But with the arrival three years ago of a new pastor, the Rev. Paolo Tanzini, the church adopted a more interactive vision of Catholicism. In the process, dedicated longtime churchgoers like Barker say they have begun to feel less like the heart of the church and more like dissenters.
In part, this is a story about one parish in transition. But it’s also about a movement taking place at the grass roots within the larger Catholic Church.
Tanzini’s chief passion, the Neocatechumenal Way, is a growing, worldwide evangelizing organization that aims to welcome fallen-away Catholics back into the fold, to strengthen the faith of all parishioners and even to draw in non-Catholics.
But its gains have come with a cost in some locations, like Emerson, where long-established congregations have rebelled against what they see as unnecessary change.
In the past eight months, Tanzini has launched a series of classes to transition parishioners into Emerson’s first community of people who ascribe to “The Way,” and he has strongly urged all churchgoers to join the movement. The pastor has undoubtedly touched the lives of some Catholics, some parishioners said, but he’s driving away many others.
A longtime member of the congregation who requested anonymity said donations are down by about 50 percent and people are leaving, many of them skeptical about the Neocatechumenal organization. Angered, the parishioner — a layman who as a Eucharistic minister, helps administer Holy Communion — said he recently confronted Tanzini, telling him, “Your heart is not into the parish, your heart is in this ‘neocat’ way. It’s just destroying the church.”
An assistant priest at the church whom many parishioners said they admired was reassigned to a new parish after repeated clashes with Tanzini. Barker continues to attend Mass officiated by the assistant priest, the Rev. Miles Lopez, but she said she is unsure she will return once he begins a new assignment next month. Lopez did not return a message seeking comment last week.
She said she took offense at Tanzini’s advocacy of The Way as “telling us there’s a better way of having your religion.”
In an interview, Tanzini said parishioners should find nothing alarming in the practices of The Way, noting that the Vatican has endorsed its presence in the church. And he said he is not trying to change the entire parish, just introduce an option for some Catholics who would find comfort in The Way — the same group that inspired him to become a priest in his native Italy.
“Nobody’s asking them to change the way they worship, the way they live their faith,” Tanzini said. “Nobody’s asking them to join the Neocatechumenal Way. The Neocatechumenal Way is not going to change what we do in the church. … It’s a proposal. I think in any parish there is always a way to propose more things, to try to reach out to anybody. It’s a work the church calls evangelization.”
The Newark Archdiocese says it’s supportive of The Way but doesn’t want to see its practices forced on parishioners. Jim Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman, said church officials were aware of the concerns of longtime parishioners, about the Emerson pastor and The Way, and they are hoping for a reconciliation of sorts.
“There’s got to be a solution,” Goodness said. “There’s got to be room to grow for everybody.”
Founded by laypeople
The Neocatechumenal Way was founded in Spain in 1964 by laypeople, taking inspiration from the practice of the early Christian Church of the first to third centuries, said Charles Reid, professor of canon law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. It sees itself as working in a world largely indifferent to faith, actively seeking to convert people who have never been Catholic and invite back those who have lapsed.
“Organizationally, the movement depends on the work of small groups,” Reid said. “The groups are intense, and they seek to change people’s lives. They want, in other words, real conversion — people who embrace Catholicism emotionally and fully.”
The Way has been a growing organization for priests in North Jersey. Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Kearny, which is dedicated to the ordination of priests who ascribe to the movement, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and the 100 priests it has produced who now work throughout the archdiocese and as missionaries around the world.
Several parishes in the archdioceses have small Neocatechumenal communities, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood and Holy Family Church in Nutley, and at least a dozen pastors who follow The Way are assigned to other churches, Goodness said.
Church of the Assumption may be the first local case where introduction of The Way has been met with resistance, but such divisions are not uncommon nationally, Reid said.
Priests who belong to The Way “encounter problems with established Catholic communities,” he said. “They often have their own separate Masses. They may not pay attention to parish boundaries. They will recruit as members people already active in other parishes. In other words, more established, more conventional parishes and pastors will see them as ‘poaching’ on their territories or their talent and thus see their practices as divisive.”
