If you’re a young, Spanish-speaking Catholic, you’ve probably heard something about “Hakuna,” — not the famous phrase from “The Lion King,” but the growing Catholic youth and ecclesial movement that began in Spain, has spread across Europe, and has begun popping up in some U.S. parishes as well.
And if you haven’t heard of Hakuna, chances are good that you have heard one of the group’s songs, even without knowing it.
From the outside, Hakuna seems like another Catholic youth group – one among many.
The group says they’re a movement of Catholics in their 20s and 30s, who use music to show the beauty of life, and the beauty of Christ. They organize holy hours of adoration, formation talks, charity activities, retreats, and missionary activities.
They also write Catholic pop music, which, they say, shows their “radical joy.” Their songs have picked up steam on Instagram, where the group has almost 100,000 followers, and on YouTube, where their songs have millions of views.
And while a lot of Catholic groups these days say they’re not sure how to attract young people to religious activities, Hakuna is growing. Fast.
Fewer than 10 years since its founding by Fr. José Pedro Manglano, Hakuna has spread to almost 40 Spanish cities, another 10 European countries, six Latin American countries, plus South Korea, and Boston – and the group says it plans to start soon in other American cities.
Hakuna started in Madrid — the very secularized capital of Spain that was once a Catholic epicenter of Europe — where other contemporary apostolates with a lay-centered spirituality have been born, among them Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way.
The group started around the time Fr. Manglano — students call him “Don Josepe” — took some 100 students to Rio de Janeiro’s World Youth Day in 2013.
“I met Don Josepe when I was 16 years old, about 10 years ago,” Victoria González, one of Hakuna’s earliest members, told The Pillar.
“We were a group of friends who were looking forward to improving our spiritual formation beyond what we received in school, so we asked him and he started giving these talks in a church in Aravaca, a Madrid suburb. There were 15 or 20 of us in this small suburban parish, most of us in the last years of high school or early years of college. Don Josepe would hand out some sheets with bullet points about the topic he was going to discuss, and use a blackboard to explain it. Then, we had an hour of adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament and that was pretty much it,” she added.
After the 2013 World Youth Day, Manglano, then a priest of Opus Dei, took his group of students to serve for a month in Nova Friburgo, a city in southeastern Brazil which had been affected by natural disasters.
At meetings back in Spain, some attendees asked themselves what it would mean to take seriously a unique papal encouragement, urged by Pope Francis in Rio: “Hagan Lío” —roughly translated to “make a mess.”
“I couldn’t go to Rio because I had started working, but seeing how my friends came back was amazing. Something changed in them,” González said.
She remembered enthusiastic conversations about how to live, apostolically, as young lay Catholics.
“Everything we had been talking about, thinking about, and praying about during the school course had come to life in my friends. The following year, 90 of us went to India for volunteering and that changed my way of seeing life and valuing things. I started seeing people not as a number but as persons, individuals with a soul—and loved by God.”
“I saw how lucky I was, [even] for something that seemed so simple to me as studying for a career in college. Honestly, after seeing so much misery lived so differently, even with hope, I never missed a day of college again because I saw it was a privilege,” she added. “I was able to begin to understand how much I was in love with worldliness and how much I had to fall in love with God, and that he was my only treasure, that the Lord was really indispensable to me.”
With Manglano’s support, the attendees started three things: organizing holy hours with short spiritual talks, serving the poor, and making music.
A few attendees formed a little Catholic pop music group and started releasing songs online while working on an album.
In fact, the name Hakuna belonged to their pop group before their apostolic movement had a name at all.
But by 2015, the movement started to gain momentum. As it spread across Europe, the name “Hakuna” just stuck.
In 2017, the group launched their second disc in a famous Madrid nightclub, Joy Eslava, more accustomed to the parties of Hollywood stars than to Gregorian chant.
The location was fitting: The members of Hakuna are hip — with their fashionable wristbands and carefully affected aesthetic, they’re something like the indie rockers of Spanish Catholicism.
A club is not an especially weird place for them. But Hakuna is more than a club for Spanish hipster Catholics. Members say that God is using them for the spiritual renewal they’ve long prayed for.
In 2017, the group was also given an ecclesial identity: Hakuna was constituted as a private association of the faithful by Cardinal Carlos Osoro of Madrid.
In 2018, 1,500 members of Hakuna went to Rome to be greeted by the pope, who approvingly called them a “great Eucharistic family.”
