MCNS Articles
Friday, August 29, 2003
  The Boston Globe

October 25, 1998, Sunday ,City Edition


LENGTH: 778 words

HEADLINE: Some Colonial figures still at their old haunts;

BYLINE: By Mark Sullivan, Globe Correspondent


CONCORD - A house ghost in a powdered wig is as revered a tradition as Indian pudding at the old inns and taverns in this history-laden corner of New England.

So as Halloween approaches, reservation lines are buzzing at Concord's venerable Colonial Inn, where Room 24, in the oldest nook of the 280-year-old hostelry, is said to be haunted.

Site of several accounts of spectral activity since a honeymooning bride reported a ghost by the bed in 1966, Room 24 is highlighted in advertising material and on the Inn's Web site:

Reservation agent Matthew Dziadosz said many prospective guests are eager for lodging that comes with ghostly room service.

"We've had eight people today ask for that room for Halloween, but it's already booked," Dziadosz said as he worked the hotel desk last week.

The same pervasive sense of the past that attracts tourists to Massachusetts makes it a congenial haunt for spirits, says self-described "ghost-hunter" Jim McCabe of Wellesley.

"The old Yankees may have been strange in certain ways, but they kept the old buildings, which has made it attractive to many visitors - even ghosts," said McCabe, who offers a walking tour of haunted landmarks through his company, New England Ghost Tours.

"Spirits are attracted to the places they lived in," he said. "I think what attracts ghosts up here is that you don't tear down the buildings." The Stagecoach Inn and Tavern in the center of Groton dates to 1678. Its guests over the years have included Paul Revere, presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and William H. Taft, and and, if you believe the stories, a full complement of ghosts.

"Many people have seen many things," says George Pergantis, a Greek immigrant who has owned the property since 1977. "The lights go off. A waitress said she heard her name called over and over. I'm from the old country - I don't believe these things."

But staff and guests alike claim to have experienced the supernatural at the Stagecoach Inn.

The ghost of a Colonial soldier has been seen at least twice, according to longtime resident manager Gloria Lammi. In one sighting, a workman who was staying at the inn during a 1990 remodeling said he awoke during the night to see the phantom patriot sitting at the foot of his bed.

"When asked who he was," Lammi said, "the soldier didn't say anything, but just tipped his hat."

She said the resident spirits can be quite boisterous in making their presence felt. Beds have been found unmade and toilets have been heard to flush in rooms in which no one has been staying; paper towels and potpourri have been found strewn all over the floor of a restroom near the front desk, and water glasses from set tables in the dining room have turned up on the floor or even stacked in a pyramid.

One cook is said to have been scared off by a kitchen poltergeist who turned off the lights and the oven, turned on a water tap, and left the floor strewn with plastic wrap. "She went running out, hysterical," said Lammi. "She phoned to say she wouldn't come back in the building."

Tales abound over the circumstances that led the Groton inn to be haunted. Lammi has heard a story of a Colonial soldier killed in the war, whose wife, stunned at news of her widowhood, dropped her child to its death, then took her own life. Waitresses reportedly have seen a woman and a small girl in the dining room shadows.

Another undocumented story of long-ago tragedy involves a man who murdered his brother and buried him in the cellar, according to McCabe, who said hotel staff have often balked at going into the basement due to "strong presences" they felt there.

"With these old houses, there are always those stories, especially if there's a history of violence in the place," said George Comtois, executive director of the Lexington Historical Society, headquartered in 300-year-old Munroe Tavern.

A servant of tavern owner and Minuteman William Munroe was shot to death outside the Lexington building by British Redcoats during the fighting of April 19, 1775.

"I had a secretary three or four years ago who swore she saw the outline of a figure in a frock coat and a tricorn hat - all pale and gray and 'see-throughable' - looking through the door at her," said Comtois.

A caretaker who stayed overnight at the tavern eight years ago reported door latches mysteriously unlocked in the night, and the sound of footsteps on the stairs when no one else was in the house.

