ROME – This autumn, Rodrigo Guerra López will see himself described as the Vatican’s “highest ranking lay person,” as he was recently appointed to lead the commission for Latin America.

Around 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live in the region, and the commission was established by Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Crux spoke with Guerra López at length, discussing his Catholic formation, how his appointment came to be, and what he hopes he’ll be able to accomplish during his time as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

What follows is the first part of his interview with Crux.

Crux: A basic question to begin with: who is Rodrigo Guerra López?

Guerra López: I am a Mexican, and without having planned it, I have dedicated myself on the one hand to philosophy, and on the other hand to following the Church through different responsibilities, always very focused on issues of social and doctrinal analysis, first for the Mexican episcopate, then for CELAM, and eventually, for several Vatican dicasteries.

Thirteen years ago, with a group of friends, we founded a Center for Social Research, a scientific research institute, with the peculiarity that we are a community of Catholic friends, united to provide rigorous scientific research to society and to the Church when it is needed.

And now your expertise is needed in the Vatican. Are you planning to move to Rome?

The Holy Father’s invitation, first of all, is a great honor and responsibility, and I feel unworthy and incapable, but I entrust myself to Our Lady. I have to move to Rome, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet has asked me to move at the end of September, so that there I can begin to work with Emilse Cuda and the rest of the team of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, in this new impulse that the Holy Father is going to give to the entire Curia, so that it will no longer be a bureaucratic instance and will really become a place of service, available to the whole Church in general, and to us in particular: To the Latin American curia.

Speaking of the reform of the curia, there are some doubts about where the commission is going to end up when Pope Francis releases the Apostolic Constitution he’s been working on with the help of the council of cardinals that advise him on the reform of the central government of the Church. Do you know where it will end up?

Evidently, the pope has the last word and is making the final consultations and canonical modifications that may be necessary. What I have heard, but it is not a certainty, is that the commission will officially become part of the Congregation for Bishops, that is to say, it will no longer be an independent thing, but it will be inside the congregation directed at this moment, fortunately, by Cardinal Ouellet.

How was your relationship with Pope Francis born?

I was collaborating with the Observatory of CELAM, back in 2004/2005, and we were commissioned to create socio-analytical material for V General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida. We published some of them as books, one of them called Catholics and Politicians.

One day, I was in Buenos Aires, went to a bookstore, and began leafing through a book. Suddenly I realized that it was mine, but with another format, another cover, printed by Agape publishing house, which I had never seen in my life, and with the prologue of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

I went to CELAM, spoke to the president and told him that the book had been stolen, but he said no, that all the books of CELAM are at the disposal of the bishops.

When I met him as pope, I jokingly told him that he had stolen it, and that he would have to pay the royalties. And he answered me saying that no, that seeing that the one who wrote the prologue is now the pope, I owe him royalties, as it became a best seller.

Anecdotes aside, my first personal encounter was in Aparecida, where a very cordial relationship arose. He is a very simple man, without posing, and I think it is a blessing to have a pope like him, because Christianity is an encounter before it is a moral norm.

Who offered you the position in the Vatican?

Cardinal Ouellet first made an exploratory phone call, and when he knew I had the disposition, he told me that I would receive a letter, but on the same day that the reform of the curia was announced. So, I was taken by surprise when I received the official letter and a few days later the announcement was officially made public by the Vatican.

I thought it would be in September or October, when I estimate the unveiling of the new Vatican constitution will take place.

The Cardinal, of course, confirmed it with the Holy Father, who accepted the appointment. He knows me, knows my work, and the publications I have made.

Going a little deeper, who is Rodrigo Guerra Lopez as a person of faith? That is, beyond being someone who collaborated with CELAM, what is your formation?

My family was not very practicing. My father was rather agnostic, my mother was a believer but not a practicing one. I converted with the help of a group of friends when I was 16 years old, and it was an experience that changed my life in a radical sense. Later my mother was converted, and eventually my father too, during a visit to Cuba, where some students spoke to him about Jesus.

I had an experience that at the time made me very excited, but which I now realize was strongly rigorist, voluntarist, perhaps excessively ideological. I think that this now makes me especially sensitive to these risks.

That experience was very strong, but today I can say, thanks be to God, that in 1989 I had an encounter with the Communion and Liberation movement, where I discovered that Christianity was not an ideology or militant commitment to fight enemies, but to affirm, always with joy, the living person of Jesus through friendship. And that marked me very much.

