Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mercedes Budallés -- Reading the Bible in the Key of Life

By Luis Miguel Modino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Religión Digital
August 2, 2014

Mercedes Budallés defines herself as a missionary among the people. She carries out her missionary work from her base in an old Cistercian monastery in the city of Goiás, from which, based on her vast biblical knowledge, she teaches classes on biblical theology in various study centers, works with CEBI (Centro de Estudios Bíblicos - Center for Biblical Studies) and is national adviser to the base ecclesial communities, among other things.

She came to Brazil 38 years ago as part of a religious order that she later left, along with many of her companions. In her opinion, the reason was the order's failure to adapt to the culture and the Brazilian situation. That happened in 1986, when the country began a new democratic phase after more than twenty years of military dictatorship. It was at this time that she joined a new group that was emerging -- those under the aegis of Carlos Mesters, Leonardo Boff, Oscar Beozzo, and Jose Comblin, among others, who wanted a new style of religious life to come into being. This new process wasn't easy since it didn't meet the criteria called for by Canon Law.

In this interview she talks about Pedro Casaldaliga and their 10-year coexistence, her views about the Bible, based on popular interpretation in the base ecclesial communities. But above all, she lets the passionate testimony of someone who has been able to assume Jesus' project as a life experience, shine through her words.

For ten years, Mercedes lived in the Sao Félix do Araguaia prelature where Pedro Casaldaliga was bishop for over 30 years. What does Pedro Casaldaliga mean in your life?

What has marked my life after those ten years has not been the persona or figure of Pedro, whom I appreciate, but the Church of Sao Félix do Araguaia. I am not a fan of creating idols, and while knowing his importance in guiding the Church, if it had not been for the team around him, the prelature would not have been the Prelature of Sao Felix do Araguaia.

He's a very intelligent person, a poet, which helps a lot, with a long-term vision, a prophet, although he himself told me, "I'm not a prophet or a saint or anything you say; I'm a poet."

What marked my life was Pedro's personal freedom since he let the decisions be made in meetings with all the agents, where everything was discussed and voted on, everything was set in motion, looking for who would be doing each thing, showing what the Church ought to be.

It was a very rich experience and when those of us who lived there a while meet, we remember those moments. My concern when I left, was training. There, everyone had the same rights and obligations, from the bishop to the latest arrival, everyone with the same salary -- minimum wage --and that gave us a lot of freedom, but at the same time, those who were coming in, who were people from the area, didn't understand that, since their knowledge and motives were different.

So a group of us chose to take those people to study at the university, but the problem was that they didn't go back since life in Goiania, Cuiabá and São Paulo (big Brazilian cities) was easier and more attractive to the young people. In the face of this problem, we decided that the training should be from a group with the same mystique as the prelature, with visits from Pedro in which we would celebrate together, resulting in a lovely experience. In fact, Sao Félix do Araguaia remains united today.

In your opinion, what has Pedro Casaldaliga meant for the history of the Church in Brazil?

Pedro, as I've said, is someone with a very broad vision. The chapel in his house is open; the walls are little more than one meter high. I remember the day of the inauguration -- since before that, our chapel was under a big tree -- when Dom Tomás Balduino (the bishop of the indigenous and the landless who died recently) was present, we were reminded that the chapel was open to the world, open to the Great Homeland, to Latin America.

Pedro was a very open man, very progressive socio-politically speaking, which made us all feel free; we lived spontaneously, without any secrets. At the entrance to the house, a very poor house, there was a stone and under the stone were the letters, the CNBB (Brazilian Bishops Conference) documents, those of the Vatican. All of us pastoral agents had the right to read everything that came, we would discuss it, nothing was kept back, there was great freedom, everyone could say what they thought. But at the same time, when Pedro talked, he would influence people because of his far-reaching wisdom and ability. But at the end, everything was voted upon in the small community and in the prelature which met three times a year for theological and socio-political training meetings and for a retreat period in which all the pastoral agents participated.

You also work at CEBI. What is CEBI?

I got to know the Center for Biblical Studies (CEBI) from the Bible circle books by Carlos Mesters and a one-month course. I had studied theology in Spain and the people's biblical interpretations surprised me because it seemed like that answered something in me. When I did that intensive course on Saint Matthew, in the state of Espírito Santo, with Carlos Mesters and Marcelo Barros, my reaction was that I had found the sign I was looking for. Afterwards, I did the 6-month intensive course at CEBI, always reading the Bible with the communities and after a period of much pastoral work and commitment, I went to Jerusalem for two years and specialized in the Bible. But it was always from a popular reading of the Bible.

