Citing years of “trouble,” Japan’s Catholic bishops have asked the Neocatechumenal Way to cease activities in the country for the next five years.
Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki told CNA on Dec. 15 that the bishops’ proposal, made directly to the Way’s founder, Kiko Arguello, has so far not been accepted.
Archbishop Takami was reached by phone at his home in Nagasaki. Four other Japanese bishops took part in a Dec. 13 closed door meeting in Rome with Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pope had called the meeting in order to discuss the bishops’ proposal. Archbishop Takami indicated that the Pope was not comfortable with the plan. Neither the Vatican nor officials of the Neocatechumenal Way have made any public comment on the meeting or the proposal.
The charismatic Catholic group was founded in Spain in the 1960s and is dedicated to the ongoing religious formation of adult Catholics. It has been operating in Japan for more than 30 years. But in recent years, relations between Way leaders and the country’s bishops have hit rough waters.
Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada of Tokyo first spoke to the Pope in December 2007. He described the Way's presence in Japan’s small Catholic community as "a serious problem."
The "powerful sect-like activity of Way members is divisive and confrontational," and has caused "sharp, painful division and strife within the Church," he told the Pope.
Further talks between the bishops and the Pope led to closing of the Way's seminary in Takamatsu in March 2009.
Following the seminary’s closing, seminarians were sent to the Way’s Rome seminary, Redemptoris Mater. Bishop Takaaki Hirayama, retired bishop of Oita, Japan became its rector.
Father Angel Luis Romero, vice rector at Rome's Redemptoris Mater, told CNA that neither he nor Bishop Hirayama thought it prudent to make any statement for the moment. They expect an official statement to be issued by the Way in the near future.
Father Romero said that 21 men are enrolled in the Japanese seminary program; two have been ordained since the facility was moved. Both new priests, an Italian and a Japanese are now working in Rome.
In conjunction with the seminary’s closing, the Vatican also appointed a vicar to cooperate with the bishops in determining the administration of the Way’s continued presence in Japan. At the time, the Vatican expressed "confidence" that the seminary would, in the future, "continue to contribute to the evangelization of Japan in ways deemed most appropriate to this objective."
But Archbishop Takami said the problems are difficult to resolve. The Way, he said, "has made a lot of trouble in the Takamatsu Diocese in many areas."
He said that following his own experiences with one Way priest and hearing of similar problems from other bishops, he had decided not to permit their ministry in his archdiocese.
Way priests' divided obedience — to both to local bishops and to their superiors in Tokyo — makes for great difficulties, he explained.
“They say they want to be obedient to the bishop in whose diocese we work, but they don't do it, not completely, anyway, not sufficiently or in the proper way," he said.
Problems are related not only to authority but also to the way the Mass is celebrated.
While Way priests use the vernacular Japanese in the Mass, songs and chants used in the celebrations are not. "They use everything they have according to the spirituality of Kiko, which is very, very different from our culture and our mentality," Archbishop Takami said.
In addition, he said, Way members promote their celebrations as superior to the “imperfect” way the Mass is celebrated by ordinary diocesan priests. This also creates division within parishes.
There is also the question of finances. The Way keeps its finances apart from those of the parish, which makes reporting to the government difficult and makes parishes weaker.
Frustrated Japanese bishops are still searching to establish guidelines for the Way's presence in Japan, Archbishop Takami said.
He did not know what exactly was said in the meeting between the Pope and his brother bishops. He did say that "all bishops of Japan surely are very interested in this meeting.”
Archbishop Takami emphasized that the bishops were united in wishing to obey the Pope's decisions on the future of the Way in Japan.
He explained the proposal that the bishops had made to Way cofounder, Kiko Arguello.
The Way would cease operations for five years and use that time "to reflect on their activities in Japan,” he explained.
"At the end, after the five years," said Archbishop Takami, "we will be ready to discuss things with them. We don't want them to leave and never come back. No, no. We want them to work in a way that we would like, for that they will have to learn the Japanese language and particularly Japanese culture."