Looking from the periphery. An evangelical key beyond ideologies and pastoral activity.

Pope Francis encourages us to look to the peripheries. The author of this article delves into the meaning of this invitation, and emphasizes that the periphery is the place of encounter with Christ, and the place of mission.

José Antúnez-October 1, 2017-Reading time: 10 minutes
The periphery as a key refers to fishing, to the mission.

It is always important to know how to choose the gaze in order to see with depth, justice and tenderness what is offered to us and not to waste it, mistreat it or spoil it. Our current look at the peripheries, encouraged and motivated by Pope Francis, requires an adequate look, a look from the faith and love of the Gospel, which breaks the molds of the rigid and unjust categories of the ideologies of the past and present. We need this look if we do not want to lose the strength with which the Spirit is playing in this field by getting entangled in discussions of the past or in superficial interpretations that are not only useless, but also detract energy and consume the believer and the evangelizer from within.

Periphery and peripheries

Looking at the peripheries from the heart of the Gospel means going beyond the notion of periphery elaborated from the political and sociological field, even though it has a certain relationship with it. From the Gospel, paradoxically, the periphery becomes a watchtower. Without the Gospel, periphery would be a notion exclusively linked to the historical phenomena of urbanization and industrialization: periphery in spatial and geopolitical terms would be equivalent to all that which is far from the center of activity and power; there would be or is a periphery of the world, urban peripheries, economic peripheries, political peripheries, etc. The distant would be all those who inhabit the peripheries and have no access to the center. 

Linked to the geopolitical would be a second periphery: the social and cultural periphery, made up of everything that is not important or decisive for the socio-cultural center. Our democracies, to the extent that they function, would favor decentralization and the non-proliferation of powerless peripheries; however, the weaknesses and defects of our democratic systems are exploited by populisms, which are nourished - and they are not the only ones - by their abundant peripheries: cultural and economic marginalization with respect to the one or ones who mark the dominant current and play a manipulative role, a "who" that is often impersonal and anonymous. These social peripheries, as Riccardi points out, have two features: loneliness and violence, which are sometimes clearly visible; a physically observable example is the wealthy ghettos of South Africa, connected to each other by highways that form a network of linked islands, cut off from the peripheries of poverty and marginalization, isolated and abandoned to their own fate.

Periphery from the Gospel

So far we have the social fact: the existence of peripheries. But the Pope and we do not do sociology or politics, but we evangelize and read the signs of the times from faith. When we speak of the peripheries, we do so because there is something more radical in them. I believe that Pope Francis wants us to look at the peripheries as a hermeneutical and pastoral key. It is not a matter of looking at the peripheries, but of assuming the "being" periphery, looking from the periphery. What does this mean? In the first place, it implies overcoming a past and centralist gaze that saw the periphery as a field of charity, something that the center should take care of (gaze from the center: the rich man who gives alms, for example). Secondly, it implies overcoming the view that sees the social and cultural peripheries as fields to be recovered in the face of a secularization and secularism that have taken them away from us.

The result of remaining in the center is very varied, but it has a common denominator: it looks at the periphery from the center, from the outside, and basically cannot take charge of it or of what it means from the Gospel. It refuses to assume that the Gospel may not be - in fact, it is not already in that sense - the center of power and influence, and perhaps it should not be. From there it freezes the fire of the Spirit, it paralyzes the Church.

One fruit of this outlook crystallizes in a restorationist mentality, which leads us to see the Church and our communities as small evangelizing islands, like isolated and threatened medieval neo-monasteries among the barbarians, yearning to regain influence, to become important again. We have been displaced from the center, marginalizing or neutralizing the Gospel both by negative and combative secularism, as well as that which falsely pretends to be neutral -but not the healthy positive secularism open to the contribution of religions-; then, if we recover the peripheries, we will return to be the center and to evangelize. This is a combative mentality, a combative, hardened mentality, but at the same time marked by the complex of being small, of giving an excessive, unrealistic weight to the powers of this world, which are not seen from the point of view of salvation history. This look is as realistic as it is paralyzing and justifying of the non-fertility and impotence to evangelize.

A large part of the difficulties we encounter in adapting and reforming pastoral structures that are, in no small measure, heirs of a vision marked by the Roman Empire and that has allowed the divorce between center and peripheries, are also the fruit of this centralist vision, not peripheral. Some pastoral attempts, with which the Church tried to respond to the call of the social peripheries and which remained failed sketches - such as the workers' priests in Paris between 1942 and 1953 under Cardinal Suhard and the high and loving interest of Rome -, perhaps could not achieve their goal because of their very root: because they still looked at the periphery from the center. From the same non-peripheral root, no matter how much they looked at the periphery, emerged the approaches some decades ago of ideologies that took shape in some liberation theologies and basically suffered from the same centralism in their look at the periphery.

