Another way of being Church

From the beginning it is important to state that we are not talking about “another Church, but another way of Being Church” with the good will of being the Church of Jesus Christ without pride or belittling others. It is possible and necessary to be the Church of Jesus, but in a different way.

Throughout history, the Church of Jesus has taken on different forms and there have always been different ways of being church within it. Today, we are experiencing great insecurity and fear simultaneously in the Church, and in the Churches in general. The great German theologian, Rahner, spoke years ago about the “winter” of the Church. And for years we have been talking about “involution”. The word has even made its way into public use, with journalists talking about involution in the Church.

There is insecurity and fear, but on the other hand there are also demands which are growing more explicit and even collective, and becoming experiences of liberation. There has never been so much diversity in the Church of Jesus as today, particularly in terms of the laity. This is true not only in Latin America, but also in Europe. The base communities are an alternative experience of Being Church compared to the traditional parish model, for example.

 The Church’s many fears

In Nicaragua, a magazine published a special issue dedicated to the Church today. The title of the special issue was: “Why we believe in the Church”. In this issue there was an article written by Rev. Victor Codina, a Jesuit working in Bolivia. He describes the Church’s fears, he offers a litany of fears, which I am going to describe with brief comments.

  • There is still fear of Marxism, which has not been overcome despite the collapse of real socialism.
  • There is fear of the modern secular world that has pushed the Church out of the public sphere, relegating it to the private sphere.
  • There is fear of ecumenical dialogue, which has cooled off in recent years. The Churches have withdrawn to defend and protect their own identities.
  • There is fear of inter­religious dialogue, the proliferation of all kinds of religious expressions world-wide, which is macro­ecumenism as we stated in the First Assembly of the People of God in Quito in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Latin America.
  • There is fear of Episcopal collegiality and the resurgence of local churches. You know that there are certain Bishops who frequently have problems with the centre because of Episcopal collegiality and the resurgence of local churches. Centralism exists in the Church and we need to recognise it.
  • The Church is a port on the one hand, and landlocked on the other.
  • There is fear of the laity, that they have a public opinion of the Church and its political and social commitments. Despite all the talk about the protagonism of the laity, when lay people express their commitment we either leave them alone or, on some occasions, condemn them.
  • There is fear of women, which is one of the greatest fears, and their contribution in decision­making, although this right is defended. If women can and should be equal to men in society, why not in the Church?
  • There is fear of theologians. There have been many books written by theologians that have not been published and will not be published because they might be censored. I personally know of several cases.
  • There is fear of cultures. This happens because of inter­religious dialogue because evidently dialogue between cultures means dialogue between religions.
  • There is fear of young people, although there are efforts to attract them, because youth is youth. It is critical, noisy and free. Its loud volume is troubling.
  • There is fear of Latin American Liberation Theology. You know that during his Visit to Central America a journalist asked Pope John Paul II if liberation theology had ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Pope said that liberation theology was no longer a problem. I believe, with due respect, that it never was a problem. For us, it was of great importance, a relevant solution and it continues to be. But there continues to be a certain level of fear of liberation theology, of less traditional theologies, and also of Asian and African theology.
  • There is fear of base communities and an effort to get them back into the parish.
  • There is fear of religious life inserted in the community, that is involved on the margins. In Santo Domingo and with good faith – but who knows if there were some Bishops with other intentions – religious men and women were asked to return to the classroom. I think education is important, but without abandoning work on the margins.
  • There is fear of sects, to such an extent that we begin to call everything a sect. Evangelical churches are “sects”, everything is a sect.
  • There is fear of reviewing things like the ordained ministry, optional celibacy, lay ministries, to say nothing about women’s ordination.
  • There is fear of liturgical changes and bad experiences.

Demands and new freedom in the Church

Along side the fears I am also going to summarise the demands. There is a document circulating in Europe that has been signed by millions of Christians. It is called: “We are the Church”. It began in Austria and it asks for: the construction of a fraternal Church with full equality for women’s rights; free choice between celibacy and not being celibate; and valuing sexuality as an important part of the human being created and accepted by God. It calls on the Church to adopt a message that is happier, full of hope and even tenderness, instead of its message of control, restriction and threats.

This is what the people who have signed this document want. I know that Bishops in Europe who are not considered revolutionaries think this document is acceptable and sensible, that it deserves attention and that the large number of signatures indicate that it is a collective demand. Maybe what the people who have signed it are saying in a loud voice, is what millions more in the Church of God are saying quietly. So, there is fear and concern on the one hand, and demands and freedom on the other. I think that we are living through an important time in the Church, and the process can only accelerate. The Church will become increasingly less hierarchical. There will continue to be a hierarchy, but it will be less hierarchical. The laity will have greater protagonism.

We will be more communitarian. When we talk about base Christian communities we say that what is most important is not the community or the many communities but the spirit of community. At times when democracy in the Church is discussed I say: I do not want democracy in the Church, I want much more. Democracy is not enough, especially the formal type of democracy we are accustomed to. We want a fraternal community with the full participation of all people, each person with his or her service or ministry but with total participation.

I believe that in the Church, as well as in the grassroots movement, we have moved forward even if it does not always look that way. There is involution at the upper echelons, but there is evolution at the grassroots level. There is much more participation in both the Church and the grassroots movement. Those who have lived in Latin America in the past 25 years can perceive this very clearly.