Also, I have to recognize, the contact with a Polish layman, who writes books on spirituality, a doctor in physics and theology. His books helped me to understand the role of the Virgin Mary and helped me to get very close to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and to understand the importance of always being faithful to the Pope, regardless of who he is, and to be faithful to the bishops, even when we may not agree with some of their actions.

I also like the thought of Gustavo Gutiérrez, whom I approached through a booklet of spirituality, Drinking from his own well, which made me see that Christ is really present in the Eucharist and in the poorest, that is, that the presence of God in the poor is not a metaphor.

The overlapping of Luigi Giussani and Gutierrez is not strange, for example, in Brazil, where the movement of Communion and Liberation is very marked by the movement of the landless, with a very strong social sensitivity.

Today there is a lot of talk against rigorism, beginning from Pope Francis, but from what I understood, you initially found God there, although later your faith deepened elsewhere. Yet more often than not, rigorists are branded for ideological reasons, with a lack of pastoral willingness to approach these people. That is to say, rigorism is simply condemned. How did you live that transition?

I realize that I have to live in gratitude for the ways Jesus has been approaching my life, which are neither pure nor perfect, but on the contrary, they are full of human limitations, and this gives me a lesson of anti-rigorist cut: Jesus uses human means, clumsy and fragile as we are, to do his work as he wants and when he wants.

I am grateful to my more rigorist or conservative friends, because thanks to their friendship I was able to discover Jesus. But rigorism is an illness that was also experienced by the early Christian communities, who lived in situations in which they saw Christian commitment in a moral sense, in terms of preserving certain norms that seemed to them to be pious and true in order to get closer to God.

St. Paul, with whom I identify because he also came from a rigorist background, one day encounters the living person of Jesus, and he helps us a lot to purify this and to recognize the primacy of grace. I found it helpful to read Adrienne von Speyr, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s friend, because she, in a very spiritual way, insists that grace precedes us, accompanies us, and ultimately gives efficiency to our actions. In other words, the role of the will is very important, synergistic with grace, but its modesty must be recognized.

It is the absolute primacy of grace what saves us, not our own virtue and moral commitment, and seen in this light, we must always be grateful for the way Jesus approaches us. We must learn to love those who brought us closer to the faith, and treat the rigorists with tenderness, charity and clarity, without hiding the truth, but understanding that the most efficient way to penetrate a rigorist heart is not condemnation or more rigorism, but to affirm tenderness and compassion above the norm, even with the intransigent.

Do you interpret rigorist as synonymous of conservative? I ask this because Catholics are usually divided between liberals and conservatives, with liberals often described as those in favor of the social doctrine of the Church, but also in favor of making deep changes in the Church’s tradition, for instance, by supporting the ordination of women. On the other hand, conservatives are nowadays reduced to those who are in favor of upholding tradition under the assumption  that they don’t care for migrants or charitable endeavors. From the Latin American point of view, is there a difference between rigorist and conservative vs. liberal?

There are many distinctions to be made, but for the sake of time, it is worth saying that Karol Wojtyla [John Paul II], in the first pages of Love and Responsibility, explains what rigorism is. And he writes this book to try to overcome liberalism and rigorism. He understands rigorism as thinking that objective truth is the enemy of what happens inside man, what he calls subjectivity. The first paragraph of this book is very difficult to read, but he explains that the most objective thing we can find is human subjectivity.

Rigorism often appears when we have fallen into the trap of believing that truth is only that of numbers, of science, of the truths of faith, unrelated to any personal experience that the Lord has with each one of us in our hearts. What St. Thomas Aquinas, Wojtyla and now Jorge Mario Bergoglio [Pope Francis] teach us is that things are more complex.

The stone in front of me is as objective as my own inner reality, and both deserve to be treated with great care. When we lose sight of this, the moral and Christian proposal is very easily deformed, because it cancels the patience that we should have with each other when approaching the truth. Everyone has their own rhythm, and the great masters of the spiritual life teach us that there is no single pattern for the process of sanctification.

God sometimes works fast, sometimes slower.

Certain forms of conservatism are rigorist, but not all of them. And now that conservatism has been disfigured in its profile, especially in political terms, it is necessary to make nuances, because preserving what can be preserved, especially in the light of tradition and faith, is something very healthy. But to conserve even what can be changed at all costs, makes us stiff, freezes the veins through which the blood should flow and sometimes causes the body to die.

And this is an ongoing battle. Pope Francis invites us to avoid rigorism, to preserve the essence of the faith, the magisterium and tradition with great zeal to free ourselves from whatever hinders a new presence of Christianity in the world.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma