Interview with Bishop Otavio Ruiz Arenas

DSI interviewed him in preparation of the next General DSI Assembly

Interview with Bishop Otavio Ruiz Arenas from Colombia, currently Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the promotion of the New Evangelization. Bishop Ruiz Arenas has worked in the Holy See for the past five years.  He tells us that in 2007 at the end of the General Latin-American Episcopal Conference, Pope Benedict XVI decided to name him the new vice-president of the Commission for Latin America. Bishop Ruiz says:  At that moment I was the metropolitan archbishop of Villavicencio in Colombia. I had first been auxiliary bishop in Bogotá.  Then I worked for six and a half years in Villavicencio where we were carrying out the task of reorganizing  the life of the presbytery, the pastoral part. Our pastoral plan is based on the New Evangelization.  We were ready to begin when the Holy Father called me to work at the Holy See.  I worked in the Commission for Latin America for four years and I have now spent one year here in the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.

What was this last year of work like?

The experience has been very interesting.   The Holy Father, when he named me  to this Council, stated that he wanted the work to continue what Pope John Paul II had proclaimed, particularly in Haiti during the celebration of the 500 year anniversary of the arrival of the Gospel to the Latin-American continent:   Pope John Paul II invited the Church to a New Evangelization, new in its fervor, new in its method, new in its expression.  Then little by little, in different speeches, the Holy Father went on speaking of the New Evangelization, showing how it required  a great missionary impulse, the profound desire to live in sanctity, a deep and logical renovation of the church that adapts pastoral action to the work of evangelization.

When I came here to work, it was thought that the Holy Father had created and organized a new Roman Dicastery particularly for Europe, but in reality it was for the Universal Church. Since different modalities characterize Latin America and Europe, the Pope wanted to include someone who could make known the rich Latin-American experience while collaborating  in the organization of the Dicastery, and who could try to animate the New Evangelization here in the European continent, not only in Latin America. This is the reason that I was named.

What are the objectives of this Dicastery?

When he created this Dicastery, The Pope made clear the Church's profound concern for the onslaught of secularism which is invading  the western world. In traditionally Christian nations in the last few years, there has been a great desertion on the part of the faithful, from the point of view of faith.  Many Catholics seem indifferent toward religion and  live as if God did not exist The Holy Father instituted this Dicastery in order to find answers to the great challenges that the current culture is presenting to us. 

Latin America, on the other hand, has been called by the Pope the continent of hope because of its great religious fervor and manifestations of popular piety. Nonetheless many people are looking for new religious groups that offer them something that perhaps the Church has failed to provide in the pastoral area. Therefore the New Evangelization  is of great importance so that we can take up again, and transmit to others, the Love of the Gospel, so that we can go back to nourishing ourselves and others from the Word of God, to giving centrality to Jesus, to knowing that our Christian life is a personal encounter with Him, and so that all this can fill us with profound joy.

In this sense, the document of Aparecida, of this fifth Conference of the Latin-American Episcopate, has marked a milestone in the pastoral life of the Latin-American Church because it not only centered everything in the personal encounter with Jesus, in the profound necessity to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, developed through Lectio Divina, of being able to give a great centrality to the Eucharistic action and also a commitment to social action, but also because it was clear that it was necessary to do something profound. Thus came the invitation to the continental mission.  All the dioceses of Latin-America and the Caribbean are committed to this continental mission which is none other than giving a missionary impulse to pastoral action; it’s taking up again what is essential in the life of the Church, so that we can communicate it to our faithful, it’s making them conscious of the richness and freshness of the Gospel, that animates us precisely to be better men and women in today’s world, trying to radiate the delight, the joy and the hope of the people who are around us.

Why do we speak of New Evangelization?  What should we change?

When we speak of new, we have to understand what’s meant by that.  The question that many ask is: Are you saying the evangelization that occurred didn’t work, that something was lacking, that we have to change everything, to seek new content?  Actually we already have the answer in the document Evangelii Nuntiandi, of Paul VI, where he has us see that evangelization is the fundamental task of the Church, its reason for being…and that the message of the Gospel is nothing else than announcing Jesus Christ:  His life, His passion, His death, His resurrection, His sanctifying action; the Gospel is a permanent communication of a God who loves us and who takes us into account.  This is what we have to carry throughout history.  We know that Christ is  one, that He is the way, the truth and the life, the same yesterday, today and always.  So the "newness" doesn’t refer to the content, but rather to the style with which we have to evangelize, the effort that we have to make to respond to the great challenges, to the programming we have to put in place so that our efforts may be truly evangelizing processes.  The New Evangelization is more concerned with the way in which the Gospel is to be transmitted.  As the Pope tells us, we have to look at two things,: we have to bring novelty to the fervor,  the methods, and the expressions we use in preaching the Gospel.  And we have to be men and women who preach the Gospel not only by words but also by the testimony of our lives,  with profound enthusiasm and a great conviction.

