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At First Warmth, Easter Flowers Pierce Through the Frozen Soil

Over the past two weeks, the joy of many people – Catholics, Christians and many others – over the new pope Francis’ way of doing (his simplicity and human accessibility, his desire to be first of all the bishop of Rome, his direct focus on the poor and also on environmental issues, …) has struck me. The best image that came to my mind are the Easter flowers that piece through the still frozen soil when they sense the warmth of the sun’s first rays of light. I feel happiness when I see the hope of people and discover a trust in the church that seemed to have disappeared around me; I also feel sadness when I realize how much, over the past years, we may well have frozen the church’s soil, entrapping many of God’s flowers/people in anger or desolation. A pope who expresses God’s human embrace of the world calls for hope.

This is not mere surface. Reading and re-reading pope Francis’ homily at the inauguration, I am struck by its theological depth. St Joseph, Jesus’ discrete father, offers a wonderful opportunity to discover God’s care for the world, as it also invites us to take care of others, especially the poor, of our own hearts, of creation. To come to know God, we are invited to commit as God does to the world, to discover in this world the Lord’s embrace and presence, as a call that may surprise us, but the value of which we discover in the compassion that is awakened in us. The theology behind this homily is a theology of discernment towards service.

Over a long period of time, we may have given in to our fears of a world spinning out of control (also religious control), dangerous and threatening, cruel and develish: we may have lost our capacity to recognize God’s presence in it, sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways, challenging even our religious presuppositions. Over a long period of time, also, we may have given in to our fears not to be loyal to the treasure we have received in Jesus Christ and the Gospel message. We may very well have enshrined and entombed these fears in institutions and structures that have become oppressive because of their arrogant-triumphalistic, clerical and juridical features and that have frozen our capacity to enjoy the hope of so many in whom the Spirit’s creative commitment is unexpectedly released.

We may have retreated into the minorities that we most certainly have become in some places (also in my own country) by turning these into self-preoccupied bastions and fortresses: we may have become incapable of really loving the world and entering it with the incarnation’s embrace and kiss, listening to its many voices. Indeed, in this world and through this world, very concretely, the Lord touches our desirous skins of faith, hope and love.

Will we be able to listen to the Spirit at work in God’s people, in the hope they experience for a renewed church … particularly there where we least expect God to be present, in the poor, in the excluded, amongst those whom we, maybe all too fast, accuse of indecency? Can we still trust our hope and recognize that, maybe for too long, we have not dared to be God’s people? Can we grow in humility, so as to listen close to the earth, to the Lord’s voice in those we push away to become the least amongst us? Can we be compassionate in the footsteps of a compassionate God at the first ray of light on Easter day?

Do we really want to enter the open tomb and hope for God’s unheard-of commitment in the fires of an enamored world full of desire and longing? That may well be the only really important issue … the only …

Popes come from different contexts

There was this wonderful little sentence I read somewhere today: “Francis is a pope from Argentina, but a pope for the world”. It provides a nice reflection on the tension between the local contextual and the universal. The really interesting challenge will be how Pope Francis’ background context will enrich and color his universal service to the world. It struck me how much his context is different from that of the two previous popes, John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, who have been marked by the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Francis comes from a different background, which is also very relevant for today’s world. Where he comes from, who he is, may help us to better understand the world in which we live and to better love it.

He was born in a migrant family – people who left their own native grounds. Francis is a person on the move, shaping a new reality by entering into a different world. This is the painful reality of many of our fellow human beings today, who are on the move because they have no alternative, because they want to live with dignity, they themselves and their children.

Francis was a young Jesuit provincial in one of the most cruel dictatorships, trying to serve, to accompany and to advocate in favor of suffering and persecuted people … under difficult and trying circumstances. Persecution and oppression, and the ambiguities of a world in which one fears for one’s own life as well as for the life of others, are the lot of many of us.

Francis lived in cities with tangible slums, amidst unacceptable inequalities. Our world is one of unacceptable inequalities, also at the planetwide scale. The new pope reminds us that these inequalities are unjust and affect and threaten the lives of all of us.

Francis lived in a country that suffered hard financial and economic hardship, a reality that is very real to so many people today.

Francis was the archbishop of a city that knows about secularization, where one may have to dig deep to be able to tap into one’s faith and where the discovery of one’s faith also means the unmasking of social injustice and exclusion.

