Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga

Interview with Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Honduras and coordinator of the papal advisory group

It has been one year and people are wondering about the plans of Pope Francis for the Church. Are you able to tell us?

MARADIAGA: I am totally convinced: We are at the beginning of a new era. Like 50 years ago, when Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the Church to let in fresh air. Francis wants to take the Church in the direction he himself is being driven by the Holy Spirit: closer to the people, not ruling in splendor from above but a living part of them. The Church is not just an institution created by humans, it is the work of God. I am sure that He had a hand in the selection of the pope in March 2013. By human reckoning someone else should have been selected.

What specifically does the pope want?

MARADIAGA: First of all he wants more simplicity in the way members of the hierarchy live and in their style of leadership, from the bishops down to the priests. We should not sit in our administrative offices and wait for people to come to us. We have to go out and meet them. This  is a new understanding of our role. But wait, no, it is not new. We also find it in the message of Jesus. But sometimes we forget about it.

Giving priority to pastoral care?

MARADIAGA: Yes - more pastoral care, less doctrine. We have the teachings of the Church, the theology. That is given to us. We have to figure out how to reach the person on the street with it. A second critical concern of the pope is mercy – a different way the Church shows its care for the world, especially for those in need.

For the Church to be “merciful” doesn’t it have to change those teachings that are perceived by many as merciless? Think of the way the Church treats the divorced who have remarried.

MARADIAGA: The Church has to adhere to God’s commandments. Christ says about marriage: What God has joined, man may not separate. These words stand. But there are many ways to interpret this. For example, should a marriage fails we might ask: Was this couple really united in God? So there is plenty of room for a deeper understanding. But what is black today will not be white tomorrow.

Pope Francis had Catholics surveyed regarding the teaching of the church on family and regarding sexual morality.  What can we expect from the bishops’ synod in 2014 given the fact that the answers – for example in the archdiocese of Cologne – were brutally frank in picturing the Church to be in an ivory tower position, removed from reality, and hostile to life.

MARADIAGA: I asked the pope: “Why have another synod on the family? We just had one in 1980 and we have this beautiful 1983 teaching document of John Paul II Familiaris consortio.”

What did Francis answer?

MARADIAGA: That was 30 years ago. For most people today the type of family we had then does not exist any more. And it is true: There are divorces, patchwork families, single parents, things like surrogate mothers, marriages without children and same sex couples. These things were not even on the horizon in 1980. All of this demands answers for today’s world. It is not good enough to say: We have the traditional teaching. Of course, the traditional teaching will continue to be there. But the pastoral challenges require answers for today. And these answers do not come from authoritarianism and moralism. This is not a “New Evangelization”, no, no!

Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Cardinal-designate and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, seems to prefer Church authority.

MARADIAGA: (laughing) Yes, I read about it. And I thought: “Okay, maybe you are right, maybe you are not.” I understand him: He is German – yes, I have to say this, on top of this he is a professor, a German professor of theology. In his mind there is only right or wrong, that’s it. But I am saying: “My brother, the world is not like this. You should be more flexible dealing with other voices. Don’t  just listen and say no, this is the wall.” I think he will get there, will understand other points of view. But as of now he is still at the very beginning and is just listening to his advisors.

Are you going to offer him some advice?

MARADIAGA: So far we have not talked. But we will talk, certainly. It is always  a good thing to enter into dialogue.

Last week you talked to the Pope. What is the status on the structural reforms that he is expecting from the advisory group to which he appointed you and seven more cardinals?

MARADIAGA: Okay, let’s change the topic! Of course, much needs to change in the Church. The pope knows that, I know it and the college of cardinals knew this when we met in the last conclave in 2013. Organizational structures should help people. If the living situation of people changes rapidly, the structures of the Church’s leadership, the curia, needs to change. This is a complex task. We are in the middle of consultations. We look at the preferences and seek expert opinions. We go step by step. What is the fist step?

MARADIAGA: Up on top of our agenda is the bishops’ synod. The pope wants it to be an effective, manageable tool for collegial leadership and not just a meeting every three years. We will also address changes in the secretariat for foreign affairs. Many people have been dissatisfied with the work of this office. In our last meeting in December we also talked about each of the individual departments at the Vatican, the dicasteries. We propose to introduce a congregation for the laity. There is a congregation for the bishops, one for priests, one for the religious, but none for lay people. So far there exists only a papal advisor for the laity, despite the lay people being the vast majority of the people of God.

