Friday, August 9, 2013

The Church of Francis -- 'Going back to the roots and walking slowly at the pace of the people': An Interview with Paulo Suess

IHU - Unisinos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Adital (Português)
August 6, 2013

"Mission, participation, proximity to the poor, dialogue, structures at the service of the people of God -- these are the pastoral concepts being launched again by Pope Francis," the theologian states.

"Pope Francis' theology is missionary, pastoral and spiritual, guided by proximity to the poor at the various peripheries of the world -- geographical, social, cultural and existential peripheries," states Paulo Suess in an interview granted to IHU On-Line via e-mail. For him, Francis' most important speeches "are his gestures", so that "his trip to Lampedusa was more important than his encyclical Lumen Fidei...His methodology of seeing and discerning reality before making speeches and acting, could now be taken up again by the bishops' conferences all over the continent."

In the following interview, Suess assesses the speeches given by the Pope during his visit to Brazil and emphasizes that the message to the Brazilian bishops is "a retelling of the Aparecida document...Beginning with the story of the two disciples of Emmaus who are fleeing Jerusalem and the 'bareness' of God, Francis makes an interpretation of the Exodus from the Church, examines the reasons for it, to then give the message to the shepherds. 'Are we a Church that's capable of bringing the people who are fleeing back to Jerusalem, where are our roots are? Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty? What is more lofty than the love revealed in Jerusalem? Nothing is more lofty than the abasement of the Cross, since there we truly approach the height of love!'"

Paulo Suess was born in Germany. He holds a doctorate in fundamental theology with work on popular Catholicism in Brazil. In 1987, he founded the Graduate Course in Missiology at the Pontifícia Faculdade Nossa Senhora da Assunção in São Paulo, where he was the coordinator until the end of 2001. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Bamberg (Germany, 1993) and the University of Frankfurt (2004). He is theological adviser to the Conselho Indigenista Missionário ("Indigenous Missionary Council" - Cimi) and professor in the cycle of postgraduate missiology at the Theological Institute of São Paulo - ITESP. Among his publications, we can cite the Dicionário de Aparecida. 40 palavras-chave para uma leitura pastoral do Documento de Aparecida (São Paulo: Paulus, 2007).

IHU On-Line - There have been many comments about Pope Francis' way of being, but what might be the broad lines of his pontificate theologically? It is possible to glimpse anything along those lines?

Paulo Suess - Pope Francis' theology is missionary, pastoral and spiritual, guided by proximity to the poor at the various peripheries of the world -- geographical, social, cultural and existential peripheries. His theology is rooted in that proximity. His theology emerges from a biographically based Mariology and a Christology shaped by the Society of Jesus.

Mario Bergoglio lost his mother early, which made the Mother of God become very important in his life. In the Church, which was born in Jerusalem, Mary, Francis says, is more important than the apostles. Within this perspective, he will foster the dignity of women in the Church, whom he considers more important than the hierarchy.

When his superiors sent Mario Bergoglio to do postgraduate studies in Frankfurt -- soon interrupted by other responsibilities in the Society -- on the way back to his homeland he didn't bring scholarly writings in his suitcase, but a Marian devotion in his heart -- "Mary Untier of Knots" that he had found in Augsburg. That devotion, which responds to the sufferings of the common people, we find scattered today throughout Latin America. It's the devotion to Mary Immaculate that Bergoglio found again at Aparecida. Pope Francis will always begin important events in his life at the feet of the Immaculate Untier of Knots, at the foot of the Cross.

With Mary, Pope Francis finds himself in Jerusalem. God's love was bared in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, says Francis, are the roots of the Church: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, the friendship of the Lord. The sources of its authenticity, humility, and proximity are also found in Jerusalem. The proximity reaches its peak in the incarnation. The sources flow along with the river. No one has permanent residency status, neither in Aparecida nor in Jerusalem. They're icons that accompany the journey that is action in contemplation. They're starting points for an incarnated Christology, a mysticism lived out in action anywhere, always "to the greater glory of God" (St. Ignatius). His name is Francis, but Francis' theology and spirituality are Ignatian.

IHU On-Line - Among the Pope's speeches, which would you point to as the most important one in his pontificate? Why? What does it say in terms of identification with the Church?

Paulo Suess - Pope Francis' most important speeches are his gestures. His trip to Lampedusa was more important than his encyclical Lumen Fidei. The gesture of visiting the Varginha community was more important than the "standard" speech he uttered there. His methodology of seeing and discerning reality before making speeches and acting, could now be taken up again by the bishops' conferences all over the continent. Mario Bergoglio calls himself a "son of the Church." He doesn't confuse Christological radicalness with pastoral adventure. "Feeling with the Church" is part of Ignatian spirituality. But "discernment" is also part of that spirituality.

