A poor Church, a living Church

-SS. Francesco- Piazza San Pietro: Santa Messa in occasione della Giornata dei Catechisti  ...
11 November 2022

The following are excerpts of an interview with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, printed in the daily edition of L’Osservatore Romano, on Monday, 24 October. The interview was conducted by Andrea Monda and Roberto Cetera.

Cardinal Zuppi was interviewed on the Synod of the Italian Church. With much honesty, he did not conceal that there had been less participation than expected, both in quantity and in quality. What is your impression of the course of the Synod in the European context?

Yes, I read that interview with great interest. With just as much honesty, it seems to me that Zuppi’s observations can be valid also for other European countries, albeit with some necessary distinctions between countries. You see, I think that today in Europe we are affected by a pathology, that is, we cannot clearly see the mission of the Church. We always talk about structures, which is certainly not bad, because structures are important and they certainly should be reviewed. But there is not enough talk of the Church’s mission, which is to proclaim the Gospel, to announce and above all to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. […]

Pope Francis’ teaching is no less than the explanation of the Gospel. It is not difficult to understand it. In today’s secularized world, a direct proclamation is not always understood, but our witness is. We are observed and evaluated in the world by the way we live the Gospel. […] Take the encyclical Laudato Si’ for example. Many have read it, even among non believers, even among those who do not know the Gospel. And all those who have read it have shared its value, importance and urgency. […] And the same is true for Fratelli Tutti. […] But it is up to us to know how to explain that Francis’ humanism is not only a political proposal, but the proclamation of the Gospel. Those who are outside of the Church sometimes understand the Gospel better than those who are in. Pope Francis has thus indicated this way of proclaiming the Gospel, which begins with reality, that reality that sees us all as creatures and children of the same Father. But to answer your initial question, in the synods in all European countries, there was much talk of communion, participation, but very little about mission.

Certainly, the difficulty observed in the synods in various countries was influenced by a certain instinctive defence of one’s status on the part of the clergy ...

The concept of synodality was introduced by Pope Paul VI as a requirement of collegiality, of communion among bishops. Vatican Council II had the preliminary task of completing what had been suspended with Vatican Council I, the focus of which, was all about the figure and the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, the efforts of the assembly were first and foremost to define the role of the bishop. But in Lumen Gentium, the concept of the “people of God on a journey” and of the Church as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” was introduced, as well as “universal priesthood”, which regards all baptized people. I think that these huge intuitions of the Council Fathers have not yet been adequately developed. However, I very much agree with Pope Francis when he says that it takes 100 years to implement a Council. […]

Here too we look to Pope Francis: In Europe one often hears people say that Francis is a liberal Pope. Pope Francis is not a liberal; he is a radical. He lives the radicalism of the Gospel. It is the integral paradigm not only of his mission, but also of his life, because he has internalized the radicalism of the Gospel. Think of his radicalism in mercy, and also of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. You see, one cannot keep a young person separate from the world, in a type of monastic life for six years, and then complain that he ends up thinking he is different. In this case too, I repeat, it is not a problem of structures but of mission. We have to understand, or better, understand again, what it means to be pastors today. As, on the other hand, we all have to ask ourselves what it means to be Christians today. This is the point. And this question is also the style of this pontificate: accepting the unsuitability of a pastoral action that is from bygone days and rethinking the mission. A choice that has serious and courageous theological implications.

You speak of an unsuitable pastoral action with regards to the times. Why? What times are we living?

[…] You see, my generation has lived and is living changes that no one has experienced before. I would say the greatest since the invention of the wheel. […] There will be very, very big anthropological transformations. In the awareness that man can only partially influence his own evolution. […] Our pastoral action speaks to a man who no longer exists. We have to be capable of proclaiming the Gospel and of making the Gospel understood by today’s man who mostly ignores it. This implies greater openness on our part and also the availability — while being firm in the Gospel — to allow ourselves too to be transformed.

When we speak about anthropological changes, our thoughts turn first of all to relations between men and women. Paul VI had already anticipated the greatest change.

