefore happy to embrace communities that, to a greater or lesser extent, embody the freewheeling, self-indulgent, liturgically feckless postconciliar Church they have made their own and which pay as much lip-service to Catholic orthodoxy as themselves. As for the supportive attitude among more orthodox prelates, including John Paul himself, perhaps it is down to sheer panic? With the Church in total chaos and facing unprecedented Western decline, there is more than a touch of desperation, even millennial madness, about the embrace of demonstratively heretical, heterodox or otherwise divisive charismatic groups by churchmen swept away by what one Bishop at the European Synod called their enthusiasm, popularity and youthfulness - as well as their rapid growth.

Still, whether loss of the Faith or blind faith motivates episcopal support, the new communities certainly had their day in the Roman sun on 30 May 1998 - "when," according to the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague, "John Paul met with all the ecclesial movements in St. Peter's Square [and] the new springtime in the Church forecast by John XXIII at the opening of Vatican Council II took place." Well, it's a point of view. Without doubt it was a vast and zealous gathering. Yet as the following articles confirm, enthusiasm and numbers alone do not Catholic communities make.

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