By Raquel Correa (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Revista El Sábado, de El Mercurio
June 5, 2010
He is leaving today for Africa -- not for two years, as has been said, but "as long as God wills it." In this interview, he defends the current Pope in his fight against sexual abuse -- "he is quite alone because of this", criticizes John Paul II, thinks that the new archbishop of Santiago should be Monsignor Ezzati, Goic or Lizama, and that instead, a possible choice of Juan Ignacio Gonzalez would be a setback for the country's unity.
It hurts the soul of many of his followers. And certainly his detractors, and there are many, will miss some of the controversies generated from his usual column in "Sábado." Father Berrios, Father Felipe, or just Felipe leaves today for Burundi, a poor country, with sects permanently in fierce guerrilla warfare.
He entered the Jesuits on July 31, 1977, and he states that he has never regretted it, even though it hasn't always been easy.
Ordained in 1989, he stresses that since he became a priest he has been "deeply happy, with a sense of fulfillment."
- No crisis?
- I have always waited for the crisis. My colleagues experienced it very strongly. I'm still waiting for it and it hasn't come. Of course I have produced many crises (laughs). The truth is that it is a grace from God. I've never had a shred of doubt that this is my vocation.
- Are you tired of being in the media so much?
- No. I've never swallowed the story. At age 28, I went to Tanzania and that marked me. One's life is at stake there.
- You wonder, "What would Christ do in my place?" Do you think He would leave Chile aside and go to Africa?
- "Yes," he says, without hesitation. "There are many well-educated people here. It's a country with a per capita income of $14,000 (US) and Burundi's isn't even $700. There, the problems are hunger and AIDS. I've finished a cycle. Now I have to go and take a gamble over there. I always thought about going away. I became a priest to proclaim the good news, to propagate the gospel."
- You have said "I find it fascinating to evangelize in Chile." Well then...?
- We go through stages. I am at the right age to go to Africa. Now I have to learn the language...
- Weren't you going to go for two years?
- "No", he answers slowly, as if revealing a secret. "I am going for as long as God wishes. At the beginning I said I was going for life, but that sounded arrogant. Now I say: as long as God wants. Now I'm going to learn French and feel free; I'm going to be 60. Suddenly we forget that we are on loan, but not forever. I have juggled the big issues in my life by intuition. Having been a priest for 20 years, I thought: this is the time, why wait any longer?
- You said that you would go back to Africa when there were no more shantytowns in Chile. Have they ended?
- Structurally, yes. Before, we used to see huge shantytowns as part of the landscape. Today, micro shantytowns, except for the one in Alto Hospicio. Of 135,000 families, there are 20,000 still in micro shantytowns.
"Simple priests are lacking"
When the photographer comes, he announces, laughing: "I'm going to put on the jacket for funerals, weddings and interviews." And he puts on a worn out blue coat with a beige zipper, with a cross on the lapel.
After ordination, he was director of the Workers' University. And he founded Un Techo para Chile [A Roof for Chile], which expanded to several countries.
Opposed to government assistance to the poor, he says:
"Everything that is given to the poor makes them poorer. We never have to give. We can accompany the poor in their suffering, but not give them money. One of the blunders that rich countries make with Africa is giving to them; that's why today they are poorer than before. We are aware that there should not be shantytowns. What's happening now is different, because of the earthquake and the shacks."
Felipe Berrios is going with a Maltese Jesuit and he states that the best way to be a missionary is to build shacks. "This is implementing the parable of the Good Samaritan. The other is a bit of proselytizing." Over there, he will work with refugees who have fled because of hunger or problems with the guerrilla.
- "The idea," he explains, "is to try to build a kind of agricultural school to generate food -- there is a very harsh famine.
- Doesn't it frighten you?