In the same year, the first groups outside of Spain were formed in Paris and London, and the expansion to the American continent began in 2019.
“Five years after that trip to India, Hakuna was way bigger. We were in other cities, other environments, we didn’t know all of the members, and we had to open our eyes to a bigger reality. We had to discover Hakuna as a ‘capricho’ of God – a whim – to translate his Kingdom to this world,” González said.
Since then, Manglano and Hakuna have not slowed down.
They’ve begun publishing books, their music group has released five albums, and if you find yourself in a Madrid traffic jam any time soon, you’ll probably hear their songs blasting from a car of young people — Hakuna enjoys surprisingly wide radio airplay in Spain.
In late 2022, the group held a concert in Madrid’s Palacio Vistalegre –a concert hall where Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Backstreet Boys, and Guns ‘n Roses, just to name a few, have held concerts– where 8,000 young people sang Hakuna’s hits in unison—while some prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament in a small, improvised chapel which Manglano set up in the back of the concert hall.
And for Easter, they participated in a concert in Plaza de Cibeles, the same place where Real Madrid soccer fans meet when their team wins an important trophy—the place was so full that police had to close access to the square.
The group continues filling up venues across Spain, they’ve produced a documentary about the Eucharist called “Vivo”, and they promote theology courses, Catholic art classes, and their now-famous spiritual retreats, called God-Stops, which are hosted by contemplative religious communities in Spain.
This month, Hakuna’s founder again met with Pope Francis, in a private audience at the Vatican.
But just writing about it does not capture what Hakuna is.
So The Pillar went last year to Hakuna’s main headquarters, about half an hour outside Madrid in a former Franciscan convent, to talk with Fr. Manglano, and to get the feel of what the members of Hakuna call a “spiritual revolution.”
“We moved in a year and a half ago, but there’s a lot to be done yet,” Manglano told The Pillar — with a heavy emphasis on the “a lot.”
In their half-renovated former convent, where Manglano has made a rectory, some students have also taken up residence — both male and female, but in separate wings of the building — while others spend a few days during the weekend, helping to get the house done.
In his YouTube videos, Manglano seems physically unremarkable, like one of a thousand other older priests you might not notice.
But in person, his blue eyes are fixed on the person he talks with, until a thought comes to his mind, and his eyes wander around for a bit.
Still, he’s not an animated speaker; he talks in a low tone which emphasizes each word. He stutters every now and then.
But he speaks with conviction.
“Hakuna is legally a private association of the faithful approved here in the Archdiocese of Madrid. We are adjusting and reviewing the statutes, so we have not yet asked for a broader approval,” he explained.
“Spiritually, we are groups of Christians who together follow Christ. This ‘together’ is very important, because the center of the whole life of Hakuna is the Eucharist, through which we receive unity, a way of loving each other, of being for each other that is not human, so to speak. It is a way of loving one another that we receive from the Lord because what we receive is a life that is loving life,” Manglano told The Pillar.
“Hakuna is vitally a group of Christians who follow Christ and who receive all their life from the Eucharist. We live a way of loving each other that purifies us and then, together, we follow Christ. Then, from there, many activities arise, spiritual formation, doctrinal formation, many social actions, and helping people who are in difficult circumstances and suffering. And there are many projects. Here in Madrid alone, there are twenty-some projects. And then many of the trips during the summer, Easter, and weekends, most of them are focused on helping people in need. And there are spiritual exercises, which we call God Stops, which we always do in contemplative communities,” he added.
Financially, the movement is sustained by three sources: sporadic donations, recurring donations, and sales.
“We have occasional donations for a specific reason. We invented something called the ‘dry cup,’ which is that instead of having a drink on Friday with your friends, you invest it in helping to pay for the lodging of a priest during a meeting of priests, or the remodeling of some part of the studio, the installation of wifi, heating, or whatever is needed at the moment,” Macarena Torres, a member and spokeswoman of Hakuna, told The Pillar.
“There are some recurring donors who donate a certain amount per year or monthly, mostly members of Hakuna. And also, the benefits of Hakuna Shop go to the activities carried out by Hakuna, like social action projects or financing an album, or any activity of Hakuna.”
Through the Hakuna Shop, the organization sells its music CDs, clothing, books by Fr. Manglano, among other objects.
But, again: What is different about Hakuna? What makes it different from other movements of young people in the Church.
“Well, I don’t know,” Manglano said bluntly.
For her part, Macarena Torres said she knows what makes Hakuna unique.
