Updated Jan. 15, 2011. New version explains that the Japanese bishops were called to Rome after an appeal by the Neocatechumenal Way. Number of Way missionaries going to audience with Pope changed to 230.
A papal delegate will soon be appointed to kick-start dialogue between the Japanese bishops and officials of the Neocatechumenal Way. A December meeting in the Vatican left them at odds about the movement's future in the nation.
Although the Way has been present in Japan for almost 40 years, recently relations between the country's Catholic bishops and the movement have been shaky.
In 2009, the bishops closed the Way’s seminary, saying that the group had become a divisive force in many local Catholic communities. After an appeal to the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity by the Neocatechumenal Way, a delegation led by Archbishop Leo Ikenaga, head of the bishops’ conference, was summoned to Rome in December 2010 to discuss their decision to suspend the movement's activities in their nation for a period of five years.
Alvaro de Juana Hernandez, a spokesman for the Way told CNA Jan. 12 that Pope Benedict XVI had rejected the bishops’ plan. During the meeting, he said, "the Holy See communicated that the Neocatechumenal Way cannot be suspended, cannot be thrown out or taken out of Japan."
The bishops and the Vatican instead agreed to the naming of a papal delegate to promote dialogue between the two sides. "This delegate will have to have love for the Way, that is, know the Way, and also pay attention to the problems of the bishops, and start dialogue," said Hernandez.
Bishop Isao Kikuchi of Niigata, Japan, one of the give bishops who took part in the meeting, said the idea for the delegate came from the Pope.
This delegate, Bishop Kikuchi told CNA on Jan. 14, will come "from Rome or somewhere else" to investigate the situation in Japan. He said the delegate will likely be chosen by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who has already asked the Japanese bishops to propose a candidate.
"Then, later on the Holy Father may decide on something. I don't know what he is going to decide," the bishop added.
Bishop Kikuchi said he thinks the Pope "wants to make sure of what is actually going on," because many cardinals support the Way.
Several years ago, the bishop recalled, the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples sent the late-Cardinal Stephen Kim of Seoul, South Korea to carry out a similar investigation into the Way.
Bishop Kikuchi expressed disappointment that they would have to "go through the same process again." But he said, it is different this time, because the investigation has been requested by the Pope himself.
"The Holy Father wants to know what is going on because, I believe, out of our discussion in Rome, I felt that some of the cardinals in the Holy See are feeling some kind of a problem with the Neocatechumenal Way, but they are not so sure about that," the bishop said.
In his own experience, the "biggest problem" had to do with the seminary. He said the Way had caused "deep divisions" in his diocese.
Way missionary priests and families were first called into his diocese to build up the minority Christian presence in a traditionally strong Buddhist area.
The Catholic community is small in the area, numbering only 4,000 out of a total population of about four million. Individual churches number between 100-200 parishioners.
"When there are only 100 people in the parish and such a strong group with a strong charisma comes in, it maybe creates a division among a small group of the people," the bishop said.
Because of the "strong character" of the movement, he explained, "they tend to divide the people and to force the parishioners to decide whether they belong or not, and that is a big problem."
He even said that the "lay faithful are forced to make the extreme decision of either 'yes' or 'no' to be a member of the movement."
Based on the statutes of the Neocatechumenal Way, local bishops are free to decide the future of the movement's activities in their dioceses.
This policy "has never actually functioned well," Bishop Kikuchi said. He believes that in the future, the bishops conference will leave it up to individual bishops to decide whether to permit the Way’s functioning within their diocese.
He was unsure of what he would do in that case. He has had good experiences with individual members of the Way. But the movement as a whole has been damaging, in his opinion.
"They are very good Catholics,” he said, “but the modus operandi of the entire group is the problem I'm seeing."
His main worry is that if something does not change, those Catholics who said "no" to joining the movement might fall away from the Church. He is also concerned about small communities choosing not obey their bishops.
That was the original motivation for the bishops' proposal to suspend Way operations. The bishops wanted to give movement leaders an opportunity to "reflect on the past experience and make amendments for their modus operandi in Japan," he said.
"We want them to start all over again from the beginning."
These themes and more will be brought up next between the Japanese bishops during their Feb. 14-18 general assembly. In the meantime, they are waiting for the appointment of the papal delegate.
When this might come about is still unknown.
Way spokesman Hernandez said that everything now "depends on the Vatican. The process is beginning, but there is no date.”
"What's important," he added, "is that the Holy See has officially communicated this after the meeting, that the Neocatechumenal Way has to continue in Japan and cannot be expelled.”
“The episcopal conference asked for five years to look at some things. For the Holy See and the Vatican, the Pope has said that this cannot be done," Hernandez said.
The founders of the Neocatechumenal Way will be meeting with the Pope to speak about other things on Jan. 17. In a more public audience in the Vatican with thousands of the movement's members, seminarians and priests, Benedict XVI will send 230 missionaries out into the world to bishops who have requested their presence.
None of these is destined for Japan.