Monday, March 15, 2010

Dom Helder Camara, Monsignor Romero, and the Pact of the Catacombs

This article by theologian Jon Sobrino appeared in Spanish on Adital on 3/10/2010 under the title "La urgencia de volver a la iglesia de los pobres. A los cien años del nacimiento de Don Helder" ("The need to return to the Church of the Poor: On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dom Helder"). We have translated it into English and changed the title, largely to highlight the term "Pact of the Catacombs", to which Fr. Sobrino refers and which is a little known event in Vatican II history, particularly outside of Brazil. The pact was signed on November 16, 1965 by 40 of the participating conciliar fathers. We found another partial English translation of the pact on the Web, but to the best of our knowledge, this is the first complete translation in this medium. We have introduced more inclusive language into the translation, as Fr. Sobrino started to do in his Spanish version.

Viewing the Church as "in poverty and powerless" has never been very successful, and it was not even a central element in Vatican II, which was so important and decisive in many other matters. Yes, it was there in Medellin, and it was able to emerge in Puebla despite serious maneuvres against it. But the decline over the last three decades has been undeniable. Comblin says: "After Puebla, the Church of silence began. The church began to have nothing to say." And although Aparecida put the brakes on a little bit, that "reversal of history" that Ellacuria stressed in order to heal a seriously ill society has not yet happened in the Church. The conclusion is that we must return to a church of the poor and work for it. In El Salvador, after Monsignor Romero, the decline has been obvious, hence the need for rebuilding the Church.

Vatican II. John XXIII wanted the Council to acknowledge that the Church is "a church of the poor." Cardinal Lercaro gave an emotional and lucid speech about it at the end of the first session in 1962, and Monsignor Himmer asked clearly that "first place in the Church be reserved for the poor." But in October 1963, Bishop Gerlier complained about the low priority being given to the poor in the schema on the Church. Also, the most brilliant Latin American bishops soon understood that the issue was very distant for the vast majority of the Council, but a group always remained that wanted to follow the inspiration of John XXIII, including a number of the Latin Americans. They met regularly and confidentially at Domus Mariae to deal with the issue of the "poverty of the Church".

On November 16, 1965, just days before the close of the Council, about 40 conciliar fathers celebrated a Mass in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla. They prayed to "be faithful to the spirit of Jesus," and at the end of the celebration signed what they called "the pact of the catacombs".

The "pact" is a challenge to the "brother bishops" to live a "life of poverty" and to be a "poor and servant" Church as John XXIII wanted. The signatories, including many Latin Americans and Brazilians, who were later joined by others, agreed to live in poverty, reject all symbols and privileges of power, and place the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry. The text would have a strong influence on the theology of liberation that sprouted up several years later.

One of the proponents of the pact was Dom Helder Camara. This year marks the centenary of his birth, on February 7, 1909 in Fortaleza, Ceará, in Northeast Brazil. As a tribute to him and demand to us, we publish the text below:

"The pact of the catacombs: a servant and poor Church"*

We, Bishops meeting at Vatican Council II, being aware of the deficiencies of our life of poverty according to the Gospel, encouraged by one another in this initiative in which each one wants to avoid singularity and presumption, in union with all our brothers in the Episcopate; counting, especially, on the grace and strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the prayer of the faithful and priests of our respective diocese; putting ourselves in thought and prayer before the Trinity, before the Church of Christ and before the priests and faithful of our diocese, with humility and awareness of our weakness, but also with all the determination and all the strength that God wants to give us in His grace, commit ourselves to the following:

1. Regarding housing, food and means of transportation and everything concerning these things, we will seek to live in accordance with the ordinary manner of our people. See Mt 5:3, 6:33f, 8-20.

2. We renounce forever wealth and the appearance thereof, especially in clothing (expensive fabrics and brilliant colors), and insignia of precious metals (such signs should, in effect, be evangelizing). See Mk 6:9, Mt 10:9f, Acts 3:6. Neither gold nor silver.

