return to nº46

by Núria Escur

Even though he has fought on many other battlegrounds, Father Joan Batlles will go down in history for the very special role he played as a staunch defender of the laymen's right of intervention in the affairs of the Church. He still stands out in the magma-like memory of those who were young once and wanted to change the world starting off with a new approach to religion, though within different frames of reference : the Labour Movement, Scout Associations, politics or active pedagogy. Now 81 years old, Father Batlles still has a lot to say to the youth of today.

(...) He is known as the priest who strived to effect a real rapprochement with laymen, adopting an approach based on two unchallengeable premises: the existence of a Catalan national identity and a certain sense of freedom. You may distract his attention for a while, but he will always revert to his initial idea.

He is not an ordinary priest by any manner of means. And it shows in everything he does, from the way he talks to his interlocutors, looking right at them with slanting bright blue eyes, to this feeling you have that almost nothing can surprise him. If all the churchmen were like him, I swear that the number of Christian believers would increase. But, to tell the whole truth, Father Batlles also becomes rather impenetrable where more personal matters are concercerned. As though he had always cared more about other people than about himself and, in this respect, he does not seem to be ready to change his ways. (...)

- When Father Batlles, eighty-one years of age, looks back on his trajectory, does he consider that he has achieved his intended aim within the Church ?

- Well, as a matter of fact, I never intended to achieve any particular aim. I have always thought that life itself would lead me where my destiny and my superiors would decide I shoud go. Everything started in 1929, when I entered the seminary in Barcelona. (...)

- Have you ever met a non-believer more concerned about religion than the believers themselves ?

- If someone is concerned about religion, then he cannot be considered a non-believer, strictly speaking. And, nowadays, it is evident that there are many people who believe in the Gospels, but not in the Church. This situation brings forth a difficult, though desirable, dialogue. In Barcelona, there are many people who profess very different religions. For us, this is a stimulating reality that prompts us to take stock of the strength of our own convictions. The same occurs in the world of politics, because it is the manifestation of a legitimate diversity. And it is obvious that there are many sincerely good people who do not profess Christianity. 

- But don't they say that "faith" is in fact a gift, a state of grace that one cannot achieve by merely wishing for it ? That you have faith because you are able to, not because you want to ?

- This is true. However, there is also a rational aspect to it, and we do have human reasons for which we choose to have faith. In everyday life, we also make choices which are not based on chemical or mathematical criteria. Where love is concerned, for instance.

- Someone once told Brossa : "You are very close to God. But you are turning your back on Him.". Is this the epithome of a non-believer according to your own experience ?

- We meet people whose ideology widely diverges from ours, but we think that, considering their atual behaviour, they must be pleasing God. On the other hand, within our own community, we meet people who make us feel dissatisfied. (...)

- If it rested with Father Batlles to modify something within today's Catholic Church, what would he change immediately ?

- This is something I have long reflected over, so I don't need to improvise an answer : I would like the Church to give people more opportunities to participate. I am not referring to participation in terms of tasks and actions. In earlier times, most people thought that the layman could be a mere executant of ideas, as long as these ideas were dictated by his superiors. Hence the sentence : "the "Acción Católica" movement is the far-reaching hand of the hierarchy".

- Then what you dislike is that image of a conservatively minded, class-conscious organization that the Church projects.

- The organization of the Church itself is class-conscious, as it is comprised of different categories. But, nowadays, people are willing to overcome this situation. If you ask the bishops about it, they will all tell you that it is necessary to abandon that idea of a class-orientated Church, but they do not really know how to do it. (...)

- Does the Church represent us all ?

- Of course it does. It represents the community. That is why I feel annoyed when I sometimes see press reports that read: "The Church said ..., the Church thinks... such and such". Well, that is not right. They should write : "The Pope said ..." or "Bishop So-and-so thinks ...". Because I don't like it when they report the utterances of an individual as if he were voicing a general opinion.

- You don't like it when someone talks on behalf of a whole community ?

- Of course I don't, because it is not the truth and people believe it is. Someone who acts as secretary in an episcopal conference ought to do his job, but his duties do not include those of a spokesman.

- Which opinion do you have of the current Pope ?

- It is a shame that even the Pope should be subject to the opinions that are created around him. If you look back and reflect on the kind of person a Pope ought to be, the figure of Saint Peter springs to mind. Just compare.

- In that sense, I would prefer John XXIII.

- John XXIII seduced us, there is no doubt about that. He seduced us all, even though his pontifiate is not entirely free of the taint of some unresolved issues. However, that man was a giant. Even in the pioneer role he played in advocating a participation-orientated Church. (...)

- And when will women be allowed to become priests in this country ? There is no passage in the Bible that actually forbids it.

- None whatsoever. The fact that Jesus chose only men as his disciples is based on culturally determined reasons. And they were twelve because the tribes of Israel were also twelve. In any event, by the same process of extrapolation, someone could have said : "He chose only Jews, so only Jews have the right to be his apostles today". However, from my point of view, this is not a priority issue yet.

- What is for you a priority issue ?

- Well, to make people understand that it's time for us to fully acknowledge that the Church in Japan is different from the Church in Catalonia or the Church in Castile. So, when we talk about the creation of a Catalan Episcopal Conference, it is not a trivial proposal. If you want to be in a position to face up to the problems of a given land, you have to be close to it. And our problems cannot be solved from Madrid.

- Now I have to ask you for advice. Every time I hear people talking about the so-called religious vocation crisis, it serves to further convince me that, if it were not obligatory to take vows of celibacy, there would be more young people willing to devote their lives to priesthood. Am I wrong ?

- No, you're not. This is an opinion that many of us share, but it is also an issue that requires a lot of reflection and that cannot be treated lightly. Anyway, the current faith crisis is not absolutely linked with the issue of celibacy. But if we reduce the concept of Church to that of Priesthood, I must say that we need more priests, many more indeed ...

- If no new vocations arise, does it mean that the Church should approach the subject of the priests' social role from a new perspective ?

- I once took part in a seminary held at the University of Prades. During a session, the vicar-general of Perpignan told us about an earlier experience : "On one occasion, at the seminary, - he said - we started praying that there would be more and better new priests. And we have continued to make that same prayer every year. But now we have come to realize that, since we started praying for an increment in new vocations, their number has kept decreasing even further !... So, what is happening ? Has God forsaken us ? This is quite unthinkable... Maybe we don't know how to pray anymore ? This cannot be true either. Conclusion : it is possible that God might be asking for a "different type" of priests". But the blame for the crisis cannot be imputed entirely to celibacy, when celibacy is viewed as a thought-over, personal option. Celibacy is a laudable choice.

- Did you , may I ask, ever fall in love ?

- Let's see. Of course, there were times in my life , more particularly when I was a teenager, when I would think things like : "Goodness me ! What a beautiful girl ! She looks so nice, so likeable..., if I had to marry someone, I would go and court her". That kind of thought did on occasions cross my mind, but I have never let myself yield to temptation. Celibacy is something that you just accept. (...)

- Which kind of situation were you faced with in 1953, when you were entrusted with the task of reorganizing the youth movement and injecting new enthusiasm into it ?

- The formerly triumphalist Church had got down from its high horse. And young people had followed suit. Some of them had sincerely believed that Franco's victory would also be the victory of "Cristo Rey" (Lord Jesus Christ). And the youth of the fifties was not anymore that of the thirties, they had gone to schools of a new kind, such as Virtèlia. Besides, the situation was truly difficult insofar as anything that had a Catalanist ring was forbidden. There were people, among them Doctor Modrego, who considered that things could not remained as they were, "so forcefully directed by the powers that be in Madrid". Someone mentioned my name to them. They were waiting for a messiah and I somehow managed to do the right thing at the right time when I started fostering contacts with bishops and meetings with priests and young people. (...)

- Who was your worst enemy when you were trying to carry out those conciliatory initiatives on behalf of the youth ?

- Franco's regime looked unfavourably upon our renovating efforts.

- Did you ever received threats of reprisal ?

- I remember some nasty phone calls... First of all, they accused us of being Catalanists. Later, they became haunted by the ghost of Communism. The people who made those phone calls went by the self-appointed name of "Cruzados de Cristo Rey" ("Crusaders of Lord Jesus Christ") and they hurled abuse and threats such as : "they're waiting for you at the city morgue". It went on until Franco's death. (...)

- I know that there is what we call the seal of confession. But, without revealing the sinner's name, could you tell me which is the most peculiar sin ever confessed to you ?

- Well, sincerely, I must say that people's confessions are usually utterly superficial. When you hear people asking for forgiveness because they feel guilty about forgetting to say their morning prayers or to cross themselves when they were expected to..., then you come to realize that they have not understood anything about religion, that we have failed in our attempt to explain what it is about. I used to feel like telling them : "you really did not need to come to see me for that, go in peace". Others would confess : "I had involuntary moments of distraction while I was praying". Well, so do I at times, so do I... (...)

- In his heart of hearts, a priest never really goes into retirement.

- I myself shall never retire, neither as a Christian, nor as a human being. That is the only thing I feel quite sure about.