Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Francis is changing the somber atmosphere of the Church, says Leonardo Boff

By Astrid Prange (English translation by Rebel Girl)
DW (em Português)
March 12, 2014

In an interview with DW, one of the main critics of Catholic conservatism states that in just one year the pope has managed to bring the priests and bishops closer to the people. Living in Latin America was instrumental for that.

On March 13, 2013, Francis was elected pope. And in just one year at the head of the Vatican, he has brought up for discussion a number of issues that had previously been left aside by the Church, initiating a process of transformation of the institution and the role of the Pope.

In an interview with DW, Leonardo Boff, an exponent of liberation theology and one of the leading critics of Catholic conservatism, says Francis has made the Church more alive by reforming the papacy.

"Francis didn't assume the classic figure of 'monarch pope' with absolute legal primacy and doctrinal and pastoral supremacy," says Boff, who left all his positions in the Church in 1992 after being censured by the Vatican. "He changed the climate. Before, the atmosphere was severe and gloomy."

DW: What has changed in the Catholic Church in Brazil a year after Pope Francis was elected?

Leonardo Boff: He changed the climate, which is no small thing. There's relief because the institutional Church was seen as a nightmare. There is joy, because before the environment was severe and gloomy. What we're seeing is that many priests and bishops have become more accessible to the people, more tolerant, less doctrinaire. The Archbishop of Rio, Dom Orani Tempesta, when he went to Rome to receive the red hat, traveled economy class to follow the example of Cardinal Bergoglio who always traveled like that. But it may be too early to have a more accurate impression of the changes in the habits of priests and Christians.

With the pope, could liberation theology rise from the ashes?

It never was in the ashes because oppression continues and Christians who are aware are guided by liberation theology to give meaning to their practices. Theologians continued to publish, despite the strict vigilance of Cardinal Ratzinger, who became an enemy of understanding the poor.

That is the weight he will carry throughout history. Rome tried by every means to rub out this kind of theology, but left frustrated because the gospel content of liberation theology pointed against Rome, which showed itself indifferent to the plight of the poor. It talks about the poor but never wants to meet them physically.

What was the role of theology after Francis took over at the Vatican?

With the new pope it gained prominence because he put the question of social justice and the poor church for the poor at the center of the concerns of his pontificate. He meets the poor, hugging and kissing them because, in his words, they are "the flesh of Christ." By receiving in audience on September 11, 2013 Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders of this theology, and then Little Brother of Jesus Arturo Paoli, 102 years old, who worked for 45 years along the liberation line in Latin America, the Pope gave clear signals that he wants to honor and even redeem liberation theology.

The Pope wants to honor and increase the power of the laity because the shortage of priests on the continent is serious. Are there signs yet of what those new powers will be? Will they be able to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments?

A main type of vision of Church that the pope represents is the "Church as people of God." Everyone belongs to this people, which is made up mainly of laypeople, men and women. The pope wants laypeople, especially women, to participate in the decisions of the Church and not just participate in the life of the Church. How he will do it, we don't know. We just know that he's surprising and that new things can be expected, including the appointment of women as cardinals, since "cardinal" is a title in the tradition that isn't linked to the Sacrament of Holy Orders. You don't have to be a priest or a bishop to be a cardinal. I don't think he'll allow laypeople to celebrate the Eucharist because that would be too bold a step. But as happens in the basic ecclesial communities where there's no priest present, the Lord's Supper is ritualized and dramatized. As a theologian, I think such a practice is a way of bringing Christ sacramentally into the community.

What could the Church in Latin America contribute to reforming the Vatican?

The greatest contribution Latin America is giving to Vatican reform is Pope Francis himself. He didn't start by reforming the Curia but by reforming the papacy. He didn't assume the classic figure of 'monarch pope' with absolute legal primacy and doctrinal and pastoral supremacy. He sees himself as bishop of Rome and wants to rule with charity. It's important to note that this pope grew up in the cultural and ecclesial stew of the Latin American Church whose face is very different from the old European Christendom Church. It's a lively Church, with base communities, with strong social ministries, with prophetic bishops and martyrs persecuted by military dictatorships.

What characteristics has Pope Francis brought to the papacy?

He's bringing new gospel and prophetic habits to the Vatican. He sees himself as a common man who likes to be with other common men, sharing their quests and perplexities. Rather than teaching, he wants to learn through dialogue and coexistence. These pastoral traits are typical of most bishops from Latin America. Thus he's rescuing the humanitarian, merciful, and likable face of the harsh institutional Church. I think he will be the first of many popes who come from the Third World, since most Catholics live here.

In your opinion, what would be the most important reform the Catholic Church needs to make?

I think there will be a new form of leadership in the Church, no longer monarchical but collegial. I mean, the pope won't run the Church by himself but with a college of cardinals, bishops, laymen and women. He implied this clearly when he said there should be more decision-making bodies in the Church along with him.

Could Brazil or Latin America be pioneers in some of them?

In Latin America we've accumulated good experiences with group pastoral work, be it at the national or continental level. As for celibacy, it's already been said that it's not a closed question as it was at the time of John Paul II who prohibited even raising the issue. As I see it, the path will be more or less like this. First he'll invite the 100,000 married priests throughout the world who want to do so, to come back to the ministry.

That would be the first step. Then he would allow optional celibacy. There would no longer be the mandatory celibacy law. For this pope, the Church belongs to everyone, especially those who were pushed aside. The Church is a home that is open to all. Everyone can come in without preconditions.

Are you willing to take a leadership position in this reform process?

I don't expect or pretend to have any role in the Church. Free speech is enough for me.

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