IHU On-Line - What is your assessment of the speech the Pope gave to the bishops of Brazil on Saturday and, subsequently, to the bishops of CELAM? What can be understood by strengthening and reforming the structures of the Church?

Paulo Suess - The address to the Bishops of Brazil is a retelling of the Aparecida Document. After a spiritual interpretation of the finding of the image of the Immaculate Conception as God coming into the life of the people in the raiments of smallness, the Pope turned to the message of Aparecida 2007. Beginning with the story of the two disciples of Emmaus who are fleeing Jerusalem and the 'nakedness' of God, Francis makes an interpretation of the Exodus from the Church, examines the reasons for it to then give the message to the shepherds.'Are we a Church that's capable of bringing the people who are fleeing back to Jerusalem, where are our roots are? Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty? What is more lofty than the love revealed in Jerusalem? Nothing is more lofty than the abasement of the Cross, since there we truly approach the height of love!'"

Going back with the people to Jerusalem, going back to the roots, and walking slowly at the people's pace! "Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take the time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? Or is the Church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency?," the Pope asked. Then he returned to the challenges of the Aparecida document, like formation, collegiality and solidarity, the permanent state of mission and Amazonia.

Also in his speech to the bishops of CELAM, Francis again follows the Aparecida document and covers a Church that sets "in a missionary key all the day-to-day activities of the Particular Churches." As a consequence of this, obviously, there's a whole dynamic of reform of church structures. A "moving of structures" (from outdated to new) is a consequence of the mission dynamic. What topples outdated structures, what leads the hearts of Christians to change, is precisely the missionary spirit. Not just the Roman Curia. Every diocese, every parish has structures that need to be adjusted.

Because of this missionary spirit, the Pope envisions a church devoted to the people, a proactive one, participation of the laity and the functioning of participative structures -- "I think we're way behind in it." We can't just continue within the parameters of the "traditional culture," fundamentally a rural-based culture. A decontextualized ministry "will end up nullifying the power of the Holy Spirit. God is everywhere: we have to know how to find him in order to be able to proclaim him in the language of each and every culture; every reality, every language, has its own rhythm."

Mission, participation, proximity to the poor, dialogue, structures at the service of the people of God -- these are the pastoral concepts being launched again by Pope Francis.

IHU On-Line - What's the impact of the CELAM bishops on Francis' pontificate?

Paulo Suess - Pope Francis has already shown that he's seeking to strengthen collegiality and synodality in the Church. On the first day of his papacy he sought to adjust the relationship between the Bishop of Rome and the Pope of the whole Catholic Church: "The Pope is a bishop, the Bishop of Rome, and because he is the Bishop of Rome he is the Successor of Peter, Vicar of Christ. There are other titles, but the first title is 'Bishop of Rome' and everything follows from that," he told reporters on the plane that brought him back to Rome, and added that "there is always the danger of thinking oneself a little superior to others, not like others, something of a prince. [...] The bishop ahead of the faithful, to mark out the path; the bishop in the midst of the faithful, to foster communion; and the bishop behind the faithful, because the faithful can often sniff out the path. The bishop must be like that."

Later, the Pope spoke of the temptations of self-referentiality, functionalism and clericalism. He criticized pastoral plans that are "distant", disciplinary pastoral plans that emphasize principles, forms of conduct, organizational procedures ... obviously without nearness, tenderness, warmth. The "revolution of tenderness" that is caused by the incarnation of the Word, is ignored. Here are the goals of "pastoral conversion" indicated in the Aparecida Document. He concludes his speech, including himself, with an assertion about the lag: "We are lagging somewhat as far as Pastoral Conversion is concerned."

We certainly need a reorientation of the canonists, the nuncios and a new generation of bishops who support the proposal of divestiture and let go of their disciplinary and organizational orientations with no pastoral nexus.

IHU On-Line - What's Bergoglio's theology and how does it differ from the liberation theology that's practiced in Latin America?

Paulo Suess - Liberation theology isn't a school but a theological-pastoral practice linked to a variety of cultural contexts and social realities. Therefore, there's a wide range of theologies of liberation. Mario Bergoglio, coming from the Argentine context, is part of this range that unites the option for the poor with the "see-judge-act" methodology that builds theological thought linked to the socio- historical and cultural reality of the common people. Bergoglio's path shows that he's keen to test his theological and spiritual reflection in physical proximity to "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties" (GS 1) of those who suffer discrimination and hunger. Bergoglio is a practitioner of liberation theology.

IHU On-Line - In his speeches, Bergoglio touched on another point: the backwardness in the Latin American Church. How do you view this criticism? What was implied in the Pope's words?