Comtois remains skeptical. "People see things out of the corners of their eyes," he said. "I, myself, don't subscribe to it. You always have noises in old houses."
  The Boston Globe

October 25, 1998, Sunday ,City Edition


LENGTH: 723 words

HEADLINE: And appearing tonight . . .

BYLINE: By Mark Sullivan, Globe Correspondent


LOWELL - He's heard the odd creaks and seen pictures fall unaccountably from the walls, but Steve Finn, a manager at Smithwicks Tavern and Restaurant in downtown Lowell, remains unconvinced the place is haunted.

"Everybody in Lowell seems to think it's spooked," said the city resident. "I just don't believe it. It's an old building. I chalk it up to mice."

Others aren't so sure.

Lights flicked on by unseen hands, disembodied voices and even specters in the dining room are among the eerie occurrences reported at the hundred-year-old landmark at 98 Middle St. Earlier this century it housed an annex to the old Pollard's Department Store.

Smithwicks bartender Peter Jamros recalls being alone on closing detail late one night when the large-screen TV in the bar inexplicably turned on by itself.

"I put the key in the lock and sprinted out of there," said Jamros, a Chelmsford resident. "I've been here by myself Sunday nights and gone running out of here."

Echoed tavern owner Tim Stone of Lowell: "When we work by ourselves, we get out of here pretty quick. When you're here by yourself, the building talks. Your mind runs wild, and you see things over your shoulder."

Legend has it a worker at the old dry-goods emporium fell to his death down an elevator shaft in the four-story building. Another undocumented story tells of a long-ago love triangle that resulted in a murder-suicide on the premises.

"A lot of strange things have been reported over the years, along the five levels of what used to be the elevator shaft," Stone said. "Mostly power surges - things going on and off."

A vestige of the shaft serves as an enclosure for a barroom pinball machine, illuminated by a hanging light that Jamros said has been known to go on without anyone touching it.

The bartender said a cleaning man who worked at the tavern two years ago reported feeling an icy cold breath on his shoulder whenever he entered the old shaft.

"He wouldn't go near it," Jamros said.

Accounts of odd goings-on in the building began well before Stone opened Smithwicks - pronounced "Smiddicks" - four years ago.

A local psychic who investigated the premises in the late 1970s claimed to have captured ghostly voices on tape. Owners and staff at the A.G. Pollard & Sons Restaurant, which preceded the current tavern in the 1980s, reported radios blaring after having been turned off, dishes moved from one place to another, and disembodied voices calling the names of waitresses from what came to be nicknamed the "whispering hutch" in the main dining room.

And four out-of-town businessmen dining at Pollard's one evening nine years ago are said to have reported seeing the transparent figure of a man glide the length of the dining room and disappear.

The ancient workings of the fateful elevator can still be seen in the basement. So can the dark and closed-off entrance to a subterranean network of tunnels, dubbed by Smithwicks staffers "the catacombs," long ago used for the delivery of dry goods to mills and offices throughout downtown Lowell.

The manager's office in the cellar is said to have seen more than its share of unusual happenings over the years, from unplugged electrical appliances springing to life to papers in a desk being rifled behind locked doors.

As bartender Jamros tells it, a former partner in the Smithwicks business was alone in the basement office counting receipts late one night three years ago when he heard the sound of a man and woman arguing upstairs in the kitchen. As he climbed the stairs to the kitchen to investigate, the noise stopped.

"He found no one there," Jamros said. "But when he went back downstairs, the noise of the argument picked up again. And there was no one in the place."

Leave the last story to current owner Stone.

Arriving to open the tavern one morning about three years ago, he says, he found on a table an open bottle of Courvoisier, two snifters filled almost to overflowing with the imported cognac, and an ashtray with two cigarettes that had burned, unsmoked, down to the filter.

A query of the manager on duty the evening before revealed no late-night patrons had visited the tavern after closing.

A rendezvous between doomed lovers from the spirit world?

