Monday, May 26, 2014

Jesús Espeja: "The challenge for the Church today is how to respond to this world tainted by injustice and scandalous poverty"

By Jesús Bastante (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Religión Digital
May 18, 2014

Dominican Jesús Espeja has come to present his latest book, Meditación sobre la Iglesia. Lo que no se puede decir ["Meditation on the Church: What cannot be said"], published by San Pablo. In this latest work, Espeja argues that "the main challenge for the Church today is how to respond to this world tainted by injustice and scandalous poverty."

Moreover, given the current reality that "a majority of believers remain in superficiality and are not experiencing transcendence," the author maintains that "we Christians must offer something that excites human beings and to make them happier." "A path to happiness without disparaging the pleasures of the world, but expanding the horizon," he adds.

It's that for Espeja, love of the Church and love of humankind are inseparable because "nothing human can be alien to Christians."

What can and cannot be said about the Church?

People will think that "what cannot be said" is something secret or against the Church. But what cannot be said is really what cannot be defined. That is, what is believed.

The mystery of the Church, precisely because it's the presence of the divine in the human, doesn't allow for a single definition but rather only approximations. In this book, meditation isn't intellectual speculations about the Church but an attempt to express my faith in the Church.

When I was a student, I had two great teachers: De Lubac and Congar. They explained that the idea of Church as an event that's experienced cannot be defined. Hence "Meditation."

However, we've always defined the Church and its ways of acting...

There's nothing strange about that. We've even tried to define God, although He doesn't fit in our heads. Whereas, if we really accept that God doesn't fit in our heads, that He always exceeds all our categories, and if we agree that the Church is the presence of God in the human, we have to conclude that it's not possible to give a definition of God or the Church. Only approximations in symbolic language are possible.

Doesn't the Church need the assurance that definitions bring to survive as long as it has survived?

That's the mistake: believing that the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth gives us assurance to be able to walk through life peacefully and settled.

Isn't it an antidote to fear?

Of course, because from within us, the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth gives us trust. But not assurance. Because He calls us continually to see, act, and exist not from ourselves as the absolute center but from someone who is the absolute center closer to us than ourselves which is always pushing us but whom we cannot capture with the labels of our minds.

That is, with respect to God we must affirm, as has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, that He created us, sustains us, and is our center. But we have to "de-center ourselves." That is, leave our own land to be open to this presence of God. That is the Christian faith.

Isn't the center in Rome, as we've been taught for so many years?

Obviously not. We as Christians confess that Jesus Christ is the Word that enlightens every man who comes into this world. Then we can't put Him just in one place or space. Furthermore, God can't be present only at the Vatican because you have to have the presence of God in all religions. God is present and makes Himself present in all human beings who, experiencing the presence of God, are open to it.

Isn't that what Vatican II indicated? Is the Council the keystone of your book?

Yes, but this book goes a step further, responding to what Pope Francis calls "a Church going forth." It's like when Jesus was asked "where are you staying?" and he answered "come and you will see." That is, the key is leaving your own land. This is what we have to do today: experience the mystery of the Church as living dynamism in history. So in the book what I'm trying to do is profess the three challenges that the Church has today and that the current Pope has already pointed out in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

The first challenge is what God are we talking about. The presence of God that is always with us, and is what underlies our hope.

Second, how to respond to diversity, not just cultural but also religious. Because today there isn't just a minority who don't believe but a majority of believers who remain in superficiality and are not experiencing transcendence. That's a huge challenge.

And the third challenge is how to respond to this world tainted by injustice and scandalous poverty.

I think this is where the Church should find its way and where it should carry out its true reform.

Glancing at your book, one gets the feeling you might have written Pope Francis' "government program" because it has the three core objectives that Bergoglio is always pointing to.

These objectives must be complemented by the vision that Pope Benedict stressed at the end of his pontificate. The big challenge we have in the Church today is growing in the faith. Understanding well what the Christian faith is.

The second challenge is to review very thoroughly the logic of power in the Church. The relationship between power, communion, and service. And finally, finish uniting the experience of a merciful God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and the clear choice for the excluded, for the victims of history.

Only if we manage to unite these, not only in theory but also in practice, will evangelization be possible.

However, the Church up to now has stressed dogma and prohibitions more, imposing rules on the world rather than going out into it.

Yes, it's a major difficulty that exists both outside and within the Church. I think all the revolutions there are now have their positive side. Human beings are resigning themselves less and less to submitting to laws or power, be it political, economic, or ecclesiastical. This is a sign of the Spirit calling us to review in depth our behavior in the Church.

When I see that there are people who think the whole problem is in the world that has become secular and distanced itself from the Church, and that we have to begin to make big displays to see if they'll convert...I think that, without condemning anyone and respecting everyone, the problem is in the Church itself.

We believers, in our way of living and acting, must offer something that excites human beings and makes them happier.

Is that negative image of the institution changing thanks to the efforts of the Pope? Or has it already arrived "too late"?

I think it's never too late, especially because it's not about winning anything. It's about being authentic. So, neither is it a question of worrying about how we're going to reconquer those who have abandoned the Church. It's about us trying to be good Christians because we think that this proposal is a reasonable way to achieve happiness.

In the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium there's a phrase that's very important because it says that the world wants to achieve happiness and that it wants to do so by amassing pleasures. But the world hasn't achieved happiness.

