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Monday, January 30, 2023

Father José: ‘Giving thanks to God! Every day!’

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
From left, Father Jose Vieira Arruda, Bishop Benito Juárez Martínez and Vicar John Hayes. Photo: Diario de Yucatán

I first talked to the Rev. Dr. José Vieira Arruda — or Father José — four years ago when he started engaging in conversation on my Imagine Mérida blog. This was back when he was still in Canada, only considering a move to Mérida.

Since then, he expanded and decorated a marvelous house and has made countless friends and allies. Despite years of on-and-off socializing, I always felt there was more to know about José if I asked the right questions. Being an unreliable church-goer, and not a Catholic, I did not feel equipped to hold an intelligent conversation with José about church or faith.  

But now it is obviously time for a conversation. All English-speaking worshipers in Mérida must certainly know that now, Fr. José has been working with the Anglican Church of Mexico to form a mission in the White City. This is a breakaway from the Roman Catholic Church, and the start of what I believe has been missing here: a place for socially progressive and ecumenical worshipers. 

Fr. José (being Portuguese, the ‘J” is not silent) tells us candidly why St. Luke’s mission was initiated and where its place is in the Christians community. And he shares his insights about God, grace and inclusiveness: 

Can you tell me briefly about the catalyst for St. Luke’s?

The English-speaking community of Mérida was celebrating its Sunday Eucharist at the Roman Catholic Church of Monjas, a beautiful historical temple, located here in the heart of the city. One Lenten Sunday, we had the visit of Rev. Christopher Brooke Craun, a priest from the U.S. Episcopal Church, to be exact, from St. Michaels and All Saints Church in Portland, Ore.

Being the person that I am, I welcomed her and invited her to read the Gospel and to help me distribute communion, vested with alb and stole. Well, that Monday, the Bishop, Don Gustavo Rodríguez Vega, was calling me and a few days afterwards, suspended me from ministry in the state of Yucatán.

In other words, what to me was a gesture of ecumenical hospitality, to the institutional RC Church of Yucatán was an ecclesiastical crime worthy of punishment – my suspension. Now, this is the RC Church of Mexico, the Church of Marcial Maciel [founder of the conservative Legion of Christ] … need I say more?

You’ve had quite a journey before landing in Mérida. Tell us about your personal background.

I am a Portuguese-Canadian, ordained in the Roman Catholic Church now for almost 30 years. I was ordained to the priesthood on the 25th of June 1987. I define myself as an ecumenical Christian, rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition.

For reasons that have to do with my family history, I promised my parents that I would never study in a Roman Catholic seminary, that is, in a closed system of formation, an ecclesiastical type of hothouse (my father’s image of a RC seminary). All my studies were done in universities and in ecumenical contexts. I studied at Saint Michael’s College of the University of Toronto; at Fordham University in the Bronx; and at McGill University, in Montréal. I hold two doctoral degrees one in ecclesiology and the other in clinical psychology. These are my fields of study.

I have always been in creative tension and sometimes painfully so, with the RC institutional Church and am of the opinion that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were “wintry years.”  This expression is not mine but of one of the great theologians and mystics of the 20th century, namely Karl Rahner.

Watching John Paul II and Benedict XVI almost negate the ecumenical and collegial legacy of the Second Vatican Council was a very sad experience for me. True that one lives by hope and trust – hope and trust in the Lord! I believe that I was able to “keep the faith,” as it were, thanks to theologians like Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Eugen Drewermann, Edward Schillebeeckx, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, Gustavo Gutiérrez and many others. These are ecumenical theologians rooted in the RC tradition, theologians of the spirit of Vatican II and, thanks to them, not only to their theological work, but also, to their endurance through so much persecution and suffering at the hands of the institutional RC Church, many of us were able to continue hoping and trusting…

You were a Roman Catholic priest in Montréal for many years. Can you tell us about those years?

The priesthood is not my only vocation.  I am also a trained psychotherapist and have always been a priest “at the edges” of the institutional Roman Catholic Church.  My experience as a priest in Montreal was wonderful, first ministering with Portuguese and Hispanic immigrants and then directly with Quebecois faithful.  This, obviously, in the context of the Montréal-Québecois Church, in those days, led by the inspiring Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte. During the last years of my priestly ministry in Montréal, I was also heavily involved in ecumenical relations with Muslim sisters and brothers, recently arrived immigrants from North Africa. What an experience of hospitality and grace! They touched me profoundly and were for me a source of great joy!

Then, Cardinal Turcotte retired and another Bishop was literally imposed by Benedict XVI… everything changed. And I asked for a sabbatical year. My first intention was to go to Morocco and learn Moroccan Arabic and spend a year (or more) with the small Christian community of the port city of Essaouira. Then, Dad became very ill and plans had to be changed. I met Joanna Rosado through her blog, came to Mérida and fell in love with the city and its people.