3. We will not possess either movable or fixed assets, or bank accounts, etc., in our names; and if it is necessary to possess anything, we will place it under the name of our diocese or other social or charitable works. See Mt 6:19-21, Luke 12:33f.

4. Whenever possible we will entrust the financial and material administration of our diocese to a commission of competent lay people conscious of their apostolic role, given that we should be pastors and apostles rather than administrators. See Mt 10:8, Acts 6:1-7.

5. We refuse to be called in speech or writing by names or titles that signify grandeur and power (Your Eminence, Your Excellency, Monsignor ...). We prefer to be called by the gospel name "Father". See Mt 20:25-28, 23:6-11, Jn 13:12-15.

6. In our behavior and social relations, we will avoid everything that could appear to confer privilege, priority, or even preference to the rich and powerful (for example in banquets offered or accepted, in religious services). See Lk 13:12-14, 1 Cor 9:14-19.

7. We will also avoid fostering or flattering the vanity of anyone, whoever they might be, when rewarding or requesting donations, or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their gifts as normal participation in worship, ministry and social action. See Mt 6:2-4, Lk 15:9-13, 2 Cor 12:4.

8. We will give as much as is necessary of our time, thought, heart, means, etc. to the apostolic and pastoral service to working individuals and groups who are economically weak and underdeveloped, without compromising other people and groups in the diocese. We will support lay people, religious, deacons or priests, whom the Lord calls to evangelize to the poor and workers, sharing their life and work. See Lk 4:18f, Mk 6:4, Mt 11:4f, Acts 18:3f, 20:33-35, 1 Cor 4:12 and 9:1-27.

9. Aware of the demands of justice and charity and their mutual relationship, we will seek to transform the works of "beneficence" into social works based on charity and justice that take everyone into account, as a humble service of relevant public bodies. See Mt 25:31-46, Luke 13:12-14 and 33f.

10. We will endeavor to ensure that those responsible for our government and our public services decide on and implement the laws, structures and social institutions that are necessary for justice, equality and the full and harmonious development of the whole person and all people, and thus for the emergence of a new social order, worthy of the children of men and women and children of God. See Acts 2:44f, 4:32-35, 5:4, 2 Cor 8 and 9, 1 Tim 5:16.

11. Because the collegiality of the bishops finds its greatest evangelical fulfillment in communal service to the majority in physical, cultural and moral poverty -- two thirds of humanity -- we commit ourselves:

  • To share, according to our ability, in the urgent projects of the bishoprics in poor nations;
  • To ask together, at the international level, always giving witness to the gospel, as did Pope Paul VI at the United Nations, for the adoption of economic and cultural structures that do not create poor nations in an ever richer world, but that allow the poor majority to emerge from their poverty.

12. We pledge to share our life, in pastoral charity, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, priests, religious and laity, so that our ministry constitutes a real service. Thus,

  • We will strive to "revise our life" with them;
  • We will seek out partners so that we can be promoters according to the spirit rather than rulers according to the world;
  • We will try as much as is humanly possible to be present, to be welcoming;
  • We will be open to everyone, whatever their religion. See Mk 8:34f, Acts 6:1-7, 1 Tim 3:8-10.

13. When we return to our diocese we will present these resolutions to our diocesan priests, asking them to help us with their understanding, collaboration and prayers.

God help us to be faithful

The Church of Monsignor Romero

The pact, when read today, draws one's attention to the fact that it basically addresses one single subject: poverty. But that being the hinge around which everything revolves -- though not, for example, the administration of the sacraments, the pact of the catacombs produced important fruit in Medellin, and little by little, in other churches. Historically, it led to the fight for justice and liberation. Ecclesially, to the option for the poor. Theologically, to the God of the poor. All that came to El Salvador, and Archbishop Romero put it into use and blessed it, together with the new Salvadoran martyrs.