Therefore, the challenge we have is being able to offer a path to happiness without neglecting the pleasure of the world, but expanding the horizon. This is for me Jesus' proposal. And it's exciting.

The challenge isn't conquering the world but maturing in our Christian faith experience. This is fundamental to me.

When I wrote the book, I did it thinking that we are now in the third stage of the Council in which we have to do away with the ridiculous and condemnatory interecclesial tensions and conflicts. We have to accept diversity but at the same time all go back to the basic Christian experience. The experience of Jesus of Nazareth, which is the place where humankind was finally totally open and became transparent to the presence of God.

And that they would know us because of "see how they love one another..."?

Exactly, and not because of "see how they fight with one another...".

So I think we're in a very nice time for Christians. Because, picking up the legacy of Vatican II, we must update it, be open and willing to learn from everything else. Because nothing human can be alien to Christians.

How is someone like you -- who already experienced the hope of the Council in its day and the post-conciliar winter -- experiencing this new stage of openness? Do you still have the strength to go on fighting?

Well, there's a liturgical hymn that says "Sembraré mientras haya tiempo" ["I'll sow while there's time"].

We must all accept that we are limited in time but where there's no limitation at all, just the opposite, is when one is persuaded of something and expresses it. Either speaking or writing.

In my generation, which is now in the autumn of life, there must be this deep motivation. Being excited by love for the Church and at the same time by love for humankind, which are inseparable since God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it's not just about accepting the Church's inconsistencies out of love but professing a tender love for humankind. For the whole world.

The epilogue of the book is written by a young theologian, Jesús Díaz Sariego.

He's a great theologian, almost 40 years younger than me. That is, he was trained after the Council. And I sincerely believe that the most valuable part of this book is the epilogue. Because its author has been able to pick up the few good things I say in the book and open new perspectives, naturally, with a younger and more renewed mentality. But starting from the basic imperatives of the Council.

Jesús Díaz Sariego is a great professor of Christology at Salamanca, very sought after by students and also in the theological sphere. He is able to see quite lucidly what is currently happening.

We've just experienced a historical event with the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II. The beatification of the other great Pope of the Council -- Paul VI -- is about to become official. What does all this mean?

I think it's clear that John XXIII and John Paul II were two very different popes who lived in different situations too.

For me, what unites both of them is passion for Jesus' cause. But not a cause in the abstract -- Jesus' cause that speaks of the Kingdom of God and the poor and, as such, unites the divine and the human.

John XXIII did it prophetically and exuberantly, talking about the signs of the times. And John Paul II especially in his first encyclical when he said specifically that the deep amazement at human dignity is the Gospel, and he states that the way of the Church is man.

That leads me to think that both of them were passionately experiencing the mystery of the Incarnation.

On the other hand, it surprises me that Paul VI has remained in the shadows because it was thanks to that pope that the Council worked. If it hadn't been for Paul VI, the Council would have ended early and badly. Paul VI was able to channel the work of the Council and reach a consensus between the two major trends there. Which had its advantages and disadvantages in the great conciliar documents that reflect what the Church was at that time.

We should remember Paul VI above all for the encyclical he published in 1964, Ecclesiam Suam, which channeled and guided the Council.

That was when the Church became dialogue, when it opened itself to the world. That's why this encyclical marked my generation.

He wrote the other one [Humanae Vitae] at a very distinct moment, when the Council had already ended and you have to read it in the context of what was happening in the world and the preoccupation of Paul VI, who was a very delicate man spiritually, who wanted to remain faithful to tradition and also faithful to the world.

Do you think that the simultaneous canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II and the upcoming beatification of Paul VI mean a reappraisal of the Council?

For me, it means something very important: that within the diversity that should exist in the Church (which means that that there are many possibilities and many ways of living and interpreting Christian faith within the communion) there has to be something that unites us all. And that is the exciting experience of faith.

Christian faith is not intellectual acceptance of some truths that an authority proposes. It's not "learning the lesson." It's not reduced to orthodoxy in that sense. Christian faith, first and foremost, is the unconditional openness of the whole individual to this presence of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. And that, as such, isn't something that can be defined too much either. It's something that is lived and around which all of us Christians should unite. Because that's the communion of the Church.

We keep the faith through ministries that there are in the Church naturally and that help us maintain communion. But it's not those ministries that do it, but the Holy Spirit. And the role of those ministries is to serve the Holy Spirit which is in all believers.

Only in Christian believers?

No. Not even just in believers, whatever religion they may be. In every woman and man who comes into this world. The Church is a sign. It's like the moon, but it isn't the sun. The sun is Jesus Christ. The Church is the radiance. It's the sign of a universal communion that takes place throughout the world and that we, as Christians, proclaim had a specific place and found its way in the historical conduct of Jesus.

Rather than being like the moon...don't you think that the Church often has its head in the clouds?

Well, it depends what you mean by Church. I think that what is needed today is to help the Christian faithful themselves to live the faith not irresponsibly accepting what they are told, but as a personal experience that gives meaning to their lives and opens new horizons for hope.

The crisis we Christians ourselves have today is a crisis of meaning. The meaning that helps us stay happy and hopeful. And specifically I believe that the historical conduct of Jesus, revelation of God and revelation of what human beings are, is an exciting proposal for finding meaning in life.

God's gratuitous presence accompanies our story and will never abandon it.

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