Pope Benedict XVI has had the wisdom to step down from the papacy as he no longer feels capable of performing the duties required to shepherd the Catholic Church. His decision leaves open the question of who will succeed him. I have looked at all the cardinals who have been mentioned as papabile and one person stands out as having the characteristics required to get our Church back on track.
Here -- at the risk of ruining his chances of getting elected -- is why I think Dom João Braz de Aviz, former Archbishop of Brasilia and current Prefect for the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life, should be our next pontiff.
1. He's from Brazil and many people have been saying that it's time for a pope from somewhere other than Europe. Furthermore, Brazil is the country with the greatest number of Catholics on the continent with the greatest number of Catholics in the world.
2. He's from a poor family so he understands what most Catholics in the world, who aren't wealthy, are going through. His father, who was a butcher by trade, and his mother raised eight children, five boys and three girls. His youngest sister was born with Down syndrome, a fact that will give him compassion and credibility when speaking to one of the main reasons women seek abortions, as well as to the inherent dignity and right to life of all people, regardless of physical or mental condition.
3. He was influenced by liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor as a young seminarian and remains committed to it. I was initially skeptical of this cardinal after reading the somewhat misleading 2011 account of an interview he gave with L'Osservatore Romano prepared by Catholic News Service which trumpeted "Liberation theology nearly drove Brazilian archbishop from church." It turns out that this was taken completely out of context. Here is Dom João's complete response to OR (available in a Spanish translation here):
OR: Consecrated life in Brazil has played an important role in the development and evolution of liberation theology. How did you experience this long period of theological and pastoral seeking?
Dom João: The preferential option for the poor is a gospel option on which, in the first place, our very salvation will depend. Its discovery and construction through liberation theology has meant an honest and responsible look by the Church at the vast phenomenon of social exclusion. John Paul II stated in that period -- through the letter sent to the Brazilian National Bishops Conference and delivered by Cardinal Gantin -- that liberation theology is not just useful but even necessary. At that time, the two instructions sent from Rome on the subject corrected problems linked to the use of Marxist methodology in the interpretation of reality. I think that the theological work of unlinking the option for the poor from its dependence on an ideological theology of liberation has not been sufficiently completed, as Benedict XVI warned recently. I think that one of the most promising paths consists in applying Trinitarian anthology and anthropology to the interpretation of reality. I personally experienced the years of the birth of liberation theology with much anguish. I was in Rome to study theology. I almost abandoned the priestly vocation and even the Church. I was saved by the sincere commitment to the spirituality of unity in the Focolare Movement. The religious men and women, with the radicalism of their evangelical vocation, could collaborate much with this new course.
OK. So what did Dom João mean when he implied that liberation theology nearly drove him out of the priesthood? We get more clarification from his response to a similar question in a later interview with 30Giorni:
30Giorni: And in Latin America you were also faced with the emergence of Liberation Theology.
Dom João: We were idealists, we wanted to give this life for something big. The decision to look to the poor gave us great hope, especially to us who came from poor families. We were ready to give up everything, including the seminary, if that urge was not accepted and embraced in the ecclesial situation in which we were living.
In the same interview he speaks of his great respect for the late Archbishops Oscar Romero and Helder Camara. This is someone who cut his vocational teeth on Vatican II, Puebla, and Medellin.
His fearlessness in standing up for economic justice was demonstrated during a Christmas Mass at which he presided for the Brazilian Congress in 2006. With the political representatives sitting right there before him, Dom João criticized them for giving themselves a raise and asked how it was acceptable for them to make over $R 800 a day while most of the people they represented were forced to live on $R 12 a day. And he added that such attitudes "kill the spirit of Christmas and represent a real threat to the spirit of peace that Christmas proclaims."
Call me idealistic, but I don't see someone like this turning his back on the preferential option for the poor now. And, as a side note, being Brazilian gives him a leg up on sensitivity to environmental issues...and the interface between environmental problems and economic inequalities.. which will come into play heavily in the Church for decades to come. We desperately need a pope who will focus more on these pressing social concerns and less on personal sexual morality.
4. Dom João grew up in a rural parish where there was no full-time priest. As he told 30Giorni: "Where we lived there were no priests at the beginning. The priest passed every now and then, once a month. It was the ordinary lay leaders who guided the community, gave the catechism and encouraged the practices of the life of faith such as the Holy Rosary and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At that time the local Church relied heavily on groups such as the Apostolate of Prayer, or the Children of Mary... Mom and dad also helped to keep the chapels open." So he effectively has a model of how the Church manages to continue to be Church when there is no priest -- a situation that is becoming more and more prevalent with the decline in vocations to the priesthood and the dwindling population of ordained men. He will not be approaching this with any fantasy that the problem will be solved just by praying for more vocations.
This experience has also led Dom João to considerable personal humility and deep respect for lay people. In a homily offered by Dom João last year on celebrating his 40th anniversary as a priest, he said, "God calls us [priests] from among you, but He doesn't make us better than you. We all have the same dignity. A dignity that comes through baptism, children of God. We will never have a greater dignity than that...God gave us a service, a job, a grace, a gift, to serve and help enrich the community. A precious gift of the Church is the priestly vocation. But it isn't an honor; it's a service." And he went on,"I tell you as a cardinal. One of the things I'm careful about is not thinking that I'm important...Why? Because when God met man, it wasn't in grandeur. When the Son of God came among us, He made himself small, He made himself a child, at our level. He hid his divinity so he could meet our humanity. And he ended up hiding his humanity to remain with us in the Eucharist...And if we want to learn how to be with God, we also have to learn to lower ourselves. Now, not only before God because we are creatures. But also learn to lower ourselves before others so that people can be love. And there is no other rule, law, experience in the world that makes us happy except love."
5.Dom João understands the tensions of the Church in the modern world. In an interview with ANoticia about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and rumors that he could be the next pontiff (which Dom João downplayed as pure speculation), he spoke to this issue. He spoke of the necessity today "to live with other cultures in a constant dialogue, because no culture can impose itself on others" and that the Church must have "the ability to search for truth, bear witness to it rather than imposing it". He said that while passing on tradition is important, pointing out that without this, we would not have the gospel today, the Church must also be open to the new questions being raised in our time that are not necessarily addressed by tradition.
6. Dom João repeatedly stresses the importance of dialogue and listening. When asked by 30Giorni about the Vatican's apostolic visitation and investigation into American women's congregations, a job he has now taken over, Dom João said, "There was mistrust, opposition. We've talked to them, their representatives have also come here to Rome. We started to listen again. That is not to say that problems do not exist. But we can deal with them in another way. Without pre-emptive judgment. Listening to the reasons..." It was the same thing he had told National Catholic Reporter's John Allen the previous year when asked if he was open to dialogue with the American nuns: "Yes, I want to learn from them and walk with them. You have to see people up close, get to know them, what will help them overcome whatever problem there is. I would say the same thing about the sex abuse crisis we have experienced in recent years. We have to be concerned about the sanctity of the Church, but we also have to be very close to those who were wounded, the victims. I am compassionate with respect to this."
And, in an interview this week with O Estado de S.Paulo when asked about what kind of Church the world needs today, Dom João returned to the theme: "It's not a matter of seeking political influence. The search is itself a testimony to the message. You can't have two measures, one attitude within the Church and another outside it that don't suit each other. The world is going through a major change that's unlike anything we've ever experienced. The times are extremely demanding. This will require great listening skills from the Church..."
This is the kind of attitude we need to heal the divisions that have been plaguing our Church.