At Puebla, Monsignor met those bishops of the pact and of Medellin and returned very happy. "I remember one of the first nights of the Puebla meeting, when I met Monsignor Helder Camara and Monsignor Proaño and Cardinal Arns from Brazil. When they heard I was the archbishop of San Salvador they said to me: 'You have much to tell us. Know that we know it and that those people are admirable, and may they remain faithful to the Gospel as they have been up to now'." The admiration they felt for Monsignor, and that Monsignor felt for them, is obvious.

At present there are "pacts" too. Pedro Casaldaliga is their most eloquent spokesman. In his circular of 2009, he writes: "pact".

Dom Helder Camara was one of the main promoters of the prophetic group. Today, we, at the current turbulent juncture, profess the validity of many social, political, ecclesiastical dreams, which we can not renounce in any way. We reject neoliberal capitalism, the neo-imperialism of money and weapons, a market and consumer economy which buries the vast majority of humanity in poverty and hunger. And we will continue to reject any discrimination based on gender, culture, race. We demand substantial transformation of the international agencies (UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO ...). We pledge to live out a "deep and whole ecology", promoting an alternative agrarian-agricultural policy over the predatory policy of the latifundio, monoculture, and agrochemicals. We will participate in social, political and economic transformations, for a "high intensity" democracy.

As a church, in the light of the Gospel, we want to live out the Kingdom, the obsessive passion of Jesus. We want to be the Church of the option for the poor, ecumenical and macroecumenical community as well. The God we believe in, the Abba of Jesus, can not be in any way a reason for fundamentalism, exclusion, absorbing inclusions, proselytizing pride. Enough now of making our God the one true God. "My God, does he let me see God?". With all due respect for the views of Pope Benedict XVI, interreligious dialogue is not only possible, it is necessary. We will make ecclesial co-responsibility the legitimate expression of an adult faith.

Correcting centuries of discrimination, we will demand full equality for women in the life and ministry of the Church. We will encourage the freedom and recognized service of our theologians. The Church will be a network of communities praying, serving, prophetic, witnesses to the Good News: the Good News of life, freedom, happy communion. The Good News of mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, tenderness, a Samaritan at the edge of all the roads of humankind.

We will make Jesus' warning live in church practice: "It shall not be so among you" (Mt 20:26). That is to say, servant authority. The Vatican will stop being a state and the Pope will no longer be head of state. The Curia will have to be profoundly reformed and local churches will cultivate the inculturation of the Gospel and shared ministerialism. The Church will commit itself, without fear, without evasions, to the great causes of justice and peace, to human rights and the recognized equality of all peoples. It will be prophecy of announcing, denouncing, and consolation.

* Translator's Note: The original written text of this pact was in Portuguese and published in Kloppenburg, Boaventura (org.). Concílio Vaticano II. Vol. V, Quarta Sessão. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1966, 526-528. Kloppenburg gave it a working title of "O Pacto da Ingreja Serva e Pobre". A copy can be found here.


Since I posted this article I found a commentary (in Portuguese) by renowned Brazilian church historian and Vatican II expert, Fr. José Oscar Beozzo, which is included in a set of documents on the website of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. Beozzo offers additional information about the circumstances of the pact, including a partial list of the participants in that ceremony.

Photo: Fresco of Christ and the apostles from the Crypt of Ampliatus in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome


