Friday, February 11, 2011

José Antonio Pagola at Cantabria II: Coming back to Jesus: the urgent task of Christianity today

On November 3rd and 4th, 2010, the Spanish theologian José Antonio Pagola gave two lectures on Jesus at the University of Cantabria in Spain. Atrio reproduced these lectures dividing each one in half. We are bringing them to you in English. Here are the Atrio transcriptions of the second lecture in Spanish:

Yesterday, after hearing about Jesus, most questions raised were around "what about us? And what about the hierarchy?" ... Jesus draws us towards something better and, therefore, the need for change immediately arises from various perspectives. So the issue that we will talk about today is: "Coming back to Jesus: the urgent task of Christianity today." Each of us has our own experience of how we are living Christianity in the Church today. Each person has his own sensibility, his journey and, surely, we all have a different view of things.

1. Some facts in the Church today

To begin with, I will highlight some major events that are happening today and that offer us an initial starting point to reflect on the need and the possibility of a radical conversion to Jesus Christ. A lot is happening, but I'll just mention three points:

The risk of an automatic reaction

During recent decades, the theological studies, surveys, polls, about the plight of the Christian churches in the West have multiplied. Trying to ignore such data would be a mistake. It would imply trying to move forward with our eyes closed. However, this is not the greatest danger. There is an even more dangerous risk. Conditioned by such sociological data, we run the risk of reacting automatically, without stopping to discern what the attitude of faithful followers of Jesus should be today. There is a real danger at present that the Church will shape itself from the outside with an instinctive reaction to the data offered by sociologists, and not as the fruit of discernment and a brave and confident openness to the Spirit of Jesus. I will mention a few aspects:

It's not difficult to see how attitudes of nervousness, of fear, are taking shape today in the Church -- behavior often generated more by the instinct for self-preservation than by the Spirit of Jesus who, as we say in the Creed, is always the giver of life.

It's also easy to see how a self-defensive attitude towards modern society is growing in some sectors, an attitude that is far from that spirit of mission which Jesus communicated to His followers when He said: "Go and proclaim that God is near, heal life. I am sending you out like sheep among wolves."

Finally, I am increasingly observing that, in some sectors, we have come to see modern society only as an opponent, the great adversary of the Church, which wants to destroy Christianity at its root. And almost unconsciously, you can come to making denunciation and condemnation a whole pastoral program.

Sometimes it's the most prominent attitude now. Recently the French bishop Claude Dagens, spokesman for the French Bishops' Conference, said in a study: "Sometimes, we make faith a counter-culture, and the Church, a counter-society." From that attitude, it's very difficult, almost impossible, to proclaim the God of Jesus as the best friend of every human being.

Therefore, the risk of an automatic reaction, very understandable but also very instinctive, which is not the best for acting with responsibility and clarity.

The temptation of restorationism

In these times of profound socio-cultural changes during which one probably ought to make far-reaching decisions, it seems that very important sectors of the Church have chosen restorationism instead. Going back to the past and securing things before they fall on us, with the risk of making Christianity a religion of the past, a religion increasingly anachronistic and less significant for coming generations.

Instead of walking with the men and women of today, working together based on the project of the Kingdom of God that we talked about yesterday, toward a more decent, more just, more fraternal, more healthy society, it seems that very important sector leaders lean instead towards a firm, rigid, and disciplined conservation of religious tradition. It's very understandable because those who have more responsibility, usually lean more towards these kinds of instinctive actions.

From here, in all sectors, not just among the leaders, but at the base too, a religious conservatism is infiltrating, almost without us realizing it, that was not known after the Council and I think it's far from the prophetic and creative spirit of Jesus. Strict compliance with norms is monitored; there's no concession whatsoever to creativity. It seems like everything is fixed forever and it would seem that the only thing to do in these times of such profound socio-cultural change, is to conserve and repeat the past. It's explainable but to me, simply, I find it difficult to recognize in all this Jesus' invitation to "put new wine into new wineskins."

Widespread passivity

For me, the most significant fact may be the third point, although this isn't talked about too much. The most pervasive feature of Christians who have not left the Church yet is, certainly, passivity. Evidently there are a very significant and very valuable -- I don't want to forget this -- number of Christians who live very committed lives in groups, communities, parishes, movements, marginal areas, educational projects, mission countries ... There is no doubt that there is an important minority, and that it will be more important and more significant yet in the future. But that doesn't stop us fom seeing that the majority attitude is passivity.

