Peter J. Casarella: Now is an image of what's to come

The director of a center for world Catholicism and intercultural theology says Christian leaders can learn from the saints, the mystics and the contemplatives.

Christian institutions must go deep into their roots to learn how people were formed in the past. That, says Peter J. Casarella, will help these institutions learn how people must be formed in the future.

Casarella directs the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill. He previously taught at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he was director of its Center for Medieval and Byzantine Studies. He has written on a wide variety of topics, including contemporary Latino theology and church practice, and medieval scholasticism.

He talked to Faith & Leadership about his preference for “recognition” over “multiculturalism,” Peruvian Catholic street theology and how medieval contemplative administrators avoided “practical atheism.”

Q: In your work you have offered a strong critique of “multiculturalism.” Tell us about that, and what would be a better way for institutions to think about racial diversity.

At a conference at the Catholic University of America in the late 1970s, prominent Latino theologian Orlando Espin, now at the University of San Diego, objected in no uncertain terms to the appellation “multicultural church.” He said, “Latinos don’t need this. Latinos don’t want this. We’d rather think in terms of catholicity.” A more radical commitment to cultural diversity could come to fruition by taking the presence of Christ more seriously -- as one who unifies different cultures.

Recognition is a category that does more work than multiculturalism in my judgment. Recognition asks not just who is at the table, but what agency do these individuals have? I still think that there is a place for group rights or group identity, even though I’ve come out rather strongly against identity policy. But whether you’re in a student life office, a parish or some kind of multicultural office, the bottom line is what kind of agency is given to the underrepresented groups? How can their agency be promoted?

Q: It seems that churches trying to reach out to Latinos do better when they talk about Jesus than when they talk about diversity or multiculturalism.

Right. And the two questions have been paired in academic settings. Within the discipline of Latino theology, the Mexican-American scholar and priest Virgilio Elizondo of Notre Dame first proposed a Galilean Jesus as a promoter of the Latino cause and cultural diversity within a Christian context. Some have questioned Virgilio’s historical scholarship. But we all recognize that Jesus came to preach the good news to all cultures.

It’s not just Jesus, but it’s also Saint Paul, the evangelizer to the nations, who promotes the reality of cultural diversity and puts it in the context of a body which has many members.

Q: Tell us about the concept of liderazgo, “leadership,” from a Latino theological perspective.

This will look different in Protestant as opposed to Catholic settings. But it’s a project that has to be pursued to serve the communities that are coming into our churches. I’ve learned three elements of liderazgo from Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a Jesuit at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Cultural Diversity in the Church.

One is a more deeply Christian understanding of the strength of humility. In a lot of settings, Hispanics work two jobs, raise a lot of kids, and emphasize keeping one’s head down and working hard. In our age of cultural individualism, that can be seen as a weakness. But in Hispanic cultures that is a great strength. It can help us all reclaim a Christian humility that serves the family.

A second element is hospitality. That’s not a political agenda or an abstraction for me. My mother is from Colombia. We would invite cousins to come stay with us when we were growing up. They would stay not a couple days or months, but for a year! One of them is now a Pentecostal in Boston. Another married a man who has worked on agricultural issues in Thailand and in Rome and is now back in Colombia. This experience of a transnational family that cuts across confessions and nation-states is something that I palpably felt growing up. It’s a living reality in Latino context.

The third element goes directly to some of the projects you’re doing here at Duke. It is the necessity to offer Christian formation to communities. That’s where these specifically Latino dimensions of liderazgo training can be brought to bear.

Q: Your own biography offers a hint of the future work you would do at DePaul.

When they asked me to direct the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, the first thing I realized is that there’s no United Nations of Catholicism. Even if you were to have enough resources and hubris to put together representatives from all the Catholic nations, it wouldn’t represent catholicity unless you had some common goal -- some deeper sense of the identity of Catholic and global Christian identity.

I have to draw upon my own experiences for this. My mother is from Bogotá. When I was young, she was not a U.S. citizen. She had no interest in it. Only when I was in college did she seek citizenship. My father is a first-generation Italian-American. I had a lot of experiences of Mediterranean Catholicism by going with my grandmother to Italian parishes in Meriden, Conn. These experiences shaped my vision of a program for theology that serves a church that is moving toward the global south, where the voices for transformation, reform and discipleship are coming from Latin America, Africa and Asia more than from Europe or North America.

In the spirit of genuine catholicity and ecumenism, you don’t write anyone out of the script. The challenge is to balance the contributions coming from many corners of the world with the need for some kind of harmony.

Q: What does it mean for the future leadership in the Catholic Church in this country that its ethnic makeup is shifting from largely Irish to largely Latino bishops?

Father Elizondo made the point to me recently that Notre Dame really was once the “fighting Irish.” It started out to serve working-class Catholics, the downtrodden, and people who were struggling. Elizondo is a Mexican-American who teaches at Notre Dame, and that’s his heritage to serve just these people.

