The Neocatechumenal Way inspires commitment, stirs controversy
Balbina Terlaje, 85, was among the pioneer members of the Neocatechumenal Way on Guam when the evangelical movement — also known as “The Way”— was introduced to the island in the late 1990s. “NCW told us to open the Bible so we could find peace within ourselves,” Terlaje said.
Terlaje joined her NCW group on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where they saw NCW founder Kiko Argüello. “During the ceremony, we had to go with Archbishop (Anthony) Apuron and get scrutinized,” she said. The scrutiny involved declaring all her sins to Apuron and the congregation. “I kneeled before him and he said that I couldn’t get out of the NCW.”
But the pressure became too stressful for Terlaje. “Every time NCW had an event, I had to be there. When my husband was bedridden, I had to leave him to attend the convivence.”
Terlaje eventually quit the movement.
For soul searchers, any alternative can be appealing. Hence the NCW, a charism with its own rituals and retreats, managed to attract followers.
But the NCW itself is a source of uneasiness toward the Catholic Church itself. Critics dismiss the NCW as a cult, alleging that it takes advantage of its members. Some frown on fanaticism and unthinking obedience the NCW allegedly builds, while others object to its heterodox teachings and liturgical practices.
While she was still a member, Terlaje attended an NCW weekend retreat at a hotel. “When they passed around a trash bag for donations to pay for the food and the banquet room, I put in $100. A few minutes later, they counted all the donations and said it wasn’t enough. They passed the trash bag again five or six times,” Terlaje said.
Although the retreat that pressed for donations had been uncomfortable for Terlaje, she still believed the group had good intentions.
Having to divide her time between her religion and her sick husband, Terlaje faced judgment from fellow NCWs. “They told me I couldn’t leave NCW because I had already been scrutinized,” she said.
The last straw for Terlaje was when a priest insulted her family during a mass. “My baby granddaughter was babbling during the mass and couldn’t keep still. So, Father Rudy stopped the homily and said he couldn’t talk because there was a distraction in the room,” she recounted. “My son who was playing guitar in the band got up and carried the baby. He told them that his daughter had a name and wasn’t called a ‘distraction.’”
The NCW has drawn 700 local members since the young evangelical movement was introduced to Guam in 1998. On Dec. 8, 1999, Archbishop Anthony Apuron established the Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary Redemptoris Mater. On its 10th anniversary on Guam in 2008, the RMS received a legislative resolution, commending the institution for its evangelical work in Guam.
The Neocatechumenal Way enjoyed a peaceful existence on Guam without drawing piercing attention until the RMS property in Yona figured in an abysmal controversy in 2013. Subsequently, the NCW piqued the community’s curiosity, ruffled feathers and became the subject of scrutiny.
“The first NCW to come to Guam was Pius; he found that Apuron was a very willing archbishop—willing to do just about everything and convinced him to join the second community in Hagatna,” said David Sablan, president of Concerned Catholics of Guam.
Sablan speculated the NCW has manipulated the archbishop into transferring the Yona property. Dozens of NCW priests were ordained by RMS before it was shut down in 2017.
The NCW was founded in Madrid in 1964 by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández. Aggressively missionary, the movement offers post-baptismal formation for Catholics who are seeking to deepen their faith beyond the ritual of going to Sunday Mass. Its followers see the Neocatechumenate as new evangelization in action. The Holy See gave its final approval to the Neocatechumenal Way in January 2012.
The NCW takes a more intimate approach to evangelization. It is focused on spiritual work in small groups, organized into parish-based communities of 20 to 50 people. The Neocatechumenate claims a following of more than one million in 124 nations, with about 2,000 priests operating around 100 seminaries. Its phenomenal success created a polarizing effect; it draws supporters and knockers in about equal measure.
Carmen Kasperbauer, 84, was taken aback when her family members said they couldn’t leave NCW after the Apuron scrutinized them. “It’s like they were forced to make their public confession and if they leave NCW, the group will know all their secrets,” Kasperbauer said. “Sin is intimate and it’s OK to share to grow. Yet, if I want to confess, I want it to just belong to me and the priest— and not to belong to anyone else to scandalize me.”
