I have a lot of respect for Leonardo Boff. He is a friend and a joy to work with and he inspires me, but he has one blind spot. Leonardo, te quiero decir esto entre hermanos: en cuanto a los carismáticos, tu estás equivocado. To hear Leonardo, one would think that the Renovación is nothing but a bunch of pretty boy priests dancing around on TV with sexy contemporary Christian music starlets while conning gullible, over-emotional worshipers out of their last dollar and completely oblivious to the poor. Lo siento, Leonardo, but that stereotype -- like all stereotypes -- is dead wrong. If it were true, I certainly would not be in the Renovación.
I think first of my prayer group. I am the wealthiest member and I make below the median income for our geographical area. We get together, sing, pray, study the Bible and sometimes share a meal. We collect funds once a month to support seminarians in a poor Catholic diocese in El Salvador and we also help each other out when someone loses their job or apartment or has a family member in need of medical care. In a parish that is too small to support a full-time Spanish-speaking priest, we also provide counseling and pastoral care, especially when there is a serious illness or a death in the family. Don't tell me we don't care about the poor. We ARE the poor and we care for each other and for many who are worse off than we are. And we are acutely aware of injustice -- especially the discrimination against our immigrant community here in the United States.
I think of my friend, Fr. José Eugenio Hoyos. Yes, he enjoys his status as an internationally famous predicador with a gift for healing. Yes, he will happily dance to whatever Christian rock group is playing and he enjoys giving abrazos to everyone -- young or old, glamorous or plain. But he also recently delivered a petition for immigration reform with 25,000 signatures he gathered to President Obama. In his homilies and columns, he regularly hammers home the point that wide economic inequality is contrary to the gospel and the teachings of the Catholic Church, that as Christians we need to care for the Earth and be concerned about global warming, and he does this even as he comes under fire from the conservative wing of the Church for "being political". His MAPAVI Foundation has helped many people get life-saving medical procedures they otherwise couldn't afford. He is the spiritual director of the Renovación in Arlington and he is a carismático.
Ever since its inception in the 1960s, a false dichotomy has been posited and perpetuated between the Charismatic Renewal and social justice, as if somehow it were only possible for human beings to relate to God vertically or horizontally but not in both dimensions. Faith and works -- as St. James reminds us: both are necessary. Without the Holy Spirit, social action becomes tedious at best, at worst misguided. Without active concern for the world and its problems, our prayer is meaningless noise. As St. Paul puts it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13: "If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal." And he goes on to address the "social justice" set: "If I give away everything I own,...but do not have love, I gain nothing."
I think of Padre Chelo, the well-known Charismatic priest and predicador from the Dominican Republic. Padre Chelo is cute and hugely popular in charismatic circles. He also has a band, "Renacer en el Espíritu", but when he isn't preaching or giving retreats, he is spending time with the orphans in the Fundación Padre Fantino shelter he established. Don't tell me Padre Chelo doesn't know about poverty -- I have photos that prove otherwise.
Or maybe Leonardo could spend a day with Fr. Sergio Valverde, the spiritual advisor to the Renovación Carismática Católica in San José, Costa Rica. While Fr. Sergio is also an inspiring predicador and retreat leader, he barely has time for that anymore.
Fr. Sergio was born in the parish where he is now a priest -- Cristo Rey, in one of the poorest barrios of San José. It's where he served as an altar boy before being ordained nine years ago.
When Fr. Sergio came back to Cristo Rey after a stint at La Merced, he was determined to tackle the poverty and other social problems that plagued his old neighborhood. In 2001, he founded the Asociación Obras del Espíritu Santo, which provides everything from an annual toy drive and Christmas party for over 12,000 poor children to soup kitchens. The first soup kitchen moved with Fr. Sergio from La Merced to Cristo Rey and served about 200 people. It has since expanded to 12-13 locations, feeding over 12,000 people -- half of them children. The Asociación runs a "halfway house" -- a dozen youth who sleep in the parish hall while waiting for space in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs to open up. Several hundred youth have already passed through this informal "halfway house" and Fr. Sergio is raising money to build a more stable full-time shelter on the church property. The Asociación provides many other services such as day care, after school care, outreach to street people, medical, legal and social services.
Fr. Sergio goes wherever people need him. He celebrates Mass in his parish but also in the "precarios" (the slum areas that are even poorer than Cristo Rey), and he goes into the jails to reach out to the delinquents and inspire them to change their lives. Fr. Sergio has said that many of his boyhood friends ended up in the criminal justice system -- such is the environment in which he lives and works.
Fr. Sergio calls himself an "esclavo por amor". He is a man who works daunting hours and has had to endure and respond to some criticism. He has been accused of running the Asociación in an authoritarian manner, of casual accounting and wasteful spending. He has answered all the charges openly and honestly. Most are the normal growing pains of a charitable organization that has had to grow too big too fast to keep up with the need.
One of the most criticized items, the security cameras that now dot the premises, have been essential in an area overrun by criminals so brazen that they have stolen truckloads of toys and clothing intended for poor children, forcing the priest to become not only a social worker but a watchman as well.
So, Leonardo, next time you want to diss the carismáticos, come up north and walk with Fr. Hoyos, Fr. Chelo or Fr. Sergio, or come and visit my grupo de oración. You will never see us in the same light again.