BROOKLYN, N.Y. (OSV News) -- An arena typically filled with fans cheering on the Brooklyn Nets had a different kind of excitement in the air July 7.

The Barclays Center hosted nearly 20,000 faithful gathered for a Mass in the famous basketball arena and concert venue to celebrate a significant milestone – the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the post-baptismal catechumenate in the United States.

Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the U.S., was the main celebrant of Mass. He was accompanied by more than 300 priests and 12 other bishops from around the country, including Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, and Bishop Timothy Freyer of auxiliary bishop of Orange, California.

Pilgrims, young and old, came from as far away as the Pacific Islands to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime gathering. More than 2,000 came from California.

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Pilgrims from across the United States and its territories gather for a Mass at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 7, 2024, marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Neocatechumenal Way in the United States. (Photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, The Tablet)

The Diocese of Brooklyn was represented by hundreds of people from several churches who quickly fell in with the spirit of the lively celebration by clapping, cheering, playing tambourines, and banging on bongo drums they had brought from home.

"This is very exciting," said Gladys Fernando of Jamaica in the New York City borough of Queens. "I came with my children, and I am happy I brought them."

"This day is about families," Fernando, a parishioner of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, told The Tablet, Brooklyn's diocesan newspaper.

The Neocatechumenal Way was founded in Spain in 1964 by two laypeople, Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández, and a priest, Father Mario Pezzi, who wanted to find a way to bring baptized Catholics, who had strayed, back to the faith.

The initiators, who were also seeking to encourage Catholics to embark on a lifelong faith formation journey, began proclaiming the Gospel to destitute people in poverty-stricken areas of the country, inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

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Cardinal Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., incenses the altar during the July 7, 2024 Mass at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn marking 50 years of the Neocatechumenal Way in the U.S. (Courtesy Neocatechumenal Way USA)

Ten years later, in 1974, Argüello and Hernández came to the U.S., where they visited New York City at the invitation of then-Father James Donegan, pastor of St. Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights.

The first Neocatechumenal Way community in New York was established in the Archdiocese of New York – at St. Columba Church in Manhattan. Father Donegan, who was later named a monsignor, started a community at St. Joan of Arc.

Fast forward 50 years, and there are now 1,100 Neocatechumenal Way communities in the U.S. – including several in Brooklyn and Queens – and nine Redemptoris Mater seminaries, including one in the Brooklyn Diocese.

Bishop Brennan noted the Way's strong presence. "Welcome home!" he told the faithful as cheers cascaded throughout the arena. "You belong here."

The Neocatechumenal Way received the Holy See's official approval in 2008. The Vatican recognized it as a post-baptismal catechumenate and a vital instrument for assisting dioceses and parishes in their efforts to evangelize adults.

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Pilgrims from the Pacific Islands are seen during a Mass at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 7, 2024, marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Neocatechumenal Way in the United States. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, The Tablet)

During his homily, Cardinal Pierre said the Neocatechumenal Way is important because it lives out the church's mission of "opening the doors to people in all situations," including those trapped in the nightmares of addiction, violence and despair, and leading them back to Jesus Christ.

"God can open a way where it seems impossible," he added.

“The womb of the Church is baptism, and through a post-baptismal catechumenate you are gradually rediscovering the immense grace of baptism,” said the nuncio later. “You are witnesses of this, and this assembly is a living testament that it works. Does it work? Have hope, it will continue to work! My friends, because of this, we have reason to give thanks to God for the visit of Kiko and Carmen fifty years ago.”

Maurilio Mora, who lives in New Jersey, said the Neocatechumenal Way changed his life for the better.

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Seminarian Michele Sega of the Archdiocese of Miami holds a phone during a video call with Kiko Argüello, initiator of the Neocatechumenal Way, before the July 7 Mass at Barclays Center. (Courtesy Neocatechumenal Way USA)

"I was a good, faithful person before, but now my wife and I put our faith at the center of our family life, and it has made all the difference in the world," said the father of seven children.

Because the Neocatechumenal Way strives to rekindle faith in people who have already been baptized, the younger members of the movement prepared for the July 7 Mass by spending a week on pilgrimages to spread the word of God, visiting shrines and other holy sites, and reading about the lives of saints.

Near the end of the Mass, an estimated 1,000 young men who felt the call to the priesthood and will discern entering the seminary stood up to receive a blessing from Cardinal Pierre. The cardinal also blessed 1,500 young women who stood up and expressed their desire to enter a convent or enter into a mission.