Catholics from the Neocatechumenal Way in Southern California were among the thousands of pilgrims to descend on Rome for the Way’s 50th anniversary celebration on May 5.
“Thanks to God, and also to you, especially to those who have made a long journey to be here,” said Pope Francis as he welcomed the estimated outdoor crowd of 150,000 on the university campus of Tor Vergata on the outskirts of Rome.
That long journey brought Rene Duran from the San Gabriel Valley to some of Christianity's holiest sites in Siena, Florence and Assisi before his group’s arrival in Rome.
“There are no words to describe the joy I’m feeling right now,” said the 24-year-old after the meeting at Tor Vergata. “Being able to sing, to praise God, to meet people from other countries who have the same faith that I do, is just wonderful.”
Duran, who belongs to the first Neocatechumenal community of St. John the Baptist in Baldwin Park, explained that the pilgrimage was about more than merely seeing the pope for a few hours.
“We always come to these pilgrimages to find our vocation,” Duran said. “I’m trying to find out what God wants to do with my life.”
Besides the nearly 400 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, several hundred more members of the Way from the Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego dioceses traveled to Rome for the encounter, which began with an introduction of the pilgrims representing the 134 countries where the Way is present by the Way’s initiator, Kiko Argüello.
He also introduced the various cardinals and bishops in attendance, including Boston archbishop and papal adviser Cardinal Sean O’Malley as well as former Archbishop of Dallas Cardinal Kevin Farrell, who now heads the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
It was followed by a sung proclamation of a reading from the Gospel of Matthew and an address from the pope, who encouraged the Way’s members to evangelize those far away from the Church with the example of their lives.
“What counts is not convincing arguments, but the life that attracts; not the ability to impose oneself, but the courage to serve,” the pope said.
“Your charism is a great gift from God for the Church of our time. Let us thank the Lord for these 50 years.”
Pope Francis is the latest pope to offer his support for the itinerary of post-baptismal Christian initiation, which was born in the slums of Madrid in the early 1960s and was encouraged by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
For Los Angeles pilgrim Ana Vigil, the pope’s words were an answer to her prayers to God.
“I came wanting to hear him speak to me,” said Vigil, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist in South LA, where the Way’s first community in the West Coast started 40 years ago.
“The moments of prayer, of being together with others, showed me that God gives me so many things that I don’t deserve.”
Accompanied by her husband and grandson, she credits the Way with saving her marriage and strengthening her relationship with God amid the difficulties of her daily life.
“Hearing the pope, and seeing him and all these people giving their lives for Jesus Christ and the gospel, makes me want to bring this back to my everyday life,” said Vigil, whose group made stops at the Sanctuary of the Holy House in Loreto and the Shrine of the Holy Face in the small town of Manoppello, both in Italy.
She and others from the group of 25 pilgrims from St. John the Evangelist said they were especially touched by the hospitality shown by families from the Way in the Roman suburb of Dragona, who hosted the LA pilgrims in their homes during their time in Rome.