An interview with Archbishop João Braz de Aviz
The claims of men and the patience of God
“I used to say in Brasilia: if you of the larger charisms mortify and nullify the smaller charisms because your sole criterion is to expand and take more space, that does not come from God”. A meeting with the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life
Interview with João Braz de Aviz by Gianni Valente
From the futuristic buildings of Brasilia to those freighted with the history of the Vatican the journey is a long one. The sixty-four year old Dom João Braz de Aviz, archbishop emeritus of the Brazilian capital, made the leap only a few weeks ago. On 4 January the Pope summoned him to Rome to lead the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life and to open a new era in relations – always lively and sometimes troubled – between the Apostolic See and the galaxy of congregations and religious orders.
Dom João Braz de Aviz in the Cathedral of Brasilia [© Father Sergio Durigon]
JOÃO BRAZ DE AVIZ: Of course, there’s been a big change. In Brasilia, there were more than two and a half million faithful, with 380 priests and 128 parishes that I visited often. Here, the people are lacking, you see them only when there are the large gatherings in St. Peter’s Square...
And sometimes, in the opening days, you ate alone...
In Brasilia, at home, there was always company. As secretaries I had two mothers of families, there was the cook, we were a small community. Here, too, however, my circle of friends is widening as the days go by.
As a child in the family you were used to lots of people at table.
My parents were from the south, I was born in the State of Santa Catarina. But when I was two my parents moved to the State of Paraná, to an area that, as they said at the time, was beginning to be “colonized”. My dad started working there as a butcher. I have an elder brother, also a priest, and then another six of us were born. In all, we’re five males and three females. The youngest, who has Down syndrome, is now 47 years old. I remember when she was born – then we were in Borrazópolis – my parents took a cart and horses and traveled over forty miles because they did not want to wait to get her baptized.
A long trip in those days.
Where we lived there were no priests at the beginning. The priest passed every now and then, once a month. It was the ordinary lay leaders who guided the community, gave the catechism and encouraged the practices of the life of faith such as the Holy Rosary and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At that time the local Church relied heavily on groups such as the Apostolate of Prayer, or the Children of Mary... Mom and dad also helped to keep the chapels open.
And then, how did you become a priest?
Even though I was still a kid, already when I was seven, at the time of First Communion, I was aware of the call, and then it was cultivated by the nuns of Santa Catarina, where I had been sent to attend school. When I was eleven I entered the junior seminary of Assis, in the State of São Paulo, four hundred kilometers from the capital. It had been opened by PIME missionaries. Some of them had been missionaries in China, where they had been deported after Mao came to power. They told us their stories. I remember them as very profound people, it was great growing up with them before our eyes. And then, as a teenager, I also encountered the spirituality of the Focolare.
How did that happen?
I met an atheist painter who after he converted spoke of God in a vivid and concrete way. He made an impression on me, I was just a kid. I thought: just look at this atheist who now speaks of God’s love with such force and says one discovers this love in loving one’s neighbor ... For me it was something new. Up till then I’d thought of it as upbringing, that you had to be kind to others as a matter of good manners. I’d never thought that the other could be served like Jesus himself.
Then your bishop sent you to study theology in Rome. That was in 1967, with the Council just finished... How do you remember those years?
I studied at the Gregorian and then one year at the Salesian University to take courses in educational psychology. I received the diaconate in Rome, and returned to Brazil in 1972. It was a time marked by many stimuli and many difficulties. Everything seemed in motion. The turmoil brought by the Council was beginning. The old rules were being brought up to date, the courses were being restructured, but there was also the uncertainty that marks all stages of transition and revision.
And in Latin America you were also faced with the emergence of Liberation Theology.
We were idealists, we wanted to give this life for something big. The decision to look to the poor gave us great hope, especially to us who came from poor families. We were ready to give up everything, including the seminary, if that urge was not accepted and embraced in the ecclesial situation in which we were living.
