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Kenosis of the Church? A look at the crisis in the Chilean Church

It was recently announced that all 34 bishops of the Church in Chile have tendered their resignation to Pope Francis. This happened after they were caught in a serious and unprecedented cover-up of clergy abuse and after being called to an emergency meeting with the Pope at the Vatican. This piece from Territorio Abierto, an online journal of the Chilean Jesuits, was written before this meeting took place but is even more appropriate now. It explores the lessons that the Church can learn even in these most harrowing times of its existence. Juan Pablo Espinosa Arce, suggests that this is a time for the worldwide Church to redeem its inherent spirit of kenosis.

The sons and daughters of the Chilean Church are facing a crisis. The grave cases of the abuse of power and of sexual abuse, by some of its ministers and lay faithful, committed against believers, constitute an all too present wound. Recently, the pope sent a letter in which he painfully recognises what has happened. In response to these, he has taken two concrete decisions. The first of these decisions is to meet with the victims abused by Fr Fernando Karadima: Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and José Andrés Murillo in Rome. The second is a meeting with all the bishops of Chile, also at the Vatican. This meeting has raised interest both within and outside of the Church. It is with reference to this crisis that these reflections are made.

In speaking of the kénosis of the Church, we allude to a concept borrowed from the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar—one of the most important theological minds in the second half of the twentieth century. Kenosis means dispossession, emptying and lowering. What does it mean to speak of the kenosis of the Church? Before proceeding, I assume reflection and formation around theological, ecclesial, pastoral and, above all, human themes to be a duty of Christian communities. If we want to follow the advice of the apostle Peter to “account for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Peter 3:15), it is good to return to teachers like von Balthasar. Reading the Word of God and feeling part of a great ecclesial tradition they were able to give the Reason of the Faith in their particular contexts. Today it is up to us to animate our Christian life in the light of the Word and the Tradition of the Church, the Magisterium and daily pastoral life. It is only from these experiences that we can continue to assume our protagonism, co-responsibility and sense of community. A sense, inherent to Christianity, that we must continually rethink and reformulate.

The Kenosis of the Church

The key biblical text for understanding kenosis is found in the letter that the apostle Paul writes to the community at Philippi. In chapter two, Paul retrieves an ancient song referring to Jesus Christ, Son of God. Jesus Christ is the true God and, from all eternity, he lives with the Father. At one point in history, “at the end of time” (Galatians 4: 4, Hebrews 1: 1-2), He becomes human and lives with us—humans. God, then, “empties himself”, “abases himself”, “becomes “kenotised”. Jesus Christ does not covet his “being God”, but, in an act of absolute freedom and love, He turns to humankind, appears in the form of a servant and suffers death on the cross. This is the only possible kenosis. There is no other outside of this.

Thus, the question arises: why speak of the kenosis of the Church? Is it possible for the Church to “kenotise” itself? For von Balthasar kenosis in an improper sense, which in this case is the kenosis of the Church, happens when the Church is able—in a free way but sustained by the grace of God that gives meaning to that free choice—to present herself as a slave, a servant and a giver.

The Church is not God, but the one who seeks and follows the God of Jesus. Although the Church is sustained by grace, the community of believers is human, sinful and wrong … and it’s good that they are. So, again we ask ourselves: why should the Church “empty” herself? Why should the Church be a servant?

The dispossession of the Church, its emptying—we could venture its condition as an outgoing, pilgrim, vulnerable, human and sinful Church as the recent Magisterium and Pope Francis has so often recalled—must be realised from the logic of the kenosis of Jesus Christ who is her head and husband. This, for von Balthasar, is above all a path of imitation and obedience. The word obedience is linked to listening. The Church, therefore, must learn to listen—to truly listen. We can no longer present ourselves as a Church with a chronic deafness or myopia. We must learn to see and to listen as the disciples whom the Lord awakens “morning by morning” to pay attention (Isaiah 50:4). It is here that kenosis comes through: in silence and listening. By stripping myself of my own ideas and taking on the ideas and life-stories of others who make up our church communities. This is, in short, the most authentic meaning of the Church as a “people of God”, with different charisms and expressions wherein the action of the God who in Jesus becomes part of the human race is creatively narrated.

A kenosis in harmony with the Spirit

A second aspect to be retrieved from von Balthasar’s proposal is the observation that the Swiss theologian makes when he recognises that kenosis necessarily happens through the action of the Spirit. He tells us: “It is an obedience that must be formed and shaped in all the details of life by the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift, however, will not come to Christians from outside but will arise from their own freedom and powers of imagination—just as inspirations comes from above and from within at the same time.” (von Balthasar, Kenosis of the Church).

How much spiritual weight is hidden in the theologian’s words! What an invitation to give more space to the Holy Spirit in the mission of the Church! That is why the Church is charismatic! The charisms are gifts that the Spirit of Jesus gives us to put at the service of others. Again the attitude of service: to give myself entirely to others.

Only from the Spirit of the Risen One who tells the Bride-Church, to “come” (Revelation 22:17), will we be able to cross the times of torment and recognise how the voice of the Lord Jesus calls out to us: “Do not be afraid. It is I.” (Matthew 14:27). I believe that the crisis in which we are immersed, and through which we hope to be purified, is a crisis where the Spirit has been ignored. As a Church, we lack a spirituality of kenosis, a way of following a Christ that did not flaunt his divinity and wanted to share our land. The God who empties himself is the God of vulnerability. The Church must learn to work with its own vulnerability. If, as a Church, we truly want to be the bride of Christ, we must follow in the footsteps of the Lord who became our brother by the Incarnation. As Francis invites us in Evangelii Gaudium, it is necessary to live a mission that is incarnated in the cultural and human margins (cf. EG 40). In his words: “It [the Church] never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realises that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.” (EG 45).

These words of Francis, “plastically” define kenosis as an experience of freedom. First: do not close yourself in. Christ did not covet his being God. Nor should the Church, which is not God, shut itself up in its “winter palaces”. The one who gives himself completely is the freest one because he no longer trusts only in himself but also in others. This is, therefore, the dynamic of communion. It must be a Church that is missionary and pilgrim. A consequence of this is that she does not become rigid but is a mother with an open heart, where there is room for all her children. And, because she has assumed her motherhood she must learn to understand the Gospel and must discern the voice of the Spirit. For example, in the signs of the times. Thus, the Church that “kenotises” herself must be stained with mud. Only by truly knowing the mud of history can she know purification. That which is pure does not need to be cleaned. The healthy do not need a doctor. Only the sick, who consciously know that they are “muddy” and have “muddied” others, require purification. For this, we long and ask.

Only from the search for truth, reconciliation, reparation and freedom can we assume the kenosis and the original dispossession of the Son of God. Finally, and as von Balthasar maintains, “[i]t is only the kenotic Son of God who, inspired by the Spirit of the Father, wills that his Church form herself to him in this way, so that his unique, free kenotic act will be perpetuated in the institutional form of the Church.”

* Published in Territorio Abierto an online journal of the Chilean Jesuits. It was written in Spanish by Juan Pablo Espinosa Arce, academic and lecturer in Religion and Philosophy at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Santiago de Chile, Chile and translated here to English by Ricardo da Silva SJ.

Images: Territorio Abierto

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.