A consolidated entity, but bold and active. This is the vision of the Church that Father João Eleutério nurtures. The former Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies of the University of Saint Joseph will return to Portugal in the end of January, after almost a decade in Macau. With a PhD in Theology and another one in History of Religions, the cleric will coordinate the PhD programme of the Catholic University of Portugal. From his years in Asia, João Eleutério takes home the memory of a challenging reality, but also an undeniable fondness for a society that has hope as one of its driving forces. Father Eleutério believes that the agreement between the Vatican and China that was announced in September will pave the way for the reconciliation of the Catholics in China. The Holy Spirit, he maintains, is the greatest asset of the Church and the one that truly allows it to reach the heart of the faithful.
These will be your last few weeks in Macau, after almost a decade. These ten years in Asia, were they years of personal growth? What kind of Church did you find in this part of the world?
Any experience that removes us from our comfort zone is an experience that affects our way of thinking and living. These years I spent in Macau were quite a gratifying experience: I feel I have grown not only as a person, but also culturally and spiritually. My faith is stronger and this is something I find very gratifying. The Church I found in Macau is a very interesting Church in several ways. I have worked closely with the Portuguese-speaking community, which is, in a certain sense, an aged community. The youngsters grow up and, at a certain moment, they leave Macau to study abroad and the community pays a high price for this: they will be living their faith somewhere else and that hinders the rejuvenation of the local Catholic community. On the other hand, the Diocese of Macau has to be able to integrate a large array of languages and this is an enormous challenge. I mean languages and not nationalities because this challenge is not about the Portuguese or the Filipinos; it is about using the language, as a way to live and to transmit the Word of God and that in Macau is an enticing perspective. Anyone that comes to Macau has to make an effort to learn at least one more language. I tried to learn Cantonese but I was not very successful. I am, nevertheless, very grateful for this experience because it helped me to develop a new way of thinking. Overall, it was a very gratifying experience, with some surprises, some of them not very pleasant. It was interesting to realize how important is popular religiosity in Macau. It is a very important aspect, namely in the way the different Catholic communities live their faith.
You were talking about the Portuguese language community. It is an aged community, one that is much less relevant today than in the past. Does it show the same symptoms that the Church faces in the so-called developed societies? The other linguistic communities …
That’s what I was mentioning a few moments ago. The children and the grandchildren of these people you see in the Church every weekend, they went to Australia, to Canada, to the United States or the United Kingdom to complete their studies. Many of them lost their ability to speak Portuguese in the process. When they return to Macau – if they return at all – they will think twice before attending the Mass in Portuguese. Most of them feel more at home among the community that celebrates the Eucharist in Cantonese or even in English. On other hand, the Portuguese language community is, as a matter of fact, an international community: it is made by people that come from each and every Portuguese speaking country. I used to celebrate Mass in Taipa and I had that experience. There are even people that live in Mainland China and come to Macau to attend religious services because they know that in Macau they can openly celebrate their faith. It is true that we have a visible regression in numbers, but the reason goes beyond what is happening in Europe and which is a secularization phenomenon. There are reasons that are particular to the reality of Macau.
You also mentioned positive aspects and other less positive or even unpleasant. Is there any disappointment on your return to Portugal?
I wouldn’t say I am disappointed. What I experienced, a few times, was a certain deficit on the understanding of what the Catholicity of the Church really means. I have fulfilled my role as a priest in several places and I always found a certain fraternity among the members of the Church. In Macau, I have noticed that sometimes there’s a certain resistance to create moments in which the Catholic community, as a whole, comes together to celebrate. There’s a certain drive to keep things linguistically separated. I’ve worked in France, in a parish in which lived three different linguistic communities and we made an effort to bring those communities together at least three times a year: Christmas, Easter and Saint Anton’s day, Saint Anton’s being the patron saint of the parish. On these occasions the Mass was a common moment to the three linguistic communities. We didn’t celebrate these moments separately and that seems still to be the paradigm here in Macau. I am going to be kind: I think it something that happens unconsciously and that is why I was saying that I have noticed a certain deficit on the understanding of what it is the Catholicity of the Church. But this is merely my personal opinion.
The agreement between Beijing and the Holy See promises to put an end to a schism, an important division within the Church. Should we be hopeful about this deal and everything that it means?
I know quite well the history of the Church. And I know, therefore, that our journey was quite often strained by conflict, by moments in which we had to nurture a strong belief that the mystery of the Holy Spirit was acting in order to allow the challenges to be overtaken. In the past, it has never been easy to receive or to re-integrate those who had renounced their faith. That has always been a motive of divide. That might be the kind of situation we will face in China. I believe it will take some time for real reconciliation to happen. It is not something that happens by decree and it won’t take off just because the agreement was signed. The agreement is only the beginning and it will force, as the Pope mentions in his message, to a personal conversion of each and every Chinese Catholic. Everybody has to understand that a whole new reality has to be built. We are up to a good start with the agreement, but it won’t solve everything. The agreement has an important dimension: it reintegrates the Bishops in a collegial communion that is fundamental and decisive to bring the faithful together in the direction of reconciliation. I am confident because we are men of hope, but I know it won’t be an easy process. We have to be ready to face a few setbacks.