- "Since we passed the decree on The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice, 73 Jesuits have been assassinated in Latin America; in Africa, five. It's much more dangerous to talk about justice here. I am going to Africa to share my life with people who have nothing. I have no economic incentive to go to Burundi," he adds. "They haven't thrown me out nor am I being uprooted", as has been rumored. In the Jesuits they taught me that we are all irreplaceable, but no one is indispensable. Someone else will take charge of Techo.
- And your mom?
- My mom...well, yes. I think the best way to love my mom is to be a happy son.
- There's a shortage of priests in Chile...
- I don't think there's a lack of priests in Chile. I think there are more than enough. What are lacking are priests who are simple, close to the people, who don't scold but welcome, who don't think they are superior to others and who present the Gospel not as morals but as good news. Those are the priests who are lacking. We have many of the other kind. And we have many bishops like that as well.
The controversial priest
He argues that "the real power is in the freedom to say what one thinks, without calculating the cost". In honor of it, he has faced intense controversy. The best-known: the "cota mil" universities [Translator's note: This refers to a column by Berrios in which he suggested that these elite universities are out of touch with the rest of Chilean society]. And when divorce legislation was going to be enacted, the Church campaigned strongly [against it] and he opposed that campaign.
- Nobody scolded you?
- Yes. Canon law gives us rights and obligations and we have gotten into childishness, that it seems that priests ought not to have an opinion but say exactly what the bishop says. Not so. The Church is not a dictatorship. We have to all agree on the dogmas, but there are other things that are debatable.
- Divorce, for example?
- I have not changed one iota of what the Church believes. Sacramental marriage is forever. I disagreed with stigmatizing the children of divorced people.
- And you protested against the "protocol" that prevents separated people who have remarried from attending ceremonies with the Pope.
- It's ridiculous. Marriage is a privilege and anyone who fails is suffering: we have to support them. If marriage is viewed as an obligation and those who fail must be punished, then we have different points of view.
- When the Church reacted to the government campaign in favor of contraception, you disagreed.
- I said we have to educate young people on sexuality consistent with our values. But if a young person were unable to contain themselves and would have sex with their girlfriend or boyfriend or were going to have risky sex, they'd have a moral obligation to use condoms. The more orthodox tradition of the Church is the "lesser evil", he continues. The Bishops' Conference called me. I argued with the bishops and they didn't know how to refute me. If the lesser evil is applied in economics, no problem. The minimum wage is immoral: a family can not live on 140,000 pesos per month. But if it doubles, there would be more unemployment and more poverty. In this case, the lesser evil applies. Why is there no problem there, but there is in sexual matters?
- What do you think about celibacy?
- Ideally, married people could be ordained and diocesan priests could get married, like in the first centuries. I think we should rethink the issue of celibacy -- it is a vocation, it should not be imposed on all priests.
- Because of the shacks, you argued with the government?
- For thirteen years we have been saying that we do not want Chileans living in shacks. They are unworthy. For the last four years we in Techo have built only permanent houses of 50-80 square meters, with hot water, three bedrooms. But we were in an earthquake and in an arrogant country that wants solutions brought from Canada or the US and we didn't have the money to respond massively and rapidly to it. They delayed 50 days before concluding that the most effective thing, in the emergency, was the shack.
An archbishop who brings people together
- Who do you think is going to be the new archbishop of Santiago?
- I'm not good at these speculations and I've never liked them much. But, sketching an answer, I think the new archbishop of Santiago will be either Monsignor Ezzati, Goic or Lizama since the three of them have experience, are the right age, are widely welcomed by various Catholic and non-Catholic sectors and have the moral gravitas and leadership to address the rebuilding of credibility that the Church needs. They are men of God.
- And who do you want to be archbishop of Santiago?
- I want what's best for the Church. And that would be an archbishop who is acknowledged by all sectors in order to bring Catholics together, and also has the experience and the gravitas to deal with the delicate period the Church is in and launch it strongly into the 21st century. In this sense, I believe that the three men I named earlier fulfill those requirements.
- And if Monsignor Juan Ignacio Gonzalez were named?