"It's just one of those things you can't explain," Stone said.
Monday, August 25, 2003
  International visitors on a mission from God
Group is going door to door praising God, but members aren't Jehovah's Witnesses, they're Catholic

820 words
14 March 1995
Peoria Journal Star
(Copyright 1995)

PEORIA -- Often mistaken for Jehovah's Witnesses, 18 missionary women from Italy, Spain and the United States have spent the past month here parading with banners, singing God's praises on street corners and in a housing project, and going door-to-door to witness about the Catholic faith.

The multicultural group, called the Neo Catechumenal Way, is inviting all to participate in missions with the aim of renewing faith and starting a new life with God.

The missions are every Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m. at St. Martin de Porres, 103 S. Sheridan Road, and at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday at St. Philomena Parish, 3300 N. Twelve Oaks Drive. They are open to persons of all faiths and run through Lent.

Invited by Bishop John Myers and the pastors from the two parishes, the missionaries -- who range in age from 19 to 65 -- have displayed their evangelical zeal daily in the neighborhoods of the two churches.

"When we go door-to-door, the first reaction is that we are Jehovah's Witnesses," said Kathleen Blake, 60, of New York. "They are surprised to see Catholics at their door. But many are very happy to see us going into the streets to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ."

The women have left their jobs and families to come to Peoria without pay. The four from foreign countries have been in the United States for the past five years attempting to spread the word about Neo Catechumenal Way and participating in missions throughout the country.

"There are about 8,000 to 10,000 people in the United States active in Neo Catechumenal Way," team leader Marisa Noe said.

Peoria is the 10th city in the United States representatives of the group have visited. In Peoria, they are being housed at the St. Francis School of Nursing. They eat most of their meals in the rectory of St. Martin de Porres.

"We are not super Christians," one missionary said. "We are just regular people who have experienced the love of God and want to share that with other people."

When going through the neighborhood, Helen Coleman, 50, of Los Angeles occasionally sees her former self in the faces of those who answer the door.

"Before I came to this (Neo Catechumenal Way), I was miserable -- shacking up with my boyfriend and trying to raise a child," she said. "I had no values. And that worried me. What was I going to pass on to my child?

"Then came the Neo Catechumenal Way. As I listened to the word of God, my life slowly changed. I am now happy. And I share my story with those who answer their doors and invite them to the popular missions."

Conducting the missions are team leaders the Rev. Edward Gallagher of Taiwan, Thomas and Marisa Noe of Boston, and seminarian Julio Roman of Paraguay.

"We focus on a different Gospel each night and relate it to man and the church today," Marisa Noe said.

Neo Catechumenal Way organized in Madrid more than 30 years ago, according to a spokesman with the Peoria Diocese. The group, which works through the teachings of the Catholic Church, was introduced to the United States about 20 years ago.

"It has been popular on the East Coast and West Coast and now it is starting in the Midwest," Marisa Noe said.

Pope John Paul II has put an emphasis on evangelizing with the coming millennium, said Steve Mamanella, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.

"Evangelizing often has a negative connotation," Mamanella said. "But I mean it in the sense of being inviting and welcoming others to share our faith."

Most of the missionaries will be leaving Peoria this week for their homes or possibly another evangelical assignment. Team leaders will stay here to conduct the missions through Lent.

"We are all considered itinerants," said Peggy Noe of Boston, the sister of team leader Thomas Noe. "We move from place to place. We don't know where God will take us next."