These contexts – migration, dictatorship, slums, financial crisis, secularization - are the conditions of many people on our planet. I remember the vulnerable person on the Vatican balcony: a person who knows, a person whose simplicity of life reflects the solidarity with people forcibly on the move, with people persecuted by murderous regimes, with people deprived of the living conditions one might expect in our world, with poor people defenseless in the face of structures that dominate them, with people who need faith and hope. The choice of the name “Francis”, the clear reference to the following of Christ in his first Eucharist and the call not to succumb to pessimism in his address to the cardinals: they express the hope and strength this pope will transmit precisely in today’s world, there where it bleeds.

Why am I not surprised when I meet so many people who take heart when they see him?

Joy about Francis

It was a real privelege for me to see the new pope’s first appearance on the Vatican balcony, while teaching a class on contextual theologies to an international group of theology students at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Sciences in Leuven. A moving event: to share the joy and hopes of a group of young committed theologians, and to see how the first jesuit pope bowed to the crowd on St Peter’s square, receiving their prayers and blessing, before giving his blessing to them. A sign of humility of someone who leads a truly sober life and who is not afraid to communicate directly and from the heart. The name “Francis” left me wondering whether he would mean Francis of Assisi or Francis-Xavier … maybe both, expressing the wish to live a sober life near to human daily toils, a concern for God’s presence in the world, and the desire to name this presence by its name. This inspires me … and obviously it also moves a lot of people, if I take the great number of messages, tweets and posts that I received as a testimony: this is a day of hope for many who are looking for the human face of the Church.

I must admit, I knew but very little about this new pope, coming from the global south, the son of Italian immigrants in Argentina, a man who must be familiar with issues of migration, of poverty, of dictatorship, of economic crisis and of secularization. He will be able to talk to the heart of many of those who suffer today’s global crises. I looked up the Wikipedia pages to get some first information … I literally saw the text on the webpages changing: information was added, other information was removed as inaccurate, … discussions were already starting, showing a person in the midst of the controversies and ambiguities of our world. There Francis fascinates me and I am looking forward to learn more about his commitments and thought.

Two Urgent Challenges: Rising Inequalities and Respect for the Carrying Capacity of the Earth

P1010259In a very dynamic presentation at the Forum for Liberation Theologies (March 7, 2013), Philippe Lamberts, Walloon Green Party (Ecolo) member of the European Parliament, stressed these two urgent and interconnected challenges of rising inequalities and of lack of respect for the carrying capacity of the planet earth, to focus on what drives him in politics: working towards a decent life for all within the physical carrying limits of the earth. He addresses these issues in the European Parliament by attempting to tame the “financial beast”; indeed the search for quick and easy money and the financialization of every aspect of our lives, are killing us. If we do not, in our organizing of human life on the planet, take into account that we live on a planet that can be measured (is limited) and that there exists growing social inequality that cannot be countered by making the rich richer in the hope that then the poor will follow in becoming richer … then, war will result that may lead to planetary consequences for the future existence of humanity.

Over against the urge for short term consumption and the making of easy money, Philippe Lamberts proposes investment in resource and energy efficient means, in restoring natural resources and social cohesion, in education, and in research, development and innovation.

Three ideas struck me particularly. “If we want to survive we will have to do it together” in the planetary sense of the word: even if a few can still enrich themselves today, they will only survive the others to live in an empoverished world. We are facing the social and environmental timebombs together: they may well kill us all. “The reason why we don’t do what our sound mind tells us (changing lifestyles in wealthy regions as Western Europe and allowing the poorer regions of the world to further develop), is the refusal of real change”. I connect this with the religious idea of conversion: are we really willing to answer the call to conversion, or do we prefer to accumulate more of the same, an attitude that is killing us?

Changes will become possible only if we stop pointing angry and accusing fingers, but become real agents of change, by engaging ourselves into change and by leading through example. Philippe Lamberts, who is himself a committed Christian had the last word in the discussion: “Love humanity”, a lesson that the Church should attempt to learn and to put into practice.

The discussions showed the differences of experience between people from various parts of the globe: amongst us were Nigerians, Indians, Philippinos, Europeans, Americans, … They come from different backgrounds and have different stories on social inequalities and the abuse of the planet, but they seem to agree that we are facing here urgent and crucial challenges.