On the one hand, we have to know the culture around us so that we can respond with our message to the culture's challenges; we have to seek expressions that are intelligible today.  On the other hand, it is fundamental that we become familiar with the new tools of digital communication in order to meet people precisely where, in today's cybernetic world, they have their encounters, their conversations, their debates. The Church cannot be alien to all this.  To carry out an evangelization that will be new, it’s necessary to begin with the newness of the evangelizers, new men and women who allow themselves to be filled with the Spirit, who, as the prophet Ezekiel said, have a heart of flesh, a heart capable of loving God and their brothers and sisters.  These must be men and women who are capable of being born anew because the New Evangelization is not simply a change in pastoral strategy, but the creation of a new openness for the work of the Spirit, and a consciousness of the vocation they  have in the Church.

In your opinion, why do people live as if God did not exist?  What do people need today?

Certainly we can’t think that we are indifferent to the cultural movement that exists at the present moment, a cultural movement that extends from the Age of Enlightenment and the French revolution, from the movement of modernism which has sometimes introduced a climate of agnosticism, of religious indifference.  Perhaps the great scientific advances have caused people to be full of pride and to think that they aren’t going to need God, because they find the answer to everything in science, or perhaps some want to relegate the voice of the Church or religious action to  four walls of the temple.  Unfortunately a true formation of our leaders has been lacking;  we have not transmitted to the baptized a clear consciousness that they ought to carry out a mission.  The mission of the Church isn’t only for bishops, priests, and religious women;  every baptized person has to be a disciple of the Lord, has to be a missionary.  If one is truly Christian and has encountered Christ in his or her life, that person should transmit this Christ-consciousness  with profound joy, and recognize the necessity of  belonging to the Church. There must be an effort of renovation and of permanent formation, not only of the laity, but also ourselves as bishops, priests, religious men and women. How can we think that what we received is sufficient?  We have to update ourselves, we have to look at this world which surrounds us, we have to ask: How can we respond to the attacks of secularism?  And at the same time what can we do to assure that our life is really full of the Spirit and responsive to what the Lord gives us?

What is the specific contribution that women religious can offer in this path of the New Evangelization?

The New Evangelization involves the whole Church. Religious life in general, female as well as male congregations, has had a very important role in evangelization.  Religious have accomplished magnificent works in the fields of health, education and the pastoral field itself.  (Evangelization is not only preaching the Word.)   We have to recognize that the presence of women in religious life has been fundamental.  Religious women have actively collaborated in the catechetical plan with great competence and in a very appropriate way.  They have been dedicated as well to evangelizing through their lives, their testimony, their teaching and their insertion in those areas where the presence of Christ is not much felt.  We have to recognize that the role of women in the Church has been very important and preponderant in pastoral action for many centuries.

Moving to the area of the New Evangelization, we have to be aware of the need for  a profound examination.  After the Council, we knew that many religious congregations have carried out this examination;  but some have strayed from their foundational charism or, wanting to insert themselves in the world, have separated themselves  from their commitment and their religious life.  Then the question would have to be raised why wanting to respond to the people by showing them a certain closeness has led some to lose the vision of what the mission of religious women is.  There began to arise new communities with a certain traditionalist semblance,  that people accepted, and where there are a good number of vocations.  These new groups arise with old models; nonetheless they are responding to the concerns of the young.  It is something that we need to study profoundly.

On the other hand, we should think about whether structures should be changed. But we cannot ask for a conversion of the structures if there is not a conversion of each one of the religious,  by means of a profound examination of what has been their lives, their devotion, their generosity, the way in which they have wanted to show Christ to the people.  This is an endeavor that requires humility, a lot of honesty and above all, a profound desire to be able to respond to what the Church asks of us.  Thank God that shortly the Church is celebrating the general assembly of the Synod that is going to treat precisely the New Evangelization for the transmission of the faith. We are going to celebrate a year of faith, which will be energized by the action of the New Evangelization. Thus religious life will  have  ample space  in which to think about the orientations that the Holy Father is certainly going to give us, so that religious women may live with great generosity the tasks of the New Evangelization.