CAPTION: Carmen Morales leads the singing as a group of missionaries from the Neo Catechumenal Way walks through a Peoria neighborhood last week. The Catholic group, with members from Italy, Spain and the United States, is spending a month in the city, visiting residents door to door and inviting them to evening meetings at St. Philomena and St. Martin de Porres churches, whose parishes are the focus of the mission.; CAPTION: Carmen Morales and Erika Minero drop off a flier announcing the mission to Audrey Sutton at her North Pleasant Ridge Court home. Morales and Minero both grew up in Mexico and reside in California.; COLOR PHOTOS; Credit: DAVID ZALAZNIK


634 words
8 November 1996
The Guardian
(c) 1996

'There was brainwashing. There was emphasis on money and sex; these were the sticks they beat us with'

KEVIN Woodhouse was a member of the Neo-Catechumenate for five years before he was kicked out. It took him two years to recover from the experience which, he believes, left him on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

"Initially I was very taken by it all. It gave me a reason for living and I even volunteered to become a priest and entered a seminary. The sermons started off quite mellow - "God loves you" sort of thing - but the longer you're in, the harder they would get. The catechists - leaders - would pick on people in the group and ask them questions about contraception, masturbation and their sexuality," said Mr Woodhouse, who was 18 when he first joined.

"They built up a real dependency culture within the group and on the catechists and priest. There was a kind of brainwashing with lots of repetitive guitar music and using the group dynamics of throwing people together and making them see as much of each other as possible.

"There was a big emphasis on money and sex; these were the two sticks they used to beat us with ..."

Mr Woodhouse and his community of about 40 used to spend at least three evenings a week together at the NC's central London headquarters at the church of St Charles Borromeo in Ogle Street. One weekend a month they went away on a "convivence" (retreat). Every few years the group has to undergo a "scrutiny" in which everyone confesses their sins in public.

Mr Woodhouse was seen as a star pupil and was twice flown to international meetings at the NC's headquarters in Porto San Giorgio near Rimini in Italy. He even met the reclusive founder, the Spaniard Kiko Arguello, and his associate, Carmen Hernandez.

In one way Mr Woodhouse believes the NC was good for him - it forced him to face up to his homosexuality. He was taught to consider his sexual orientation as his "cross" and he had to be cured of this perversion. He couldn't reconcile his homosexuality with being a priest and left the seminary.

"By the end it got really nasty. The second scrutiny lasted two months and for three or four nights a week, for four hours at a stretch, we were in this small, crowded room. It was a very oppressive atmosphere.

"We were told to prepare a list of our sins which we would have to confess publicly. People's names were pulled out of a hat and for about an hour individuals were questioned by a team of at least five catechists.

"It was cringing, listening to other people's confessions. The most amazing things came up. People were asked outright whether they were homosexual, how often they masturbated and whether they thought of men or women when they masturbated. By the time my turn came, I was trembling. I was told by the catechists that I must leave the partner I was living with immediately."

A week later in a private meeting more pressure was brought to bear on Mr Woodhouse and he was told that his partner was the "devil". In the end he broke down and agreed to move into a family for six months to be cured of his homosexuality. But in the end, he stayed with his partner and the NC told him he had to leave.

"I was close to a nervous breakdown. Everything I believed in was shattered. All the friendships with other members of my NC community were broken. It completely destroyed my faith in Catholicism.

"The NC preys on vulnerable Catholics - ex-prostitutes, people who have been sexually abused as children, homosexuals, even former convicts."


By Madeleine Bunting.
3,532 words
2 March 1996
The Guardian
(c) 1996

The Pope loves them. He calls them `our own sect' and looks to them to revitalise Catholicism. But in Britain, devout Church members are challenging the `Neocatechumenate', which they see as an evil cult with a malign obsession with sin

Mervyn Alexander, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clifton, is a kindly, conciliatory man, but finds himself in an explosive situation. He is caught between a lobby of fiercely articulate local Catholics and the authority of the Papacy. At dispute is a secret Catholic movement with the unpronounceable name of the Neocatechumenate - understandably abbreviated to NC. Opponents say the NC is an evil cult that psychologically damages adherents in its pursuit of power. The Pope heralds the movement as a glimmer of hope in the bleak landscape of shrinking Catholic congregations. In fact, John Paul II fondly talks of the Neocatechumenate as his beniamini, or favourite children; he sees this brand of Catholic fundamentalism as a powerful weapon in the global battle against Protestant evangelicalism. In an unfortunate turn of phrase, he christened it `a sect of our own'.

