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Evangelising under the Gaze of the Poor1

Evangelising under the Gaze of the Poor(1)

F. Javier Vitoria


The witnesses of Loiola-etxea (Europe) and of Romero’s House (Canada)(2) suggest to me, a Christian, a priest and a European theologian committed since the time of the Second Vatican Council to the task of evangelising the local Church of Bilbao, some reflections on the mission of the Church in rich societies, more precisely in Europe.


Faith and justice in the light of fortunate people’s gospel stories


     I understand my exercise of the ministry of theology to be intrinsically linked to the evangelising project of a local European Church. The challenges of this mission were the factors that motivated me to dedicate myself to theology. Almost from the outset I realised that European theology needed to retrace its path, this time under the defenceless and painful gaze of the poor. Having spent a large portion of its most recent history under the (suspicious) gaze of disbelief, it had to take a step farther towards the place where God has wished to show Himself freely. This new departure requires two things: a) learn to identify the historical faces of poverty and the human dimensions of the history of suffering; b) dare to support the poor in solidarity and compassion and make face to face contact with their pain and cries for liberation. Only then will the theologian be in a position to seek and utter anything coherent about God, based on an appropriate understanding of the reality of divine revelation. It will be coherent for it will have adopted the perspective (from above towards those below) or kenosis of God who reached us by taking the form of a slave to become one of many (cf. Philippians 2,7).

     All my modest theological activity has been geared to the aim of linking my reflection to the cause of justice. Recently I had the chance to reply to a worrying question: What are the possibilities of the relationship between theology and justice or between faith and justice?(3) My first impression was that the future of the faith-justice dyad, in both its biographical and reflective versions, was not very promising. The cultural climate in which we live seems to have put an end to the times of messianic Christianity. Nevertheless, my reply was eventually more encouraging.

     The future of theological thought about the cause of justice will depend on Christian lives, individual and collective, concerned in season and out of season with an ever greater justice, committed to the lives of human beings, especially of the poor who are the glory of God. The memory of Christianity in the past encourages us to hope – perhaps against any hope that history can offer – that the Spirit will raise up a messianic Christianity even in the foreseeable adverse conditions of the future. It will be peopled by men and women trained by the Spirit for a “total offering” of which only God is capable (M. Horkheimer); apprentices together with the Father of the secrets of the “economy of the gift” (P. Ricoeur), permanent disciples of the “supreme man” – Jesus of Nazareth – who lowers himself as far as possible to give life.

     Experiences lived in Loiola-etxea and in Romero’s House have fully convinced me of this intuition. The Christian men and women who have been meeting us here in these days at Javier represent many others who, in the Europe of triumphant markets and celebrities and other rich countries, share the lot of the excluded. They are all people of flesh and bone. At the same time there are the righteous and the sinners; tireless militants for great historical causes and those who are hung up on small family attachments; travellers enriched in the endless journey towards Ithaca(4) and the shipwrecked clinging stubbornly to Utopias sunk in the immensity of the ocean; those who resist harshness and are yet vulnerable to gentleness; who carry on with the struggle, yet are weary of the task; who watch for the morning with eyes heavy with sleep from countless nights in vigil. Their living journeys bear the marks of “the gospel stories of fortunate people” (D. Aleixandre), that is, the unmistakable air, the infectious mood, the unique style of the Gospel of Jesus. All of them are authentic spiritual people: women and men seduced, moved and controlled by the Spirit of Jesus, who adopt his options with the same passion. They live history from within, seeking the city of the future and settled “outside the bounds of the camp” in that place where the poor endure “their disgrace” (cf. Hebrews 13,12) and their “necessary” crucifixion (cf. John 11,50). They move in “an opposite direction” to this age which has canonised the all-powerful market, decreed the impossibility of utopias, enthroned the value of possessive individualism, privatisation and the compulsive enjoyment of the present, and proscribed all ethics put into practice with passion (that is, with compassion, and for that reason not exempt from suffering). Paradoxically, this desert in which they have set up their dwelling is for them like a divine gift in which they receive light, warmth and company. They live in an inclusive home and sit at an open table – a spiritual experience that redeems all darkness, cold and separation left over from the old way of living the Christian faith.

     If all authentic discussion of the faith-justice dyad depends on the life of these spiritual protagonists of faith and justice, if there is no ready-made theology to label them with, if the only authentic theology is that which is deduced from their lives, then only living stories like those witnessed here can authorise (however clumsily and inadequately) a discourse on theology and justice, on faith and a life worthy of the poor. For my part, I am confident that such generous credit has to be given to them. It would be unforgivable if, in attempting to establish the unity of theology and justice, my presentation were to end up being a complicated muddle, strange to the ears of the protagonists of these stories, which are tales of solidarity with the excluded.

     Those of us who claim to pronounce the name of God or stutter “a heaven- knows- what” about God – not only theologians, but also preachers, catechists, teachers – must never forget that we are attempting something very difficult, if not impossible: to speak satisfactorily about the Mystery. We must remember that our true cross does not consist in explaining the inexplicable, but in following historically, like any disciple, the way of Jesus. Only then will our theological “science” impart this wisdom of God which we absorb by following Jesus – a wisdom that is much deeper than any science and of which the saints and prophets have been experts. In short, the theologian can dare think and stammer something about the Mystery of Love, because first she has dared to believe and practise love according to the plans of Jesus, that is, she has run the risk, as G. Gutiérrez said, to “practise God”.

