This letter is published in Spanish on Reflexión y Liberación. It is available in Portuguese on the Cajueiro blog. English translation by Rebel Girl.
Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate,
We are three bishops emeriti who, according to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, despite no longer being pastors of a local Church, always participate in the College of Bishops, and together with the Pope, we feel responsible for the universal communion of the Catholic Church.
The election of Pope Francis to the pastorship of the Church made us very happy because of his messages of renewal and conversion, along with his constant calls to more gospel simplicity and more zealous pastoral love for the whole Church. We were also touched by his recent visit to Brazil, particularly his words to the young people and the bishops. It even brought to our minds the historic Pact of the Catacombs.
Do we bishops realize what this new ecclesial horizon means, theologically? In Brazil, in an interview, the Pope recalled the famous medieval maxim, "Ecclesia semper renovanda".
Because of thinking about our responsibility as bishops of the Catholic Church, we are allowing ourselves this gesture of trust of writing these reflections to you, with a fraternal request that we might develop a greater dialogue about them.
1. The theology of Vatican II on the episcopal ministry
The Christus Dominus decree devotes the 2nd chapter to the relationship between the bishop and the particular Church. Each Diocese is presented as a "portion of the people of God" (no longer just a territory) and it states that in every particular Church "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative" (CD 11), since every local Church is not just a piece of the Church or a subsidiary of the Vatican, but is truly the Church of Christ, and the New Testament designates it as such (LG 22). Each local Church is brought together by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, has its own consistency in the service of charity, that is, in the mission to transform the world and give witness to the Kingdom of God. That mission is expressed in the Eucharist and the sacraments. This is lived out in communion with its pastor, the bishop.
This theology places the bishop not above or outside of his Church, but as a Christian within the flock with a ministry of service to his brothers and sisters. From this inclusion, each bishop -- local or emeritus -- as well as the auxilliaries and those who work in pastoral roles without a diocese, all, as bearers of the gift received from God at ordination, are members of the College of Bishops and responsible for the catholicity of the Church.
2. Synodality required in the 21st century
The organization of the papacy as a centralized monarchical structure was instituted during the pontificate of Gregory VII in 1078. During the 1st millennium of Christianity, the primacy of the bishop of Rome was organized in a more collegial way and the whole Church was more synodal.
The Second Vatican Council guided the Church toward understanding the episcopate as a collegial ministry. During the Council, that innovation met opposition from a dissenting minority. The matter, in truth, was not sufficiently taken up. Furthermore, the Code of Canon Law of 1983 and documents emanating from the Vatican thereafter, did not prioritize collegiality but restricted the understanding of it and created barriers to its exercise. That favored centralization and the growing power of the Roman Curia, to the detriment of the national and continental conferences and the Synod of Bishops itself, only advisory and not deliberative in nature, being that such bodies hold, together with the Bishop of Rome, supreme and full power in relation to the whole Church.
Now Pope Francis seems to want to restore a more synodal organization and collegial communion to the structures of the Catholic Church and to each of our diocese. Towards this, he constituted a commission of cardinals from all continents to study a possible reform of the Roman Curia. However, to take concrete and efficient steps on that path -- which is already happening -- he needs our active and conscious participation. We should do that as a way to understand the proper role of bishops, not as mere advisers and assistants to the Pope who help him to the extent he asks or wishes, but as pastors, charged with the Pope to look after the universal communion and care of all the Churches.
3. The 50th Anniversary of the Council
At this historic moment, which also coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, the primary contribution we can make to the Church is to assume our mission as pastors who exercise the priesthood of the New Testament, not like the priests of the old law, but as prophets. This forces us to collaborate effectively with the Bishop of Rome, expressing our views more freely and autonomously on the issues that call for pastoral and theological review. If bishops worldwide would exercise with more fraternal freedom and responsibility the duty of dialogue and more freely give their views on various issues, surely it would break certain taboos and the Church could resume the dialogue with humanity that Pope John XXIII began and Pope Francis is indicating.
It is the moment, therefore, to take up and update the Second Vatican Council, overcome once and for all the temptation of Christendom, live in a pluralistic and poor church, one that opts for the poor, for an ecclesiology of participation, liberation, diakonia, prophecy, martyrdom ... An explicitly ecumenical Church of faith and politics, of integration of Our America, claiming the full rights of women, overcoming in that respect the narrow-mindedness that comes from a mistaken ecclesiology.
Once the Council was over, some bishops -- many from Brazil -- celebrated the Pact of the Catacombs of St. Domitilla. Approximately 500 bishops followed them in that commitment to radical and deep personal conversion. That was how the courageous and prophetic reception of the Council was inaugurated.
Today, many people in different parts of the world are thinking about a new Pact of the Catacombs. Therefore, wanting to contribute to your ecclesial reflexion, we are sending you, attached, the original text of the First Pact.
The clericalism denounced by Pope Francis is holding hostage the centrality of the People of God in the understanding of a Church whose members, by baptism, are raised to the dignity of "priests, prophets and kings." The same clericalism is excluding the ecclesial role of lay men and women, making the sacrament of holy orders override the sacrament of baptism and the radical equality of all the baptized in Christ.
Moreover, in a world context in which the majority of Catholics are in the Southern [hemisphere] countries (Latin America and Africa), it becomes important to give the Church other faces besides the usual one expressed in Western culture. In our countries, we must be free to de-Westernize the language of faith and of the Latin liturgy, not to create a different Church but to enrich ecclesial catholicity.
Finally, our dialogue with the world is at stake. What is at issue is what image of God we give to the world and to which we witness by our way of being, by the language of our celebrations and the form our ministry takes. This point is the one that should most concern us and demand our attention.
In the Bible, for the People of Israel, "returning to the first love" meant taking up the mysticism and spirituality of Exodus again. For our Churches in Latin America, "returning to the first love" is taking up again the mysticism of the Kingdom of God in the journey together with the poor and at the service of their liberation. In our diocese, social ministries cannot be mere appendages of the church organization or minor expressions of our pastoral caring. On the contrary, it's what constitutes us as Church, an assembly gathered together by the Holy Spirit to bear witness that the Kingdom is coming and that, in fact, we are praying and wishing for "Your Kingdom come!"
This time is undoubtedly, especially for us bishops, urgently, the time of action. Pope Francis, when addressing the young people during World Youth Day and supporting them in their mobilizations, expressed it like this: "I want the Church to go into the streets." It's an echo of the apostle Paul's enthusiastic words to the Romans: "It is the hour now for you to awake...to put on the armor of light" (13:11-12). May this be our mysticism and our deepest love.
An embrace of fraternal friendship,
Dom José Maria Pires, Archbishop Emeritus of Paraíba
Dom Tomás Balduino, Bishop Emeritus of Goiás
Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, Bishop Emeritus of São Félix do Araguaia
August 15, 2013
Photo: L-R: Dom José Maria Pires, Dom Tomás Balduino, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga