José A. Pagola (2012) Following in the Footsteps of Jesus. Meditations on the Gospels for Year C. Convivium Press. ISBN 978-1-93499-649-2.
José Antonio Pagola is a Spanish Catholic biblical scholar, currently professor at St. Sebastian Seminary and at the Faculty of Theology of Northern Spain. In 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) opened a process against him in the wake of the publication in 2009 of Jesus: An Historical Approximation in which he recreates the world of Palestine at the time of Jesus. As Mark Dowd reported in The Tablet in 2011 (26 March), the book has been withdrawn from sale in church and diocesan bookstores in Spain because many bishops have accused the author of heresy, hence the intervention of the CDF.
In this small book, the third in a series covering the three-year lectionary cycle, Pagola invites the reader to engage in a new relationship with Jesus. In the Foreword he says that not many men and women have really got to know Jesus: “His teachings have reached them distorted by doctrines, formulas and abstruse theological debates” (p. 21). Pagola acknowledges that many have taken leave of the Church in recent times, speculating that this might be because they do not find Christ in her. This is certainly true for many LGBT Catholics. He refers them to the passage in John’s Gospel where Jesus, seeing people walking away from him, asks his disciples: “What about you, do you want to go away too?” Peter’s answer, Pagola suggests, may be the one that we need to ponder, “To whom shall we go?” (Jn 6: 68)
To set aside time in often hectic lives for reflection, meditation, prayer and study is essential if we are to develop spiritually. In Following in the Footsteps of Jesus, Pagola writes a meditation for the Gospel reading for each Sunday of Year C. First he supplies the gospel text and then adds his own commentary in which he provides some devotional reflections intended to draw the reader into a more personal connection with Jesus. He raises questions for personal consideration that are often challenging, but he also repeatedly asks how the Christian churches in the West, gripped as they are by attitudes of nervousness and fear and the instinct for self-preservation, might be transformed. In so many of his writings, Pagola’s cri de coeur is that such attitudes are a far cry from the spirit of mission that Jesus communicated to his followers.
In the example of the reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36), which contains warnings of apocalyptic events and the call to Christians to “stay awake”, Pagola says that these are warnings that Christians must heed today in the face of difficulties and uncertainties. “The church today sometimes goes about like an old woman bent by the weight of centuries of strife and burdens of the past. With head bowed, aware of its errors and sins, she is unable to display with pride her former glory and power.” He adds that the appeal Jesus makes to all of us is: ‘“Wake up”, encourage one another. “Lift up your heads” with confidence. Do not look at the future, stuck in your calculations and forewarnings. Your liberation is at hand. One day you will no longer be crushed, oppressed or tempted to discouragement. Jesus Christ is your Liberator’ (p. 26). At the outset Pagola tells us that what Jesus is saying in this passage is that we must not allow our hearts to harden or look to fill our lives with luxuries and pleasures, indifferent to God and to those who suffer on earth.
At the other end of the liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King, he repeats the message: “For the followers of Jesus to lay claim to the cross is to be with the crucified of society in a spirit of service; seeking justice where the helpless are abused, and calling for compassion where there is only indifference toward those who suffer” (p. 153). In the end, reflecting on the Gospel readings is essentially a call to action. Pagola does a superb job of helping his readers to listen to and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 64 (Autumn 2012)