     Whosoever is going to speak about God in the face at this time of the present death camps that poverty has given rise to, must always bear in mind the impertinent remark of S. Kierkegaard: “Who is a professor of theology? Someone who is professor because another has been crucified”. The memory of the Crucified One shows that God is much more interested in how we behave – always inadequately! – towards the “living crucified” of history than in our thinking about the crucifixion. The theologian’s ‘ecclesiality’, her ‘feeling with’ the Church, depends more on her persistence in bringing about a Church open to the God of the poor than in her tenacity in defending it against secularism and laicisation. If the theologian does not live affected by the suffering and fate of her crucified contemporaries, she will not be following Jesus, her prayerful silence will not merit the description Christian, nor will her theology be an expression, fearful and stuttering, of the strength and wisdom of God.

     Having said all this, I would add, so as not to dilute my thought, that not even this theology which tries to live and think under the guidance of the victims justifies the theologian. That is, even if the theologian tries to do all that has been said, she remains radically obliged to take the mediations of theology very seriously.


Option for the poor and evangelisation of Europe


     For more than fifty years we have known that Europe is missionary territory. When in 1943 Godin and Daniel, two priests of the Mission of Paris, published France, pays de mission ?, a book with a theological proposal on evangelisation that was new and disturbing to traditional beliefs, almost nobody thought that, seventy years later, the description of Europe as missionary territory would be generally accepted in the Church. Today we all recognise the crisis and even admit the failure of evangelisation in Europe in modern times. We remember here that 14 years ago the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger denounced “the catastrophic failure of modern catechesis.”(5)

     While the optimism generated by the Second Vatican Council made it seem that the Church had found a way to dialogue with the modern world, the gigantic changes that have swept through the European scene in the past forty years have placed the Church in the position of having to learn anew how to relate to the world. The assessment of evangelisation over the last four decades in Europe shows that the Church needs to move away from the injunction to evangelise towards a recognition that she does not know how to put it into practice. The current conclusion of most people is that we have not yet come up with a meaningful and evangelically effective formula expressing the relationship between the Church and European society. The present situation in Europe is an invitation to the Church to redefine her mission. She knows that finding an adequate reply cannot be put off, if she is to remain faithful to her Lord. But whether or not she finds it will inevitably affect how she shapes herself today and builds her future.

     In this historical crisis the most official proposal for evangelisation, and the one that is most praised seeks a missionary strategy which generates and fosters a culture open to Transcendence, or a ‘culture of faith’. A culture of this nature is the only way of saving Europe from a decadence rooted in secularism and unbelief, and can give rise to a civilisation of love.(6)

     There is no doubt that building social reality and faith in God are mutually intertwined. Modern theology has often stressed this point; social theories have also emphasised it. But would a hypothetical move from unbelief to religious faith automatically solve the problem of building a European society worthy of its best Christian roots and democratic traditions?

     In my opinion openness to the mystery of God does not in itself guarantee the health of European society, and as a result, its regeneration does not depend directly on the articulation of a culture of transcendence. All cultural proposals, even those open to the Absolute, have written into their nature an appearance of barbarism. It was so in the past, and ethnocentrism, colonialism and the nationalisms of European culture are there to prove it. It could be so again in the future, and the threat of religious fundamentalism is there to show it. In European history individuals have too often been condemned to extermination and death in the name of Transcendency. The inquisition and religious wars show how calling on the divine has distorted our Christian roots.

     A civilisation of love cannot be achieved by simply recognising God’s existence and overcoming atheism. It needs the contribution of a social and political practice which can truly ensure and materially realise the dignity of all European citizens. A society involved in the task of ensuring that the poor have a worthwhile life, whether or not that is its express intention, will give glory to the Living God who became present in history through the weakness, tolerance, poverty and vulnerability of the Suffering Servant. And in practice it will recognise his Name, because to give a life (worth living) and to give (one’s own) life is precisely the glory that God seeks and claims.

     We do well to recognise that our society is infiltrated by indifference, that occasionally it accepts nihilistic beliefs which not only destroy religion but preserve unjust privileges in the European paradise. But the witnesses we have listened to here remind us that defence of the Living God’s identity against the idolatrous powers of death is not achieved by the mere and simple proclamation of God’s Mystery. Such a defence requires definite proposals, realistic and practical, capable of giving dignity to those actually excluded from European and American citizenship.

     To believe in the God of Jesus Christ includes the adoption in practice of a specific and effective “social theory” whose evangelical origin is in the preferential option for the poor, so often emphasised by Pope John Paul II. This can give rise to a culture of solidarity and an ethical system based on effective solidarity and public and private honesty. Such a system will not waste time in puritanical or permissive flourishes but will try to redress marginalisation and pockets of poverty in the rich cities, without forgetting peoples who are separated from the main European and American paradise.