People in administrations are the natural enemies of any administrative reforms. Do you feel mistrust, reservations and resistance against the work of your advisory group?

MARADIAGA: Yes, I do. But there are also plenty of curial employees who speak up  saying that it cannot remain this way. The support us with proposals of their own. The curia is not really a monolithic block. At the end of all our deliberations there should be a new constitution for the curia, that takes the place of the exiting apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus of John Paul II of 1988. Not just a modified or adapted  document, but something completely new.

Aren’t you worried that Pope Francis, being 77 years old, will not have enough time left for all these changes?

MARADIAGA: I am convinced that we have reached a “point of no return” already. Also, the Pope has such a tremendous amount of energy. It amazes me. You know, just before the conclave we talked and he told me: “By the way, I have already handed in my resignation.” When he left the conclave he was pope and ever since he seems completely transformed.

There were reports that he was having problems with his lungs.

MARADIAGA: That was negative propaganda. Someone from the „inner circle“ wanted to damage him just before the conclave. Onc0, I asked Bergoglio about this during dinner telling him that he has only one lung and that he was in a weakened condition. He started to laugh: “Forget it! I had a cyst in the upper area of my right lung. It was removed and that was it.” After that I went over to the other tables and told them: „Listen! Those of you saying that Bergoglio only has one lung are wrong.”

Your close relationship with Francis makes conservative Catholics fear you as glib chief advisor of the pope. Your advisory group is called Bergoglio’s Club of Eight. Doesn’t that show a massive opposition to the pope?

MARADIAGA: Maybe this opposition is massive, but they are not large in numbers. Most Catholics support the pope. His foes are people who do not know reality. There was much uproar from certain business people in the U.S. about his criticism of capitalism in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. But who says that capitalism is perfect? Who was hit by the most recent crisis of the financial markets? Not the poor but the rich America, the rich Europe. And this crisis was not an invention of liberation theologians and did not come out the Option For the Poor. Those who do not criticize capitalism are wrong. The pope is right. Fine, let them complain about him and let them get all worked up about him. I try to follow my conscience.

The pope wants a „poor church“. The Church in Germany is rich, very rich. Is it o.k. to be a “rich Church” as long as you use the money to help the poor?

MARADIAGA: Helping the poor does not mean having to be poor. It is about true sharing. You are right, the Church in Germany is rich – rich in history, rich in culture and rich in beautiful works of art. It has to protect this heritage. We would be crazy if we turn into iconoclasts (destroyers of pictures) like in the middle ages.

Don’t forget the church tax!

MARADIAGA: That’s another aspect of being rich. The Germans, great organizers, have invented this system of financing. It is  not up to me to criticize it. But I can see that the German Church has an attentive eye and an open heart and that it is using its riches for others. There is no other local church in the whole world that provides as much aid as the German Church. Not a single one! This needs to be said and it is best for me, an outsider, to say this.

Do you think the self image of the  German Church is too negative?

MARADIAGA: Maybe it doesn’t weigh the different aspects properly. Take the Diocese of Limburg, for example. Of course, together with the German Catholics, I feel pain about the problems there. But this is just one case! And maybe something positive will come out of it. In Spanish we have a saying: Nothing bad happens without something good resulting from it.

What good could come out of this?

MARADIAGA: That the hierarchy of the Church comes to realize: There are a few things we have to change about ourselves, not just in Limburg.

Will Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst  return to the Diocese of Limburg?

MARADIAGA: No, I don’t think so. If he made a mistake he should admit it, apologize, and look for a job elsewhere. I know that many faithful in the Diocese of Limburg have been hurt. You don’t heal open wounds by pouring alcohol into them.

Does the pope share this view?

MARADIAGA: His personal lifestyle has always been in line with his demand for a poor church, when he was  serving with the Jesuits, when he was archbishop and now, as pope.

Meaning to say that he does not have much sympathy for bishops maintaining luxury residences and  $ 20,000 bath tubs?

MARADIAGA: People coming from Latin America, like myself, have a tough time with this. Of course, your standards of living in Germany are different from ours. But even so: Much of what I heard is not necessary. A shower, a toilet – that’s good enough. Good enough for most people and also good enough for the pope, who, as you know, has a three-room apartment. I like very much what the pope said on All Souls-day: “I have never seen a funeral processing with the coffin being followed by a moving truck.”

The interview was conducted by Joachim Frank and appeared in the newspaper “Kölner Stadtanzeiger” of Cologne, Germany. Translation from German by Bernie Aurin.