“The charism of Hakuna is the banner of a pringado,” Torres told The Pillar.
Pringado is a slang word in Spain, which roughly translates to a person who is naïve and perplexed. Hakuna members call themselves pringados. The concept translates to something like innocent fools.
“There are three main aspects. One, to live with the joyful face of the resurrected – not that we are joyful because we are young and because our life is simple, but that we are joyful and we live with the face of the resurrected because Christ has risen and dwells in us.”
“Two, to embrace every reality with the unmeasured love of the Cross. If Christ on the Cross embraced the world and embraced its suffering for us, then we are capable of embracing whatever comes and serving others.”
“And three, unity – that we may be all one, all Christians, the whole Church. We want to be one because God is one,” she added.
Manglano said that the heart of that life is joy.
“We just live the joy of being Christians. Christ is risen and after that, any situation of death is a situation of light because Christ’s life has triumphed over death, the Father’s love overcomes any situation or deathlike condition. It’s the joy of living a new life and becoming a new man according to a God that loves us beyond all limits we may put with a love that transfigures reality, transfigures our person, Manglano said.”
“It’s the joy of knowing that heaven begins here,” he added.
To those with ears to hear, Fr. Manglano’s words likely echo the sentiments of St. Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, to which Manglano belonged until early 2020.
Amid the growth of Hakuna, and the development of a unique spiritual path, the leadership of Opus Dei and Manglano decided to part ways, the priest told The Pillar. Manglano is now incardinated in the Archdiocese of Madrid.
Still, it is clear Manglano is formed in the spirituality of Opus Dei.
“God has created us with a desire for happiness and He wants us to receive joy in abundance, but not only in another life: the Kingdom of God is here among us, within us,” he told The Pillar, alluding to a well-known sentiment expressed by Escrivá.
“When we receive God’s life in the Eucharist, in the sacraments, in the Church, and in community, we experience how God changes and heals our relationships because he changes our heart and step by step transfigures our reality and our life,” Fr. Manglano added.
“Nietzsche used to say that he would not believe in the resurrection unless his followers had resurrected faces. And this is not to say that there are no sufferings in life, but it is to understand that they are not fatalities, they do not define us, and they are not our destiny. They are just circumstances. If I have cancer or good health, my destiny and my truth have not changed, they are one and the same. I will fulfill my vocation to love with cancer or with good health.”
Fr. Manglano is a prolific spiritual writer, with over 30 books under his pen, Among the most recent is a text on simplicity.
“Now, I published another book called ‘Sencillamente’ (Simply) because this is the adverb that God has imposed spontaneously over us. Holiness is achieved with simplicity, prayer is achieved with simplicity, human love is achieved with simplicity, and joy is achieved with simplicity. There are more heroic or explosive realities but the ordinary in God’s way of acting is simplicity.”
“With simplicity, a very simple girl in a simple way said yes to God, and God was then incarnate. The experience of God is very simple. I don’t see God but He shows himself in simplicity continuously. I think that is God’s favorite adverb: Simply.”
Manglano is frequently on the road to spread the Hakuna movement, usually traveling with other members of the group.
In the weeks before he spoke with The Pillar, he had been in the Holy Land with students, in Mexico and Ecuador, and then in Rome. Soon after his conversation with The Pillar, he made a pilgrimage to South Korea with Hakuna members.
The priest is an evangelist.
Is that the key to Hakuna’s explosive growth?
Manglano said he’s not sure. He said the movement has been a work of the Holy Spirit.
“God just does what he wants. When people ask me, what is Hakuna I just say it is a whim of God.”
“When God wants something to happen, there is no proportion between what we do and what happens.”
“I think the most important thing is that everything is lived in truth. If I congratulate the bishop on his birthday, I want to do it for him, and because I’m happy for him, and not because I want him to like me. If I tell someone to come to a retreat, I want my intention to be truthful and not just because I want to fill out a number or meet a quota.”
“Our work needs to be authentic, so God can be present in these things. Christ discovers the full value of the person for us, and that is why we have to care for people in all Christian institutions, they are more important than the institutions. Hakuna does not have any interests, it is interested in every person inasmuch it can serve them. It is not here to manipulate people or expect anything of them,” he told The Pillar.
“Living on our knees in front of God in the Host teaches us to live on our knees in front of the Other, of the neighbor. I don’t want to take you somewhere, I don’t want to instrumentalize you, I want you to be happy. There are no recipes. The recipe is to live according to Christ’s paradigm, which is service.”
“If we want to be like God, He teaches us how: He washes the Apostles’ feet. Service is the most dignified and sublime way of living and it teaches us how to eliminate limits in our love, so God’s spirit can put in action His love in us,” he added.
Serving people, especially the poorest, attracted Álvaro Gangoso to Hakuna.
Gangosa met Hakuna when he was a 20-year-old law student at a Holy Hour in Comillas, where he was vacationing during the summer with his family.
“Through Hakuna, that all-powerful, solemn God, who was far away from me, showed himself as someone who only knows to love. Someone who makes himself a beggar for my love, who kneels before me to wash my feet,” he told The Pillar.
After he met the group, Gangosa said, “I went to Kenya to do volunteering with Hakuna. I found God in the poor, in the beauty of creation, among the 150 young people there. I found God by worshiping Him in the Blessed Sacrament.”
“Something changed in me. I saw the thirst for God among people so far away from Him and the waves of people that would come. Inside of me, I heard the cry of Jesus to His disciples: “Feed them!” After that experience, I decided to surrender my life to Him who had come to look for me, Jesus Christ”, he added.
After all that change, “I am now a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Madrid,” Gangosa explained.
Marcos Carrascal was a 22-year-old student who had reverted to the Catholic faith after a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. He spoke with a religious sister who was friends with his parents and told her about his reversion.
“She told me that God’s grace needs to be attended to, and we do that by living our faith in community. She told me about Hakuna,” he told The Pillar.
“Now, there’s something you need to know,” he said, laughing a bit.
“My political background is revolutionary left-wing, and when I saw that Hakuna, back then, met in the Saint Josemaría Parish in Aravaca, a very high-class neighborhood in Madrid, I said ‘there’s no f*cking way I’m going to Hakuna!’
“But the religious sister insisted and when I went to the Holy Hour, I felt this heat in my chest that said that this was my place.”
When asked how Hakuna had transformed him, Carrascal had a few ideas.
“First, their testimony. In the beginning, I never got close to people. I wanted to leave after the Holy Hour. But people approached me, invited me to drink something, or just wanted me to feel accompanied. Some of them are my best friends today, and I saw the Christian sense of community for the first time. When they looked for me, it wasn’t because I was handsome or ugly, but because they wanted to love God through me. So, when they invited me to have a beer, they weren’t inviting me, they were inviting Christ.”
“Second, when I told my friends I was a Christian and started going to Mass again, they had arguments against my faith, and I didn’t know how to respond. I had an experience of faith that, for me, was irrefutable, but for a secularized environment, that’s not enough. On the contrary, my friends saw my experience as a sign that I had been manipulated. But in Hakuna, I started studying my faith to answer my friends — who demanded answers. And afterward, a gift that formation gave to me, is that I started knowing the Lord better — and falling in love. As in every relationship, you actually love someone when you know them well,” he added.
“And finally, the Eucharist. To be certain that God is there, and that it is not just a feeling. When I came back from Medjugorje, it was an almost a physiological necessity for me to go to Mass, pray the rosary, etc. But after a few months, I started to feel spiritually dry. Talking with Don Josepe, I told him that I lost my faith.”
“He started laughing at me and told me ‘no, welcome to the adult faith!’ I learned that true faith means … loving even in [spiritual] darkness — and that is beautiful because God gives us immense gifts in that darkness,” Carrascal said.
As it grows, Hakuna has gained a number of critics.
First, it is hard to miss the informality of the group, even liturgically.
At the Hakuna headquarters, Sunday Mass is held outside to accommodate a large number of worshippers. Some members come barefoot, and straight from doing manual labor. A motley crew of people, mostly young, some married with small children, some still students, some immigrants, some from Spain, sit wherever they can: the floor, benches, plastic chairs, while they sing together almost every part of the Mass with very, very modern music.
Hakuna is clearly a child of its times, which, in itself, makes it a target for criticism from certain sectors of the Church. Although faithful to the Gospel and the Church’s doctrine, Hakuna can hardly be mistaken for a traditionalist group.
“Hakuna was not born out of a study or some theoretical presuppositions. It’s something we found, something God did among us. Without some vital bases set by Vatican II maybe the Holy Spirit could not make this happen. I don’t know. What I do know is that God does not stitch without thread, everything that has happened has a meaning and we have not forced it,” Manglano said.
“We’re making a mistake if we want to channel the action of the Holy Spirit, as if we could control it.”
