CARMEN Hernandez, co-founder of the worldwide Neocatechumenal Way, was a confidant of popes and cardinals – her views and insights widely and immensely respected, especially concerning the dignity of women.
After the 85-year-old died at home in Madrid on July 19, Pope Francis described her life as one “marked by her love of Jesus and by a great missionary enthusiasm … who has spent her life in the announcement of the Good News in every place, as well as those far away, never forgetting the most marginalised people”.
Together with Kiko Arguello, Ms Hernandez founded the Neocatechumenal Way as a parish-based faith formation program in the 1960s.
It was meant to be a way to deepen people’s faith and evangelise the poor and the excluded.
Ms Hernandez, Mr Arguello and Fr Mario Pezzi served as the leaders of the Way, internationally, including Australia.
There are Neocatechumenal communities (NCW) in 120 countries, with an estimated one million members in 30,000 parish-based communities.
Mr Arguello described Ms Hernandez as a role model for young women – “a woman with great genius, her great charism, her love for the pope, and above all else, her love for the Church”.
“What a strong woman! I have never met anyone like her,” he said.
“She always talked about the importance of women in the Church and how they figured prominently in the Bible.
“At the meetings with the young people for the World Youth Days, … she always used to say, ‘The woman is the most important figure in the Church because she has in her womb the factory of life.
“‘Because of that, from the first page of Genesis until the end of the Apocalypse, the devil has always persecuted the woman’”.
The leader of the Neocatechumenal Way in Australia Totò Piccolo said Ms Hernández had a great love for the NCW mission in Australia, and her words always had a big impact.
“She was a woman with a great freedom. She said the truth to priests, to bishops and cardinals,” Mr Piccolo said.
“She was a friend of Pope John Paul II and would speak her mind to him on matters of the Church. And Pope John Paul II would listen. He had a great love for Carmen.”
Born in Olvega, Spain, on November 24, 1930, Ms Hernandez was the seventh of eight children.
She received a degree in chemistry and worked for a time at a major food company her family founded and ran.
However, against her father’s will who wanted her to play a major role in the family business, she left everything and joined a new institute for women, the Missionaries of Christ Jesus.
Ms Hernandez was assigned to a mission in India, and was sent to London to learn English and prepare for her journey.
However, after what she described as profound mystical experiences, she abandoned plans to go to India and her life took a different path.
She devoted her time to theological studies and, inspired by the work of the Second Vatican Council, Ms Hernandez spent two years in Israel deepening her understanding of Scripture and the importance of catechesis.
Back in Spain, she went to live in a shack on the outskirts of Madrid while she considered forming a missionary group of lay people to go and evangelise in Bolivia.
It was there that she met Kiko Arguello – a renowned young painter, also from a wealthy family, and they started to announce Jesus Christ to the poor, gypsy families and criminal gangs living in shanty towns of Palmeras Altas on the fringe of Madrid.
Mr Arguello and Ms Hernández created communities of people who lived their lives “in humility, simplicity and praise, where Christ could be discovered in the other”.
Next, the pair established communities of what was later called the Neocatechumenal Way in Rome’s Borghetto Latino and then in parishes throughout the world.
Fr Tony Trafford, a catechist of the Neocatechumenal Way in Australia, said Ms Hernández’s theological knowledge significantly contributed to the creation of a number of catecheses, which were officially approved by the Holy See in 2008.
“Her catecheses brought a whole new dimension to our lives,” he said.
“She understood what she called ‘The geography of salvation’ very well – that the Holy Land is very important for Christians because God really became man.
“Christianity is absolutely not an ideology, but a fact involving real places and real people where divine life meets human life and the history of the world is changed.
“She also brought out for us the riches of Judaism and the life of the Hebrews without which we cannot understand the New Testament at all.
“She had read very widely indeed and was very close to a number of the scholars of the Second Vatican Council whose insights and researches help us to live the Paschal Mystery – the Passover of Jesus Christ which is celebrated in the Eucharist and has an immense power in our lives.”
Fr Trafford said Ms Hernandez used to enjoy speaking of science – the speed of our world through space, and the constant motion of everything, even down to the smallest particles: a great dynamism in everything which God creates and keeps in being.
“By contrast we try to control everything and make it static,” he said.
“We lose sight of the whirlwind which is the risen Christ in our lives, dismantling our ideas and plans, overthrowing our ego as he calls us to humility and simplicity.”
In 2015, Ms Hernandez – together with Arguello – accepted an honorary degree from the Catholic University of America, in recognition for “their devotion to the poor and the good work they have done for the Church”.
Over the past year and a half, Ms Hernández had suffered deteriorating health. Her funeral Mass was held on July 21 in Madrid’s cathedral.
By Mark Bowling