Yes, Humanae Vitae is a marvellous text. It is truly sad that it has gone into history only for its judgment on contraception. […] Today things in the world have radically changed. First, sexuality and the gift of life were separated, and now also sexuality and affection. Many young people experience their sexuality in a way that is completely separate from feelings. And they did not invent this on their own but rather learned it from the world of adults. Marriage, not just the sacramental kind, is a practice that is obsolete in large parts of Europe. And the same goes for the transmission of the heritage. People in Europe now know how to live without the cultural heritage of their parents. Each generation is practically a new start. And the age gap resulting from a population that is increasingly older hinders this transmission even more.

And staying on this topic, Cardinal Hollerich, there is the topic of adapting pastoral action to these anthropological changes.

Certainly. And it was precisely a pastoral need which raised a reflection on the theme of gender, which caused some criticism. You see, there is an assumption that inspired me. I try, as much as possible, in the struggles of my role, to keep a personal relationship with young people alive. Because before being a cardinal I am a priest, a pastor. And I constantly see that young people stop taking the Gospel into consideration if they have the impression that we are discriminating. For young people today, the greatest value is non-discrimination. Not only of gender, but also ethnicity, origins, social status. They get really angry about discriminations! A few weeks ago I met a 20-year-old young woman who said to me: “I want to leave the Church because she does not welcome gay couples”. I asked her: “Do you feel discriminated because you are gay?”, and she answered “No, no! I am not a lesbian, but my best friend is. I know her suffering and I do not intend to be part of those who judge her”. This made me reflect a lot.

However, Cardinal, Protestant Churches that have a more liberal approach, and bless gay couples, do not seem to be more greatly appreciated by young people.

Certainly not. Because that is not enough. A profound change in cultural paradigm is needed and a conversion to the spirit. It is not a matter of canon law, or norms or structures. […] We are called to proclaim the Good News, not a set of norms and bans […]

Thus, to give an example the issue of blessing homosexual couples that was discussed; frankly, I don’t think the issue is decisive... If we think about the etymology of “blessing” (from the Latin bene dicere, literally: to say good things), do you think that God could ever “male dicere” (literal Latin translation: to say bad things) two people who love each other. I would be more interested in discussing other aspects of the problem. For example, what is causing the considerable increase in homosexual orientation in society? Or why is the percentage of homosexuals in ecclesial institutions higher than in civil society?

Thus, starting again from an empty tomb in Jerusalem on a Spring Sunday morning.

Certainly. This is the Good News! And I would like to add: everyone is called. No one is excluded: even the divorced who remarried, even homosexuals, everyone. The Kingdom of God is not an exclusive club. It opens its doors to everyone, without any discrimination. To everyone. Sometimes in the Church there are discussions on these groups’ accessibility to the Kingdom of God. And this creates the perception of the exclusion of part of the People of God. They feel they are excluded, and this is not fair! It is not a matter of theological subtleties or dissertations on ethics. Here, it is simply a matter of stating that Christ’s message is for everyone!

However, objectively, there is a theological problem. You yourself have referred to this in past interviews, hoping for a reconsideration of doctrine.

[...] Many of our brothers and sisters tell us that, whatever may be the cause of their sexual orientation, they definitely did not choose it. They are not “rotten apples”. They too are the fruit of creation. And in Berseshit, we read that at each step of creation, God was pleased with his world and said, “...and he saw that it was a good thing”. Having said this I want to be clear. I do not think there is room for a sacramental marriage between people of the same sex because there is no procreative goal that distinguishes it, but this does not mean that their affective relationship has no value.

Populism seems to be growing in many European countries.

Wherever populism prevails, it has to face the challenge of government. The problem of populism is that it provides simplified answers to ever more complicated issues put to us by today’s world. […] I am worried about what could happen if the populists were to fail in their challenge of the government. Hopelessly, they would blame someone else: migrants, refugees, Brussels, embittering social tensions even more.

One last question, Cardinal. How do you see the Church in Europe in 20 years?

She will be much smaller. The majority of Europeans will not know God or his Gospel. Smaller, but also more alive. I think that this decrease in numbers is according to God’s plan, a necessity in order to achieve greater momentum. In some parts of northern Europe she will be mostly a Church of migrants. The local rich people are the first to abandon ship because the Gospel clashes with their interests. It is Pope Francis’ wish: a poor Church. A living Church.