For centuries we have educated the mass of the faithful for submission, docility, silence, passivity ... Christianity is organized as a religion of authority, not as a religion of a call to all the people of God. And the structures that have been born over the centuries have not promoted the co-responsibility of the people of God.

In practice, Jesus' movement has been made into a religion in which the responsibility of the laity has largely been rendered void. And even after the Council, although the language has changed, we can say that still in many areas and environments they aren't needed to think or plan, let alone decide how the Church should function currently today.

It may be the main obstacle to promoting the transformation that Christianity urgently needs today. Millions and millions of faithful, a huge mass of people in submission to a hierarchy that leans towards the temptation to restorationism.

In this situation, it's hard to see how we can face the new times and open paths to the Kingdom of God, following in the footsteps of Jesus. Therefore, the pastoralists -- not so much among us, but in Europe, Canada, the USA -- are now asking a lot of questions. Is a transformation possible? And what transformation in these circumstances? Can Christianity find in itself the spiritual vigor, the spiritual strength needed to trigger the conversion to Jesus Christ? Is it possible to mobilize the forces within the Church today to follow Jesus more faithfully and more radically? How? At what price? Through what rubble, what crisis, how many people burned out along the way? There are many questions and it's not easy to have a clear answer.

2. Coming back to Jesus Christ

Is conversion possible?

In my opinion, the turnaround today's Christianity needs, the critical self-correction, is simply to return to Jesus Christ, i.e. to focus more truly and more faithfully on the person of Jesus Christ and His plan of the Kingdom of God. I think this conversion is the most urgent and most important thing that can happen in the Church in the coming years. Many things must be done in all fields -- liturgical, pastoral,... -- but nothing more crucial than this conversion.

John Paul II, in an admirable letter which he wrote at the beginning of 21st century says: "We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: 'I am with you!'"

This conversion is not an effort that is being asked only of the hierarchy, or that we require only of men and women religious, of theologians, of a very specific sector of the Church. It is a conversion to which all of us in the Church must feel called. I usually speak of a "sustained conversion" over many years, decades, a conversion that we have to start now, in the present generations, without waiting for anything else, and that we have to transmit as a disposition, a spirit to future generations.

After twenty centuries of Christianity, the heart of the Church needs purification and conversion and, at a time that unprecedented socio-cultural change is taking place, the Church needs an unprecedented conversion, a new heart to generate in a new way the unchanging faith in Jesus Christ, but in modern society this time.

Not only aggiornamento

Let me explain a little more what I mean. I'm not thinking only of an aggiornamento, although it's necessary, but of a radical return to Jesus Christ. As you know, it seems that John XXIII was the first to speak of aggiornamento, bringing ourselves up to date, adapting the Church to today's times, something of course that's absolutely necessary because, if the Church wants to fulfill its mission, it has to become incarnate in every era, in every culture, in every moment.

I'm talking about going back to the One who is the only source and origin of the Church, who alone justifies its presence in history and the world. I'm talking about letting Him, the God incarnate in Jesus, be the only God in the Church, Abba, the only friend of life and human beings. And only from this conversion will the true aggiornamento be possible.

Not only religious reform

I'm not just referring to religious reform, but to a conversion to the Spirit of Jesus Christ. When one sees Christianity lived out with all goodwill by many people though, it's not focused on following Jesus, but in the proper performance of a religion, when one observes that, in many communities, the project of the Kingdom of God is not the primary clear task, when compassion doesn't occupy the central place in the exercise of authority and in the work of us theologians, and when the poor, the little ones, the powerless, and the forgotten aren't first in the Christian communities ... it's clear that not only some religious reform is needed, but a true conversion to the Spirit that inspired Jesus' whole life.

In this society, it will be increasingly difficult to live only off of disciplined adherence to the institutional Church. If in future years, there isn't a climate of conversion to the Spirit of Jesus, I believe that Christianity is at risk of being diluted into increasingly decadent and more sectarian religious forms, more and more remote from the movement inspired and wanted by Jesus.