- It would be difficult for the unity of the Church. When he was a lawyer linked to Opus Dei, he worked with Sergio Rillón in the office called "Government special affairs" or liaison between the dictatorship and the Church that, in fact, you could say it was "informing". Those were hard times for the Chilean Church, which was often persecuted. He then worked for La Moneda [the presidential palace] and I have heard that he was also in the General Secretariat of the Presidency and in the company management of the newspaper La Nación. At the end of the eighties, he left that to go to Rome, where he was ordained and got a PhD with a thesis about the military chaplaincy in Chile. To appoint someone who was so closely linked to the dictatorship as archbishop of Santiago for the Bicentennial would be a setback for the country's unity and an affront to many Chileans. Many of us who are in favor of the unity of the Church didn't say anything to his appointment as bishop, but that has a limit and that limit would be if he were appointed Archbishop of Santiago. With all due respect, I would issue my protest.
- That's a serious accusation against a bishop. Don't you think you are judging him unfairly?
- It's not an accusation; it's remembering his past, of which, to my knowledge, he has never publicly repented and is entitled to not do so, but I have my right to think that this is a serious impediment for a possible Archbishop of consensus, who is seeking unity among Catholics and in society in general.
- What do you think is the root of the current crisis in the Catholic Church?
- The Church is in a tremendous credibility crisis. A group within the Church separated itself from the Second Vatican Council, which proposed a common priesthood with the laity, less clerical -- a Church more open, more in dialogue. With that very beautiful phrase: "Nothing human is foreign to us." They have been going in the opposite direction and towards a deification of priests. There has also been excessive focus on the issue of sexual morality, not social morality. And that secrecy ...
- Does it come from above?
- From the Pope down. Pope John Paul II did much harm to the Church. And much good in other ways. He came from a communist dictatorship and his great struggle was against communism. I think he was impressed when he came to Latin America and realized we had such ferocious dictatorships, but Catholic and right wing ones.
With respect to the decline in priestly vocations, he says:
- A more materialistic and selfish society, focused on benefits, has destroyed marriage and the priesthood. We have transformed Communion into a prize for the perfect, when it is food for the weakest.
- How are cases like that of Father Maciel viewed?
- There are people with a very great ability to "deceive" -- the profile of Maciel and Paul Schaefer. Allowing such closed groups is the breeding ground for such people to involve the weaker young people.
- Sick people?
- If they were sick, they would not be accountable. And there is some complicity -- we have let them create these real cults. Using confession as a system of coercion.
- Are you referring to Karadima?
- Karadima is the case against whom there is irrefutable evidence, like that of Kast. Secrecy and a classist Church help this.
- Wouldn't you say, as Cardinal Errazuriz does, that luckily they are few?
- Never. It was a facile statement and I think he's sorry he said it. There may be few priests, but what people do not accept is that they are cloaked by ecclesiastical authority. This secrecy is unacceptable. Monsignor Ezzati cannot meet with the Pope and say they did not discuss this issue.
- Do you have hope for the current Pope?
- Yes. It has always been known that the Maciel case folder was on the desk of Ratzinger when he was prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith. When John Paul II was diminished, the first thing Ratzinger did was get rid of Maciel. As Pope, he has been intransigent on this issue. I think this is why he is quite alone.
- What price will the Church pay?
- It will be greatly affected, but it is an opportunity to demystify priests. A simpler Church, more inspired by the Gospel, less inquisitional. There are wonderful priests, who do not appear on TV, who accompany the people, simple and human ones.
- Felipe Berríos, S.J. - Wikipedia
- Felipe Berríos Blog en El Mercurio
- Padre Felipe Berríos - Facebook
- Un Techo Para Chile
- Un Techo Para Mi País
- Carta de Monseñor Felipe Bacarreza a sus hermanos en el episcopado de Chile -- this is a response from Mons. Bacarreza to this interview with Berrios
- Chile earthquake relief: How one priest provides shelter for masses, Christian Science Monitor, 3/3/2010