As people filed into the lower hall of Immaculate Conception Church (IC) on Monday night, there was a great deal of excitement, conversation and sharing with one another.
People were genuinely happy to see one another.
They were also excited to begin the fifth-week of their eight-week class on the Neocatechumenal Way – also known simply as The Way – that was taking place at IC.
For many, it appeared that they had found peace after a long period of torment.
Some were still trying to find that peace, but the picture was getting clearer.
Children as young as 11 and adults as old as 60 were there listening intently to the presenters – also known as catechists – intent on learning something new about God. Those who only spoke Spanish shared space with native English speakers in what appeared to be a harmonious community atmosphere.
In fact, it was a community – one that is being built at IC on the idea of evangelization, returning those to the church that have left over the last several years and finding new people who are seeking faith. In addition to learning about scripture, the class gets together and they also conclude the process at a unity-building weekend retreat.
“Churches all over the place are closing and congregations are getting smaller and smaller,” said Rosario Rizzo, a teacher of the classes. “This Parish is flourishing and people are responding to this message.”
Said Father George Szal, IC’s director, “The classes are made up of regular churchgoers, people far away from God, people who have forgotten about God or are out of practice. We’ve had five communities born out of this since we started. What we’ve seen is a stronger faith in the Parish. We’ve seen marriages rebuilt, and we’ve seen married couples having children again. We’ve seen families restored. That is huge.”
And in a time of year typically reserved for redemption, classes on The Way have proven quite inspiring.
PACKING THE HALL FOR GOD
Most of the time, around 70 to 100 people pack into the hall two times a week to learn about the faith that they’ve either forgotten or never quite fully understood.
Classes consist of the history of the church, as well as scriptural instruction. There have been ceremonies conducted where priests have actually confessed sin – which -ter, those in the Neocatechumenate community at IC plan to take to the streets near City Hall to announce their faith publicly and find others who might be interested in returning to the Church.
“Secularism has taken more of a hold on the world,” said Lenny Guyette, a catechist at IC. “This is kind of the answer. It comes from Spain, but it’s really taken off in Boston. In the early church, people learned the foundation of what it meant to be a Christian before they were baptized. They could not get baptized until they had demonstrated the love of Jesus Christ in their lives. That kind of got lost in the time of Constantine. There were mass baptisms where everyone was baptized and there was no more catechumenate to teach them what they were doing. The Church has now said we need to restore that. This is what we’re doing.”
Guyette – a former Seminarian who lives in Orient Heights and attends IC – said people are responding in such numbers because it has brought life and hope back to those who have drifted off. He said it has also taught them how to truly live out their faith, and to evangelize their communities – getting God into the public square and into daily life. It’s something that isn’t often seen in American Catholic Parishes and something that challenges some more traditional Parishioners.
The Way began in the 1960s in Spain, and has seen a huge blossoming in Italy and Europe. Here, in Boston, it has received tremendous support from Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
Though some in the Catholic community have not embraced the idea, most Church leaders have praised the effort, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. New Pope Francis is also one who approves. In 2008, the Vatican officially approved the teaching.
“The world needs you,” said Rizzo in a concluding appeal to class members Monday night. “It’s looking for people like you to point them in the right direction – which is to point them to God…They turn on the news and all they see is death, murder, rape, adultery and theft. That’s all you see. The world needs to see a different sign – one of love and unity. That’s what God is calling us to be a part of – to bring back that joy and happiness.”
COMING BACK WITH A MISSION
This past Monday, the microphone was passed around to let people respond to what they had learned over the past five weeks. Some were there for the first time, while others had attended every meeting.
Mothers and fathers were there with children.
Adults who had long-drifted from church were there to think of returning.
Young adults had brought their parents, encouraging them to renew their faith.
“This has been a difficult time for my son and I hope he will grow up with God,” Fabiola told the group. “I want to know more about God and I want that for my children.”
Others were there to strengthen their existing belief.
“It was awakening to see the priest go to confession,” said Paul. “I don’t think we see that too much. It certainly strengthens your faith. My faith in Jesus is pretty strong and this has just added to that.”
Still others were trying to make a comeback, having been brought by family members or even by their own children.
“It has brought me closer to my faith,” said Felipe, whose daughter invited him. “I’ve gotten away from it for awhile. It’s making me want to do the right thing now at all times. I’m still struggling with a lot of things, but I’m going to keep coming.”
Others in the group had simply saw a sign – metaphorically perhaps, but even literally.
“It’s my first day here,” said another Paul. “Nobody invited me. I just saw the sign outside on the church. I think it’s about time started coming back. My faith is pretty much as hard as it gets and I would say for four years I just haven’t talked to God. I want to come back.”
And if members of IC’s communities are correct, many more men and women like that will return and help rebuild and reinvigorate their spiritual corner of Revere.
“This has changed my life, brought my faith alive and changed my views on what the Church is about,” concluded Szal. “I always understood that one of the purposes of the priesthood was to maintain the community of faith, but I didn’t know how to do the other part – the mission to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those outside the faith community…The exciting thing about the new pope is that he has been doing evangelization among the poor for decades and now is calling the whole Church to get busy about it too. The Neocatechumenate has made me and about 1.5 million others ready and able to respond to that call, as Revere and the rest of the world will see in the Sundays after Easter.”