  1. Part 2:
    -Dress without ostentation.
    -Travel only when needed and use frugal means of transportations and accommodations.
    -Decentralize priest education and training, so there would be a minimal need to go to Rome for classes or research etc.
    -Build when needed, simple churches with minimum cost in any country of the world. Celebrate masses in smaller communities with itinerant local priests or deacons.
    -Concentrate more in the word of Christ, less in moral judgments, politics and banking.
    -Put less effort in building indoctrinating schools for children, thus minimized the need for real state and expenses, and put more effort in living a Christian life of example. The life of Christ and the Gospels can be taught once a week in the same church chamber by priest of trained laics, free of charge. Donations for the community, accepted of course.
    -Ordain capable people, men and women, capable not just intellectually, but also those that have demonstrated that can lead and teach because of their purity of heart and exemplary life. Moral teachers, no just liturgic or canon law experts.
    -Voice and denounce out loud, the injustices of the world and the needs of the poor. No political compromises.
    -Be the church of and for the poor, but not only that. Need sometimes motivate us to seek the shelter and fellowship of the church, but the word of Jesus if for all, the rich, the middle class, etc. All. Perhaps the affluent need it the most: “Seek first the Kingdom of God...” but they have found temporary happiness in material things, forgetting the ultimate reality of men.
    -Open up, lighten up. Forget pomp and circumstance. Les bombastic masses with lots of brass and more simplicity. Concentrate less in quantity and more in quality. Go to the basics. We must understand what the Kingdom of God is by life experience and self realization, not by collecting and reciting a set of believes.
    -Practice active ecumenism. Sponsor cooperation with other churches of any denomination and believes that also want to work for the global good of mankind. Pool resources if needed. Respect their believes without an innuendo o superiority.

    And so… I’m sure that others will have other ideas about how the Catholic Church can become more effective in truly spreading the core spiritual teachings of Christ and more effective and active helping out humanity. This is not a criticism, just brainstorming prompted by reading the thoughts of those who are truly imbued with the spirit of Christ. Thanks R.G.for posting this above.

  2. Part 1:
    Very direct and straight forward writing. Some say that the next wave of spiritually evolved humanity will come from Brazil and some other Latin-American countries in the Americas.

    I have the hunch that if the Catholic Church has to survive in this century and/or millennium will have to turn its sites to this flavor of religious simplicity and love for the poor that many profess in the Americas and towards those that understand that the message and teaching of Jesus-Christ do not always equal the wrappings and trappings of The Vatican.

    The Vatican should:
    -Dissolve itself as a state.
    -Keep as less real state as possible, just the minimum for the Pope and a few aids to live and function. The same goes for the bishops in their respective countries.
    -Sell all the art treasures that it houses to museums and are collectors.
    -With the proceeds create a world trust to finance those charity projects, schools, etc that are already working.
    -Created new villages and projects to help out where most needed. (Take a queue from the Vicente Ferrer Foundation, for example).
    -Place on the hands of the UNESCO, the non mobile treasures, like the Sistine Chapel for example, to be designate and kept as world heritage for the humanity.
    -Ditto with the Vatican Library. Assign a team of curators from around and open it to the world.
    -Create independent laic corporations to administer the funds gotten from donations in each individual community. This corporation would see for the well being of the priest and provide for their needs and/or other projects needed, according to democratic criteria.
    -Spread the wealth. Naturally there will be communities in which donations and fund collection will be larger than in other parts of the world. The basic rule should be of equality and any remaining funds left over after the community had its needs met, should pass to other poorer communities to be used to take care of the human needs of clergy and charity projects needed in the particular area.
    -From the Pope down to any deacon, abstain to use and posses precious metals and jewels. Celebrate the mass with wooden or brass chalices.


  4. Thanks again Rg, your posts have kept me in the church as much as anything else.I actually have hope for the church,first time since the early 1970's.Somewhere, I believe Dom Helder and Bishop Proano and Monsignor Romero and Dom Sergio are smiling...

  5. The council was hijacked by the arid dogmatic and ritual discussions by European theologians and bishops. The fathers of the catacomb were sidelined. God bless, their spirit ascended to the throne of Peter in the person of Bergoglio.

  6. As someone who was introduced to the Pact through research, it is a fascinating document because it captures the spirit of Vatican II, which ended before I was born. But what is at once heartening and saddening is that it has such a simple message for Christians - return to the church of Christ, drop the show and live the gospels - and yet it is only now that the Church in the West is beginning to take its message to heart.
    We have just done a small programme for the Web, about the Pact, from an Irish point of view and with no money - but it may help to spread the word. Please feel free to view it at