VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Thanking members of the Neocatechumenal Way for their generous missionary efforts, Pope Francis also encouraged them to build church unity, learn about local cultures and respect any member’s decision to leave the movement.

“I thank the Lord for the joy of your faith and for the passion of your Christian witness,” he said during a special audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall Feb. 1 with thousands of members of the parish-based faith formation program.

The papal audience was an annual event in which the pope blesses families who, responding to the request of a local bishop, agree to go off as missionaries to assist with evangelization efforts.

Kiko Arguello, co-founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, told Pope Francis that while the majority of the 40 groups being sent as missionaries were heading to European cities, two families were going to Philadelphia and 15 were going to Asia.

Pope Francis greeted the joyful audience and thanked the families and others for their generosity.

“I thank you for all that you do in the church and in the world,” he said.

He then spelled out three “simple pieces of advice” for the movement as it continues to reach out to areas in need of the new evangelization.

“The first is to have the utmost concern for building and preserving communion” within the parishes and dioceses where they work, he said.

Like all movements and groups who contribute their own charism to the life of the church, the Neocatechumenal Way needs to “walk together as one flock under the guidance of the pastors of the local churches.”

“Communion is essential, and sometimes — it happens you know — it may be better to forego following in every detail that your itinerary demands in order to guarantee unity among the brothers and sisters that make up the one church community of which you must always feel part,” he said.

Pope Francis also told the missionaries that they must remember that God, through the Holy Spirit, “always precedes us” and prepares people to receive his word.

The missionary families must pay “special attention to the cultural context” of the places they are sent, he said. This entails learning the local culture, recognizing where the Gospel is needed and seeing where the Holy Spirit has already acted in the life and history of different peoples, he said.

Lastly, he asked members of the Neocatechumenal Way to show love and care for each other, especially “the weakest.”

The movement’s itinerary of faith “is a demanding path, along which a brother or sister may encounter unforeseen difficulties,” he said.

The pope said the community should exercise patience and mercy in such cases. Each individual’s freedom “must not be forced,” and anybody’s decision to follow God’s call outside the way “must be respected.”

Pope Francis’ call for communion reflected a similar concern of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who also urged movement members to always make sure their important work was in “profound communion with the Apostolic See and the pastors of the local church in which they’re inserted.”

Some bishops, particularly in Japan, have expressed concerns about the movement’s lack of respect for local cultures and for its potential for creating divisions in parishes.