Many of those same concerns have been raised in Emerson. The Eucharistic minister who asked not to be named said he was put off by the constant presence of laypeople from other Neocatechumenal communities at regular Mass services, whom Tanzini sometimes would invite to speak during his homily about their experiences in The Way. He and others said there are numerous advertisements in the church and in bulletin invitations to the classes.
The pastor wrote with enthusiasm about a “celebration of conversion” for those participating in the first class last fall, and he announced the formation of the Neocatechumenal community last December upon completion of the class.
“I don’t understand why we need to be reborn, why we have to have another baptism,” said one parishioner. “Every Easter we renew our baptismal vows. I don’t need to be rebaptized and reborn. I resent that feeling — I’m not a good Catholic because I’m not a ‘neocat.’ It’s just very confusing.”
Al Manduley, an Assumption parishioner for 45 years, underscored that sentiment. “We have been bombarded with this different religion,” Manduley said.
The spokesman for Archbishop John J. Myers said the Vatican has approved of The Way’s practices, but the archbishop would not like to see its membership presented as a directive or order, rather than an option for a parish or an individual.
“Rome has said this is perfectly permissible,” Goodness said. “It’s a missionary approach to conversion of people and a deeper understanding of what the church teaches.”
Tanzini, the pastor of Assumption, said he has always presented joining The Way as voluntary.
“This is mostly a series of talks and instructions about faith, about Christianity,” he said. “It’s definitely not a cult [haha] or anything that is not related to the Catholic faith or not approved by the church.”
At a ‘catechesis’ class
At a recent “catechesis” class, which must be completed by those who want to become members of The Way, a group of 15 people sat in a circle inside a former classroom of Assumption Academy, the parish school that closed in 2012.
Two instructors from Holy Family in Nutley took turns teaching a lesson on the story of Abraham, using song, prayer and a recounting of the Bible.
The students from the Emerson parish — ranging widely in age — were then asked to relate Abraham’s life to their own. One man admitted he was lost, as Abraham was lost before hearing God speak to him when his life seemed most hopeless. A woman said that she was in the Promised Land — aligning with Abraham’s journey after God intervened in the sacrifice of his son Isaac.
“How did you get there?” an instructor asked her. The first catechesis class held last fall, she said, helped her find God and prevented her from continually wanting more from her life, tempering her desires.
Tanzini sat through the Thursday evening class, speaking only at the end to add to the efforts of an instructor who encouraged participants to attend a retreat at the end of this month, pushing them to go to the next level.
The instructor singled out the man who said he had been lost. The man, who is 62, said he did not plan to attend the retreat, but the instructor said the community would do whatever it could to get him there.
After the class, the man, who declined to give his name, said he appreciated the “pushback,” from the courses and from Tanzini.
“I love that man with all my heart,” he said about Tanzini.
“He tries to push me out of the space that I was in and I get pissed off,” he said. “It’s my nature because I’m an old man. But no matter who is running what, you’re going to have people who don’t agree with you. He’s a good man, he’s a good man, he really is.”
Tanzini, in his interview, acknowledged that people may not like his character, but that is part of human nature. Parishioners complained that he once abruptly canceled a special commemorative Mass they showed up for, and one woman said she felt humiliated when the pastor scolded her in the middle of a service for showing up late.
He said those complaints were brought to his attention and addressed by the archdiocese, and he has learned as a result.
The decline in the church’s membership and donations, he said, could not be attributed to his style or to the beginnings of the Neocatechumenal Way at Assumption.
“It’s a common trend in this area,” Tanzini said. “This is not an isolated case.”
Barker, the longtime parishioner, disagreed, saying that some nearby parishes have flourished in recent months — in part bolstered by former members of Assumption.
As far as she can see, her church doesn’t need The Way and the divisions that have come with it.
“I am sure there is a need for that, but I don’t think the need is in Emerson,” she said. “I’m looking from a different perspective — not that I know it all — but I’m comfortable with how I practice my religion.
“We’re saddened we don’t have comfort with our own parish now,” she continued. “We don’t live in a perfect world, and I recognize that. But we’re sort of in a quandary is the best way to put it right now.”
Tags: Giuseppe Gennarini, Neocatechumenal Way, Camino Neocatecumenal