Monday, July 20, 2009

Todo con los pobres: Msgr. Nicolás Castellanos

One of the wonderful aspects of this blog is finding articles that highlight people in the Church whose lives are an inspiration to others. Today yields an interview in El Norte de Castilla with Msgr. Nicolás Castellanos. The brief bio of Msgr. Castellanos on the Web site of his nonprofit Fundación Hombres Nuevos (motto: "Nada para los pobres; todo con los pobres" -- "Nothing for the poor; everything with the poor") tells us most of what we need to know about this remarkable man: "In 1976, Monsignor Nicolás Castellanos was named bishop of Palencia (Spain). In 1991, he tendered his resignation to the Pope to devote himself to the poorest. Now he lives like them and with them in the poorest neighborhood of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. And he preaches the gospel daily through his efforts to help his new neighbors have a decent life. For him, that is the real doctrine of Jesus, the true Church."

But, it's not quite enough. Msgr. Castellanos didn't just wake up one day and decide he would be a selfless missionary in Bolivia. This Augustinian priest
always lived with and for the people and even when he was named bishop of Palencia, he chose to live in a simple rental apartment rather than in the formal bishop's residence. When he went to Bolivia, he brought a cadre of laity and worker priests with him. His work has earned him a number of prestigious awards including the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia which he received in 1998, the same year as Vicente Ferrer, whose work we covered in an earlier post. And now for the interview with Msgr. Castellanos by Sara Baranda, English translation by Rebel Girl:

Nicolás Castellanos, who was bishop of Palencia for 13 years, left everything to be a missionary in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, where he is president of the Hombres Nuevos foundation. Recently he was the victim of a robbery in his own Bolivian home.

I have to ask: How did the robbery affect you?

They are always unpleasant things, and under those circumstances I remained very calm. We who are believers always have a religious motivation, and I put myself in God's hands. Let it be as You wish!

Does the situation of poverty lead to these kinds of delinquent acts?

Of course. The situation there is extreme poverty. Bolivia has marginal neighborhoods where 60% are poor and the remaining 40% live in destitution. Bolivia is a country in which there is a certain amount of security -- in fact we had been living 17 years in the Plan 3000 [neighborhood] and we had not had the least bit of trouble and no extortion. It's a country where you can go out at any hour of the day or night without anything happening.

How has the crisis affected your mission in Bolivia?

Now, there are fewer donations, but it hasn't lessened at the institutional level, because I realize that Castilla y León, Castilla la Mancha, the Comunidad Valenciana and the Principado de Asturias, which are those who most support us, are continuing to do so.

So the crisis is threatening your...

Yes, it is having greater repercussions on us, especially at the individual level because we are now receiving less money than we were before.

And do you think that the support from the institutions is enough?

I am very grateful for all the institutions in Spain. Everything we have done in Bolivia has been thanks to them. Thanks to all those collaborations, our project has built 60 schools.

Is your fundraising work turning you more into a manager than a missionary?

I am not a financial manager. I am a person who has an option and a passion for the poor and I try to find every means to give these people back their dignity and power. What is clear is that our inspiration is Jesus of Nazareth and our mission is to bring the good news of the Gospel.

Since you went to Bolivia, how has the voluntary service in Palencia evolved?

In the beginning we only had volunteers from Palencia. Now they are coming from other countries: three Germans, an Italian...and some twenty Bolivian volunteers are involved in
Hombres Nuevos. There is also someone from Seville and a girl from León, and the latest have been ones from Palencia, Valladolid and Tenerife. But there have always been many young people from Palencia working as volunteers during the vacation period.

You recently started a project of creating micro-enterprises. How many businesses have you now created?

They have varied between 15 and 20. We also have two volunteer consultants from Palencia who are collaborating. It is very important work, now that with the schools and universities, trained people are coming out, and the next step is to create jobs so that the Bolivians can have a more decent life.

What is Nicolás Castellanos calling for?

Let us continue to be open to any kind of solidarity. When we talk about the poor, it is not for fun -- it is very hard to see a child starving for bread. So we cannot tell them in a banal or frivolous way to bring us money. The children are not to blame in any way and yet even though they have needs -- that is true -- they never lose their joy. Solidarity should rule in spite of all the crises there are today, and there is always a call for this solidarity so that the poor can live as people, as we do.

What are the next projects that you have in mind?

We are now finishing a home for the children of the sugar-cane cutters, who used to work as servants. Another project is the construction of a cultural center, but not like the ones here -- over there it is for literacy, teaching information science, crafts. And also to rediscover folk art in El Puente, another community in the Santa Cruz department, thanks to the city and county councils of Palencia. We are also going to build another child care center.

The Spanish bishops believe that the government is harassing the Church. Do you think that's true?

I can't speak much about Spain because I'm not here. I don't have the elements to judge or offer an opinion because I really don't know.

What is the role of the Church in this crisis?

Where I am, in Bolivia, the Church is the institution with the greatest credibility. Over there it's the common voice of all the citizens and it is very much respected. Where I live the people say that the only one who is with them and builds hospitals is the Church.

How do you view the new abortion law?

We believers always talk about defending life, before and after birth. Where there is a life, I believe it must be respected, but just as I say it should be respected before [birth], it should also be defended after birth. It is very easy to say that I am against abortion, but what do I do afterwards about those thousands of children who die of hunger, or because they don't have medicine or support?

Is liberation theology still in force?

Certainly it's still in force and moreover, it's necessary. What liberation theology tries to do is reflect on how to present God to the poor. It is a theological reflexion on God, but just as in the rich countries we would talk about how to present God to a well-off society in crisis, in the poorest ones, we raise the issue of how to present God to the poor, and for this you have to show them how the Lord is behind them.

Do you think that the economic crisis has called into question the financial model that gave the most value to liberation theology?

Yes, it has called it into question. A few days ago Benedict XVI issued his third encyclical, "Charity in Truth", in which he talks about how the UN has to change the economic system. And definitely, it is siding with this liberation theory, that God is behind the poor and that every living being, whether a believer or not, has to be behind the poor because it isn't right that I can have three meals a day and the poor can only have one meal.

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