“He does what he wants, as he wants. If a movement is identified with Christ, it will be alive. Life comes from Christ, not from certain forms. The forms matter only as long as they manifest an intimate truth. But it can happen that forms are not connected to their more intimate truth and stay just as that, as empty shapes,” the priest offered.
“And the beauty is that God’s life can acquire a hundred thousand different shapes and can vitalize them all. Some will adapt to the sensibilities of some, and some to the identity of others. But I think that judging things based on their shape and not because of the truth in them is a mistake because it is a human judgment.”
Other critics point out Hakuna’s perceived doctrinal conservatism.
In Spain, some say it is a friendlier, younger version of Opus Dei, to which Manglano used to belong.
“Come and you will see,” the priest answered. “I tell our members not to waste a drop of sweat in defending Hakuna. Just talk about Christ. It is stupid to defend Hakuna. We just want to be united with the Church. We work with the bishops and for them, and we love them. We love priests, we love them. It is not a strategy. We really love them. And those who don’t like us, well, blessed be God.”
“This is a movement of the Spirit, and he has many others to also reach others. It is true that our form might seem modern. Everything is very youthful because it is led by young people. But at the same time, it is classic because we are groups of Christians together, following Christ, nurtured by the Eucharist, who want to live in charity, which is akin to the first Christians. All this is archaic, ancient, and original, in the sense that it is linked to the origins of our faith.”
“And regarding Opus Dei, well, people used to say that this was ‘Opus Dei 2.0’ because I was a member of the Work back then. But because of the demands of this which God put in my hands, we agreed I should leave. But it is false that we’re the same,” he added.
“Of course, there is a certain spiritual familiarity, because we’re not talking about a monastic spirituality, but a lay spirituality. We want to be saints in the world and thus transform it. We believe that our charisma lies in the total incarnation of the faith and the progressive transfiguration of the person.”
“St. Paul says that our vocation is reconciliation. And that is what we aim to live. We try to reconcile what sin separated: time and eternity; the sacred and the profane; heaven and earth; the material and the spiritual, and that’s why Hakuna’s main feast is the Transfiguration,” he added.
“Holiness is not about doing many things, it is knowing that God is the only Holy and He gives away His life to us to transfigure us. Thus, holiness is participating in God’s life and it is never ours,” he added.
“And holiness springs from prayer, which is the most natural, spontaneous, and normal thing in the world …. Praying is spending a long time with [Christ], who we know loves us. Praying is being present in front of the only one who is present. Prayer is not about understanding, thinking, or drawing up resolutions. Prayer is about being with Christ,” Manglano added.
Manglano pointed out the level of commitment that some young people have made to the Church through Hakuna. Some members have entered seminaries in Spain after a discernment period through the organization. Last year, a member of Hakuna was ordained in the Archdiocese of Madrid.
But is Hakuna a calling itself, or a door to discover a calling?
“For many, it is their vocation, the place where they find their family within the Church, in which they follow God and receive formation,” Manglano suggested.
“In that sense, Hakuna is clearly a vocational phenomenon. I didn’t know it would be this way from the onset, but when people wrote their letters to join Hakuna, they did it with a clear vocational conscience, with a desire to follow God with a specific way of life: Caring for others, serving, and allowing others to care for them. It is immolation. Hakuna’s vocation is self-immolating – to make our lives a joyful and beautiful song of praise to the Lord,” he added.
But, “for many others, Hakuna is just the way back to the Church or to deepen their faith because they understand, live, and see a series of realities that challenge them. So, in some, it’s vocational in itself, and in others is an occasion to find God and ask themselves what He wants in their lives.”
After that answer, and to signal the end of a long interview, Manglano stood, and lit a cigarette.
As he smoked, The Pillar asked him a final question. To support Hakuna, Manglano had left Opus Dei, and started out again, with a group of young people, an emerging vision, and an uncertain future.
Had it been worth it?
The priest stood by a window, looking at a green yard, in the sunny late summer, dragging slowly on his cigarette.
“There is no other worthy way of living but by surrendering ourselves,” he said.
“We’re an image of God. The Father surrenders Himself to the Son, the Son surrenders Himself to the Father. We are only ourselves when we surrender ourselves.”
The priest took a final drag on his cigarette.
“Man is always directed toward something. There is a ‘from’ and ‘to’ in our lives, just as the Father is directed toward the Son, and the Son is directed toward the Father. Such is love.”
That vision, it seems, is the spirituality of Hakuna. Will it last? That remains to be seen.