"Without the Episcopal Conference, the path of the Church in Spain is incomprehensible."

The Spanish Episcopal Conference (CEE) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. On that occasion, there will be two international congresses: one in June, on the nature and history of the Episcopal Conferences; and another in autumn, on Paul VI, the Pope who instituted them. We spoke with Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez Pérez about the anniversary and other current issues.

Enrique Carlier-April 13, 2016-Reading time: 8 minutes
Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez

The Episcopal Conferences arise from the Second Vatican Council, which concluded on December 8, 1965. Only two years later, the first Plenary Assembly of the Spanish Episcopal Conference began, which lasted from February 26, 1967 to March 4. It was held at the Casa de Ejercicios del Pinar de Chamartín de la Rosa, in Madrid.

The first statutes were approved on February 27 and ratified by the Holy See that same year. On February 28, the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Fernando Quiroga Palacios, was elected the first president of the EEC. And on March 1, the official constitution of the EEC took place.

About this half-century of the Conferences and about the Spanish Conference in particular, we wanted to talk to its president, Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez, who also kindly answered us, as usual with him, to other current issues affecting the Church in Spain.

What is your assessment of these fifty years of the life of the Bishops' Conferences? Have they lived up to the expectations of the Council? -There are two institutions of the Church born in the context of the Second Vatican Council, namely, the Synod of Bishops and the Bishops' Conferences, which in my opinion have been very fruitful in the fifty years since the Second Vatican Council. They have been very effective instruments for the implementation of the Council. 

Regarding the Spanish Episcopal Conference, the same day the Second Vatican Council was closed, the bishops wrote a letter, signed in Rome, where they expressed their determination to establish the Episcopal Conference as soon as possible. It was a prompt decision that showed the receptive attitude of the bishops of the Church in Spain to the Council. 

Since then, its documents have been numerous. The Conference has constantly accompanied the dioceses and their faithful in reflection and orientation. Undoubtedly, the Council was right in creating the Episcopal Conferences, and ours has been attentive at every historical juncture and has given very considerable help, which should be acknowledged and thanked.

Do you consider that the authentic ecclesiological nature of the Conferences has taken hold inside and outside the Church, or is there still some confusion? -Probably the ecclesiological significance of the Bishops' Conferences has not yet been adequately perceived by many. In fact, I have received letters from people who assumed that the President of the Conference was the "head" of the bishops and had authority over the dioceses in Spain. Sometimes they are surprised when they are answered that only the Pope has authority over the bishops; and that in each diocese the bishop has the responsibility to guide it; and that the Conference is a help, if you will, very qualified, for the bishops.

In our specific case, has the Spanish Episcopal Conference contributed effectively to the coordination of the Spanish bishops?  -My conviction is that the organs of the Episcopal Conference have acted with an awareness of their responsibility and of the precise scope of their manifestations. It has certainly contributed to promote the union among the bishops and the coordinated pastoral action of the dioceses. Welcoming the Council, orientations in more complicated moments, communion among the bishops and convergent pastoral action of all... in these and other points, the Spanish Episcopal Conference has rendered an invaluable service. The functioning of both the Plenary Assembly and the other personal and collegial bodies has been, in my experience, correct. The actions of the Conference will probably have been more brilliant at some moments and more discreet at others, but it has always acted in fulfillment of its mission. 

On the other hand, the bishops are not in favor of an absorbing action of the Conference. They recognize the role of the Conference, but do not want it to encroach on the responsibility entrusted to them. It is true that at certain times the challenges posed to the Conference have been more urgent and delicate, to which it was necessary to respond promptly and seriously.

What would have been the most relevant milestones of these fifty years of the EEC's life? What main achievements would you highlight? -In my opinion, the first ten years or so of the Conference were decisive in responding to the reforms called for by the Council and in bringing the Spanish Church into harmony with the Council's Declaration on religious freedom, at the time of what we have called the transition. The Church, with the guidance of the Council, was able to provide valuable help to Spanish society and the political community in those years. As is well known, there were misunderstandings, difficulties and also collaboration. 

In these fifty years the Conference has helped all the bishops and their dioceses in all fields of pastoral action: doctrine, liturgy, catechesis, charity, Church-State relations, attention to priests, religious, consecrated persons, lay people, associations of the faithful, seminaries, missions, education, etcetera. Without the Episcopal Conference, the long history of the Church in Spain is incomprehensible. The various diocesan action plans and the pastoral letters of the bishops bear witness to this valuable assistance.

Any anecdotes or significant experiences from these five decades? -I have fond memories. I was ordained a bishop in 1988; when I participated in the Plenary Assembly for the first time, I felt how the collegial affection was also a warm welcome and fraternal affection from the bishops. I was received in the Assembly not only as someone who by right took part in it, but above all as someone who was cordially received. I have learned from other bishops that they also had a similar impression. Bishops are united not only by pastoral duty, but also by bonds of affection and a personal attitude of sharing their work and hopes.

According to the current Pastoral Plan of the EEC, what are the main difficulties facing the Church in Spain? -For a long time the bishops have been convinced that evangelization in our present situation, the new evangelization, is the most urgent and fundamental challenge facing Catholics in Spain. 

The transmission of the Christian faith to the new generations is a decisive task. The family, in this task as in the education of children in general, is irreplaceable. We are concerned about religious indifference and forgetfulness of God. The last Pastoral Plan, approved a few months ago, is moving in this direction. We wish to make a revision that leads to a pastoral conversion of the forms, of the institutional channels, of the difficulties and of the joyful experiences in this order. 