There are some members of the non-Latino hierarchy who have taken this question very seriously and are trying to find new ways to promote the agency of Latinos in the church. Christianity from the beginning has had to adapt and transform itself. A great deal of creativity is needed. I’m very hopeful.

Q: You use this quote from Cardinal Newman a lot: “What strikes the mind so forcibly ... is [God’s] absence (if I may so speak) from His own world. It is a silence that speaks. It is as if others had got possession of His work. Why does not He, our Maker and Ruler, give us some immediate knowledge of Himself?”

I took that great quote from Newman from an article written by my mentor Louis Dupré, who taught me at Yale. Dupré was talking there about practical atheism -- a rejection of the existence of God not by way of strong arguments, but by an indifference that says, “I’ll get to it someday.”

One of the first steps is trying to understand the totality of experience. God is not only an intellectual question. It’s also not only emotional. We have to look at all the factors in our quest for happiness. We do need arguments. That is an important part of ministry. But at some basic level, people need to see that there’s a totality of experience into which the reality of God and the fact of revelation enter. Revelation then transforms these so that we can respond with hope to the resurrected Lord.

Q: How can institutions avoid practical atheism?

Each institution has to go deep into its roots and find out how people have been formed to see how people must be formed in the future to retain a strong sense of identity.

In the Catholic Church there is a whole network of Hispanic institutions for formation that work below the radar screen. Typically the Catholic universities don’t recognize them. Two examples are the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio and SEPI, the Southeast Pastoral Institute in Miami. There is faith formation going on in both languages, preparation for the permanent diaconate, basic formation for catechumens and training in the history of the Latino experience in the U.S.

This is, in many ways, the future of Catholicism.

Q: Tell us about the Lord of the Miracles.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., where Dupont Circle is a hip neighborhood with cool cafes and bookstores. Someone put me onto the fact that on the last Saturday of October on California [Street], just a few blocks north of Dupont Circle, there’s this religious procession, “El Señor de los Milagros.” It’s enormous. They start with a mass at the Our Lady Queen of the Americas parish. Then they take their float of a crucified Christ -- an image that was painted by a freed Angolan slave in Lima, Peru, in the 17th century. This image is carried in a very funereal procession, not just one block, but for almost a mile. All the traffic stopped. We passed all kinds of monuments of cultural identity in the heart of Washington, with this very Peruvian float of the crucified Christ, surrounded by hundreds of walking devotees. It was like they reclaimed the city and made the space sacred.

All year long the participants go through a process of catechesis before the procession. They refer to it as “Lent in October.” It’s the culmination of a set of positive, upward-looking penitential practices through which they reclaim their Christian identity. The procession makes it public. It’s a theology on the streets that takes this very personal and inward transformation that has been going on all year and shows it to the world.

Q: Both Nicholas of Cusa and Bonaventure were great mystics and also leaders in the church. What is the relationship between contemplation and institutional administration?

Bonaventure was superior general of the Franciscan Order and had to make a lot of important administrative decisions. Nicholas of Cusa spent his whole life as a canon lawyer, a papal delegate and a reformer of the church. I think he wrote theoretical treatises at night to calm his mind. It’s very interesting to think about his day job of church politics and this other side of him which is interested in metaphysical speculation. Often the two elements of his life are separated, but it was one life for him.

The person who has actually given me some insight into this important question was not on my radar screen until I went to DePaul University in Chicago. And that’s Vincent de Paul. Vincent de Paul lived in 17th-century Paris. And he was a pretty average priest until one day a French noblewoman, Madame de Gondi, with whom he worked, asked him to administer the sacrament of reconciliation and confession to a dying French peasant. Then he suddenly realized that the church he was part of was not serving the poor, was not administering the sacraments, was not presenting its message, its gospel, to the majority of Christians. And Vincent’s insight was not only that they had to start doing this -- he started parish missions and these kind of projects -- but that charity itself had to be organized. So today the Vincentian family ... includes multiple religious orders and an international network of lay volunteers, the international Vincent de Paul Society, which is in my parish in Hyde Park in Chicago and all across the globe. People right now in the Vincent de Paul Society are working on relief in Haiti.

But this idea -- the organization of charity based upon the virtue of Christian simplicity -- has really struck me as something that could be brought to bear on the questions of administration in light of discipleship. That’s a great witness.

The question is when you have a charism, when you have a vocation in the church that involves administration, there is a certain technical prowess that you need. You need to keep the office running. You need to make sure there is Christian charity and benevolence. Even things like sustainability that are operative in the organization. But you also need a vision, a vision that’s going to go beyond just micromanaging and looking at the operation on the ground. That’s where the saints, the history of the Christian tradition, the mystics, the contemplatives … If we’re not fed by this wisdom, then we’ll get too engaged in the immediate, in the now, and not see that the now is just an image of what we hope to come.