Not only changes

The urgent renewal that the Church needs today will not just come from some liturgical reforms that the specialists prepare for us, or some pastoral innovations, although they are necessary. We need to bring the foundational experience up to date. We need to return to the roots, go back to basics, to what Jesus lived and spread, because we ourselves are neither living nor spreading what Jesus lived and spread, for the most part. The Church has to take root in Jesus Christ as the only truth from which we are allowed to live and go into the future creatively. It's not enough just to bring order to the Church, or to introduce some reforms in the way the Church functions. I need to experience and breathe a different air in the church, a different climate, one of humble seeking, of joining forces, a relentless quest to reproduce and live out the essence of the gospel among the people today.

Is it possible? How can we do it? Where do we have to start? What can we say?

3. Some lines of action

I'm going to offer four lines, into which a lot of things fit that we can then continue to comment upon.

1. Introducing Jesus' truth into Christianity today

This seems to me to be the first thing. Taking steps towards greater levels of truth in our lives, our groups, our communities, our parishes, our diocesan churches and, of course, also in the central authorities of the Church. In this regard, I will develop two small points.

Putting forth the truth of Jesus

We have to dare to discern what is true and what is false in Christianity today. What is true and false in our churches and our curiae, in our celebrations and our pastoral activities, in our objectives and strategies ... and not close our eyes, not resign ourselves to living a Christianity without conversion. We can not live in a church where a desire for conversion isn't felt. Or passively allow the memory of Jesus to gradually fade among us, in our country.

How long will we be able to go on without making a collective examination of conscience in the Church at all levels? We started the 21st century without making an examination. Celebrating a very beautiful jubilee that has done much good, but without starting the century by asking ourselves "how are we?" and "where do we go?" Why isn't an honest, sincere review of our following of Jesus promoted in the Church?

Everyone says that a person is converted and renewed only when he recognizes his mistakes, his sins. Only then can he return to his most authentic truth. And how can this beloved Church, the Church of Jesus, take steps towards its conversion if we don't acknowledge the errors and sins among us? We don't have to be afraid of naming our sins; and it's not about blaming each other, often for each sector to justify our own mediocrity. It's a painful mistake to think that the Church is going convert to Jesus only by criticizing, disqualifying, and condemning each other. That's not how you progress towards conversion to the Gospel.

What we all need to do is recognize and bear the sin of the Church. We don't all have the same responsibility, but we are all complicit in some way, especially through our omission, our passivity, our silence and mediocrity. The sin of the Church is in all, in our hearts and structures, in our lives and our theologies, and every one of us is called to conversion.

Questioning false certainties

At the moment, putting truth in the Church is also putting into crisis the false certainties that prevent us from hearing the call to conversion. Today it is very difficult to hear a serious call to that effect; I'm very attentive and don't even hear the word; during Lent, conversion is spoken of, but it only lasts until Easter ... and then, see you next year!

It's dangerous to live with the awareness that we're the holy Church of Jesus without reviewing in the slightest if we're being faithful to Him or not, and to what extent. Our conviction that we have a unique mission, then not asking ourselves if we're really listening to the Spirit of Jesus to see where He's sending us today, is dangerous. And that unconscious security of believing that we are already proclaiming Jesus and His message -- without being a Church that hears the Word, as the great theologian Karl Rahner used to say -- seems dangerous to me. It's a mistake to think that God must now carry out His mission of salvation in the world by precisely following the path that we ourselves have drawn for Him, without checking whether it's tainted by our cowardice and mediocrity. And it's a mistake to claim to have the blessing of God, even to maintain and develop, often with good will, our own ecclesiastical interests.

Why are we so sure? Why do we so easily condemn sin in the world and are so blind to our own sin? Why is Jesus going to identify with our way, sometimes not so faithful, of living in His footsteps? Why would He confirm our inconsistencies and our deviations from the gospel? Why is Christ going to be at our service if we are not serving the Kingdom of God? Aren't we the blind wanting to lead the blind today?

2. Regaining the identity of Jesus' followers

I will also point out only two aspects here.

Our true identity

We must regain and safeguard our inalienable identity, which is to be followers of Jesus. And what is this specifically? In my opinion, it's to go, in the coming years, towards a new level of Christian life. To move, in the history of Christianity, to a new phase in which it would be a Christianity that's more inspired and motivated by Jesus and structured to serve His project of the Kingdom of God, a more humane, fraternal, blessed world...

