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from issue no. 09 - 2003

CHURCH. An encounter meeting with the new president of the Episcopal Conference

Collegiality is not homologation

An interview with Geraldo Majella Agnelo, Archbishop of São Salvador da Bahia: “Every bishop has the personal responsibility of his own diocese. Collegiality is not a burden, but a help offered to the single person in facing common problems. I hope that in the CNBB this distinctive trait will remain”

by Gianni Valente

Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo

Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo

In Brazil, while the new government of trade unionist-president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva is beginning to take account of the difficulties of politic’s daily prose (including the first challenges), there is also at the upper levels of the Church, almost coinciding with the political development, a delicate generational transition, which had one of its forceful moments in the assembly of the Brazilian bishops, held in Itaici from April 30 to May 9 last.
On that occasion, Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo, Archbishop of São Salvador da Bahia, was nominated to lead for the next four years the world’s largest episcopate, in the country with the highest number of faithful in the world.
Sixty nine years old, a native of the State of Minas Gerais, with his baptismal name taken from both the name and the surname of the patron saint of mothers canonised by Pius X, as is usual in Brazil, dom Geraldo Majella studied and was ordained a priest in São Paulo. At the end of the ’sixties he completed his cursus studiorum in Rome gaining his doctorate in liturgical theology at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo. Returning to Brazil, Paul VI nominated him bishop of Toledo in May 1978 and and in 1982 he was promoted Archbishop of Londrina. From 1991 to 1999 he passed a long “Vatican” parenthesis as Secretary of the Congregation for Worship and Sacramental Discipline before succeeding Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves as archbishop of the primatial See of the Brazilian Church, and being made cardinal in the consistory of February 21 2001.
Dom Geraldo Majella also belongs to that nouvelle vague of Latin American cardinals, different by temperament and ecclesial sensibility, which however seems for the most part to have metabolized the conflictual radicalization between adherents of Vatican II and restorers that marked the Latin American Church scene in the last decades. He himself recognizes that: «The pattern is by now worn out whereby those of the “right” went in for doctrine and great moral discipline, while a mere hint or intervention on social questions was enough to be branded ‘of the left’”.

Your Eminence, you have become president of the Brazilian bishops just when a “restructuring” of the Brazilian Episcopal Conference (CNBB) is underway.
GERALDO MAJELLA AGNELO: Last year the reform of the statutes of the Episcopal Conference was carried out. The new directives were applied for the first time in the workings of the assembly itself in May, which established the guide lines for pastoral action over the next four years, renewing the composition of all the pastoral commissions.
What are the concrete changes introduced into the stucture and the activities of the CNBB?
AGNELO: The composition of each of the ten pastoral commissions has seen an increase in the number of bishops among its members. This reinforcing of the episcopal component aims at giving more compactness and larger support to the organisms. Further, the presidency of the Conference is called on to preside not only over the general assembly, but over all the meetings of the single commissions, which formerly could meet and make decisions autonomously. Also at every meeting of the single commissions the presence of a member of the doctrinal commission, presided over by Walmor Azevedo de Oliveira, is planned. A biblical scholar with whom I am in close contact, given that he is also the auxiliary bishop of São Salvador da Bahia. The setting up of exceptional commissions is also planned, which will be constituted ad hoc, for a limited time. Such as that on Amazzonia, led by Jayme Menrique Chemello (outgoing president of the CNBB), who had this project very much at heart.
Have there been criticisms of this reorganization, which seems to aim at a major centralization of the structure?
AGNELO: The restructuring is a conforming to the directives of the Holy See, expressed in the apostolic letter Apostolos suos, on the theological and juridical nature of Episcopal Conferences, published in 1998. I was president of the commission for the reform of the statutes. The works of that body proceeded promptly, without particular hitches. Perhaps because of this they also thought of me as President ….
And yet criticism is often levelled at the excessive bureaucratic structures of the Brazilian church. Some have spoken of a “CNNB in plaster”. Does this reform not risk accentuating that aspect?
AGNELO: One always has to keep in mind that the Brazilian Church has more than three hundred ordinary bishops … When it was formed, in 1952, at a time when each bishop played his own part, the Brazilian Episcopal Conference was a novelty. The “founding fathers”, such as Cardinal Carlos Carmelo de Vasconcellos Motta and Monsignor Hélder Câmara, were inspired by what was happening around them. They were struck by the way in which the laity of Catholic Action carried out their own mission keeping the world present, the expectations and real contexts experiences by their own contemporaries. The bishops wanted also to favor in their episcopal actions this opening towards concrete reality, adopting too the method “see, judge, act” by which Catholic Action was inspired. For me there hasn’t been a movement in the Church like that of Catholic Action created by Pius XI. My first responsibility was that of being assistant to the Catholic Action youth group … And as far as I can, I will try to continue along that road.
When the authority and structures of the Episcopal Conferences increase, the individual role of the Bishop seems get obscured, swallowed up by collective assembly mechanisms …
AGNELO: It is obvious that each bishop has personal responsibility for his own diocese. Collegiality is not a burden, but a possibility of help offered to the single person in confronting common problems. I hope that this distinctive trait which has distinguished its whole history will remain in the CNBB.
The usual detractors still accuse the CNBB of being an instrument of homologation used by the “nostalgics” of liberation theology to impose on the whole Brazilian Church their own pastoral orientation.
AGNELO: I don’t see any homologation in the CNBB. There are positions and sensibilities that are different. This was also seen at the last assembly, where none of the presidents of commission were elected at the first go, and every nomination was seriously discussed ….
And relations with Rome? The Pope’s speeches addressed to the Brazilian bishops in their ad limina visits were also read as warnings to a somewhat rebellious episcopate.
AGNELO: The freedom with which the heads of the Brazilian church have always acted, quite apart from the legends, has always been respectful of the indications that came from the Holy See. I remember when Ivo Lorscheiter was President, he who with his very Germanic rigor was recognized by all for his spirit of freedom and openness to new situations, and was certainly not a conservative. When topics that were still controversial were discussed, everyone could say what he felt. But when a clear indication came from the Holy See, the principle Roma locuta, causa finita was strictly adhered to. Lorscheiter no longer permitted objections and distinctions to be expressed.
The assembly of bishops at the beginning of May also had an illustrious guest: President Lula.
The Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva during his visit to the Assembly of Brazilian bishops held in Itaici on May1 2003

The Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva during his visit to the Assembly of Brazilian bishops held in Itaici on May1 2003

AGNELO: The heads of the episcopate have always kept the institutional channels with governments open, even in difficult times when power was in the hands of the military. But it’s the first time that a President has spoken in person at an episcopal assembly.
Does this confirm a particular relationship between Lula and the Brazilian Church?
AGNELO: I would say so. And it also confirms the free and extrovert character of the President …That day, after dinner, he recalled the beginnings of his political activity, the labor battles in his city San Bernardo, when the meetings of the workers on strike found welcome only in the churches. Then he outlined the main features of his program, both in foreign and domestic politics. At the end a representation of ten bishops asked him questions about particular problems, such as agrarian reform, or the politics of the great urban centers. Almost three hours of conversation ….
Many, including former president Cardoso, say that in a few months the trade union President has submitted to the new market orthodoxy. What is your provisional judgement of his first months in government?
AGNELO: The situation isn’t easy. An executive which would have decided, for example, to remove itself unilaterally from the payment of the foreign debt, as some suggested, would have shown proof of a dangerous lack of political realism. One must take into account the global factors that condition us. Politics is not something magical. One must aim gradually at attainable results. Lula does not seem to me to be an adventurer. And I judge that to be a positive sign.
At the beginning you were more cautious.
AGNELO: I had an initial hesitation, especially about his capacity to govern his own party, where there are very strong differences. In the PT there are catholics, those of the left, small minorities who follow Marxism and Trotskyism … But in these months Lula has given me the impression that he takes all the segments of society into consideration. A relative falling off in consensus must also be taken into account. Those who live in conditions of extreme poverty do not have time to wait, they dream of immediate change.
And the Holy See? With regard to Lula what attitude have you noticed in your meetings in the Roman Curia?
AGNELO: There is positive reaction, I would say a sympathy. Lula is a worker, a simple man, who wants to change without promising utopian upheaval. All of this favors a well-disposed interest towards him.
What role does the Lula government play in the political development that has characterised a large part of the recent elections in Latin America?
AGNELO: If things go well with us, there is a good hope that the domino effect will also be transmitted to the neighboring countries which in the last years have seen a change in their political leadership, such as Argentina and Ecuador. And Lula can exercise a salutary and moderating influence also in difficult situations such as that of Venezuela, by giving good advice to Chávez.
Someone has said that with Lula the Brazilian ecclesial “line” had won. Now, after six months of government, on what prospects does the relationship between the Church and the new executive move? In other words, is the “honeymoon” over?
AGNELO: There was no honeymoon … The Church maintained a total independence with respect to the government. Earllier the emperor even nominated the bishops, paid the priests, but with the proclamation of the Republic in 1899 a distinct separation between Church and State was established. We don’t even have a concordat ..
And yet many close collaborators of Lula come from Catholic circles, people such as Gilberto de Carvalho. Even the old slogan of Catholic Action “see, judge, act” recalled by you has been echoed in many documents and programed statements of the Partido des trabalhadores.
AGNELO: In the PT there are many militant Catholics, but it is not the “Party of the Church”. The tradition of distinction and institutional independence seems to me a precious possession to guard, in face of the fact that throughout the world groups and religious currents try to conquer and confessionalize states and governments, out of the interests of corporate power.
On that point, many evangelical sects in Brazil behave as political lobbies in pursuit of positions of power. In the face of their aggressive political militantism, doesn’t the total separation from the state result in penalizing the Church?
AGNELO: The distinction is a good antidote to every integralist and triumphalist temptation. But it can create problems in the areas where the Church carries out a social work which interacts with the public jurisdiction of the state.
To what do you refer?
Governments change, while the functionaries of state administration are more stable. And sometimes in those places there can be a little hostility towards the Church.
Do you have a particular situation in mind?
AGNELO: It seems to me, for example, that certain sectors of the state bureaucracy, in order to defend their own privileges and not to pay their contribution to the reform of pensions, aim at cutting the funds for social assistance, also with the objective of weakening the social and educational initiatives of the Church, and to foment tensions between the Church and the government. The schools and the aid work linked to the Church, which are helped also by funds set aside for the philantropic and non profit –making sector, risk being put under pressure. The suspension of exemptions and of tax immunity which is granted to those initiatives of social action is also being suggested.
To confront these problems is there any request to make of the state?
AGNELO: Between Church and State a relationship of collaboration, even in distinctness, must be protected and encouraged. The educational and aid works associated with the Church guarantee a net of social protection especially in the poor areas, where State aid action hardly gets. For example the students and pupils who attend Catholic schools of every rank and grade are about a million and a half, and of these a third benefit from contributions and scholarships, without it weighing on the family budget. With regard to social assistance, the last available figures, relative to 1999, show that in that year the institutions associated with the Church guaranteed almost 175 million in aid to the poorer sections of the population, distributing foodstuffs, medicine, clothes, building materials.Now, it is true that in Brazil the Church is recognized as a public body in law, but this formulation remains a bit abstract. Perhaps it would be useful to regulate the issue through agreements of a juridical nature. I have already suggested this in the Vatican. We’ll see if there are developments.

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