Bishop Alexander has wriggled unhappily in the crossfire of this David and Goliath conflict. A few years off retirement, he has no inclination for a showdown with the Vatican, which, under its current incumbent, has established a reputation for dealing promptly and efficiently with wayward bishops. But, reluctantly, he has become one of the first senior members of the Church hierarchy in the UK to challenge the NC, which has its power base in Europe but has made inroads into Britain over the past 20 years. Last year, he barred the NC from proselytising any further in his diocese, and an inquiry into the sect has just started work. He has been under great pressure. Bishop Alexander's diocese includes parishes in Cheltenham, Gloucester and Bristol, where some of NC's most voluble critics are gathered. It has become an issue of excruciating embarrassment in the diocese where local papers sprinkle headlines with words like `secret', `cult' and `brainwashing'.

And not, it appears, without some reason. From the descriptions of disillusioned former NC members, the movement combines `born again' zeal with the methods of more sinister groups: secrecy, elitism, destruction of the individual, and the development of a group dependency. Miranda (an assumed name) was involved with the NC for six years. What first attracted her was the vibrant church services. There was a genuine spirituality and friendliness to the long mass said specially for the NC on Saturday evenings.

`It was very emotional but, rather than happy-clappy, it was grim. There was a huge emphasis on sin and suffering. They weren't afraid to talk about the more sordid sins such as homosexuality, adultery, sex before marriage and masturbation. They called a spade a spade. Sex and money were idols. It was like a form of group therapy.

`The idea is that you have to go down to understand your full unworthiness, in order to understand the love of God. This is standard teaching, but the NC took it upon itself to force that on you. Systematically, they began to destroy our dignity and self-worth.' The history of the Catholic Church has been littered with secretive movements. Criticism has been levelled, for instance, at Opus Dei, the secret organisation of priests and laity that came out of Franco's Spain as a counter-balance to the leftist worker-priest tendency in the Church. Opus Dei, it is said, targets universities and seminaries in a bid to recruit an educated elite who will eventually move into positions of power.

The Neocatechumenate also originated in Spain. It was founded by a Spaniard, Kiko Arguello, in the slums of Madrid in 1964. The name comes from catechumenate, the word used by the Early Church for the period of instruction prior to baptism. Four years later, the NC moved to Rome and embarked on a worldwide expansion. Today it is still led by Arguello and a former nun, Carmen Hernandez, and is particularly strong in Italy and Spain. Its membership is put at somewhere between 500,000 and a million. Its progress in the UK has been hampered by adverse publicity in Catholic circles, but nevertheless it has established a seminary in London and bases in parishes in Ealing, Mile End, Peckham, Kensington - as well as Bristol, Cheltenham, Gloucester, St Albans and Glasgow.

The NC is a shadowy movement. Its headquarters in Rome are unmarked and, it seems, the phone is rarely answered. There is no literature available: all Arguello's teachings are transmitted orally. In England, my inquiries were passed around a bizarre circle of English, Spanish and Italian priests and eventually ran into the sand when it became clear my article might detail criticisms of the movement.

Former NC members are also nervous about talking - and cross with themselves for being so. They all insisted on anonymity. They feared that the most intimate details of their lives would be dredged up to discredit them. Many of them are deeply devout Catholics and still have difficulty teasing apart what they found wholesome and holy in the teachings of the NC and what they came gradually to perceive as manipulative and evil. For years they believed the NC was inspired by the Holy Spirit and was the work of God. They still recognise that many prominent NC members are wonderful people - warm, intelligent, devout - if terribly misguided. But slowly, painfully they became disillusioned. What they still have difficulty understanding is how the Pope can be wrong and how the Catholic hierarchy can tolerate such a movement. They demand to know, with a touchingly naive faith, why Cardinal Basil Hume hasn't done something.