If it ignores Jesus, the Church will exist ignoring itself. If it ignores Jesus, the Church will not know the most essential and vital part of its task, of its mission. If it doesn't know how to look at life, if it doesn't know how to look at people and the world with the compassion with which Jesus looked, the Church will be a blind Church, that thinks it sees everything in a supernatural and privileged light, but that inadvertently may be shutting itself from the One who is, as St. John says, "the True Light that enlightens" not only the Church, but "every one who comes into the world."

And if it doesn't listen to the voice of the Father, as Jesus did, if it doesn't hear the suffering of the people as He did, the Church will be a deaf church. It will believe that it hears God's truth about human beings like no one else does, but it will be a Church that can't communicate the Good News of God incarnate and revealed in Jesus.

A new relationship with Jesus

Regaining our identity as followers of Jesus means seeking a new relationship with Him. The conversion that is being asked of us today means, specifically, a new quality in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

A Church made up of Christians that relate to a poorly understood, vaguely grasped Jesus, One confessed only abstractly, a silent Jesus, from whom nothing special can be heard for today's world, a muffled Jesus, one who doesn't seduce, doesn't call, doesn't touch the heart ... is a church that runs the risk of extinction. A Church without Jesus Christ would be a Church that has come to its end.

We need a Church marked by the experience of Jesus, driven by believers who are consciously living based on Him and His project of the Kingdom of God. Christians who belong to Jesus, and, just because they are His, belong to the Church and are contributing humbly within it to make it more faithful to Him.

How we need Christians who, at all levels of the Church, introduce Jesus among us as the best, the most valuable, the most attractive, most loved one...! Jesus, our only Master and Lord!

And it doesn't matter where each person is and what responsibility they have because we are all encouraged to collaborate in a difficult but exciting, attractive task: the task of moving, in the history of Christianity, to a new phase, one that is more faithful to Jesus Christ. We can all contribute so that Jesus is experienced and felt more intensely and in a new way in the Church. All of us, wherever we are, can make the Church be a little more like Jesus, and its face more similar to His.

3. Towards a new image of Church

It's not easy to say what concrete steps we would have to take. Naturally this isn't the job of a theologian, of one person or another ... It will have to be a joining of forces. I will mention two aspects:

The critical importance of the Gospel story of Jesus

I think we have to regain the critical importance that a few small groups who gathered to hear the memory, the memory of Jesus contained in the Gospels, had at the birth of the Church, what was experienced in the midst of the Empire.

Today, as research into the early days of Christianity progresses, many things are beginning to become clear. We have always said that the great figure was St. Paul with his letters, but it turns out just about nobody understood his letters. The people, the Christians of the port of Corinth were illiterate, there were no scrolls or codices. Now that we have his letters printed in the New Testament, we read them, explain them, but the early Christians didn't. Saint Paul was influential, no doubt, but the truly influential one was Jesus, who was remembered in very small communities and groups. Remember that, in the Gospel of Matthew, this sentence appears on Jesus' lips: Wherever two or three -- not more -- are gathered in My name, there I am. That is the experience that was lived.

It has been calculated -- the data are unreliable -- that towards the end of the second century there were only about 25,000 Christians, scattered throughout the Empire in very small groups. The center was Jesus, remembered in the Gospels. And when the empire was crumbling and becoming corrupt, it was noted that there were some groups who could live life in another, more humane way, and Christianity emerged. As it could emerge in the midst of this society.

The Gospels are not textbooks that lay out an academic doctrine about Jesus. Nor are they some biographies written coldly to inform us in detail about the historical Jesus. What is collected primarily in the Gospels is the impact made by Jesus on the first people who were attracted by Him and answered His call. In the gospels we find the experience that the disciples lived through with Him, which marked their lives and guided them to following Him.

We should not forget that, in any epoch, the Gospels are a unique work for Christians. We can't put the Gospels lightly on par with all the other books of the Bible based on the fact that they are all the Word of God. That is true, but in the Gospels there is something that we can only find in them: the blessed memory of Jesus, as He was remembered with love and faith by His early followers. What a shame that even today there are Christians who only know of the gospels what they hear from the preachers and only have an idea of different fragments ... a miracle, a parable, Christmas, Holy Week ... and that in our small groups and communities we are not reviving our life around the Gospel account of Jesus!

