"Return to Jesus is the most important task the Church has to undertake today."
(Interview with José Antonio Pagola)
Q. For some time now you have been insisting very much on the importance of a return to Jesus.
There are a number of things happening among us which, to my mind, are not going to lead to the renewal the Church needs. I'm thinking of the disillusionment and passivity of many ordinary Christians who suffer and are confused today.
The atmosphere of confrontation and criticism between groups of opposed views, the absence of dialogue between bishops and theologians; useless complaining; the fear of creativity and dialogue with the modern world; the return to the past that the hierarchy seems increasingly to favor…
Q. How do we react to this?
We need to urgently mobilize ourselves and join forces to focus the Church more truly and faithfully on the person of Jesus and on his project of the Kingdom of God. There's much that should be done but nothing more important than this conversion.
Q. What would it be like?
I'm not thinking of a pastoral "aggiornamiento" (updating), religious reforms, or improvements in the functioning of the Church, something otherwise needed. But, when Christianity is not focussed on the following of Jesus, when compassion does not occupy a central place both in the exercise of authority, and in the task of theologizing, when the poor and the lowliest are not the most important in our communities… I believe our most urgent task is to promote conversion to the Spirit that inspired the entire life of Jesus, to return to the roots, to what's fundamental, to what Jesus lived and transmitted.
Q. What would this converted Church be like?
A Church concerned for the happiness of people, that welcomes, listens to and accompanies all those who suffer; that people recognize as "a friend of sinners"; a Church where women occupy the place Jesus wanted for them; a more simple, good and fraternal, humble and vulnerable Church that shares the problems, conflicts, joys and sorrows of the people.
Q. But isn't there a great need for specific reforms in the working and organization of the Church?
Yes, and quite a few of them. It's likely that in the coming years there will be intense discussions on the reform of the Roman Curia, the exercise of the Petrine ministry, the appointment of Bishops, the place of women in the Church, inculturation, liturgical creativity, realistic steps towards ecumenism. But, I think, if at the same time an atmosphere of intense conversion to Jesus does not exist, the debates and discussions will again and again lead us to confrontation, division and a waste of energy.
Q. Do you think that this process of conversion is still possible?
I think we have to stop thinking of what's taking place in terms of crisis, secularization, disappearance of the faith… We need to think in more prophetic terms, bringing into our outlook other problems: what paths is God trying to open to meet with his children in this modern culture? What kind of relationship does he want to enter into with so many men and women who have left the Church? In what ways is God calling upon the Church today to change our traditional way of thinking, living, celebrating and communicating the faith so that we assist his action on modern society?
Q. It's not easy…
At a time when an unprecedented socio-cultural change is taking place, the Church needs an unprecedented conversion. We need a "new heart" to engender faith in Jesus Christ in a new way in modern consciousness.
Q. What responsibility do we have in this as ordinary believers?
The most widespread feature of Christians who have not yet left the Church is surely passivity. For centuries we have taught the faithful to be submissive and obedient. The responsibility of lay men and women has been invalidated. For this reason I believe that the first duty of all is to keep creating responsible communities and parishes. We are all needed when it's time to think of, plan, and promote conversion to Jesus Christ.
Q. Is it possible to make Christianity today more authentic?
We must not be afraid to name our sins. It's not a matter of blaming one another. What we need to do is to recognize the actual sin of the Church, for which all of us are more or less responsible, above all, by our sins of omission, passivity and mediocrity. It was regrettable that we entered the twenty first century by celebrating solemn jubilees without getting under way an honest revision of our following of Jesus. I am sometimes surprised at how sharp we are to see sin in modern society and how blind we are to see it in our Church.
Q. What does this require of us?
To seek a new quality in our relationship with Jesus. A Church made up of Christians who relate to a poorly known Jesus , believed in in an abstract way, a dumb Jesus from whom you hear nothing of value for the world today, a dull Jesus who does not attract, appeal to, or touch hearts… is a church that runs the risk of dying out, becoming antiquated and forgotten.
Q. You give much importance to placing the Gospel story at the center of Christian communities. Why?
The Gospels aren't teaching tools meant to expose academic doctrine. Neither are they biographies written to trace the trajectory of his life in detail. What you gather from them is the impact of Jesus on the first persons attracted to him. They are "stories of conversion". It is with this attitude that they must be read, preached, meditated upon, and preserved in the heart of every believer and community.
Q. What does the Gospel story teach us?
Jesus' life style: the way he lived and loved, was concerned for human beings, alleviated suffering, trusted in the Father. This effort to learn to think, feel, love and live like Jesus should be at the heart of the communities
Q. Will we need to rethink the Church in the style of Bonhoeffer, less of an institution and more of a dispersed leaven in the dough?
The most serious temptation of the present Church is to strengthen the institution, tighten discipline, rigidly preserve tradition, raise barriers…It's difficult for me to see in all this the spirit of Jesus who continues to invite us to put "new wine in new wineskins". "Restorationism", can lead us to make religion a thing of the past, increasingly anachronistic, and less relevant to modern men and women.
Q. People speak of the danger of our becoming an island within modern society.
We have to learn to live as a minority, and not in the manner of a body holding dominant leadership, but sharing with others the condition of losers in this society. Many have an image of the Church as an unapproachable institution that only seems to teach, judge, and condemn. Modern man is facing a crisis and needs to know a church that is approachable and friendly, that knows how to welcome, listen to, and accompany people.
Q. How will we have to change our language and ways of transmitting the faith?
I know that theological and doctrinal language is absolutely indispensable for dialogue with modern thought, but I believe that it's a mistake to try to introduce the faith or nourish it by giving primacy to doctrinal exposition, almost always explained in pre-modern categories.
In my opinion, we have to recover and make more relevant the founding experience the first disciples had with Jesus, and, above all, with his teaching and manner of life. We have to learn to believe using the sensitivity, intelligence, and freedom of contemporary culture: putting the Gospel in contact with the problems, fears, aspirations, contradictions, sufferings and joys of our times.
Q. Is it possible to look to the future of the Church with hope?
The first thing is to build new bases that make hope possible. We have to learn to give up what does not evangelize or open paths to the kingdom of God so that we are more alert to what is emerging, what today opens hearts more easily to the Good News. At the same time, we have to promote creativity in experimenting with new forms and language of evangelization, new proposals for dialogue with people who have left us, creating new spaces for women's responsibility, worship based on sensitivity to the Gospels… I believe we have to devote more time, prayer, listening to the Gospel and energies to discover new vocations and charisms to communicate the experience of Jesus.
Jose Antonio Pagola, San Sebastian, Spain.
Translated by Valentine de Souza S.J., Mandal, Gujarat, India.