The Pope tries to find the right fit for big jobs. He has given this man big jobs: naming him auxiliary bishop of Paris in 1979, archbishop in 1980 and cardinal archbishop in 1985. Now he is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He's also a good fit: The author of 20 works on theology, history and world religions, his other duties include the Congregations for Divine Worship, the Evangelization of Peoples and Catholic Education; and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Recently he spoke with Register correspondent Berenice Cocciolillo.
Cocciolillo: When did you realize that you wanted to dedicate your life to the Church?
Cardinal Poupard: Oh, I never dreamt of doing anything else. When I was very, very young, I would watch my parish priest say Mass every morning. He was always present in the life of our community, in times of mourning as well as joy. I basically wanted to be like him. Unfortunately, however, I never managed to be a parish priest, though my life has certainly taken me in some very interesting directions. In 1981, when I was the rector of the Catholic Institute of Paris, I had the great honor of receiving the Holy Father, Pope John II, at my home. It was then that he invited me to come to Rome to head the Council for Culture. Rome is now the place I've lived in for the biggest part of my life.
How has your own history benefited your work with culture?
I was born in Anjou, in western France. I had the good fortune to be born into a Christian family, to be educated in a Christian school, to have a mother and father who loved each other as well as their three children. Of course I didn't know it then, but I grew up in a cultural environment which was exquisitely Catholic.
Even in today's secularized culture there seems to be a great need for religion, for spirituality.
Oh, yes. Man is profoundly religious. It is part of his nature; he is not just “homo sapiens” but “homo religiosus.” Religion is not as many have said, a moment in the history of humanity which was destined to disappear and be replaced by science, but a fundamental dimension of man. Ironically, the same “intellectuals” who said that God was dead are now saying that God has returned! But God never left. However, in the meantime, a significant number of people have distanced themselves from the Church. The problem is that instead of returning to the Church in order to fulfill their spiritual needs, they go in other, disastrous directions.
How can the Gospel reach our hypersecularized culture?
If we want the Gospel to reach the soul of every person, it is necessary for the
Gospel to become part of culture. However, the Gospel must evangelize culture without losing itself in the culture. This, of course, is not an easy task. In fact, when the Holy Father called me to Rome to head the Council for Culture, he told me that he was asking me to do something very, very difficult. We live in a time when human life is devalued, love is seen as merchandise and truth is obscured. It is to this culture that we must bring the Gospel of life and joy. Let us remember that the word “gospel” means good news — and the good news is also for today's culture.
What do you mean by the phrase “evangelize culture”?
Evangelizing culture means offering the values of the Gospel in a manner that is convincing. Absolute respect for human life, the dignity of responsible love, the devotion to work and family, the need to give meaning to one's existence, the sensitivity to the needs of others; these are values which we must never tire of proclaiming, and not just in words but also by concrete initiatives. Finally, let us think about the mystery of the Pentecost as described in the Acts of the Apostles, where each man hears in his own language the marvels of God. This is really what the Pontifical Council for Culture is all about: By speaking the language of the people, we aim to help them to speak the language of God.
How do you personally do that at the council?
You could say that my role is similar to that of a minister of culture for the Vatican. Next month I will go to Paris for a conference sponsored by [the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] entitled “A New Humanism for the Third Millennium.” After that I head for the Yucatan, Mexico, where there is the problem of the encounter of the Gospel with both ancient, indigenous cultures as well as the culture of new religious movements. In a huge, alienating metropolis like Mexico City with a population of 20 million, it's no wonder that the inhabitants lose touch with Catholic culture as well as culture in general. Our job is to help bishops, parishes, as well as Catholic universities to help all these people rediscover the Gospel.
You are an expert on religious sects and new religious movements such as New Age. What it is about New Age that makes it so attractive?
The New Age phenomenon has revived one of the most ancient hopes of mankind, that is, a new era of peace, harmony and reconciliation within oneself, achieved through the discovery and development of a person's own “divine” capabilities. It is this vision which makes the New Age movement so fascinating for many of our contemporaries. In reality, New Age is simply a cocktail of neo-pagan beliefs, neo-gnostic theories, magical practices and syncretistic doctrines. It is one of the most dramatic religious and cultural challenges to Christian faith today, especially because it is reductionist with regard to certain essential elements of Christian faith: Christ is no longer the one redeemer of mankind; inner enlightenment replaces faith as obedience to God. You just take a little of this and a little of that and paint Christ's face over it.
Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's. In other words, the Church does not wish to substitute for man in his role as politician, artist, worker or thinker. But Christ and the Gospel are necessary, as yeast is necessary for bread. This is why we must try to bring the politician back to Christ, so that he can be immunized against temptation and corruption.
Have you personally seen signs of this?
On a recent trip to Brazil I saw people praying to a statue which represented both the Blessed Virgin and the Goddess of the Sea. In this way the image of Christianity is preserved but there is no content and people are tricked into an ingenuous optimism which provides no answers to the real problems of human existence. It is like going to the market and buying cheap things, thinking that you've gotten a bargain. Often, when you get home you realize that you've simply been tricked.
Has the contemporary Church perhaps neglected man's need for spirituality and mystery by concentrating so much on the social and the political aspects of life?
That is what I call the sociopolitical temptation. After the cultural changes that took place in the late ‘60s, it became a common belief that in order to reach man it was necessary to reduce the Church's message to a socio-political one. But people don't need the Church for this. Christ, at the end of the Gospel, said, “Go forth and convert all nations, baptize and teach them to live the message that I have given you.” This message has gotten lost.
What signs of this have you seen?
I witnessed it recently in Quebec where I participated in a conference on “Cultural Changes, Transcendence and Challenges to the Church at the Dawn of the Third Millennium.” In this historically Catholic area, entire congregations are dying out. The reason is that people are not getting the spiritual message that they need. The French Christian philosopher Gabriel Marcel used to tell me: “Without mystery, life would be unbreathable.” We have now reached a moment when life has become unbreathable. People are tired of all the confusion of contemporary culture, dominated by sex, money and violence, and desperately seek something else. That something else is mystery.
What can the Church do to renew its message?
We must rediscover the impetus of the early Christian communities, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. These early Christians were devoted to the word of God, to the holy Eucharist and to fraternal life. Let's help people rediscover these fundamental points, without looking for impossible solutions. It is the duty of the Church, as well as all of the faithful, to help man recover his religious dimension, as revealed by Jesus Christ. This enormous task is what I call the new humanism for the new millennium. Christ presents us with an image of ourselves that is much more wondrous than what we would believe, because we are made in Christ's likeness. The great French writer Blaise Pascal said, “Man exceeds man infinitely.” We must help people rediscover man's likeness to Christ, which is much more fascinating than any New Age cocktail.
Last January, the pontifical council organized a symposium on Europe and culture. Was it your idea?
As usual, the idea came from the Holy Father, who asked me to organize this conference in preparation for the synod of European bishops, which will be held next fall. I had organized a similar conference 10 years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union.
What were the conference's conclusions?
The best way for Europe to bring hope and love back to its cultures is to reaffirm the value of the human person and the call to solidarity, which are both taught most forcefully by the Christian faith. Before the mediocrity and the vulgarity of today's dominant culture, Christ becomes desirable for man. This is really how we will build the third millennium.
The Italian philosopher Remo Bodei wrote that the Catholic Church today fills the void left by the fall of communism. Do you agree with Bodei that the Church is destined to replace the state in terms of representing the poor and the underprivileged?
My answer can be found in the Gospel: Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's. In other words, the Church does not wish to substitute for man in his role as politician, artist, worker or thinker. But Christ and the Gospel are necessary, as yeast is necessary for bread. This is why we must try to bring the politician back to Christ, so that he can be immunized against temptation and corruption. This is one way to evangelize culture, by sanctifying the political, which Pope Pius XI said is the greatest field of charity, because it is for the common good. The Church asks its children to bring Christ's message to economics so that it remains in the service of man and does not become an anti-human tyranny.
The Council for Culture must be very busy preparing for the Jubilee. Do you see the laity responding?
Yes, we are planning many things for the year 2000. I must say that in my travels throughout the world, I see a great anticipation for the Jubilee, especially in young people. This can only be explained by the Holy Spirit. Everywhere I go, priests tell me that young people in their parishes are constantly asking, “When are we leaving for Rome?” I am convinced that this is proof of God's grace. It is a momentous time for the Church. To return to the job of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the time is ripe for the Church to speak the language of man in order to help man learn the language of God.
— Berenice Cocciolillo