The Gospels, precisely because they were written to generate new believers and new followers, are, above all, stories of conversion. And they should be heard, studied and meditated, in an attitude of conversion. The Gospels invite a process of change, of following Jesus, of identification with His project. And in this attitude of conversion, sustained every Sunday, the Gospels must be read, preached, discussed, meditated upon, rethought and kept as the best we have about Jesus. His Gospels kept in the heart of every believer and in the heart of every parish, of every Christian community.

I think these groups of Jesus are a starting point in order to create a different climate.

The ongoing genesis of the Church

I think that believers who really put themselves in living contact with the story of Jesus in the gospels, will be the ones who will know the experience of being born anew with Jesus to a new way of living their commitment to Him. For what do you learn from the gospels? Basically, you don't learn a doctrine; you learn a way of life, Jesus' way of life. In the gospels we learn a way to be in life, a way of inhabiting the world, a way of interpreting it, of treating it, a way of creating history by making it better.

The first thing you learn from Jesus is not doctrine, but His way of being, His way of loving, of trusting in the Father, of being concerned about human beings. And I believe that this effort to learn to think like Jesus, to feel as He did, to love life as He did, to live as He did, to sympathize with those who suffer as He did, to wait upon the Father as He did ...we have to stick it in the center of the Church, starting with sticking it in the center of the groups, the small Christian communities and the parishes.

That's the first thing we have to take care of. Then one can go on engendering a new church. At present, we can't devote ourselves to incidental, secondary things; we have to go to the essential.

We have to conceive of the Church as a living reality, which is in permanent genesis, being permanently engendered by the Jesus remembered in the gospels. We must not think that the Church is already done and now we have to adapt it to these times. The Church is the Body of Christ, which embodies Christ. This is why the Church in every age, in every moment and every country has to go on being engendered and being born of Jesus.

Therefore, our primary task is not to be faithful to an image of Church and a Christianity from the past, developed in other times, for other cultures. What should preoccupy us today is not repeating the past -- learning from the past, yes, but living in the present and being open to the future. What we should be concerned about is making possible today the birth of a Church and some communities that are able to faithfully reproduce the presence of Jesus Christ and able to update His project in today's society.

4. Rekindling hope

I am very aware that, at present, the Church doesn't just need criticism, not by a long shot; it doesn't just need truth, it also needs encouragement to rekindle its hope. But hope is not going to be born of speeches, of words, of stimulation. I think we need to build a new foundation that will enable hope. Realistic hope, from a Christian perspective, can be based only on the God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

We don't know when or how or in what ways God will act to further advance His reign. What we can't do is look at the future only from our calculations and forecasts. The Church can't arrange its destiny, it can't base its future on itself. Our hope is in God alone. Only God saves, and God will continue tirelessly, carrying out His plan of salvation in the world. God will continue, inside and outside the church, with us or without us, to make His plan of salvation come true. God does not look back, modern secularism does not create a crisis for God, and our mediocrity is not going to block His saving action. God is God and we must not forget it. The God of Jesus Christ is our greatest potential for hope.

What are we to do?

Prepare new times

I believe that hope is experienced and those who are now preparing new times experience it, not those who are like spectators who just lament, complain, cry, argue ... and don't contribute anything more. Only those who are trying to break new ground are the ones who will bring us hope.

All of us, albeit humbly, can go on, step by step, pushing the Church to be more like Jesus than it is today. We will have to invent recipes, but many recipes will burn. We will have to follow many wrong paths to discover which is the right path. A few months ago I read what a theologian from Paris said: "It's obvious that the Church needed a whole century to succeed in establishing itself and establishing the message and the Spirit of Jesus in modern society. A century ... if you think about it, it's nothing; it's been 50 years since the Council ..."

We will have to push the Church, we will have to invent recipes ... but above all we have to promote a different climate -- only in another climate will it be possible to live with greater hope. We need to experience the gospel in new ways. We are being called to mobilize ourselves, to reconsider everything from a new fidelity to Jesus. God is unfathomable, God is a big surprise. I'm convinced that great surprises are still awaiting for Christianity. Jesus still hasn't given the best. I won't see it, but I can sense it.