Looking from the periphery

What I hear when I hear and meditate on the words of Pope Francis is that he is asking me for a change, a conversion of mentality, a rigorous metanoia which entails a positive pastoral revolution and a renewed evangelizing thrust that promotes the joy of living and transmitting the Gospel; for a change of mentality, towards an even more Christian mentality, and an effective pastoral action in the Spirit, are intrinsically linked. This change implies purifying our mind of foreign attachments. To achieve this, we would have to go back to the principles of the kenosis and the incarnation. God chose Israel in the Old Covenant, a periphery between empires; when the time came, he became incarnate and acted in Galilee, periphery of Israel, in turn periphery of Rome; he was born in a forgotten village and died in the religious center of Jerusalem, which was still a peripheral problem of Caesar. God chose the weak, the foolish according to the world, and from the periphery he came to the center: Rome. This is what Francis told the superiors of religious congregations: "I am convinced of one thing: the great changes in history take place when reality is seen not from the center but from the periphery. It is a hermeneutic question: reality is understood only if we look at it from the periphery, and not if our gaze starts from a point equidistant from everything.". At this point, periphery/center, poverty/greed, weakness/power, grace/voluntarism, are parallel and related pairs.

As in almost everything in life, it is vital to think from the "and" (thinking of communion) and not from the "or" (dialectical and confrontational thinking). In looking with the Pope at the periphery, to look from the periphery, we are as far from trying to replace the sacrament of the altar with that of the brother in the manner of the progressives - in Olivier Clement's expression, for in doing so we would abandon history to itself and, in the end, it would be nothing more than a macabre dance - as from the opposite; what we are trying to do is to give the Eucharist, God, his action all their ethical breadth. The Eucharistic altar and the distant brother are inseparably united because they are, in their different orders of reality, Christ who goes out to meet us. How can we see the Eucharist without seeing the brother, how can we really see the brother without the Eucharist? And is our living and participating in the Eucharist not enriched by seeing the brother, looking at him from the periphery, materially, psychologically or morally? 

As a friend who was a parish priest in Vallecas (Madrid) told me, "My challenge in that parish was to unite the rooms where the volunteers were with the church, because at the beginning - and it was difficult - neither those in the rooms went to the church nor those in the church to the rooms".. We should not allow ourselves to be seduced by the temptation to resuscitate unfruitful splits of the "o". We are on to something else, more radical and more fruitful.

With the power of the Spirit

To look from the peripheries is to look at the power of God at work in history, which is intrinsically Salvation History, trying to draw the ultimate consequences of God's way of acting, of the Gospel, in order to make it our own in our hearts and minds. 

If we spend a little time reflecting and praying on this truth, we will be able to see the freedom and strength that spring from it to proclaim the Kingdom. In returning to the Gospel, and this is always the history of the Church, we return to the mission, to the evangelizing identity, to the Church going forth. 

Riccardi cites the historical case of the pontificate of Gregory the Great, in a Rome that was falling and was no longer the center of anything, in a Rome full of the poor and destitute. From that periphery, Gregory looked at the call of Anglia (England), another periphery, and it was evangelized; the power of Christ is not of this world, what is central for men is not what is central for God, it is another logic that does not consist in going back to what was before, nor in falling into ideology. 

A Church marginalized to the periphery, a Church that looks from God and, through Him, from the peripheries, is a Church with the power of the Spirit, a Church that does not remain paralyzed and that is capable of producing, in its apparent maximum weakness, a great evangelization. In many ways the example of Anglia, evangelized thanks to the peripheral vision of Pope Gregory, is perennial and current. Not only for the Church as a whole. 

Let us apply it to our personal life, to our following of Christ, to our spiritual life and, in continuity and unity of life, to our pastoral action and our apostolates. Francis says: "The Holy Spirit introduces us into the mystery of the living God, and safeguards us from the danger of a Gnostic Church and a self-referential Church, closed in its enclosure; he urges us to open the doors to go out, to proclaim and bear witness to the goodness of the Gospel, to communicate the joy of faith, of the encounter with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the soul of the mission".

For this reason, Francis does not look at the weakness of the Church, but, trusting in the Spirit, he launches himself into proclamation, beginning, as his travels show, on the peripheries of the peripheries, as opposed to what the tacticians of the world would do.

