Today (October 15, 2011) was “occupy” day, and while “Occupy Nanaimo” was certainly a lot tamer than “Occupy Wall Street”, it was an opportunity for the 99% to get out and voice their disgust with the current economical structure not only of the country but the entire world. Slowly people are beginning to waken up to a reality where a new “serfdom” is becoming the reality – working people are working more for less and the reward of a pension sufficient to take care of one’s old age is becoming unattainable for the majority.
As I listened to the speeches from a great diversity of people, I walked about to read the protest signs of the participants. Each poster highlighted one aspect of the corruption of our current system – but collectively they were like a essay of the popular masses shouting out for radical reform.
I spoke briefly to one young man – no more than 20 or so years old – who carried a flag with the letters “I.W.W.” – I guessed “International Workers of the World”. I was close – the “Industrial Workers of the World”, an organization also known as the “Wobblies”. This organization was founded in 1905 in the USA and espoused a radical platform that put it at odds even with the traditional labour movements. The cry of the Wobblies was “an injury to one is an injury to all” and their aim was to unite the working class in a struggle against the employing class. It was interesting to see this young man in Nanaimo representing this century old theme with enthusiasm. Of course what would be a good protester without a few leaflets – and thus he gave me a small handout. On it was a diagram titled “Pyramid of the Capitalist System”.
While it is perhaps a bit simplistic, I was struck by the basic truths of what it portrayed. This young man in Nanaimo – perhaps he understood the relevance of the diagram – I don’t know? – but the challenge in understanding the system in which we live was no where near my thinking at his young age. This came some years later after I arrived in Peru. In my early 20’s I was on the clerical treadmill in the seminary system, taking courses that only put me to sleep. Academically those years were a waste.
In 1969 I had an “out of seminary” experience with an international student group called C.I.A.S.P., through which I participated in a summer cultural experience in the mountains of Hidalgo, Mexico. (In a former post I have written about this experience.) This experience was pivotal to future choices in my life and the development of my thinking in matters both religious and secular.
I went to Peru as a missionary in 1972, as part of the response of 1st world Catholic churches to the call by Pope John XXIII to send missionaries to Latin America. I was a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary order, which sent its first missionaries to Peru in 1959. I knew two Oblate priests from my home parish in Edmonton who had been chosen to go to Peru – Joe Cashen and Clarence Lavigne. I kept contact with Clarence over the following years and the dream of joining them in Peru was very much a part of my desire to join the Oblate congregation.
As an Oblate seminarian, being trained as a future “missionary” at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, my studies were totally in the area of traditional systematic theology. The university had a faculty of “missiology” (mission sciences) attended by missionaries from many countries, but neither I nor any other oblate I knew even took one course from this branch of formation. It was assumed that by belonging to a missionary order, we became missionaries by osmosis or some other automatic process without thinking about it.
I was given the opportunity in 1972 to go to Peru even though I had not finished my theology program in Ottawa. There was an opening for a “teacher” in Chincha Alta, and I was rapidly burning my bridges in Ottawa reading books like Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which was not on the approved reading list for the seminary. In March of 1972 I arrived in Peru, to discover that the teaching position in Chincha Alta was no longer available but instead I would be sent to be a pastoral assistant in Km 13 of Comas – a parish of 80,000 or more persons (most being officially Roman Catholic by tradition) which would be left with only one priest. On Christmas Day that year I was ordained as a “deacon” by Bishop Luis Bambaren – the bishop of the Pueblos Jovenes – the bishop dedicated to the poor who had himself been jailed for his support of popular movements and organizations.
Thus began my re-formation – with the realization that most of what I had received in my formal theology program was either obsolete or insipid. I had the opportunity to meet with other missionaries from North America, Europe and Australia – all working among the poor but working in very different ways and sometimes not working for the same goals. Among the almost 50 priests in the northern cone (deanery) of Lima, only one priest was Peruvian – he belonged to a German missionary group and had been appointed as the dean of the area. In the language used – missionaries were working out of different “options” with very distinct purposes.
I learned that the reason Pope John XXIII, the great pope who had called for the second Vatican Council which opened the catholic church to real possibilities of reform (which was quickly squelched by the official mechanisms of the Vatican) had called for this missionary activity not out of concern for the “evangelization” of the faithful, but rather to help prevent the social unrest that could result in radical change as had occurred in Cuba. The missionary wave was in fact designed as a “counter-revolutionary movement” to support the status quo and the traditional oligarchy in maintaining control and power over the continent. The church correctly assumed that social unrest resulting in political and economic change would also spill over to the religious sector. The church was a dominant and dominating force in the life of the poor throughout Latin America. It has been documented that in the first 20 years of this missionary wave , the majority of missionaries and their great financial support went not to the poorer areas but in fact to those areas already established as the privileged and the well off. Among those who did work among the poor – there were significant ideological differences which directed the type of pastoral work they would undertake.