What makes the NC such a fascinating case is that it lies at the point where orthodox religion and cults merge. This was the dangerous area revealed by Sheff ield's Nine O'Clock Service, which showed how vulnerable a religiously illiterate generation is to spiritual abuse and how personally devastating the manipulation of faith can be.

`The Way' of the NC, as laid down by Arguello, consists of at least eight stages of induction and can take up to 20 years (reminiscent of `The Process' for Scientologists). The idea is that you cannot properly call yourself a Christian until you have passed the first stages. Even priests and strong, cradle Catholics are described as `pagans', with the effect that everything before, or outside, the NC is spiritually invalidated.

The NC starts by recruiting the priest of a parish; he then gives an open invitation to his congregation to attend a six-week course of two evenings a week. At the end, those still interested go away for a weekend for a `convivence' where they are invited to form a community. `Responsibles' are elected to help organise it, and a team of `catechists' - longtime lay NC members - lead the community, which usually numbers about 40. There are, usually, several evenings of Bible reading a week as well as a long mass on Saturday evening. Complaints that the meetings leave little time for one's family prompt accusations that the member has `idolised' his or her children.

The introduction is gentle, and there is a great emphasis on the voluntary nature of the commitment, which initially reassured members such as Miranda. It helped her to accept without demur that the teaching could not be questioned. `They groomed us into passive acceptance. I can see that now.' Gradually, they introduced the idea that quiescence was a mark of holiness.

`Each community was isolated from others,' Miranda recalls. `Those further along The Way never spoke about their experiences. We were taught to be secret - it was the disciplinum arcani, or the law of secrecy. They legitimised this with reference to the Early Christian Church. They justified a lot like that.' Miranda described how the teaching on obedience and submission (a constant theme) subtly changed over time. First it was cast in the context of obedience to God. Then, because the Church is the body of Christ, members were told to obey the Church - standard Catholic doctrine. But then, they extended the idea to claim that the NC was the Church, so members had to obey the NC.

`What they did was gradually build up a dependency culture. You must trust the NC because it has been given to you by God. You are a child in faith ... We [the catechists] are adults in faith.' After several years in the NC, members are expected to refer every personal decision back to their catechist. One member reportedly had to have his vasectomy reversed. Marrying `out' is disapproved of, and one member who married a non-NC was reminded of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Elizabeth, another former NC member, was told by a catechist: `You must trust us completely. Even if we say that white wall is black, you must believe us and trust us.' `The NC attracts people with low esteem who are depressed and emotionally mixed-up,' Miranda says. `They are very clever and subtle - they know where to touch people who want to take faith seriously and manipulate that deep and sincere desire.' Each stage of The Way ends with a Scrutiny, the most controversial aspect of the NC spiritual discipline. The first one is relatively mild; it focuses on getting members to accept the suffering of their lives, just as Christ accepted the suffering of the Crucifixion. `Turning the other cheek' is a dominant theme of the NC and can be taken to literal and horrifying lengths; one woman who was being beaten by her husband was told to submit. Miranda says: `You're told at the First Scrutiny to sell your belongings and give them to the poor. We had to break the power of the idols to which we are all in thrall, such as money and sex.' It was not uncommon for members to give #10,000 or more to charity. Members come under increasing pressure to contribute to the movement; black bin-liners are passed round and cheques written. The amount donated is announced immediately, and if it is not enough the bag goes round again. Eventually, communities agree to tithe - give a tenth of their income - to the NC.