Is CEBI ecumenical?

CEBI was born ecumenical and all those who interpret the Bible from a liberation theology perspective are still part of it. This ecumenical path has been difficult since normally there are more of us Catholics. In our meetings, this means that when preparing the times of prayer, of worship, this Catholic majority makes that the brothers and sisters of other denominations have to recite prayers (rezar) rather than pray freely (orar), although that doesn't stop us from showing our great concern to value what is different, which is what's important.

Does the fact that CEBI is ecumenical create problems?

There was a time when, when Dom Pedro and Dom Tomás Balduino would come from the CNBB meetings, we would ask them what the problem was this time, since there was a bishop who persecuted CEBI a lot. The core of the problem was liturgy, but apart from that, we didn't have any problems among the participants in CEBI. The problems were in daily life given those who had relatives in other denominations and who started to want to convert one another -- that's something else. But among the participants, there was never a problem, on the contrary. In fact, my academic credentials were revalidated at the university of the Methodist Church, where there were Lutheran and Anglican professors and ones from other denominations.

In that sense, could we say that being an ecumenical space was an advantage?

Yes, because one meets people who, while being from other denominations, think and join with us and that gives freedom and great joy. We end up thinking we're the owners of the truth and that's not written anywhere, not even in the Bible.

Speaking of the Bible, what's the role of the Bible in the base ecclesial communities?

I'm suspect when I say this because I'm a biblical scholar, but it's the most revolutionary tool that can be used in the life of the communities, since the Brazilian and Latin American people are deeply religious and the fact that the Holy Book offers an answer to the problem you're experiencing, is very important to them.

We have a framework, which began to be built from the feminist reading of the Bible, where it is noted that the focus of Bible interpretation is life. Now, you may begin by reading the text or not trusting the text, because the translations don't always show the idea of the original text. That someone realizes that the translations are different and that this is the result of ideological issues, opens their eyes. From there, you have the right to be suspicious, to deconstruct, construct and update the text. You can start anywhere you like.

The other day a man asked me, "Mercedes, when we change bishops or priests, do we have to change Gods?" He's making an interpretation from an event that happened in his life. The motive came from the fact that the previous bishop used to say that God was merciful and forgave compassionately and the current bishop talks about indulgences. He went to ask the priest what was this about indulgences and, looking it up in the Catechism, he answered that it was the remission of temporal punishment [for sins that have already been] forgiven (no. 1471). When he talked about this at home, his son said that God charged interest and adjustment for inflation. Life and religious biblical interpretation in the case of the biblical text go together and you feel that with the biblical instrument you are discovering what is written in the Bible. "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly," but what is abundant life?

I have many examples, like the one of the child in catechism who, after studying, drawing, and dramatizing the text of the Prodigal Son, asked, "Mercedes, where was the mother of the young troublemaker?" -- a normal question for him which shows the cultural environment, his age, and other things...

Given this, I handed the question back to them: Did he have a mother or not? "He didn't, silly. Can't you see that she's not there?" To which another replied, "He must have had one; we all do." And I let them talk. Suddenly one of them said, "Yes, she's there, because at home, whenever a father is waiting for a child who did something he shouldn't, the mother is off to the side."

Instantly, a child gave me three keys to interpretation, language -- a woman who is present, but doesn't appear, because that's how it is at home. In that sense I say I was converted, from the interpretations that the people, even a child, are capable of doing. And this helps to transform lives, helps transform the struggle for land. How many texts we've used that have encouraged the struggle for land! So I still think it's a revolutionary instrument, because it opens our eyes to the fact that God, the God of Life, is the One we're seeking to build the Kingdom.

As someone who came from Europe, from a different social and ecclesial situation, did living in Brazil change how you view life? What has the Brazilian Church contributed to your faith experience?

I came to Brazil in 1976, during the period of the military dictatorship, with a very firm position on the part of the Church based on liberation theology. I had read some texts. I didn't understand it well, but they met my aspirations as a missionary.

When I experienced the first moments of the base ecclesial communities in the Tocantins region where I lived, I began to realize that this kind of church, of pastoral work, concern for the poorest, met my personal aspirations.

From my own experience, I feel that Europe receded a lot while we here were progressing along the path of the early Christian communities, of the first followers of Jesus. The institutionalization of the Roman Church has been something that has prevented experiencing the transparency of the Gospel, while in countries of the so-called "Third World," this is experienced daily. The faith of the people is transforming our own faith.

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