Missionary Sisters of Charity of Mothe Teresa of Calcutta in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]
God safeguarded me in that way. The spiritual experience of the Focolare is strong and simple. Already by the end of the ’sixties Chiara Lubich was inviting us to rethink the way we live, in the light of God’s love. Sometimes it seemed to me she was underestimating the need for social change. It was a difficult passage for many people. But in that way the hope remained that there was a road, it took patience, but we went ahead together and didn’t get lost. We became priests with this great inner light, accompanied by this sense of anxiety, of being in a state of suspension. I’ve never wanted to hide from myself the co-presence of those two factors. I thought: this is the situation in which I happen to live. Over time this has helped me see that being a priest does not mean exerting religious “dominion” over one’s own life and over the lives of others.
With hindsight, how would you sum up the season in the life of the Church marked by Liberation Theology?
One could say many things. In Brazil, some pastoral groups at the time most precipitated in that direction have become NGOs with lots of money, leaving the Church. They said they wanted to change the Church, then faith faded and sociology remained. This can only provoke sadness. Yet I remain convinced that in that story something great for the whole Church nevertheless occurred. Such as the realization that human sin creates structures of sin. And that the preference for the poor is a choice made by God, as seen in the Gospel. The four underpinnings of the early communities were fidelity to the doctrine of the apostles, the Eucharist, prayer, and then fellowship that was not sentimentality but a practical thing, it meant providing help for widows and orphans, placing property in common. From that it was clear that the community lived before the countenance of the Lord. Now, we hide property, locking it up with six turns of the key, even in religious communities.
One of the points of differentiation within the generation of “liberationist” priests was the attitude to popular devotion.
At that time some thought that popular devotion was alienation. They said that purity of the faith had been corrupted by devotions. An idea that can be refuted even from the merely historical point of view. In Brazil the crisis came with the abolition of the religious congregations by the Marquis of Pombal, that was a disaster and also compromised the whole pastoral experience set going with the natives. And even now one can’t understand why Brazil is 75% Catholic, even though only 10% regularly take the sacraments. The historical reason is this: popular devotion itself has been an instrument in the transmission and preservation of the faith in many communities guided for so long by the laity.
Still today there are people who cry that the Theology of Liberation is a looming “threat”.
Agreed, sometimes Liberation Theology is trotted out like a ghost on command. So much has changed. In many countries those who were against power, like Lula, or who were even guerrillas, now rule. There’s been a whole journey, and it’s time that everyone in the Church also took note.
In Brazil, since independence, there has always been a ruling power that I would call “the power of money”. It’s the power that, for example, continues to resist genuine agrarian reform. And that has never had a great relationship of closeness with the Church nor even the Church hierarchy. The Church has no financial support from the State and churches are built with the money of the people, and usually the ones who help most are the poorest.
Óscar Romero with seminarians at Playa el Majahual, 1978
In processes of beatification there are details that must be scrutinized with care, like the scientific ones involved in the recognition of the required miracle. But I think Romero’s life was a great example of holiness. A bishop who with the episcopacy receives in manifest fashion the grace to become a shepherd of his people in a situation so rent by violence. The same thing happened in Brazil to Dom Hélder Câmara. When we listened to him, during the military regime, he made us tremble with emotion. He was a person who entranced. A man of prayer. I think there are a great many figures that gradually, over time, we will understand better. And we will see that their whole life was permeated by this. Otherwise they would not have given their lives as they did. Câmara always lived with the risk of being killed before him. They didn’t kill him only because the people would have reacted very badly. So they sent clear enough warnings: instead of bishops, they killed the bishops’ secretaries, as happened with the secretary of Dom Hélder.
You mentioned Lula. As Archbishop of Brasilia, you will have had dealings with him. What assessment do you make of his period as ruler of the country?
In seven years in Brasilia I’ve never seen him in the Cathedral... [smiles]. And sometimes he made somewhat surprising statements, as when he said he had a morality as a private person and a morality as president... But certainly the perception of his contribution is very positive, and shared by the majority of Brazilians. He has loved his people and, having been a worker, he has understood the plight of the Brazilians as it is in reality. Under him Brazil has had impressive growth, there’s also been some redistribution of income. He has fought corruption and not taken advantage of the position of president to defend the corrupt who also existed within his own party.
