Tuesday, October 26, 2010

From Theology to Travel: The Journey of Margaret Hebblethwaite

It is perhaps fitting that the most recent travel guidebook in English for Paraguay (Paraguay, Bradt Travel Guides, August 2010) -- a country run by a former Catholic bishop, Fernando Lugo -- should be written by a Catholic writer and columnist who studied theology at the Gregorian University in Rome and now makes her home in that country. The author, Margaret Hebblethwaite's personal journey from theology to travel maven is just as interesting as her guidebook.

Margaret Hebblethwaite, nee Speaight, was born in London in 1951. She read theology and philosophy at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and at the Gregorian University in Rome. In 1974, Margaret met and married Peter Hebblethwaite, an older Jesuit priest who left the priesthood after a decade in the ministry to be with her. Five years later, in 1979, Margaret published her first book, The Theology of Penance (co-authored with Kevin Donovan, Mercier Press, 1979). She gave birth to three children. Peter Hebblethwaite, who passed away in 1994, made a name for himself as a Catholic journalist and Vaticanologist.

Despite the substantial age difference (20+ years) this was a marriage of intellectual equals. Peter wrote for The Month, The Tablet, The Observer, and National Catholic Reporter. He published numerous books on the Church, including The Runaway Church (Collins, 1975), The New Inquisition? Schillebeeckx and Küng (Fount Paperbacks, 1980), and In the Vatican (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986) and wrote biographies on several modern popes, including John XXIII: Pope of the Council (Chapman, 1984), Paul VI: The First Modern Pope (HarperCollins, 1993) and Introducing John Paul II: The Populist Pope (Collins/Fount, 1982). One decade before John Paul II's death in 2005, Peter Hebblethwaite began to look into the question of papal succession. Co-authored by his wife Margaret, The Next Pope: An Enquiry was published posthumously by Fount in 1995 and re-published by HarperCollins in 2000.

Meanwhile Margaret Hebblethwaite worked in a variety of ministries: prison chaplaincy from 1984 to 1986, catechesis from 1986 to 1991 and again from 1994 to 1998 at Exeter (Oxford), parish work on the Blackbird Leys housing estate in Oxford from 1988 to 1994. And she wrote too. She was assistant editor of The Tablet from 1991 to 2000 and after her move to Paraguay continued a regular column called From the South which she has been writing since 2000. She has also been a lecturer and a contributor to the BBC on Catholic Church affairs and has facilitated Ignatian retreats.

Margaret has also written numerous books, particularly on women in the Bible and in the Church, and on Christian base communities. In addition to The Theology of Penance and The Next Pope mentioned above, some of these include:

  • Motherhood and God (Geoffrey Chapman, 1984)
  • Way of St. Ignatius (HarperCollins, 1987, 2nd edition 1994, 3rd edition 1999)
  • Basic is Beautiful: basic ecclesial communities from Third World to First World (HarperCollins, 1993)
  • Base Communities: an introduction (Geoffrey Chapman, 1993)
  • Six New Gospels: New Testament women tell their stories (Geoffrey Chapman, 1994)
  • Conversations on Christian Feminism (with Elaine Storkey, HarperCollins, 1999)
  • Opening the Scriptures (Continuum, 2001)
This alone would have been a full life for anybody else but Margaret's life didn't stop there. In 2000, with her husband gone and her youngest child having turned 18, Margaret decided to pursue her interest in liberation theology, the preferential option for the poor, and base ecclesial communities more fully. She became a freelance missionary in Santa Maria de Fe, a poor village in Paraguay, leaving behind, as she says, her job, her family, her home and her language.

In Paraguay, Margaret learned Spanish and Guarani and founded a charity called the Santa María Education Fund. She organised a number of classes in English and taught Bible at the Institute of Tertiary Education, where students from poor families are trained to be food technologists. That charity also sells Christmas cards and local handcrafts to support its work and it runs the Santa Maria Hotel in Misiones, Paraguay.

Of the Church in her new home in Paraguay, Margaret says: "It is basic Catholicism, it’s the poor, it’s the Gospel of the poor, the good news for the poor, and the church preaching it, and the clergy and the bishops and the sisters for the most part, are really backing the poor and speaking about solidarity and honesty and the importance of no corruption, the importance of justice, which we don’t have. So the clerical image of the church is a much, much better one in Paraguay. It is of people who have a voice, who are respected in society and who are constantly using that voice on behalf of the forgotten and the downtrodden." People like Margaret Hebblethwaite.


Photos: Margaret Hebblethwaite alone and celebrating with graduates from the Institute of Tertiary Education

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