It becomes increasingly difficult for members to leave the movement. The crunch comes at the Second Scrutiny, which is usually four to six years after the founding of the community. There is a big build-up and catechists urge members to prepare well. `They told us that if we passed the Second Scrutiny, we wouldn't need to go through the Last Judgment. It would already have been done,' Miranda says. `We were told it was a `narrow door' which only opens if you are ready. They told us, `We are Jesus Christ for you' - they were coming closer and closer to identifying themselves with God.' Mark found the Second Scrutiny shattering. Even now, years later, he struggles to stop himself crying at the memory. During the six weeks, he felt close to a nervous breakdown and suicidal. `You're told that it is absolutely secret and you should never ever talk about it. I now know why. It is very psychologically violent. People's lives were opened up and questioned. They were after every detail of your sins. They wanted to break you down.' Two or three times a week, the community has to meet; members sit in rows facing a panel of about seven catechists and a priest with notebooks and pencils. In front of the panel is a large cross and an empty chair. There are usually about a dozen NC members from other parishes as observers. One by one, each person in the community has to take the chair and is subjected to a scrutiny of their sins for about an hour. `When you sat in the chair, they said, `You are before Jesus Christ.' Eighty per cent of those scrutinised broke down and cried,' Mark recalls. `They were very keen on sex. One man admitted he had been looking at pornography, and the catechist asked if the pornography was of men or women. There was a long pause, then he replied it was of women. Another evening we heard the gruesome details of a homosexual's confession.

`One girl had had a lot of trouble with her family; she had had a baby and they told her she was the type to kill it. Everything that had happened in your life was twisted to put the blame on you. For example, the son of an alcoholic mother was told that he had killed her ... I felt spiritually abused and ashamed, embarrassed and guilty about it.' The panel judges whether the community as a whole has `passed' or `failed' the Scrutiny. Most communities fail and have to repeat the process the following year. Mark's community failed and was told there was `a lot more to come out'.

Gordon Urquhart, author of The Pope's Armada, a book on three current fundamentalist movements in the Catholic Church, believes the NC is the most sinister. He identifies six `cult' characteristics: elitism, secrecy, a living founder with a personality cult around him, practice of ego destruction, a strong hold over finances and a demand for blind obedience to the catechist.

Kiko Arguello's religious paintings are reproduced and distributed around NC centres, the services depend heavily on music he has written, and his sayings are frequently quoted, bizarre though they may be. For example, he once said parents hug their children because they want to murder them.

Faced with criticism, particularly in England and France, the NC has reacted defensively. Those who persecute it, Urquhart says, are referred to as `Judases'; bishops who oppose it, as `pharoahs'. Members draw parallels between themselves and the Franciscans - a much-loved order of monks and nuns devoted to poverty and charity - who were once persecuted by the Church. `Where they score is that they get results. They get vocations to the priesthood and to religious orders. They get people into church,' says Urquhart.

This is part of their appeal for the Pope. They are Catholicism's answer to the rise of Protestant evangelism - indeed, the NC bears many of the characteristics of the worldwide rise of fundamentalism in all faiths. John Paul II looks forward with increasing pessimism, and has seized upon the NC as a tool for revitalising the Church in the next century. In Rome itself, the practice of Catholicism is being virtually wiped out in a generation; the parishes with any vitality are NC. Its advocacy of huge families - it goes further than the Vatican and frowns even on natural family planning - provokes particular praise from the Pope.

At a mass in an NC parish in Rome celebrated by the Pope, he blessed their `children who, thanks be to God, are numerous. They are also a cause for great hope because the world, secularised, dechristianised, agnostic, which no longer has faith in God, is losing faith in itself, is losing faith in man ...' `It seems that the faithful, those baptised years ago, are no longer strong enough to oppose secularisation and the ideologies which are contrary not only to the Church but also to religion in general,' said the Pope on the same occasion. `You, with your Neocatechumenal Way, in different environments, try to rebuild what has broken down: you seek to rebuild it in a more authentic way, I would say, approaching the experience of the Early Church.' Privately, few of the English Catholic hierarchy would endorse the Pope's enthusiasm for the Neocatechumenate. But none is prepared to suggest that this might be the delusion of an ageing Pontiff. When pressed, Cardinal Basil Hume issued a carefully-worded statement in which he pointed out that `new movements have often been greeted with suspicion but have gone on to make a lasting contribution to the Church', but added the significant caveat, `providing they have been willing to change and adapt'. His conclusion betrayed his reservations: `The movement has its own particular ethos and way of doing things. The Cardinal is unsure how easily or how well it could be integrated in a diocese like Westminster.' According to Urquhart, the Neocatechumenal Way is to operate a form of entryist tactics. In inner-city parishes with small residential congregations, they score remarkable success. Transforming dead, empty services, they build a thriving congregation. Guardian Angels, at Mile End in east London, was one of their first parishes nearly 20 years ago. Another centre at Ogle Street, central London, has similarly flourished. Those who don't like the new style of worship move to another church.

