Monday, September 22, 2014

Interview with Maria José Arana, RSCJ, winner of Premio Alandar 2014

By Pepa Moleón (English translation by Rebel Girl)
No. 310, September 2014

There are pioneer women who open the way for things to be possible. One of them is Maria José Arana, a religious of the Sacred Heart who received the Premio Alandar last June, chosen unanimously by the journal's staff. We wanted to interview her to bring her career closer to our readers. A PhD in Theology with a degree in Sociology from the University of Deusto, she has been fighting within the Church for the equality and recognition of women for decades. She is presently a professor at the Facultad de Teología in Vitoria and in the Instituto de Teología y Pastoral in Bilbao.

How far along is feminist theology in the rest of the world and in Spain in particular?

Feminist theology has done a great deal of research and deepening; it has a spirit, methodology and sensitivity that are original and enriching for theology in general. Its way of doing, acknowledged or not, has greatly influenced the "theological task." In the international arena, Elisabeth Johnson is a good example of rethinking key aspects of the great theological themes from a feminist perspective.

Feminist theology is diverse. I don't identify in the same way with some streams as I do with others, but they're there. In the records and publications of the 2011 Congress in Salamanca of the European Society of Women in Theological Research (ESWTR), where I also had the honor of delivering a lecture, we can see a variety of currents and approaches.

In Spain, we have ATE (Asociación de Teólogas Españolas -- "Association of Spanish women theologians"), EFETA (Escuela Feminista de Teología de Andalucía -- "Feminist School of Theology of Andalucia, but which mainly covers Spain and Latin America), the "Mujeres y Teología" ("Women and Theology") reflection groups...These are places where we can follow the currents and the situation of feminist theology, especially in Spain.

You were responsible for a parish in Vizcaya. How was that pastoral experience, speaking personally and communally?

Yes, I was "pastor" or "the one in charge of the parish" with the duties of a pastor, as Bishop Luis María Larrea, who appointed me, used to say. I was there nine years. I was also a teacher in the town.

My experience was very good. I was very happy in the town of Aranzazu; the people received my services very well in both fields. We did a lot of of things and it was lovely. But I have to tell the truth -- at the pastoral, and particularly the sacramental level, I felt like a "glorified sacristan" but, in the end, a "sacristan"...because you can't administer the sacraments (just baptism and permission for the priests to perform marriages), you have to depend on the priest next door for a lot of things...and you feel bad when, having a priestly vocation as well, it all remains a sort of incomplete substitute...

The Pope made some statements in June about celibacy. What do you think of them and how might they be linked to the outstanding issue of the ordination of women in the Catholic church?

I'm not against optional celibacy, but I am against placing a priority on that issue above the question of women in the Church and, specifically, women in the priesthood, not only because by solving the lack of priests, they would no longer be concerned about having women in those and other matters. It goes deeper.

The debt that the hierarchical Church has with us is far more urgent and scandalous and it touches on the essence of the Church itself which, like any other human group, needs both male and female in its institutions.

The Pope says that the celibacy issue "isn't dogma," but neither is the issue of women in the diaconate or the priesthood!...however, they approach it -- when they approach it -- with an absolute lack of solid arguments, serious studies, a clear current and future perspective! The women's issue has evolved enormously in civil society and the Church has lagged behind.

You've worked intensively in ecumenical forums. What steps should we take in the Catholic Church to move forward in that sphere without rhetoric?

The Forum of European Christian Women and the European Society of Women in Theological Research have been for me -- and go on being -- exceptional places of encounter and work for the exchange of experiences, ideas, and concerted action. Also we have been able to relate with each other and exchange impressions with those responsible in the various denominations and realize, in practice, the differences between them ...

The dialogue with the Catholic Church in general hasn't moved beyond a certain formal politeness, tinged with indifference ... although there have been exceptions, such as [the late] Cardinal Martini (very rare), Cardinal Kasper, and few more ... As long as there isn't a clear ecumenical awareness in the hierarchy, it will be hard to move forward.

Your life has been extensively and intensively committed to Jesus and his Good News. Have you ever faltered? Has anything in your Church experience been particularly painful?

Look, I have two things going for me: the first is that I've always thought it was a very long-term job; I've never expected immediate results. And the second is my optimistic temperament. This and a realistic view of social change in history and, more specifically, in the history of feminism, have helped me not to "perish in the attempt."

However, obviously the Church's blindness, as well as its sluggishness and inertia with respect to women irritate and pain me! I feel they're in clear contradiction with the Gospel. That hurts!

I think we have to continue moving forward. It's important that history record that in the second half of the 20th century and -- may it be thus -- the first quarter of the 21st century, women's groups and collectives worked for justice, equality, gospel consistency...and that they did so without losing hope, despite many difficulties. It's important that this be recorded so that the situation of women and of the whole Church might improve and be a benchmark for the future.

In this broad and intense life, who has or have been your reference points, teachers, witnesses?

I belong to a religious order, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and, obviously, I was trained there, I've worked there and I've received what I am from many sisters, present and past; I've received a lot of spirit, training, aid, and friendship.

But in this task we are talking about, the previously mentioned groups have been important to me: the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, the Society of European Women Theologians, the Foro de Estudios sobre la Mujer ("Forum for Women's Studies" - FEM), EFETA (Escuela Feminista de Teología de Andalucía), Women's Ordination Worldwide, Mujeres y Teología (sporadically) ...I've been very involved in all of them. It's been a blast!

Group work has shaped me a lot and I've been able to accomplish so much precisely because we did it that way. Community and group work and coexistence matter to me and bring me a great deal. Anyway, my work and friendship with Pilar Bellosillo who, together with Mary Salas, was the inspiration and soul of FEM, have been a privilege for me. I give heartfelt thanks to both of them for all we have been able to accomplish together and all I have received from them, which has been a lot. Ruth Epting, Swiss Protestant pastor and promoter of Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women -- she's still alive -- is a great friend and true master, full of spiritual strength, wisdom and experience. I've gotten so much from her! To all -- those I've cited and those I've not been able to mention here -- to all, a very, very deep thanks.

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