Friday, May 6, 2011

Maria Lopez Vigil: Behind the human face of Jesus and the feminine one of God

Religious educators and pastoral agents in Latin America's Christian base communities know her for her catechetical radio series, Un Tal Jesús, co-produced with her brother José Ignacio, which imagines a brown-skinned Jesus fighting for social justice. Central America activists know her for her writings on the church during El Salvador's civil war and particularly for her collection of vignettes about the life of the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, Monseñor Romero, piezas para un retrato. Today, people in her adopted country, Nicaragua, know her as a prize-winning author of children's books and a defender of their rights. Maria Lopez Vigil is all these things and more, and we are pleased to bring you the English translation of this recent article by Laura Rodríguez Rojas from El Nuevo Diario (4/10/2011) to catch up with this extraordinary woman, as she shares her thoughts about the world and the Church today.

Entering her office, nothing reveals that Maria Lopez Vigil was a nun for 13 years in a convent in Barcelona. The place is small and crowded with books, but it has two large windows that let in a bright sun.

She dresses simply. A blue skirt and white shirt. Wears no hint of makeup or jewelry, which shows that for her, material goods are in the plane of unreality. Only a small detail reveals that this is not an ordinary woman, a painting by Remedios Varo called Weaving the skin of the world.

At first glance it seems like any other painting, in which one sees a small workshop where industrious women are weaving the skin of the world, but a trained eye can discover the paradox. The person who leads the group of weavers is dressed as a man, but is also a woman.

At 16 she left Cuba

And it's that Maria Lopez Vigil has always been a revolutionary who has contrasted the norms set by the Vatican with a more human and feminine image of God.

The wrinkles on her face reflect the passing of the years in her body, but her words and the brightness of her eyes contradicted her age. She assures that she is still the same girl who emigrated from Cuba at age 16, all that has changed is the number of subjects she has had to study in this earthly world.

María López Vigil left her homeland for ideological reasons since, due to the triumph of the Cuban revolution, her family decided to emigrate to be faithful to their dogmatic view of a Catholicism that didn't yield to Communist ideas.

Her father studied for the priesthood in Rome and later journalism, aspects that marked María López Vigil's life indelibly. She grew up in an environment where a strict Catholic militancy coupled with a strong social commitment was always practiced, but without the gifts that years later would bring her to the trend known as "liberation theology".

Ideological prison

That was how, at age 16, Maria Lopez Vigil decided to take the habit and give herself wholly to the service of God, believing that in the convent she would find the opportunity to live out and make Jesus' words her own. But she became disenchanted with the reality very soon.

"I realized that I was in an ideological prison where my vows contrasted with reality. You called yourself officially poor but you had everything, you called yourself officially free and loyal to Jesus Christ, but you obeyed a superior who lived outside the reality of the poor," said Lopez Vigil.

The "straw that broke the camel's back" was the position of the religious hierarchy in 1974, when the Pope celebrated the power grab by the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

By then, Maria Lopez Vigil had already completed her studies in journalism, so she made the decision to abandon a life that did not meet her expectations. But during those years, she had taken up a machete she would never abandon: words.

Now outside the church, López Vigil got in touch with a current called liberation theology, which taught her that there is no faith without social commitment, that the poor should be subjects of their own history, and that the Vatican had monopolized the figure of Jesus for its personal profit.

"At that time I was working in Spain for the magazine Nueva Vida ("New Life"), and I had documented the killing of Pablo Freire, the Sandinista revolution, the complicity of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, and the obvious fact that the Church was more allied with the rich than the poor. This accentuated my leftist ideas, although I never walked away from Jesus. But yes, it made me understand that His ideas were being monopolized," recalls Lopez Vigil.

The arrival in Nicaragua

In 1981, Maria Lopez Vigil met the Jesuit provincial in Nicaragua, Father Cesar Jerez, who convinced her to come to Nicaragua to work for Revista Envío.

"I always had a deep sense of rootlessness because of my exile, and I needed a country that would adopt me. The revolution had triumphed that year and, as I sympathized with leftist ideas, I saw the possibility of finding in Nicaragua a place to practice a true Christianity in favor of the poor," said Lopez Vigil.

And in Nicaragua she continued her deep process of reflection, and began to question many of the learned and preconceived ideas about God.

Thus was born the idea for the radio series “Un tal Jesús” ("A certain Jesus"), to restore the human face of Jesus, a production that earned her the rejection of the Vatican and the Central American Bishops' Conference, but that woke many sleeping consciences.

"With 'Un tal Jesús' my brother and I intended to show that Jesus was a poor Jew, a religious leader who imagined God in a such a novel way that they killed Him, but a man of flesh and bone. Jesus did not come into the world to wash away sins or suffer on the cross, and He did not save us by His death, but with His ideas of equity and social justice," asserts Lopez Vigil.

Her struggle for women

“Un tal Jesús” and others of her "paper children", as this woman calls her literary productions, went around the world and generated a whole debate within the feminist movement.

In this book, Maria Lopez Vigil made it clear that women paid a high price within Christianity, because it spread negative ideas about God, Jesus and Mary.