The place of the mission

The validity of this view from the periphery is shown in a privileged way when we look at the situation of postmodern society. In the society that Baumann calls liquid society, irrelevance increases: we all live more and more in a peripheral way, of narcissistic consumption, of paradoxical anti-enlightenment, since it is no longer a question of enlightening the people, but of selling culture and apparent truth, of a culture of haste, without time, in which everything is space, a superficial flat space. Everything, if we change the linguistic key, is "peripheralized". Even under the guise of multiculturalism hides a trap to the conscience of the West to legitimize the disregard of the other, and it is to think: it is that the other, with his culture, is like that (he wears a loincloth and has no home, he thinks that it is right or wrong that or that, etc.). Consequently, I should not do anything for him because it would be disrespectful to his idiosyncrasy. This, which could be called absolute "peripheralization" through relativism, is nothing but the masking of the centralism of the isolated and incommunicado individual ego. 

Only a look from a periphery in which God is at work frees society from this depersonalizing risk. In the evangelically read periphery we discover interest in the other, generosity, hope not based on self-sufficiency and self-referentiality. Periphery in the theological sense is an antidote to selfishness and narcissism; it is to look from the other, to decenter myself from myself, it is a demand for conversion and the possibility of conversion, personal conversion and ecclesial experience. "The Pentecost of the cenacle of Jerusalem is the beginning, a beginning that continues. [It is the Paraclete Spirit, the 'Consoler', who gives us the courage to travel the roads of the world carrying the Gospel. The Holy Spirit shows us the horizon and impels us to the existential peripheries to proclaim the life of Jesus Christ. Let us ask ourselves if we have the tendency to close in on ourselves, in our group, or if we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us to the mission." (Francis, Pentecost 2013).

A hermeneutic of history, society and evangelization from the periphery makes Christian freedom and evangelical life possible. It entails purification, and achieves the loss of fears and attachments. To speak of peripheries does not mean to be foolish, to forget the essential; for it is precisely the opposite: to come out of self-referentiality and self-centeredness, both insofar as it shows us that the field of action is the world, and in what concerns our identity as Church, as groups, as movements, as persons. 

To put the periphery as the key means to put the mission as the first thing: to forget about myself, to focus our gaze on fishing, on the sea, trusting in grace and anointing. From the peripheries there can be no one who is discarded from my heart, there is no one who cannot be fixed, a possibility opens up for overcoming the culture of discarding.

It is clear, after what we have said, that we make a leap in thinking about the periphery from the socio-economic to the theological... and I understand the theological to be indissolubly linked to the spiritual, to what identifies me. The periphery is a place of encounter with Christ, a place of confirmation of the anointing and a place of enlightenment. Furthermore, the periphery is the place of mission, because the existential periphery is where the light of Christ is lacking. For this reason we must always try to be there where the light and life of the Risen One is most needed (cfr. Evangelii Gaudium, 30-33).

The power of grace

To change, to convert, to think from the periphery, does not consist in doing more "works of charity". It is not mere charitable action, but making room for what the periphery determines in my identity and my spirituality from the action of the Paraclete; it is not a matter of doing, but of being. The transforming power of this step is immeasurable. As the Year of Mercy has highlighted by placing us before misery - in its three manifestations: material, psychic and moral/spiritual - only if we are merciful like the Father will we do works of authentic mercy and these will proliferate creatively. And to be merciful we must go to the material peripheries and to the moral and spiritual peripheries, because there we find the mercy of the Father that changes our hearts, that makes us discover that we too are peripheries, and yet we are the center for God, who looks upon, cares for and governs the world for us. Francis says it very clearly: "Thus we must go out to experience our anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: in the peripheries where there is suffering, where there is bloodshed, where there is blindness that desires to see, where there are captives of so many bad patterns. It is not precisely in self-experiences nor in repeated introspections that we are going to find the Lord: self-help courses in life can be useful, but living our priestly life passing from one course to another, from method to method, leads us to become Pelagians, to minimize the power of grace that is activated and grows in the measure in which we go out in faith to give ourselves.".

It is beautiful to note the pastoral constant of the pontificate of Francis to personalize to the maximum the attention to each faithful, to each human being, wherever he is, going to the limit, and it hurts that many times it is difficult for us to let ourselves be carried by this principle. May I take the steps that the Spirit asks of me: "To Jeremiah he said: 'Wherever I send you, you shall go' (Jeremiah 1:7). Today, in this 'go' of Jesus, the ever new scenarios and challenges of the Church's evangelizing mission are present, and we are all called to this new missionary 'going forth'. Each Christian and each community will discern which path the Lord is asking of them, but we are all invited to accept this call: to leave our own comfort zone and dare to reach out to all the peripheries that need the light of the Gospel" (Jn 1:7). (Evangelii Gaudium, 20).

The authorJosé Antúnez

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