Kasperbauer said during a family get-together a young relative mentioned that the NCW wanted him to donate his land to them. “He said that God doesn’t want him to have material things. I told him that my Artero family owned land in Andersen before the war. My dad sat me down at Haputo beach to tell me that it was my grandpa’s land, but it was now his land,” said Kasperbauer. “Then my dad told me that it wasn’t his land anymore and that it was now my land. My father told me that our land was for our children in the future so we wouldn’t have homelessness in our culture. I told that young man that he owed his land to his children for the future.”
Kasperbauer’s most strange encounter with NCW was during a mass in the Cathedral. “The priest allowed a Neo to have a public confession after communion,” she said. “It was inappropriate because after receiving communion, we just want to be one with Christ, but this guy just wanted to talk to the congregation about his Vietnam War experience and doing drugs and all the women he had sex with. The parents were covering their kids’ ears and some families just got up and left. They had to come back to the next mass to receive the final blessing.”
Despite her ill experiences with NCW members, Kasperbauer sees merits in the movement. “There’s a lot of good things they’ve done for a lot of people, like teaching them the Bible and the way of God and keeping couples together,” she said. “The teaching of Christ is good, but they’re hurting families and our culture. Right now, they’re trying to overpower the real way of mass.”
The “traditional” Catholic faithful accuse the NCW of playing fast and loose with Church teaching and liturgical practices.
Tony Palacios, a critic of the group, claimed the NCW changed his parish’s mass schedule, which affected the Chamoru mass. Despite helping to fundraise $36,000 to renovate Sta. Ana Chapel, he too no longer feels comfortable being in his own parish. “People from Agat now go to different parishes in Santa Rita or Piti, because of the Neos,” he said. “I am not against the Neos since I have family and friends in the group. But it’s like NCW is trying to divide the church.”
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Despite the criticisms, devout NCW members remain proud in their community. “NCW gives me something consistent and structured. Some people may have left NCW because they found it hard to be consistent,” said a current member, who requested anonymity. “This isn’t a cult. No one forced me to join. I can leave whenever I want. People leave NCW on their freewill, we don’t kick anyone out unless they’re a pedophile or an abuser. We aren’t an evil organization. It’s a community for those to share their beliefs in God and the scriptures. We study the scripture and share our stories.”
She is devoted to her faith despite the distrust many feel toward NCW. “The people who don’t know, judge us,” she said. “People say we’re covering for Apuron but NCW has been around longer than him. I can’t say anything about Apuron, but him being in the NCW is his business. I can’t judge him.”
While NCW may be losing members, she has her own theories on why they’ve left. “Some people do wrong things and they just don’t want to hear that they have to change,” she explained. “Whatever is said is confidential. No one is supposed to talk about it outside the session. It would be a sin.”
She compares NCW meetings to Confraternity of Christian Doctrine lessons for adults. “I’ve always gone to mass, so I know God, Jesus and the Trinity. I needed to be in a realm of being with others,” she explained. “I learned to be more in depth with my faith and religion. We’re all on different journeys of our lives, so we may not always be on the same page. In order to really understand the gist of what we’re about is to be in NCW.”
Another current member from Sinajana said she is grateful for her spiritual awakening with NCW. “I was soul searching for some time. NCW helped bring peace within myself and in my personal faith. Even if we spend hours in preparation and service, hearing the word has given me self-purpose in all walks of life,” she said. “No matter how long I’ve been away from Catholicism, that community is a family and they never leave me. I long for my brothers and sisters to strengthen and affirm my belief.”
She does not harbor ill-feelings toward former NCWs, regardless of the path they have chosen. “When people leave NCW, it’s because there is trouble with family and friends who don’t understand The Way,” she said. “They don’t agree with NCWs spending so many hours away from the house learning the Bible and the word of God. Father Gus admires the NCW’s hours devoted to God, because many Catholics don’t even spend one hour a week for mass.” (With additional reports from Mar-Vic Cagurangan)