It seems to me that when we talk about the Church, about our own problems and anxieties, and take on the challenges that correspond to us as church, we need to categorically affirm that we are “church” just as much as anyone else, including the Pope. We are more or less church if we are more or less followers of Jesus. The Pope is as much church as any other baptised Christian. The Pope has a ministry, which is singular and indispensable, but as church. We are church from Baptism, all else is ministry and service. We need to affirm this categorically, live it and give thanks for it.

We are church. In the Church we are the inheritors of those witnesses, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us. And we are going to leave an inheritance to others. This awareness of Being Church should fill us with gratitude, responsibility and freedom of spirit which should enable us to live it with greater awareness, freedom and reality.

The Church: mystery, history, sacrament of salvation

We need to highlight three dimensions of the Church:

– One dimension is that of mystery. The Church is a mystery of faith and we can confess that, “I believe in the Holy Church”. It is a mystery of faith: the Church is the bride of the lamb, it is the Body of Christ.

– In the second place the Church is an institution and history. As such, like many institutions in human history, from the beginning of time, and today and tomorrow, the Church is, was and will always be holy and at the same time a sinner. Or as the first Christians said graphically, “chaste and a prostitute”. The reformers throughout time have been good for the Church because they shook it and reminded it that it had to change with the times.

Then, as a institution and as history, we can criticise the Church, recognise the nonsense it has created, creates and will create. We are all church, the hierarchy, the grassroots … Of course, the nonsense of the hierarchy is more evident because we are at the top and because until now the Church has depended directly on us, the hierarchy. And this we need to humbly recognise. I believe that we should not be afraid to ask forgiveness for our omissions and even our crimes: slavery, the crusades, the conquest of America. We always begin the Eucharist asking for forgiveness. A good act of penance is always opportune. It is a good way of recovering credibility.

– Finally, we cannot forget that this Church that is steeped in mystery, that is institution and history, is the sacrament of universal salvation. The universal is the kingdom and the Church is a sacrament of the universal kingdom, universal salvation. A sacrament, a mystery.

– Who knows if theologically and pastorally the correction that we must make in the Church is this: think, insist in the ministry of the entire Church on the service of the Kingdom. The ministry of the Kingdom is the great ministry of the Church and all other ministries are secondary to this. And in the ministry of the Kingdom we are all ministers. A priesthood common to all the faithful. This means, above all, a priesthood that celebrates, announces and waits for the Kingdom. And we all feel committed. We no longer talk about the Church as institution, we talk about ourselves and others and that each of us assumes his or her responsibility. This will open spaces where they are still lacking because this is their right through Baptism.


Another Way of Being Church

A new God, a new church, a renewed option for the poor

I joke at times that when we arrive at the threshold of heaven the first thing we will realise is that from the threshold on in and for all eternity we will never again talk about religion or church. There we will talk about the Kingdom and those of us who were church and those who were religious and even those who were not – we are all the children of God – will be part of the family of God and live the fullness of God’s Kingdom. So it would be good if we started here because perhaps we are poorly trained and we will start discussing theology until the Holy Spirit gives us peace.

We, Christians, must emphasise that our great paradigm will continue to be the same paradigm held by Jesus: The Kingdom. This is the paradigm.

In this great paradigm we can and must insist on Being Church in a more or less new way, to become this church that we dream about and believe in with humility but also with freedom and joy. This is the church that Jesus dreamed about. Finally, we can highlight three paradigms, or three sub paradigms:

– We need to begin with a new theological approach. Do not be scared. I have changed my God and I will always be changing my God. Thank God for that. Thanks to the one and only God, I continue changing my God a little each day. And when we reach heaven the first thing we will do is completely change our God. Only then will we see how God sees us. And we will see that God is something else. It will cause a glorious scare, a great happiness. This is what the ancients called the “beatic vision”.

– A new approach to theology could lead to a new ecclesiology. A Church that is more communitarian, serving, dialogue­based, inserted in history and in reality with the poor, thirsty, concerned and hopeful, as the Council asked us to be in Gaudium et Spes.

– A renewed option for the poor, who today are excluded, from their full liberation. The worst thing that we could do, the greatest heresy we could commit in our Latin America, in the Third World, is to think that the option for the poor is no longer important. There are many people who in their own interests or because they have gone astray think that “they have talked enough about this option for the poor”. At times friends or journalists have asked me what remains of the option for the poor. And I say, “the poor are still with us, as is the God of the poor”.

I think that as long as the God of the Poor, who is the God of Jesus, exists and we want to believe, and as long as there are women and men who love and serve this God as Jesus did, then the option for the poor will continue. Furthermore, liberation theology will continue as long as there are minds that think about God and the poor. Unfortunately, as Jesus warned us, “the poor will always be among us”. What he did not say is that there would always be increasingly more poor people. This is what neo-liberalism tells us as it washes its hands like Pilot did.

“Another way of Being Church”, with simplicity but also happiness, liberty of spirit, must mean being the Church of Jesus. A way of being evangelical, incarnate and placed within history. Being Church is what we want. We do not want anything else, we do not think about a parallel church in the pejorative sense of the word. We must be church and this depends on us.


Vol. XXVII, July/August 1997.

[This article was published in two parts in Crie (Mexico) No. 351 and 352, March and April 1997].