Fostering communion in the Church, witnessing to the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments with greater authenticity and being consistent in the service of charity and mercy to all, especially the poorest, most marginalized and distant, are tasks that we have been fulfilling and wish to intensify.

In March 2005 you were elected president of the EEC; the March 13 from 2010On March 12, 2014, he was re-elected for a second term as president of the episcopate. Always in March, what is your assessment of these last two years at the head of the EEC?  -I would add another date in March in my personal biography: on March 28, 1988, the nuncio informed me of the Pope's decision to appoint me bishop. 

I have noticed a warmer communion among all of us. Missionary realism leads us to accentuate our trust in the light and strength of the Lord in order to face the daily work for the Gospel. Hope was in other times - for example, in the years of the Council - was enhanced by euphoria; in our times, genuine hope is deeply tested. We are focusing on the fundamental tasks and attitudes want to be more humbly evangelical. Our weakness urges us to trust in the strength of Christ. Pope Francis, with his life and words, helps us effectively. 

In recent years the number of priestly vocations in Spain has been growing slightly. How do you see the vocational panorama?  -For a long time now we have been suffering a severe vocation crisis for vocations to the priestly ministry and the consecrated life. There are some exceptions which, compared to the years of extraordinary abundance, are not so bad. There are some religious communities that are more vigorous, but in general we suffer from a shortage. This scarcity does not mean a decline in fidelity. Sometimes there is an upturn, but I do not think it is significant from the point of view of vocational take-off. The crisis of seminarians is probably a crisis of priests, and the crisis of priests is a crisis of Christian communities. 

The work for priestly vocations has been very intense for many years. The most sensitive sufferings of the bishops are related to the seminaries. Pastoral work for vocations must involve families, catechesis, parishes, apostolic movements and communities. We need a "vocational culture", that is, a broad environment, a network of coordinated efforts and Christians converging in this pastoral field.

The subject of Religion continues to suffer in some places, especially due to the different application of the law in the different Autonomous Communities. Why is it rejected by some?  -Parents have the right to educate their children in their convictions; the cultural environment in which we live theoretically recognizes this right, but does not always act consistently to put it into practice. 

The subject of religion in school is not a privilege, but a right that is in fact a service to students, families and society as a whole. It is a reasonable solution to make it compulsory for state schools and free choice for parents and possibly for their children. But this form of action is not always loyally respected, so why is it that, when there is such a high proportion of applications, this truly democratic request is sometimes denied? 

It is also understood that the fulfillment of this right to religious education requires a quality in the teaching of religion. I would ask for more respect for the right of parents. 

For example, what do you think of the fact that the Constitutional Court has still not resolved the appeal against the abortion law?  -Publicly, as President of the Episcopal Conference, in a speech at the opening of the Assembly and on other occasions, I have expressed my opinion on the matter. It is this: I do not understand, I do not know why the law that was appealed when we were in the opposition was not changed when we had the opportunity to govern. 

The right to life, from the womb to natural death, is an inviolable right. The edifice of human rights is shaken when the most fundamental of rights is not respected. As Pope Francis has repeated, the mother who finds herself in a distressing situation to receive her unborn child must be helped. The Church has some resources to help, and even if they are limited, they are effective. There are centers that provide a decisive service to the life of the child and the confidence of the mother. 

How do you see the socio-economic and unemployment situation in our country, and do you think that enough is being done for the most disadvantaged? -It is a difficult question, because it includes an ingredient of generosity to share and a factor of technical work that complicates things. The Bishops' Conference deals with this question in the Pastoral Instruction "The Church at the service of the poor", which was made public in April in Avila. 

The percentage of unemployed, especially young people, is very high in our country, although we must recognize the slow and steady decline in recent years. Let us deepen in the Year of Mercy our attention to the poor and unemployed, with a clear awareness that the goods of creation are for all humanity. Let us cultivate solidarity among all, with those near and far; and let us unite our technical efforts without falling into ideologies that obscure both the problems and the solutions. High unemployment is a task that concerns everyone and that affects many people, depriving them of the necessary resources and the due recognition of their dignity. How can young people form a family without sufficient resources?

How do you see the current political situation? -I view the situation with concern, not so much because of the unprecedented political map resulting from the general elections of December 20, but because of the immense difficulties shown by political leaders to approach, talk and jointly seek the most appropriate solution. It is saddening when one day after the other they get into a fight with each other and postpone the irreplaceable dialogues to find a solution that will give us all serenity and confidence. 

It is not up to the Episcopal Conference to point out where the path should lead; we express our respect for all parties and we do not exclude or veto any of them. The citizens, who are also us, have voted and we respect the verdict of the ballot box. We are willing to collaborate with the government that is formed for the good of society. The causes of justice, freedom, reconciliation and peace are also our causes, both for general ethics and evangelical demands.

From various political parties voices are raised in favor of a repeal or revision of the agreements of the State with the Holy See. Are these statements of concern to the EEC? -I would ask why this question appears in the public square whenever proposals for the future are made by some groups. Do the Agreements do so much harm to society? Have they not been a reasonable formula on the road to respectful and concordant relations? Are the Agreements an easy resource or a lure to heat up tempers? Are these political manifestations about denouncing the Agreements, breaking them, revising them? The public opinion should be spoken clearly and not in a foggy atmosphere that introduces confusion. 

On the other hand, the current Agreements are in harmony with the Constitution, forged in a climate of consensus and approved by all Spaniards. Our history cannot consist of weaving and unweaving, as Penelope did, sowing insecurity and uncertainty.

The authorEnrique Carlier

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