Demography and Theology … An Incipient Dialogue?

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On Feb 27th, 2013, the Forum for Liberation Theologies welcomed Frans Willekens, a well-known professor of demography formerly in Groningen and soon in Rostock. He brought a well prepared introduction on the relations between demography and theology. The main conclusion of the meeting is certainly that a deeper going conversation between demographers and theologians should be pursued: both sciences will gain from the interaction. There were serious questions about the Westen character of demography and the political interests involved, particularly when claims are being made about countries of the TwoThirdsWorld. In this context also, the possible ideological (ab)use of religious perspectives in political endeavours was discussed. There were critical exchanges on the official roman-catholic views on marriage and celibacy, as can be found in the letters of St Paul and in texts as “Humanae Vitae” (especially #11). There were also serious ethical and moral reflections. But the most important lesson learned is: demographers and theologians have to come to improve the mutual understanding and interaction of one another’s sciences and scientific methods. This is a forum that calls for further interdisciplinary exploration.

David Ruderman and Steven Vanden Broecke at UCSIA-IJS

ImageThis evening, Profs. David Ruderman (University of Pennsylvania) and Steven Vanden Broecke (University of Ghent), co-lectured on “God and Nature: Jews, Christians and the Challenge of Early Modern Science. A Textual Dialogue”, as part of the UCSIA / IJS - Chair on Jewish-Christian Relations. David Ruderman presented us with a “Sermon for Rosh Hashanan that falls on a Sabbath” in which Azariah Figo (1579-1647) takes as his starting point the world as increasingly shaped by the scientific eye, and with the 1564 proposal for the foundation of a Jewish College at Mantua (a project that never came about). He pointed to three crucial features of Jewish communities in their response to the changing world of early modernity: (a) the natural world as an important resource for religion and spirituality; (b) the need not only to embrace nature, but also to improve it; (c) the covenantal relationship in which, if God can create, also human beings are called to create. Steven Vanden Broecke focussed on the Calvinist Philips Lansbergen’s (1561-1632) “Reflections on the Daily and Annual Course of the Earth. As Well as on the True Representation of the Visible Heavens, in Which Are Unveiled the Wondrous Works of God”. This works fits in the growing distrust of the senses (“popular errors”): if human beings want “to properly honour God with reason”, they should trust, not their direct perception of the world by their senses, but scientific reason. Only then will they be able to enter into communion with the visible and the invisible heavens.

Both lecturers showed great, fascinating and challenging erudition in their presentations. I was struck by the creative way in which the authors they discussed assimilated the growing scientific outlook on the world towards clarifying and deepening religious attitudes and the relationship to God. Maybe what most stimulated me is the Jewish idea that human beings may have to improve God’s work. Science and technology, at that moment of history and in Western Europe, at least in the examples given, were part of the religious endeavour. Of course, today’s situation – most certainly in the secularized parts of Western Europe – is very different, but Jews and Christians alike can most certainly learn from these early modern authors that their faith articulation may gain by taking serious consideration of the scientific outlook.

On March 7th, Profs. David Rudderman and Peter Stallybrass will co-lecture on “How Jews and Christians Read the Opening Chapters of the Book of Genesis. A Textual Dialogue”. Something to look forward to.

Medical Doctors and International Managers: Peter Piot’s Autobiography

A wonderful book to read: Peter Piot’s autobiography (No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses, New York: Norton, 2012). With a great sense of urgency and humour, the Belgian medical doctor Peter Piot writes about his fight against Ebola and AIDS. It is a story about concrete people, patients and doctors, as well as about international organisations and institutions that are required to struggle against planetwide epidemies. Peter Piot gives us an interesting insight both in the concrete experiences of a medical doctor when working with his or her patients and in the political and managerial swamps of international organisations. His descriptions never lose the very human touch, as when he describes some of the crucial management lessons he learned, e.g. when a Malian companion, Michel Sidibé, tells him about the ways of the chameleon.

It is a refreshing and encouraging biography for all who have to struggle amidst managerial and political storms, or with prejudices, while being driven by a sense of urgency at the service of fellow human beings. There are some lessons to be learned here – also for the Roman Catholic Church -, but we learn them from a person who knows the art of building up alliances and friendships.