Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we feature 2017-18 Resident Scholars. Susan Sink recently interviewed Jaisy Joseph, who is currently spending the 2017-18 academic year at the Collegeville Institute. Joseph is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow at Boston College and is working on a project titled “Reimagining Catholicity: An Interstitial Perspective.” To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your project on catholicity—is it your dissertation?
Yes, I’m grateful for the opportunity to complete my dissertation here at the Collegeville Institute. At the Second Vatican Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church identified four dimensions of catholicity that characterize the pilgrim people of God – intercultural, inter-ecclesial, ecumenical, and interreligious. My project is concerned with how we might reimagine catholicity with the first two dimensions, which are found internal to the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church.
Particularly in the US Catholic Church, which is experiencing unprecedented levels of immigration, how might we better engage the transformative elements of Pope Francis’ “culture of encounter” not only between the multiple cultures that make up the Roman Catholic Church, but also in relation to the various Eastern Catholic Churches that are also present on US soil. How might we resist living in parallel realities that reflect a “divided spirit within Catholicism” that Yves Congar warned against?
What set you on the course of this area of study?
As a child of Syro-Malabar Catholics who migrated from Kerala, India, after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, I grew up confused about the purpose of establishing a Catholic community different in language, liturgy, and culture from the local parochial school that I attended. Nevertheless, the community presented a safe place where I no longer had to explain the particular idiosyncrasies of my heritage culture to curious minds, and I could interact with other second-generation children who were experiencing both the positive and negative realities of our immigrant status. As I entered into my undergraduate studies, however, I began to question my religious identity, which naturally involved my cultural traditions since the two were so closely intertwined in my upbringing. In the midst of these very personal questions, I happened to take a Liberative Theologies class that completely revolutionized my perception of the situation.
Voraciously reading through the reflections of many Latino/a, African-American, and Asian-American theologians, I was encouraged by the profound self-reflection that propelled many of them to raise their voices loud enough to challenge the dominant culture. Nevertheless, I always turned the final page of the book with a sense of disappointment. Despite many parallels, none of their experiences fully captured my reality as a second generation Indian-American Syro-Malabar Catholic. This reality often included the tension of trying to maintain a heritage culture that I had little direct access to while simultaneously attempting to integrate myself into a society that recognized I had different roots. Yet, because tension naturally seeks resolution, these theologians inspired me to use my experiences as a culturally hyphenated Eastern Christian as a source of creativity for theological reflection.
I wonder if the “interstitial” spaces you are exploring might involve openings for ecumenism and interfaith collaborations. If so, how?
I agree! My reasoning is that if the US Catholic Church cultivates a “culture of encounter” ad intra, it will only have more integrity in engaging difference in ecumenical and interfaith spaces. For example, Roman Catholics in the Latin tradition have, for too long, granted a merely “ornamental function” to Eastern Catholicism. What is required is a conscious integration of their ecclesiological insights. This treatment has become increasingly problematic in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, which forces the former to emphasize the right of Eastern Catholics to exist, but resists in letting them flourish on their own terms. Second, a majority of Asian Catholics exist as minorities in their country of origin and many Eastern Catholics have lived as minorities in predominantly Muslim and Hindu contexts. Their experiences on the periphery of Western Catholicism may demonstrate new directions of cultivating Catholic identity in dialogue with other religions.
Have you had any significant ecumenical experiences or surprising conversations so far during your stay?
I remember being really struck by Milan Spak’s presentation during one of our lunch sessions in the Fall. While the artwork he presented was beautiful, it was his discussion on the self-effacing spirituality of the artist that caught my attention. He longed for the era of anonymous, egoless artists who decentered themselves to foreground the divine spark found in creation. As I was walking back to my apartment, I ran into Nicholas Denysenko, another resident at the Collegeville Institute. We talked about how the divorce between theology and spirituality has led to a similar loss today in our field.
Many theologians often forget a sense of vocation in the search for a career, thereby limiting the fruit that their writing can bear in the life of the Church. I wondered about how we might be able to resist the pressures of academia to ensure that even as we meet these demands, we don’t lose sight of the deeper truths that motivate our work. It is a conversation that has stayed with me as I continue to work on my dissertation–to remember that in every work of creation, the Holy Spirit is present.
What is your vision for the Syro-Malabar Catholic church in ten years?
About ten years ago, I was inspired by by Virgilio Elizondo’s insights in the Galilean Journey that the hyphenated culture born of two parent cultures, (Mexican-American for him and Indian-American for me) is not a source of shame, but a legitimate space of self-expression and divine revelation. This encouraged me to work with others in the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Chicago to initiate a nationwide Diocesan Youth Apostolate that addressed questions of belonging and identity for the second generation. This apostolate has grown and now ministers to over sixty parishes throughout the US.
My vision for the Church for the next decade is that this sense of identity not become self-serving and exclusive but a source of connection and encounter with others. As we grow in the understanding of our Eastern Catholic identity in the US, it is imperative to allow our tradition to become a source of mutual nourishment with others. Otherwise, my fear is that we will lose our sense of being a church and become an irrelevant cultural club. Out of respect for the struggles and sacrifices of the first generation and in response to God’s abundant blessings, it is our responsibility to discover how our church may contribute to the wider mission of the Church in the US.