‘Laity Must Claim Our Mission in the Church’

Exaudi Interview with Rodrigo Guerra, New Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America

Mission in the Church
Rodrigo Guerra with Pope Francis (C) Vatican Media

“If we, the faithful, don’t vindicate our vocation and mission in the Church, in the facts, no one can do it for us, and things will continue the same. Assuming all the risks, it’s necessary not to yield to explicit or concealed forms of clericalism, and to opt with strength for a more fraternal and co-responsible atmosphere,” says Rodrigo Guerra, Doctor in Philosophy from the International Academy of Liechtenstein, Founder of CISAV and new Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

In fact, last July 26, Pope Francis appointed this Mexican philosopher as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, one of the most important posts of a layman in the Vatican. ”It’s without a doubt an honor and an opportunity to serve the Church of Latin America and the Holy Father in a peculiar and delicate moment: Pope Francis invites us to collaborate with the personal, pastoral, and structural conversion of the Church through synodality,” says Guerra.

Exaudi talked with Rodrigo Guerra, who is already living in Rome, about the challenges of his new responsibility in this post in the Vatican; about the laity’s role in the Church, and about the contemporary ecclesial challenge.

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Exaudi: Many congratulations on your appointment. How did you receive the news of your appointment as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America?

Mission in the Church
Rodrigo Guerra in front of the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his Vatican Office © Rodrigo Guerra

Rodrigo Guerra: It was a great surprise for me. I already collaborated as an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. However, I never imagined that one day Cardinal Marc Ouellet would call me on the telephone to invite me, in the name of the Holy Father, to collaborate as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. As I’ve said in several places, God uses the most useless and incapable to attempt to do His work. I believe this is the case. I’m very conscious of my limitations and miseries. Therefore I entrust myself wholly to grace, which is always unmerited mercy.

Exaudi: What do this post and the confidence placed in your person by the Holy Father mean to you personally, professionally, and as a layman in the Church?

 Rodrigo Guerra: Without a doubt, it’s an honor and an opportunity to serve the Church of Latin America and the Holy Father in a peculiar and delicate moment: Pope Francis invites us to collaborate with the personal, pastoral and structural conversion of the Church through synodality, I have the impression that both your servant as well as my companion Emilce Cuda, were invited precisely to collaborate in this process that must also be lived in-depth in the Roman Curia. We both come from a background of scientific research and social and political struggle. God willing, may we be able to collaborate to introduce a new, fraternal, non-clerical air in these Roman environments.

Exaudi: Do you believe that this appointment, which implies a milestone —  given that you are among the first laymen to hold a post of such a rank in the Vatican’s Curia –, can be a preview of what will happen from the reform of the Curia, on which Pope Francis and the Council of Cardinals are working? What significance does this greater participation of the laity in the Church at all levels have, which the Pontiff is stimulating?

 Rodrigo Guerra: There is another layman in the Roman Curia at the head of a Dicastery, Paolo Ruffini. I sincerely hope that soon more laymen will be found in this type of structure and responsibilities. The Curia’s new Constitution will be published soon and it will imply a new ambiance, a new atmosphere in the Vatican. Undoubtedly, it will be a more ecclesial atmosphere and less ecclesiastical. A more lay area, that is, more determined by the identity of us Christians that have under our responsibility the transformation of the world. This is good so that, once and for all, to be a Christian will cease to be looked at from a clerical viewpoint and recover its true dimension in the light of Baptism and of the common priesthood in which all the faithful participate.

Exaudi: Present still in some places is a certain excessively “clericalist” mentality, which doesn’t admit the essential role of all the members of the Church by the mere fact of Baptism. What would you say to a Catholic who doesn’t understand the essential role of the laity in the mission of the Church? In what way can any baptized person carry out this essential role? Do you think that it’s necessary for the laity to “wake up” to this call?

Mission in the Church
Guerra in his study of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (C) Rodrigo Guerra

Rodrigo Guerra: Even before Vatican Council II there was talk of the “hour of the laity,” of a “new theology of the laity, that we laymen are Christians in fullness and not second class members in the Church. However, from the role to its exercise in life there is a stretch that has not yet been completed. The prevailing culture in different ecclesial structures continues to be quite clerical. I have the impression that there is no need to wait for the solution to this gap to come from those that adopt it. On the contrary, each one of us must discover the need for a new prominence. The word “leadership” is very spent and is usually understood as associated with pride and petulance. It’s not my intention to go that way, What I wish to point out is that the leadership, the subjects of the reform that the Church requires today must be done by each one of us, beginning with a profound and sincere conversion of heart and reaching the different social and structural dimensions that apply to the case. If we, lay faithful, don’t vindicate our vocation and mission in the Church in the facts no one will do it for us and things will continue the same. Assuming all the risks, it’s necessary not to yield to explicit or concealed ways  of clericalism, and to opt strongly for a more fraternal and -co-responsible atmosphere at all levels of the Church. This is a part of the agenda of synodality that cannot and must not be postponed, diluted, or canceled.

Exaudi: Taking into account those people that don’t know it, can you explain what the role of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America is and what your specific functions will be as Secretary?

 Rodrigo Guerra: The Pontifical Commission for Latin America is an organization of the Holy See that, on one hand, promotes that knowledge of the life of the Latin American Church must be understood by the universal Church and the Roman Curia. And, on the other hand, the Commission helps to make close and visible the affection and concern that the Holy Father has for the local Churches of Latin America. In other words, the sole justification for the existence of this Commission is service; it is to be a great window, a place to facilitate something that de iure the Bishops and any Christians possess in their own right, but which requires being stimulated and catalyzed so that it operates bi-directionally in a constant way: of the local Churches to the Pope and of the Pope to the local Churches. My role as Secretary is in fact to encourage the realization of these processes and to see that they are up to the measure of the synodal renewal of the Church that Pope Francis is asking us.

Exaudi: As Secretary of this Commission, what do you think are the challenges the Church in Latin America is facing?

 Rodrigo Guerra: I think that Aparecida continues to be valid when it comes to pointing out the challenges of the Latin American Church. If I were to synthesize them, I would venture to point out paragraphs 11 and 12 of the Document. It is clear there that the fundamental theme is “to begin again from Christ.” This means overcoming moralism, ecclesial conformity, irrational radicalization, and ideology, whatever it might be. Jesus Christ is a Person and, therefore, a reality irreducible to mere ideas or values, no matter how correct they are. Jesus Christ is a Person that founds a communal experience in which His real presence expands: the Church. Therefore, it’s necessary that we Catholics understand the need to take part in communities of missionary discipleship and to avoid at all costs reducing the faith to a mere individual experience. If we don’t learn again to be and to do together, if we don’t reflect further on synodality, that is, our incorporation in the true vine through “walking together” all the other challenges in the pastoral, cultural, political, and social order will remain cut off from the source that can give them genuine life.

Exaudi: Taking place this coming November will be the Ecclesial Assembly for Latin America and the Caribbean, a synodal event that attempts, through an ongoing process of listening, to foster the participation of the People of God and to address the challenges pending since the Aparecida Assembly in 2007. How are these challenges made concrete? Tell us about the importance of the event for the life of the Church in the Continent . . .

 Rodrigo Guerra: The Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean is a sui géneris meeting, which for the first time is held with these dimensions and horizons in our region and in the world. God has permitted the Bishops to convoke to a process of profound listening to all sectors, all environments, all experiences to reactivate “Aparecida.” Some people think that this event is important because they will be “listened to,” because they will be able to offer their word. And that’s true. However, the most important thing will be to open oneself to understand and appreciate the other’s reasons. The other’s voice is a stimulus to my heart and to my conscience. It’s a challenge not only to the intelligence but an invitation to fraternity. I believe the success of this Assembly resides in two things: to ask the Spirit from our heart to animate all of us and, on our part, to be willing to learn. If one takes part in the Assembly only with desires to “teach,” the journey will be incomplete. What is important is to receive the stimulus of the other’s presence and the other’s word and to look with creativity at the pastoral challenge we have before us.

Exaudi: In an interview with Exaudi, Monsignor Cabrejos said that this Ecclesial Assembly, “will be the first of its kind in our region, but also for the universal Church, as never before in the history of the Church has there been an Ecclesial Assembly of this magnitude, involving a whole Continent.” With what other contributions do you think that Latin America enriches the universal Catholic Church?

 Rodrigo Guerra: I remember how, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to give a conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, to young people of different Movements and some Bishops. We read out loud some paragraphs of “Aparecida” and they were pleasantly surprised.  I remember that some young people said: “This is what we need!” Today much of that wisdom is in Evangelii Gaudium and in the catecheses that the Pope gives us every week. The Church of Latin America doesn’t have economic or material riches as there are in other latitudes. She has pain and hope; she has wounds and fraternity; she has very great human limitations but a popular religiosity that evangelizes and keeps the faith alive of people on the move. From this experience of five centuries, practical wisdom has been born that is expressed in the episcopal magisterium, in a way of being Church and in an affective and effective Marian, ecclesial and, why not say it, “liberating” spirituality. At a time in which the universal Church needs energies to undertake a substantive reform, the Latin American Church can contribute her history, her martyrs, and her present reality — CELAM and CLAR included–, as a beautiful lesson from which one can learn. We are now no longer a “mirror Church” of Europe but a “source Church,” which can enrich many, beyond our borders. I think of the good, for example, that the European Bishops would receive if they knew in greater depth how we live the faith in the midst of the exclusion and poverty <that exists> in Latin America. I am certain that this would help decisively to understand more and better our Pope Francis and the ecclesial renewal underway.

Exaudi: Finally, given that Exaudi is a News Agency whose principal end is evangelization and the strengthening of the unity of the Church with the Pope, could you say a few words of encouragement and/or advice to us given this ambitious endeavor?

 Rodrigo Guerra: Exaudi is part of the renewal of the Catholic means of communication, which the Church needs today. To communicate in the post-truth and fake news era isn’t easy. There is much noise and much disinformation promoted, on occasion, by some individuals and groups who in their innermost heart have decided to break communion with the Successor of Peter. Exaudi has the great opportunity to be “Good News” in this atmosphere by informing and explaining the life of society and of the Church with transparency, youthfulness, and fidelity. I am certain that if you continue on this path, God will reward you with abundant fruits and, above all, with peace in your heart for having embraced the vocation to affirm the truth with charity and clarity. This kind of Diakonia will make you a vanguard of authentic ecclesial communication and many people, like me, will thank you from their heart.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester