VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis told members of a missionary movement Saturday they must respect local customs and bishops' guidance while globally spreading the faith, saying the Catholic Church's overall unity is more important than the details of their own practices.
Francis held an audience with several thousand members of the Neocatechumenal Way, a community founded in Spain in the 1960s that seeks to train Catholic adults in their faith and is known for sending teams of large families out as missionaries around the globe.
The group, whose growing membership is reported at around 1 million, is one of the so-called new religious movements in the church, emboldened by the Vatican's call for renewed evangelizing, but also criticized for divisive practices and alleged liturgical abuses that greatly concerned Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis is less a liturgical purist than his predecessor, and has said he wants a missionary church that goes out to the peripheries of the world to spread the faith. But in his audience with the Neocatechumenals, Francis made clear the community still had issues that needed addressing.
While encouraging 40 new teams of missionaries, he told the families and the movements' founders their priority must be keeping the church unified.
"Communion is essential," Francis said. "Sometimes it might be better to renounce living what your path calls for in all its details for the sake of guaranteeing unity."
The movement's Saturday evening liturgies, celebrated in small groups around a table as if it were Jesus' banquet, have been a source of concern among bishops who find such practices confuse the faithful. The Vatican has yet to approve the liturgical practices.
Francis also told the groups' members to respect the authority and guidance of local bishops, and to pay attention to cultural differences when they go about seeking converts.
While appreciating the movement's religious zeal, bishops in Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia and Europe have accused the movement of wreaking havoc in their dioceses and have tried to limit the Neocatechumenals' activities, shutting their seminaries and complaining to the Vatican.
The archbishop of Tokyo penned an article in 2011 noting the country's bishops wanted to suspend the Neocatechumenals' work completely in the country for five years. The archbishop of Lingayen-Daugupan in the Philippines, Monsignor Socrates Villegas, went so far as to bar the community from seeking new recruits and revoked existing members' right to teach catechism lessons.
Francis appeared to have taken such criticisms seriously, telling the group that they must be patient and merciful with all they encounter.
"The freedom of each person must not be forced, and you must respect even the possible choice of those who decide to search for other forms of Christian life outside the Way," he warned.
One of the community's co-founders, Francisco "Kiko" Arguello noted during the audience that missionaries are only sent to places where bishops request them.
Benedict was mostly concerned about alleged liturgical abuses in the movement and had instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to study whether its Masses violated church regulations, according to a 2012 report in L'Espresso magazine. Francis has reportedly called off the study ordered by Benedict, and he made no mention in his remarks Saturday about liturgical problems.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield