The new head of the Portuguese Bishops has criticised the “sect mentality” in Church and its attachment to “fetishistic realities of the past”.

– “Only weak ideals are afraid and closed-off”

Bishop José Ornelas of the Setúbal diocese, who was elected last week as the President of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, gave his thoughts on the Church’s mission, particularly post-COVID-19, to the Ecclesia news agency in an interview June 21.

“The Church’s great mission message is to go out into the world, where it is and how it is”, Ornelas said, recalling that the Church’s way of evangelising has been in constant evolution since its birth.

The Church “was born in a Jewish environment and when it begins to confront what is not Jewish, it has to change its ‘identity card’. Not what it believes or carries, but its way of being: it will take up residence all over the world, which means taking on the colours and criteria of every place and kneading them with the foundation of the Gospel”, the bishop explained.

Ornelas added that that need for the Church to “adapt” to every time and place in which it finds itself “doesn’t mean that you don’t have an identity to preserve. We do! Our roots are very clear”.

But the prelate stressed that those roots that the Church always digs up in order to rediscover its mission “are not simply a return to the past; they are constantly being remade”.

The biblical foundation is always the starting point “because everything begins in the Word, where it is necessary to return in the moments of great change, like those we are living now”, Ornelas stressed.

“It is fundamental to know one’s identity, not as something untouchable and nostalgic, but as a dynamic wealth that is constantly being recreated. Only weak ideals are afraid and closed-off”, he cautioned.

The bishop issued a further warning: “The sect mentality that lives in certain sectors of the Church is precisely that: the fear of the unknown, the fear of the new and the closing-in on fetishistic realities of the past that do not have the courage to knead themselves in with the world as it presents itself. That is a musty return to the past! And the Word of God has nothing musty about it!”

– The Church is not pyramidal, but circular

As an example of a fruitful model of mission for the 21st century, Ornelas cited Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality and collegiality among bishops, which the prelate praised as an “intelligent way of living ecclesiality”.

“The Second Vatican Council said that the foundation of the Church is not a pyramidal structure of power, but a circular structure”, the bishop explained.

“The great image of the Church is that which is in the Gospel: when they go to ask Jesus where his sister and brothers are he says to look around them – circular structure – and says that his sisters and brothers are those who listen to the Word of God and put it into practice”, Ornelas stressed.

Though the bishop admitted that that circular communion must be “organised”, he added that “at the centre is Christ” always and that “we need this synodality, to make paths together”.

“The universal Church is in the whole world and in its representatives, in a circularity, and by becoming synodal, it journeys together”, Ornelas affirmed.

– Post-coronavirus, “how we treat the poor is decisive for the civilisation we want to build”

One final point the new Portuguese Bishops’ president addressed in his latest interview was the impact of the coronavirus on the Church: a subject on which, Ornelas revealed, the episcopal conference is preparing a sustained reflection to complement the diagnosis of the economic and social consequences of the pandemic the Bishops released after their Plenary Assembly in Fátima last week.

“I hope that this experience will make us understand many things: a Church that needs to be more networked, close to those who are more on the peripheries and caring for the most fragile, because how we treat the poor is decisive for the civilisation we want to build”, Ornelas reflected.

“Companies, with more or less technological development, are more or less prosperous. But it is necessary to know whether companies generate real wealth and humanisation or poverty and exploitation”, the bishop warned, explaining in a metaphor that the “temperature” of the poor is the key indicator of whether or not the pandemic has truly passed.

“The Gospel tells us and a pandemic confirms it: the poor must be the focus of attention because that is where we build a more just and better society”, Ornelas concluded.

More stories on Novena on the Portuguese Church:

Portuguese Bishops call for “globalisation of solidarity” to meet COVID-19 crisis “unparalleled in recent history”

Portuguese bishop Ornelas stresses: “One cannot participate in the Eucharist and be racist”

Bishop Ornelas in Portugal says slums a “stain” and a “disgrace” for country


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.