Crossing borders

Crossing borders – a word of thanks at Oblate School of Theology

San Antonio, Texas, May 7, 2015 - Bestowal of a honorary doctorate

Dear President of OST, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, 
Dear Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez,
Dear teachers, staff and students, 
Dear friends of OST,

Thank you for bestowing a honorary doctorate on my person, and on a bishop from Latin America. 

I am coming to you from Paraguay, which I have considered my second home ever since I was ordained a priest 40 years ago. It turned out to be even more my home a few months ago when the Holy Father appointed me as bishop of Ciudad del Este. Maybe I should tell you briefly where you can find Ciudad del Este on the map. It is right there where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Only a few miles away you can discover the Iguazu waterfalls, one of the most magnificent of the world and made famous by the movie “The Mission”. Then again, at an ever lesser distance you find the Itaipú dam, which for a long time had been the largest electrical power station in the world. 

Ciudad del Este is the economic capital of Paraguay. Its material richness but also its problems have to do with its border situation. We can admire a mix of cultures and a dynamic pioneering spirit, but we also find land grabs and soy bean monoculture, smuggling and drug cartels. In that mixed reality many seek refuge in faith and they look for the Catholic Church to experience communion. In the diocese there is so much religious fervor, expressed in lay movements of all sorts and also numerous vocations to consecrated life. I am in a border town: on a border between countries and cultures, and also on the border between God’s generosity and the very mixed responses of human beings. Many people are at a loss. As my episcopal moto on my coat of arms I chose a phrase from the Our Father: Thy kingdom come, meaning something like this: May God become our leader soon, since we have no one else to turn to.

Years ago I learned that one of the great values Oblate School of Theology wants to live out is the openness to other cultures, and in particular the dialogue between the Anglo-Saxon and the Hispanic cultures, which are both strongly present in this part of the United States. Thinking of OST I make the choice to share with you some reflections on cross-cultural living in the context of faith, which has been a dominant experience throughout my life. I find there have been three steps in my faith sharing in a cross-cultural situation: the effort to be “inculturated”, then a growth in awareness of identity and differentiation, and finally the understanding of mission as border-crossing.

1. The “inculturation” effort

In 1974 when I arrived in Paraguay, a few months after my ordination, many of the missionaries of my generation made every effort to become one with the local culture. We observed other members of the Church questioning, ridiculing and even condemning cultural expressions of the ordinary people, especially of the indigenous minority. Even pastoral workers from the same country would show occasionally a lack of respect for the popular or indigenous cultures. Our generation sought insertion instead; ten years after Vatican II we were eager to “inculturate the Gospel”  – learning well the languages, spending time with the people, studying the local traditions. It was also the time of dictatorship in Latin America and we felt that we had not only to accompany the poor but also do it with great respect for them. Mary of Nazareth is a model of this attitude. At that time the bishops of Latin America said in Puebla that the Church "turns to Mary so that the gospel should be made flesh, become heart of Latin America." 

I believe this effort has borne its fruits, and that it was the first thing that needed to be done. People needed to be reaffirmed in their identity and their values as opposed to the disregard the regime of the time had for them. However, the inculturation approach had also its limits: I thought for instance that with effort and time I would become a full Paraguayan. I also confess that I may have been just too empathetic in certain situations. For instance, working with youth, in a small seminary for theology students, I should have been much more insistent on discipline, high standards and active involvement of their families.

2. Identity and differentiation 

In 1989 ended in Paraguay the rule of Alfredo Stroessner after an increasingly suffocating oppression of 33 years. We could breathe again. It was the time to value more our identities, of each different social group, of the Church and also of the missionary. We needed not be utterly united anymore to oppose oppression; we could appreciate our differences and even question each other. This discovery of identities is still underway. 