You know quite well, as you were saying, the history of the Church. You have shared some of that knowledge recently in a conference organized by the Macau Military Club. Does it still make sense to define the Church as a monolithic entity?
In the Apostles Creed, when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints,” the dimension of Catholicity is precisely about diversity, plurality and all the different ways in which we experience our faith. The Council of Trent based its action on a set of vectors that intended to foment the Church’s unity, but we are talking about a unity that should be seen as a sort of uniformity: uniformity of the nature of the doctrinary expressions, uniformity of the celebration of faith at the level of the rituals. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church, the simple fact that it contemplates uniate Churches – which are oriental rite churches – even after the Council of Trent, kept its doors open to a certain plurality, to a certain diversity. This diversity is perfectly evident even at the level of canon law: the canon law that rules those oriental Churches is not the same as the canon law that rules over the Latin Church. In my opinion, we are seeing an increasing appreciation for the different local realities. Pope Francis has transformed this perspective into one of the most important aspects of his pontificate: under him, the Church has been reevaluating the role of the national and regional episcopal conferences, in an attempt to rediscover that idea of Catholicity of the Church I was talking about.
You have advocated more than one time that the Church should be a consolidated entity, but at the same time active and “irreverent.” Is it walking in that direction?
Well, the most important, really, is to apply a certain creativity in the discovery of means of expression that can be as coherent as possible. The Church’s doctrine won’t change, but the language in which it expresses itself should undergo a certain adaptation, so it can be understood by the faithful. Sometimes I think the two aspects get mistaken: the language in which a certain doctrine is expressed is not the doctrine itself. That’s the mystery of faith. I think it is important to be creative, but creativity is not simply an effort of our imagination. To be creative is to allow the Holy Spirit to work through each and every one of us. It’s very important to give space to the creativity of the Holy Spirit within the Church. For that to happen, we cannot mistake the doctrine with the language in which that same doctrine is expressed and we should allow the creativity of the Holy Spirit space to find the right languages, so that the Church can reach all those that allow themselves to be touched by the Gospel.
Having in mind that we are talking about an institution with two millennia, is it easy to accomplish such a challenge?
The history of the Church has plenty of moments of change, of metamorphosis and transformation. When we have this perception of time and we are fully aware of how things change and transform themselves, we are able to recognize times of change. Change happens when we have a clear perception of completeness and plenitude, but we know, nevertheless, that we still haven’t achieved that wholeness. The Church is always waiting for the next step, always waiting for change, always expecting transformation. It is something inherent to its own identity.
Is this such a moment? Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council was responsible for a major change in the way the Church embraced its followers. Half a century later, do we need a new Council?
We are living in a very different reality nowadays. Sixty years on, the world is organized in a very different way. The Church in the north of Europe faces its own challenges, the Church in the South of Europe has its own set of problems, some of them are similar, but most of them are not. The Church in the United States of America has its very own challenges and the same happens with the Church in Africa and in Latin America. Today, the Catholic Church is fully aware of this diversity and this awareness is something that didn’t exist sixty years ago, when the Second Vatican Council was celebrated. Do we need a new Council? I don’t know. What I know is that we are living the reception to the Council: a Council that was fully recognized, that was celebrated and which is now making its own history. We are only now starting to become fully aware of the way the Council changed the Church. A document like the constitution Lumen Gentium about the Church is, in my opinion, still perfectly modern and it has still a lot of potential, both in terms of being discovered and in terms of being applied. A document like Gaudium et Spes, that focuses on the relationship between the Church and the World, its the kind of document that has deserved a lot of attention lately, not only due to the language that uses, but also because it brings to the forefront the idea that the Church cannot close itself or hide in fear of the reality that surrounds it. The Church should be of service to the world, the society and men. To be of service is part of its nature.
In the last few years, the number of laymen interested in studying theology has been increasing. Is this good news?
I would say it is one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, in the sense that the responsibility to build a stronger Church doesn’t belong only to a chosen few, but it is something to which everybody should contribute. One of the biggest trump cards of the liturgical reform is the idea that the Church should foment an active participation in the liturgical celebration. That participation will have an impact at several levels, namely in the pastoral action of the Church. The fact that we have more lay people, more religious sisters or more people connected to the Church that decides do study theology and to deepen their faith it’s not only a sign of vitality, but also a sign of hope.
Given a certain crisis in terms of vocations, mainly in the so-called developed countries, can the future of the Church depend on the role laymen will be willing to play?
I would say that the future of the Church depends on the ecclesial maturity of all of its members. We have to be mature enough to understand that the challenges are different and that different challenges and different situations require different answers. We have to demonstrate that we are ecclesiastically mature to accept or to discover those answers.
One last question … Will you go back to Portugal in January? Or after France and Macau, the sky’s the limit?
My destiny is already decided. I am a member of the new board of directors of the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University. I will coordinate the PhD programme of the Faculty of Theology and I will also return to my Diocese, which is the Diocese of Lisbon. I will keep a strong connection to Macau as a visiting lecturer. My status will change nine years and ten months after I first arrived to the territory, but I will return to Macau from time to time. I was one of the architects of the reintroduction of theological studies in Macau. I am proud of the contribution I gave to the setting up of a new library of theology, a feature that, in my opinion, will be a major asset not only for Macau, but also for this South China region.