And Dilma, the new presidenta?
Dilma is very different. Lula is a worker, his strength is unionism. He is a humanist trade unionist, a strong fighter. Dilma is an intellectual, and in other respects is more pragmatic. But they say she has more popular support than Lula. Interesting, this statistic.
How has your work at the Congregation for the Religious begun?
We had to face many difficulties. There was a deal of distrust on the part of the religious because of certain stances taken earlier. Now, the focus of the work is precisely that of rebuilding trust. With the secretary of the Congregation, Joseph William Tobin, we work together, we discuss a lot, so that decisions are taken jointly.
How is the process of inspections of female religious congregations in the United States proceeding?
That, too, is no easy matter. There was mistrust, opposition. We’ve talked to them, their representatives have also come here to Rome. We started to listen again. That is not to say that problems do not exist. But we can deal with them in another way. Without pre-emptive judgment. Listening to the reasons. We now have many reports from investigation on which we have to work. Then there is the report of Sister Clare Millea [the nun appointed by the Vatican as apostolic visitor, ed] that will be important.
Are comparisons between the older religious orders and new movements legitimate and useful? Some people see them in competition or even in conflict.
The charisms that bloom at the present time are bestowed on the Church of today. Perhaps in twenty years they will not have the same relevance. And this should not clash with the older charisms. If they live in fidelity to the original charism given to their founder, they will also find a way to give something to this time. The danger is when the spirit of the founders gets lost.
The outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, raising the arm of President Dilma Rousseff at Planalto Palace, Brasilia, on 1 January 2011
Certainly it’s painful when you see the expansion of an institution that presents itself as charismatic, and then the unworthiness of its initiator emerges. How it is possible, remains a mystery. The Legionaries are not the only case. In Brazil we had the case of Toca de Assis. A community that wore a Franciscan-style habit that drew attention, and that went along with the Canção Nova [a community-network born in Brazil and related to the charismatic movement, ed.] They gave out a strong image of themselves, with friars who claimed to give glory to God by singing and dancing. They had involved about six hundred youngsters. Until it was discovered that the founder acted in a fashion morally unworthy with his followers. As for the Legionaries, early on I was unconvinced by the lack of trust in the freedom of the people I saw in it. Authoritarianism that sought to dominate everything with discipline. I had already removed the seminarians of Brasilia from their seminaries, because I saw that things could not go on in that fashion.
Don’t you think that in the past there has was too much stress on the new movements, which sometimes hid problematic aspects?
Not everything in the new communities and new movements is fine and proper a priori. In some one sees that there are truly unbalanced aspects. Of course, one can’t deny that many of these bodies have seen very great things. In many places, they have brought freshness, joy, novelty, youth. I think the present time, however, is no longer a time when everyone does things on their own, when they are all separate to the point of conflicting with each other and united only in common reference to the Pope. I used to say in Brasilia: if you of the larger charisms mortify and nullify the smaller charisms because your sole criterion is to expand and take more space, that does not come from God. If there is a tiny little charism, in a parish for example, help it grow, instead of opposing it.
In addition to your association with the Focolare, your friendship with the Community of Sant’Egidio is also well known.
Yes I have high regard for Andrea Riccardi. I hope to visit them soon.
Recently, new institutes of consecrated life that sometimes live in situations of conflict with the bishops and their national churches have become a widespread phenomenon.
I’m always a little fearful when a group begins to think and say: we are the only ones to defend the true Church and Tradition. We possess the light of God, and others don’t. The Church doesn’t work that way. And God does not work that way. He distributes His gifts, He has never given all His grace to one person. If we think of the experience of God with His people, what stands out even in the Bible is not the elitist exclusivity but rather the patience and mercy toward that people full of limitations, getting lost en route. How much He has waited, how many times He has been disappointed... And if you look also at the saints, one sees that the real saints are always friends with each other. They are different, maybe sometimes they quarrel, but then they ask for forgiveness and work together. Even those of today, like Don Giussani and Chiara Lubich.