How can you prepare for this? How do you prepare for the future and have hope when there seems to be no future? There are no specific recipes, but there are ways to search, although we don't realize it. Let's open our eyes: there are very poor parishes, which are not the great cathedrals, which are on the periphery, where there is a new climate, where they do things and live out commitments that point to this new and more convincing style of following Jesus. And there are groups and movements that are bringing people towards a way of better human quality and more authentic evangelical quality.

There's a new way of perceiving the gospel; there's an ever more lively awareness of being followers of Jesus. I already know that initiating new ways of conversion demands higher levels of faith and love for Jesus from all of us. But there are ways that can continue to open in a germinal manner. Perhaps many of us will burn out along the road, but no matter. Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will not be fruitful. We need people who burn out; their lives will have some small and humble fertility. Germinally prepare new ways.

Working for conversion and change

I think new atttitudes are needed. I will mention two.

First, I think we have to learn to live while changing -- not live by repeating, but changing. This means learning to say goodbye to what doesn't evangelize, to what doesn't open paths to the kingdom of God, in order to be more attentive to what is being born, to what we see opens the hearts of the men and women of today to the Good News of God. And, without realizing it, we are already dismissing forms of ministry and evangelization that were prepared for a form of Christianity that no longer exists. Certainly small steps are being taken toward a new faith. Learning to live while taking steps, not simply waiting for extinction, looking to see who's last so they'll turn off the light ...

Second, we have to learn, little by little, to shape the change. I know environments where it's possible to experience new languages to communicate the Good News of God. And I know environments where you can start talking with people who are more alienated. Today, it's very difficult to draw boundaries -- Who is inside? Who is out? Who believes? Who doesn't believe? I move among groups of "seekers" -- that's what we call them -- who say to me: "José Antonio, what I'm experiencing, is it faith?"

What is belief? People are very lost. We need to talk, we have to spread the little faith that each one has. There are parishes where a different way of living together is possible, and it's being done already -- a new acceptance, a new Christian friendship. We've said sublime things about Christian community, communion, theories ... but we need to be friends, to strengthen bonds of friendship in our parishes and communities.

There are places, environments, parishes, where it's possible to give new responsibilities to women. In reality, there are few things that women can't do today, only two: preside at the Eucharist and preside over the sacrament of Reconciliation. Almost everything else could be left in the responsible hands of women. If we don't do it, it's not because of canon law -- which allows it -- but because of our laziness, our insensitivity, our stupidity ...

I think now we have to devote much more time, much more prayer, a lot more listening to the gospel, much more attention and energy to listening to many calls, new charisms, new vocations, new ways to conversion. At first everything is fragile, everything is small; we have the good fortune to be able to sow without seeing the harvest. It is a joy, to sow and reap not. In the Gospel, there's only the parable of the sower, not the one we ourselves might like: the parable of the reaper ...

The Church has not bottomed out yet. We are still going to experience the vulnerable and fragile nature of the Church much more. And we will be able to share the lot of losers along with other forgotten sectors in this society, that are losers. In the Church we will be among the least; that is not a disgrace, but it can be a real grace. A church with little power, a fragile, vulnerable Church where people discover, more and more that there is sin. It's not a disgrace; it's walking more truthfully. We will be between a rock and a hard place. To look bad is not bad, it can irremediably lead us to the gospel and to Jesus Christ. Jesus proclaimed it, possibly while passing through Magdala, a small town where he met Mary -- the city was famous for preserves, for salted meat and fish. There was a lot of salt that was brought from the Black Sea and the surplus, that which was bad, was piled up in the streets, abandoned ... Jesus once said: Look at the salt. When it loses its flavor, the whole world tramples on it ...

Let's not defend ourselves a lot because, if the present world is often stomping on us, it's in part because it doesn't find in what we are offering as salt the flavor the world needs in order to believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ. I think the important thing is to keep walking as the Letter to the Hebrews says, with "eyes fixed on Jesus who is the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith."

Thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. Your translation ministry is wonderful. I plan to recommend these lectures as meditation material for Lent to all my friends. Que Dios le bendiga, Luis