The conflicts come, says Urquhart, when they move into parishes that are already very active. The NC communities work like a parallel parish and systematically try to take over all the traditional activities, such as marriage preparation and children's confirmation programmes, antagonising other parishioners in the process. This is what provoked a campaign in the West Country.

Father John Hanvey was a curate in the Cheltenham parish of the Sacred Heart, an NC centre. He is still deeply confused about the NC: `I was impressed initially, but there is more to it than meets the eye. It's a reaction to blatant secularism, but there's a feeling of exclusivity. I felt I was in the shadow of a cult, but maybe I took things too personally. On the other hand, a doctor in the parish listened to some of their catechesis and said the emphasis on sin was `psychologically damaging'.' Mary Whyte attends mass at the Sacred Heart every day. She began campaigning to get the NC out of the diocese years ago after hearing a catechesis that horrified her. `The first talk lasted two and half hours. A married couple insisted on telling all the details of their stormy relationship, and an Italian priest yelled at us. When we didn't join, we were told we had immature faith.' She says the NC has bitterly divided the parish. The church used to be packed but many have drifted off to other parishes.

A fellow campaigner in the Clifton diocese is Ron Haynes, a lecturer in computer studies at Bristol University, who has studied the NC closely: `They promulgate a view that the individual is a source of evil and sin and that salvation lies in the group. It is the elitism of the damned.' What worries Haynes is that good people get drawn into the NC because they see it as an official part of the Church backed by the Pope.

Whyte, Haynes and 10 others, all dedicated Catholics, formed a committee to put pressure on the Bishop of Clifton. Finally, last summer, they succeeded in getting the NC banned from further recruitment in the diocese as long as he was bishop.

And now, after long delays, a three-person panel in Bristol appointed by Bishop Alexander has begun the delicate task of investigating the Pope's `favourite children'. One of the most senior priests in the Clifton diocese was sufficiently concerned to undertake his own investigation several years ago. Vicar-General Monsignor Joseph Buckley came to an unequivocal conclusion. In a Catholic magazine, he likened the methods of the NC to the totalitarianism of fascism and communism. He claimed that it used brainwashing techniques of repetitive music and phrases and made demands on members, in time and commitment, that threatened family life. He said it attracted the mentally weak and emotionally unstable with `tragic consequences', while the commitment of adherents is `properly named fanaticism'.

Monsignor Buckley sent a report on the NC to all the bishops in England and France. For his pains, he was described as `meddlesome' by the Papal Nuncio to England.

The NC is never going to be a mass movement - it has no ambition to be one. Like any 20th-century revolutionary movement, it is preoccupied with the quality of its membership rather the quantity. It wants completely dedicated cadres to promote its agenda in the Church. Urquhart's greatest concern was the growing number of NC priests. At large ordination ceremonies in St Peter's, Rome, a sizeable number are now NC. With vocations steeply declining in Europe, the NC's ability to deliver priests will ensure it huge power. It has established several seminaries and it is not short of money. It is only a matter of time before these priests begin moving up the hierarchy and into positions of influence over the future direction of the Church.

In the meantime, a former NC member posed the questions Bishop Alexander and his panel must grapple with: `Just how much does the Pope know about the NC? Are they really loyal to the Catholic Church, or to the NC? Are they using the Church for their own ends? Ultimately they want to take it over. The Catholic hierarchy needs to recognise what the NC is doing, decide whether it is acceptable, and find out exactly who is controlling the NC.'

Poor Bishop Alexander.

Articles too lengthy to fit on the Irish Elk blog.

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