Paulo Suess - When talking about the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean, we need to distinguish between the various sectors of this Church. The backward ones are those sectors that believe they can improve the lives of the people through alliances with the elites, with their Pelagian and Gnostic theologies. The backward ones are those who sense the problems but are afraid of prophetic stances. Pope Francis, in his dialogue with the board of directors of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Men and Women Religious (CLAR) on June 6, asked them to have courage and take their mission to the limits and frontiers: "In these risky steps, you might make mistakes. You might even get a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reproaching your attitude. Don't worry! Explain, but keep going forward. Open doors and do something wherever life calls you! I prefer a Church that makes mistakes to one that sickens because it remains shut in." Bergoglio the Jesuit, in his 76 years of life, has learned that the primary virtue of episcopal collegiality and ecclesial communion is not obedience, but dialogue. So he's asking the local Churches for a radical solidarity with the poor and a critical but dialogical loyalty to Rome: "Don't be afraid to denounce things...you're going to have a hard time, you're going to have problems, but don't be afraid to denounce things; that's prophecy in religious life..."

IHU On-Line - In your opinion, why didn't the Pope emphasize moral issues in his speeches, especially when it comes to abortion, considering that [the Brazilian] Congress approved the bill to legalize abortion in Brazil?

Paulo Suess - In a flash interview, Francis would probably answer like this:

1. "Who am I to judge people who have had abortions? Who am I to judge gays? Who am I to judge a single mother?"

2. "My position is that of the Church. I'm a son of the Church. Abortion is bad."

3. "We need to go to the causes, the roots. Behind the law expanding the possibilities of abortion, there are special interests, money ... We can't just focus on the symptoms."

4. "In dealing pastorally with these issues, don't be some sort of "pastoral customs official" or legalistic, but followers of the Good Shepherd! The Church should not close the door to anyone. Baptize the child of a single mother, welcome gay people as Our Lady of Aparecida would welcome them! Take time to visit the home of the woman who has committed abortion and listen to her story! Don't cast the first -- or the last -- stone against these people!"

These were the answers that Pope Francis gave to the participants in the Mass at Casa Santa Marta at the end of May, to the staff of CLAR, and to Brazilian journalist Patrícia Zorzan on the return flight to Rome on the 28th, taken together.

IHU On-Line - What is the significance of the Pope's speech at the Municipal Theater, where he proposes the rehabilitation of politics as charity?

Paulo Suess - At the Municipal Theatre we are with a pope who gives us an example of an approach to non-ecclesial environments. Francis doesn't approach people with a raised finger (remember a papal visit to Nicaragua?). He's accustomed to living with saints and sinners, among whom he includes himself, asking for prayers. Francis is a pope who asks permission to be able to enter the house of the poor and the assembly of the elites. At the Municipal Theater, the Pope gave a concise lesson on the following points:

- Christianity unites transcendence and incarnation. Therefore it seeks to unite and revitalize thought and life, and give a "moral connection" to scientific and technical reasoning.

- Life charges us with social responsibility that we take on through politics. Therefore we need to "rehabilitate politics, which is one of the highest forms of charity."

- Politics should avoid elitism in representative democracy, often imprisoned in the mere balancing of vested interests; it should encourage "greater and better participation on the part of the people" in order to guarantee "dignity, fraternity and solidarity" for all.

- Participation and dialogue between the various rich cultural components make the country grow. The only way to make the lives of the people progress is through dialogue and the culture of encounter. In this dialogue, "all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return." This dialogue requires the "social humility" to let go of cultural and social hegemonic demands.

- The "great religious traditions" can play a key role in the harmonious coexistence of a nation, now that the secularity of the state ensures their peaceful coexistence.

Pope Francis' speech had three messages for the Church itself:

- When you're traveling around the world, don't scare people with an identity argument about your Catholicity. Francis did not speak once of Catholic superiority during his whole trip to Brazil.

- Don't be proud of being outside of politics! We need to rehabilitate politics - not politicking or partisan politics - in the Church as one of the highest forms of charity. It's not enough to be good and poor. We need to be politically educated, fearless, prophetic, good and poor.

- The Church is grateful to the State for its secularity which is a prerequisite for peaceful coexistence between religions.

Gaps in Pope Francis' speeches? There will always be gaps. I want to bring up only one. Because the Argentine Pope only spoke of the "great religious traditions." Might not the religions of the Guaraní and Mapuche, the Quechua and the Aztecs have a fundamental role for the harmonious coexistence of a nation? We must ask Pope Francis to complete the work of Anchieta which could be the miracle that's still lacking for his canonization. Might not the sumak kawsay -- the right living of the Andean world -- play a key role in rethinking the elitist democracies and destructive development on our continent?

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