     On this basis it is right to hold the conviction that, as a Christian, to practice the faith in this God of Life helps to build a more human and caring society. Furthermore, as Christians we can, like H. de Lubac, consider that faith in this God is a better guarantee for building a just and fraternal society than atheism. Our God is gratuitous, but not superfluous. At the same time, all this does not prevent us from recognising the possibility of an authentic human way, spiritual and perhaps even mystical, without religion.

     Nevertheless, official proposals of the Church often change her evangelical message into a theodicy, as if it were necessary to defend God against the world. And in this way they insensitively leave the face of the Christian God in semi-darkness as a Transcendence without a historical or imminent profile. The repair and new life of the “common house” that is Europe – we can call it “etxe-berri” in memory of Francis Xavier – cannot be reduced to eliminating indifference and agnosticism from its rooms. A dehumanising spirit will take deeper root in Europe if the new presence of God does not include the hitherto unheard-of presence of the poor (Matthew 12,43-47).(7)


A mystique of gratuity and evangelisation


     The stories of solidarity with the poor which have been told here at this meeting leave us with a lesson that perhaps the older ones among us do not yet know how to assimilate because it is difficult and painful for us to do. That is, the cause of justice is not the result of any Promethean or massive messianic drive, nor of heroic voluntarism, nor of politics alone, however necessary. The building of history according to divine standards requires major changes of attitudes and practices, such as gratuity, receptivity, contemplation, respect, patience, gentleness, and so on—practices which apparently seem not very constructive.

     Evangelisation, that is, the construction of salvation in history,(8) is at the same time the fruit of gratuity and a mandate. To look for ever greater justice will be for the Church an absolute requirement of the faith. But we Christians will, we hope, learn in time that there is nothing more demanding in justice for others than to experience the gratuity of God’s love. This love opens in each one of us real possibilities for the impossible: to be like children in faith and like brothers and sisters in solidarity. If we fight for justice as a law, awareness of its impossibility will sooner or later demobilise us. Whereas, if we accept it as a grace we will perceive its perpetual dynamism and call in the experience of “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5,5). Then we will know ourselves above all forgiven, thanked and referred constantly to that Gift in our evangelical mission, and not “chained” to a categorical imperative.

     Freed from the captivity of works and the law, the practice of justice and the struggle for a life worthwhile for all will be purified from its own “hubris”: the false absolutisation of the project itself, which inexorably ends in a path of destruction and death. Any real project of struggle for justice will always be incapable of achieving full justice for all the victims of misery in the world. Furthermore, it will inevitably have to pay its own contribution to injustice since no human work is capable of bringing with it a chemically pure justice. Only the mercy of God and his power to raise the dead will purify the works of our hands and bring definitive justice to the victims of history.


Original Spanish

Translation by Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ


F. Javier Vitoria Cormenzana

Iparraguirre 39, 1º

48011 Bilbao, Vizcaya




1. The text of this article is part of a talk given by the author at the conference on “Francis Xavier: Return and Meeting” which took place in Javier, Navarre, from the 13th to 16th of November 2006.  Organised jointly by ALBOAN, the University of Deusto and the Province of Loyola, the presentations were part of the celebrations for the 5th centenary of St Francis Xavier. Following the pattern of the celebrations, the author replies as a theologian to the experiences of two communities who live the commitment to the faith that does justice in the western world: Loiola-etxea (Donosti-San Sebastián, País Vasco/Basque Country) and Romero House (Toronto, Canada). [Editor’s note]

2. In the Conference’s working document, Community Experiences, there are also two witnesses from the Communità Sant’Egidio.

3See “Una teología de ojos abiertos. Teología y Justicia, Perspectivas” in Cátedra Chaminade, 25 años de Teología: Balance y perspectiva (Madrid 2006), pp. 441-454.

4. “When you undertake the journey towards Ithaca

you should ask that the way may be long,

full of happiness, full of knowledge.

You should ask that the way may be long, that there be many dawns

in which you enter through a door your eyes don’t know

and that you go to cities to learn from those who know.

Always keep the idea of Ithaca in your heart.

You have to get to it, this is your destiny,

but never force the distance to be travelled.

It is better that it takes many years

and that you have already grown old as you anchor in the island,

enriched by all you have gained on the way

without hoping that you are offered more riches.

Ithaca has given you a beautiful journey,

without her you would have never set sail.

And if you find it poor,

don’t think Ithaca has tricked you.

As a wise person that you have become

you will know well what Ithacas mean.”

(Konstantinos Kavafis).

5. “El Sacramento de la penitencia o confesión” in 30 DIAS EN LA IGLESIA Y EN EL MUNDO, Suplemento n.52 (1992), I.

6. For an extension and qualification of these ideas see my work “La nueva evangelización de Europa in Iglesia Viva 159 (1992), 303-326.

7. See J.L.Segundo. La historia perdida y recuperada de Jesús de Nazaret. De los Sinópticos a Pablo. (Santander: 1991), p.213.

8. I tend to think that to evangelise is to transform into historical facts that desire of the Divine persons: “Let’s save the human race”, as St Ignatius explains in the Exercises.