There was indeed a shortage of priests, especially in the areas where the poor were living – something in itself that needed to be examined. After nearly 500 years since the “conquest” of the continent by the Spanish and the Portugese by the twin powers of the military and the church, the people still viewed the church as a “foreign” entity. There was a national clergy but they could not numerically attend to the needs of all the people, and the preference of the clergy was of course to work with those who had the money to support them. The local clergy did not receive salaries and were expected to make a living from the sale of sacraments and sacred ceremonies.
In the “pueblos jovenes” or squatter villages that sprung up in the mid-1950’s and afterwards, there were virtually no national clergy to serve the people or to service the people’s religious needs. There was great agitation among the people who suffered from military and police repression when they invaded dry desert state land and started to build houses in areas outside of Lima and other major cities. The agitation was fomenting organization, and this organization of the people from the grass roots up was causing alarm among the oligarchies and the military.
The famous Rockefeller report of 1969, prepared for the new Nixon administration, laid the
foundation for a new approach to control of the Americas by the USA. There was a reorientation of “aid” programs to foster American interests in the region and a recognition of a need to “accept the existence of military governments without subjecting them to moral judgments.” Surprisingly the report suggested that two sectors which had been useful arms of the oligarchies – the military and the church – could represent threats to traditional control and power. In Peru this turned out to be prophetically true – a somewhat “left-wing” military coup under the command of General Juan Velasco seized power from the corrupt government of Fernando Belaúnde which was involved in a typical sellout of the countries petroleum resources to a foreign company. Velasco ruled for 7 years before he was replaced by a coup within a coup of his own military. In the end, the left-wing itches at the early stages of the military revolution turned out to be nothing more than rhetoric without the support of the wide military machine.
At the same time, within the Catholic Church there was a movement towards a popular expression of the faith. A Latin American gathering of the region’s bishops in Medellín Colombia (1968) resulted in a progressive document for reform – moving beyond the initiatives of Vatican II. The majority of bishops of course did not realize the implications of their progressive talk, but some like the Cardinal of Lima, Juan Landázuri Ricketts, understood the implications of the progressive thinking that was expressed in Medellín. One of his theological experts was the diocesan priest Gustavo Gutierrez, who wrote much of the work of the beloved Cardinal from Lima, a deeply spiritual man from an aristocratic family of Arequipa. When the Cardinal spoke at Medellín about the Church moving to closeness with the poor, he later remarked to Gustavo that the implication was that he now had to go back to Lima and sell his princely palace and move to a poorer area. In fact he did sell his “palace” in a neighbourhood of the very rich, and he built a more modest but large residence in an upper middle class neighbourhood of Santa Catalina where many of the military generals had established their homes with their new found wealth as ministers of government as well as military generals.
In contrast to the Cardinal of Lima who wanted to move closer to the poor but couldn’t, in Brazil one bishop went all the way. Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the bishop of Olinda-Recife in NE Brazil, sold his episcopal palace and moved into an adobe home situated in a poor neighborhood. There was great opposition to this physical gesture, because it represented a major evolution in his thinking and subsequently in his pastoral action. He was called a “red bishop” and there were attempts made on his life. His home had to be surrounded by a second protective wall, as agents of the military government had riddled the home with bullets. Dom Helder is famously quoted as saying “”When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a communist”.
Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino was at the time a diocesan priest in Lima, and is widely regarded as ¨the father of the theology of Liberation¨. Gustavo had studied and obtained a doctoral degree in Lyon, France. He taught theology and sociology at the Catholic University of Peru, while at the same time he was pastor in a very poor parish in Lima – which was his choice. For Gustavo, theology was a process rather than an end product. Gustavo would sit with community groups and listen to their expressions of faith, as well as their miseries and hopes. In other countries, a similar theology developed according to the reality of each region – some expressing more hope while others such as Brazil had to deal with the suffering of the poor during a time of exile when a repressive military ruled with an iron fist. Other currents of a theology of liberation would develop with a particular focus on the needs of different communities – a black TL, a feminist TL, an Asian TL, and so on. Common to all is the openness to develop theology in the socio-political reality of its exponents rather than confining its reflection to abstract theological presuppositions from long past centuries.
“reductions” of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. This unique form of religious colonization survived for 150 years and sought to protect the Guarani native population in specific areas from the slave traders and forced hard labour. This system continued until the Jesuits were suppressed by the Vatican because of European concerns that the Jesuits were not supporting the traditional interests of the European monarchs.
appointed as “protector of the Indians”. He took his job too seriously and wrote about the atrocities committed by the “encomienda” system and the brutal subjugation of the native peoples by the colonial forces. In the beginning he was a useful agent of the colonial system, but as he became aware of the oppression of the Indian population, he gave up his own privileges and his own slaves. As he called for justice for the native populations, he was found to no longer be useful to the aims of the “conquest” and he was exiled to Spain where he could no longer influence the church in the Americas.