As to myself, I realized at that time that I never would cease to be a German in spite of all the inculturation efforts, and that this was a good thing. I had come to the country to be empathetic but also to contribute my own values with all respect, knowing that there were riches in my culture that should not remain unused. At that time religious orders would become more attentive to their own charism; as Oblates we rediscovered Saint Eugene de Mazenod’s love for the Church and his closeness to the poor.

Also the Church as such was rediscovering its identity as being different from the world. In Paraguay, after the first years of democratic rule we learned that as believers in Christ we were different also from the new democratic society, so much longed for and idealized at the beginning. But the good thing in democracy was that now we could state our position and identity openly.

The awareness of having distinct identities and the continued search for what we are can lead us to be more open to others.  The church in Paraguay welcomed a broad variety of faith expressions. Many church movements and groups poured in after 1989 or experienced a new growth if they had been present before. I left the country for Rome three years later but now that I am back I find these groups thriving. People were looking for something that would provide bonding to the community of believers so that they can be strong and make a difference in the society that is now surrounding us. 

The leaders of the new groups – from Legion of Mary to the Brazilian Convivio of Damascus, from Christian Family Movement to youth organizations – are people born in Paraguay. I believe it shows that the Paraguayan Catholics while becoming stronger in their identity have become more open when Christian values were proposed by people from other cultures. In my diocese the membership of the different groupings is rather large: about 500 groups of the Legion of Mary, 200 of the Christian Family Movement, and a number of others, over only 50 parishes. A special phenomenon is the existence of 61 groups who preach retreats in a charismatic style.  

There are, of course, some questions around confusion and disorder, or of becoming fanatic and seeking identity in exterior things. In this new affirmation of Christian identity, the local church as a whole is challenged to provide through its leaders a sense of direction, proposing strongly the life and message of Christ, referring to the God of Jesus Christ. The dynamism of God’s Kingdom as proposed by Christ and interpreted by the Spirit will give us the true, clear identity we need today, and also unity over and above all individual movements and spiritualities. A sharpened sense of the Church’s mission will prevent us from becoming closed and scattered groupings. This brings me to my third and last point.

3. Mission as border-crossing

The Church is missionary by nature since she was created as an instrument of God’s own mission. Between the inculturation efforts and the discovery of our identities we could lose sight of the essential thing: that as disciples of Christ we are sent on a mission, we are “discípulos-misoneros”, as we say in Latina America.  Our call is to cross borders, to go where the Kingdom of God most needs to be proclaimed. May I mention at this point that I am very thankful to Father Ron Rolheiser who introduced the concept of border-crossing into the Oblate Congregation some years ago.  

In my border diocese I feel that we are often getting into new territories even without getting into Brazil or Argentina which are both only a few miles away. The more difficult borders are inside our lands: they mark the boundaries of youth culture, the indigenous, the immigrants, those engaged in criminal activities, those who receive good salaries, of the small farmers who are selling their land and of the investors who buy it.

Crossing borders implies a risk. When I was working for the formation of future Oblate Missionaries I reached the conviction that for a future missionary it is necessary to experience at least once in his formation process a culture shock. We must lose the initial fear of the culture shock implied by crossing borders.
After four and a half months in Ciudad del Este, I do not know exactly how our missionary border-crossing will work. Sure, we will have to foresee a good pastoral plan and elaborate it out with the help of all sectors. To do this well, we will need to pay attention to those who frequently are forgotten, the silent poor. We will need a high quality reflection process. How good would it be to have an Oblate School of Theology right there. 

Above all, there is the necessity of a very strong relationship with the living Christ. We cannot pretend to have found him in the Bible, the teaching and the sacraments of the Church, and not recognize him in those who live across the borders, especially the many, too many poor people. He asks of us witnessing everywhere, creating communion among all and being servants of those most in need. 

When he walked among us, Christ was crossing borders all the time even without leaving his country, and he made his disciples accompany him in order to prepare them for missionary outgoing. Whenever we dare leaving behind our fences, take the risk of going to the cultural home of others, this will be a sign that we are be guided by the Spirit of the living Christ. I thank you.

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