Monday, January 25, 2010

The Prophetic Legacy of Zilda Arns

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

All due elegies have already been made to Brazilian doctor Zilda Arns, sister of the human rights Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who succumbed under the ruins of the Haitian earthquake. Perhaps world public opinion has not realized the importance of this woman who in 2006 was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. And she well deserved it, because she devoted her whole life to looking out for the health of the most vulnerable people. For 25 years, she coordinated the Children’s Pastoral, accompanying more than 1,800,000 children under five and more than 1,400,000 poor families. Through simple means such as homemade serum, feeding based on a nutritive preparation, and other basic resources, she saved thousands of children who previously would have died. In 2004, she started the Pastoral for the Elderly, which reaches 100,000 people of advanced age.

It would take a long time to tell of her extraordinary work, now spread across more than 20 poor countries in the world. What I will try to do is emphasize the spiritual capital values that underlied her practice. In this, she went against the dominant system and serves as an inspiration for these times.

There is a growing conviction that we will not get out of the current crisis of civilization if we go on with the same habits and the same individualist and consumerist values as we have. Dr. Zilda showed how it could be different and better.

She honored Christianity, living a mysticism of love for suffering humanity, of hope that something can always be done to save lives, of faith in the strength of the weak when organized and in lending an ear to all, even to the children who don’t talk yet.

She had a clear awareness that the solution comes from below, from society, while at the same time not dispensing the State from its duty. Social problems are resolved starting with society. For this, she stirred the humanitarian sensitivity that is hidden in each person and inaugurated a new policy of good will. Over 250 thousand volunteers took on the work with her, without any economic recompense.

Copied from Jesus’ practice, a generating-idea motivated her action: multiplication. Not only of bread and fishes as He did, but, in today’s conditions, multiplying knowledge, solidarity and effort.

Multiplying knowledge involves transmitting to simple people the rudiments of hygiene, carefulness with water, periodically weighing the child, and proper nutrition. This knowledge reinforces people’s self-esteem and gives autonomy to civil society.

Multiplying solidarity which, in order to be universal, must begin with the least, seeking to reach the people who live in the corners where no one goes, trying to save the most malnourished and almost dying child. This solidarity is what is most lacking in the world today.

Multiplying efforts, involving public policy, the NGOs, the grassroots groups, the businesses through their social responsibility, in short, everyone who puts life and love over profit and opportunism. But above all, multiplying generous good will.

These are the contents of the spiritual capital that should be the basis for the new world society we must bring into being. The 21st century will be the century of caring for life and for the Earth or it will be the century of our self-destruction. Up to now, we have globalized the economy and communications. We need to globalize planetary awareness and multiply knowledge that is useful for life, universal solidarity, efforts to build what has not yet been attempted. Love and solidarity do not enter into statistics or economic calculations, but they are what is most sought after and what can save us.

Doctor Zilda Arns -- certainly without knowing it, but prophetically – showed us in miniature that that world is not only possible, but that it is now achievable.

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