In order to understand the significance of the Statute of the Neocatechumenal Way, it is necessary to look back at some fundamental historical stages which preceded it.
1. Wojtyla and the rediscovery of the catechumenate
Karol Wojtyla, through his personal experience of the Nazi dictatorship and then that of communism, sees the Church surrounded by a new wave of paganism expressed in the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. In many speeches or acts of his pontificate, one finds an echo of the historical memory of that realized apocalypse, experienced in his very person, which was the tragedy of the Second World War, the camps, the gulags, the millions of deaths, the terrible injustices.
"In the course of the century which is dying, young people like yourselves were called together in vast gatherings to learn how to hate, they were sent to fight against each other. The various secularized messianisms, which attempted to take the place of Christian hope, revealed themselves to be true hells."
The Church and Christians are called to respond to the danger of a new barbarism, which is far more dangerous than the former one. For Wojtyla, to re-evangelize means to drive away the specter of a new apocalypse that risks destroying man and society.
Through his philosophical formation, he is attentive to real phenomena and hence to the fact that faith, if it wants to be Christian faith, must express not only a religious creed, but a new form of life, a new way of loving and of being free. At the heart of the pontificate of John Paul II lies the vision of a Church, which, and leaving behind all triumphalism, animates a drive for evangelization, the new evangelization, in order to re-evangelize traditionally Christian nations which are plummeting into paganism.
In 1952, Wojtyla, a young priest, wrote an article which is extraordinary for its relevance today, "Catechumenate of the twentieth century". Reflecting on the Paschal Vigil, he examines the signs which express the resurrection of Christ: the light that shines from the resurrection and allows contemplation of the new life and the water, the passage of the Red Sea, symbol of the passage from death to life. This why at the center of the night there is baptism, which is the offer of a change of nature prepared by the catechumenate:
"tonight the catechumens must be born again... can one who is already alive be born again perhaps? Maybe a life can exist which one has not lived up to now? ...Because to believe in the God whom Christ announces as his Father ... is not only to believe, but to be reborn again ...; we know that ... we do not only belong to a confession, a religion, but that we receive a new life..."
One of the Council Fathers who contributed most to the rediscovery of Christian initiation and hence of the catechumenate was a young Polish bishop, then auxiliary of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. In his intervention in the conciliar hall in 1962, during the discussion on the text of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the liturgy, Wojtyla supported theses which at that time were revolutionary:
"Christian initiation is done not with baptism alone, but through a catechumenate during which the adult person is prepared to lead his life as a Christian. It is, therefore, clear that initiation, is something more than the reception of baptism alone".
For Wojtyla, this rediscovery of the catechumenate which broadened the traditional concept of Christian initiation, was of
"... the greatest importance above all in our age, when even people already baptized are not sufficiently initiated into the full truth of Christian life".
As a witness of the faith of the Polish Church, Wojtyla saw with clarity the fragility of "Christianity" in front of the secularization and apostasy of modern man.
"Certainly we today, in those countries of ancient Christian tradition, especially in the countries of Europe, are being warned of the exhaustion of our interior Christianity, of that which should be the fruit of our baptism.
We are living in a period of dechristianization; it seems that believers, those once baptized, are not sufficiently mature to oppose secularization, the ideologies which are contrary not only to the Church, to Catholic religion, but contrary to religions in general, they are atheistic, even antitheistic."
Wojtyla stressed two profoundly new concepts:
1. that the catechumenate was not simply a doctrinal catechesis, (as the preparation for baptism tended to be seen at that time), but an existential process of insertion in the new nature of Christ.
2. that the catechumenate, that is the process which prepared for baptism, was as essential to the process of initiation as the sacrament itself.
By analyzing the primitive Church, Wojtyla thus saw that at the center of evangelization lay personal witness and the catechumenate. Precisely because she found herself again in a pagan world, the Church needed to recuperate the catechumenate which in the primitive Church was the motor for evangelization.
2.The reintroduction of the Neocatechumenal process for the baptized
At the end of the conciliar discussion on the Constitution for the Liturgy, one of the most important decisions of the Council was precisely that - perhaps somewhat ignored at the time - of reintroducing the catechumenate for adults, as a process of gestation for the gradualrreeception of a new life (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 64). This decision led some years later, in 1972, to the promulgation of the Ordo Initiations Christianae Adultorum (RCIA), that is the Ordo, or schema, which regulates the process of initiation for the baptism of adults.
Chapter IV of the RCIA also proposes the use of some rites, which belong to the catechumenate, for the catechesis of adults who are baptized but not sufficiently catechized.
In the following years, this point, still secondary, began to occupy more and more the center of magisterial documents.
In 1975, Paul VI in paragraph 44 his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, concluded:
"It is now beyond any doubt that modern conditions render ever more urgent the need for catechetical instruction to be given under the form of a catechumenate."
Then, in 1979, John Paul II in paragraph 44 of his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, stated:
"Our pastoral and missionary concern ... reaches to those who, even though born in a Christian country, indeed in a sociologically Christian context, have never been educated in their faith and, as adults, are true catechumens."
Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, explicitly formulated in paragraph 1231 the need of a post-baptismal catechumenate for all the baptized:
"By its very nature the Baptism of infants requires a post-baptismal catechumenate. It is not only a question of instruction after Baptism, but of the necessary development of baptismal grace in the growth of the person."
In the space of a few years, there has been a progression from Chapter IV of the RCIA, which merely suggested the possible use of some parts of the catechumenate for adults already baptized but not sufficiently catechized, to a formulation which establishes the necessity of a post-baptismal catechumenate for all the baptized..
Not only has the Magisterium welcomed the ideas expressed by Wojtyla as a young priest and then in the Council hall, but the reintroduction of the catechumenate for the baptized has led to the formulation of the need for already baptized Christians to rediscover the faith through a catechumenal itinerary, so as to be ready to confront the challenges of today.
In this way, a document that reintroduced a process for the baptism of pagans that had been forgotten for centuries, has arrived at being central to the life of the baptized.