When did you arrive in Mérida, and what has that been like for you? Are you happy you moved here?

I arrived in Mérida on July 31, 2013 and the day after, Aug. 1, Joanna and Jorge Rosado were at my door welcoming me and asking if I needed anything. I will never forget them and will never cease to thank God for them.

Mérida has been for me an oasis, a place of peace and joy. Here I have met dear friends, Americans, Canadians and Mexicans, who continue to be for me a stimulating source of inspiration, affirmation, growth and happiness. Since Day One, everything just keeps falling into place… it has been a journey of overflowing grace in ways that I could have never imagined.

Understand that I am 56 years old and, therefore, it has been a time of making connections and coming to conclusions – intellectually, spiritually and emotionally, I have never felt more alive! God had (and continues to have) a plan for me and I keep repeating the words of the prophet Samuel: “Here I am, Lord! You have called me!”

I just marvel and keep giving thanks to God! Every day! These days I have come to the conclusion that, all along, God had been preparing me to become a full member of the Anglican Communion … this is awesome! This is wonderful! This is pure grace!

Explain the Anglican Church of Mexico, and what a “mission” is. What would you like us to know about the Anglican outlook on social issues?

The Anglican Church of Mexico has its roots in the “Iglesia de Jesús,” the group of Roman Catholic priests who sided with Benito Juárez, back when Mexico became fully independent from Spain. With time, the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, as the U.S. Episcopal Church was called back then, came to the aid of the Iglesia de Jesús.

Presently, we are a province of the Anglican Communion made up of five dioceses. I belong to the Southeast Diocese of the Anglican Church of México, with Right Rev. Benito Juárez Martínez as our bishop and which comprises the tates of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Chiapas. It is a very large diocese and our parishes, missions and preaching stations are mainly in rural areas. Thus the need for “spiritual partnerships” with other dioceses and parishes in the United States, like in Chicago and Indianapolis, the need to keep very much alive our sense of communion – that indeed we are a communion of sisters and brothers following the Lord, walking together in dignity, especially with the poor and the marginalized of our respective societies and of our world.

Being a Mission means that we are not a full parish. We do not have a Vestry, but a Bishop’s Committee. We are still small in number. Yet, our missionary spirit, our spirit of evangelism, is very much alive. We are part of the “Jesus Movement” and, thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are on fire! Three months ago, we started small … and, thanks be to God, we have been growing and continue to grow. The Lord continues to open doors and we continue to walk hand in hand with Him and with each other. Our congregation has become bilingual and Mexican sisters and brothers continue to inquire about us and continue to arrive and many of them stay with us. What a gift! What a joy!

Presently, we have taken upon ourselves to help the Trinitarian Sisters of Mérida.  They care for young ladies who cannot stay with their families. This August, we will be evaluating this particular project and probably taking on some other ones, here in Mérida. Our city, like many others, is a city divided into two halves – we are located at the center of these two halves. As Saint Luke’s Anglican Mission of Mérida, we see our vocation as one of being a bridge of Good News between these two halves. There are many people who are suffering here and we are here to walk together in communion.  This is what we are about!

And finally, what sets St. Luke’s apart from other houses of worship? Has it been difficult to adjust to the ways of a different church?

Mr. Frank Kriegel has been very kind in lending us his Bed & Breakfast as a place of gathering for our Sunday worship and for other events as well. Mr. Greg Casini has been there for us as well. Their sense of hospitality is unbelievable and we are forever grateful to them.

I have also offered my home for Bible Study and the members of our Bishop’s Committee have also offered their homes for meetings and other events. We are different in the sense that if communion is our first name, hospitality is our second name! However, we are becoming keenly aware that very soon, and probably sooner than we think, we will need a bigger place to gather and to worship. We are an inclusive congregation and our vision is one of becoming a home for everyone one, regardless of social class, color, race, gender and sexual orientation.

We are all called to build Church – a Church where diversity is not a threat or something to be overlooked, but a gift to be celebrated, where communion is not founded on uniformity, but on authentic hospitality, that leads to dialogue and understanding and personal and collective healing, growth and affirmation. For us it cannot be otherwise.

We believe and so far it has been our experience, that our Mexican sisters and brothers are searching for a Church like ours – a grace-full space where you are the most important person as a child of God, a sister, a brother, with your history, a history of joys and sufferings, a history of pilgrimage. You will be welcomed! You will be hugged! And we will walk, celebrate and co-create together – together with the God of Jesus, the Christ.

Saint Luke’s Anglican Mission of Mérida is there for all of us. It is a congregation of welcoming sisters and brothers, a hospitable and grace-full space that if you allow it, can become an opportunity for you to experience something awesome and beautiful – the presence of God as compassionate and joyful communion, as Good News for our lives and the life of our world. Welcome!

Like St. Luke’s Facebook page to follow their journey. Or visit them on Sunday.

{ Previous story: A gay Christian feels at home at St. Luke’s. }

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