"The churches show us a bloodthirsty tyrant God who sent His son to wash away our sins. A Jesus untouchable and above all men, a mother who conceived her son in an unnatural way through the intervention of an angel, and a woman, Eve, who led Adam into sin. All these ideas reinforce the negative ideas that deal with women and that are just the product of a masculine religion," says Lopez Vigil.

She was threatened with excommunication and the book was banned in many countries, but this only inspired her to move forward in her struggle to give back to women their confiscated right: to talk to God.

"The success of 'Un tal Jesús' led me to the conclusion that it is necessary to take away from priests, who are all male, the monopoly on the words of God, otherwise women will always be in a position of subordination. Religious institutions have taken away from us the words with which to speak of the mystery of God, who doesn't fit in any dogma, any law, any religion. We must not allow it," said Lopez Vigil vigorously.

The feminine face of God

María López Vigil could be seen by many as a reactionist, because her proposals break with the dogmatic school of the Catholic hierarchy, but that is where her greatest contribution to the freedom of women lies.

"As women, we have the right to review all dogmas, to recover the feminine face of God, because, where God is male, all men think they're gods. God is mother, grandmother and source of protection, He has the face of father and mother. As long as women leave the things of God in the hands of the hierarchies of the churches, we will not be free to reflect and decide," says this former Teresian nun.

The violence of women has religious roots

Maria Lopez Vigil has devoted her life to the feminist struggle to transform the concept of God through her literary output, self-help workshops in the communities, seminars and radio programs, because women can not be free until they learn that transgressing the unfair rules within the Church is also an act of deep Christian faith.

"The deepest root of violence against women is religious, and it is in the idea that God is male, because, even though in the mind of humankind God was born a woman, with agriculture, the accumulation of surplus, tribal wars and military conquests, it created what we now call the patriarchal culture. Women have to recover the feminist identity of Jesus to feel more free and worthy to make decisions, talk and be happy," says Lopez Vigil.

To this reporter, the message of the priests and pastors only strengthens feelings of guilt and fear of God in women, because it is a way to exert control over their consciences.

To deal with this machinery, women must know that they are beloved by God, think of Him as a loving mother and not a stern and bloodthirsty judge who sends His son to suffer.

"Jesus lived in a society where there was conflict between those who had power and those who didn't. They killed Him for denouncing these conflicts. Jesus didn't come to die because God doesn't like suffering. That's a sadistic idea that we should revise so as not to be trapped by it," says Lopez Vigil.

The Bible isn't God's word

María López Vigil isn't afraid to defend what, in her opinion, has been a book that has served to reproduce undemocratic patriarchal and socio-cultural referents: the Bible. "The Bible is a book that was written by men and is preached by men, but it's not the word of God. It's a book that places woman in a subordinate position and shows her as a sinful Eve. And that myth has cost us discrimination, recrimination and violence of all kinds. So we should keep some distance from it, even though it's a family book," Lopez Vigil advises.

Her role as political analyst

Because of her religious analyses, Maria Lopez Vigil has also ventured into the political arena, but says it's what she least enjoys. For her, politics lacks ethics and imagination, but is an inseparable part of being human.

"Jesus always criticized the authorities and sided with the poor, not the powerful. But not by displaying them as trophies to give alms, but rather making them subjects of their own lives. That is true Christianity, without the personality cult, and with the possibility of placing oneself on an equal footing with governments to criticize them and point out their mistakes, as did Jesus with those who had the power," she says.

Her greatest fear: death

However, this woman of strong character and defiant attitude confesses to having a great fear: death. It's a fear that she has suffered since childhood, because the unknown generates sadness and uncertainty in her.

"I love experiencing life's surprises and it scares me to think that one day it will end. That this will be the last sun, that I will never see a bird fly or a tree grow again, so I support what the poet José Valverde said: "God, anesthetize me for death as you have done to others with life," she comments laconically.

Her love for Nicaragua

For this loquatious writer, Nicaragua is a fascinating country that she fell in love with for its anarchy, the possibility of the unexpected, and the beauty of its language. Therefore, although she became a Nicaraguan citizen in March 1990, she received her passport many years earlier.

"I became Nicaraguan when I was honored for the book Un Güegüe me contó ("A Güegüe told me"). It's a book in which the Nicaraguan language is reconstructed and the brilliance of its words is rescued," says Lopez Vigil.

Today, Nicaragua is the place where she wants to breathe her last breath, the place where she has done the three things after which she can die in peace: planting a tree, writing a book and having a child, because although she never married or gave birth to natural children, she has "paper ones": her books.

"I want to fertilize a guayacán shoot or for them to throw my ashes into Lake Xiloá because I have taken root here, I've produced flowers, I've born fruit and I've lived the happiest moments of my life," she asserts.


Books by Maria Lopez Vigil:

Children's Books by Maria Lopez Vigil:

1. Un Güegüe me contó (Managua: Fundación Libros para Niños, 2009)
2. Historia del muy bandido, igualado, rebelde, astuto, pícaro y siempre bailador Güegüense (Managua: Fundación Libros para Niños, 2007).
3. La balanza de Don Nicolás Sandoval (Managua: Anamá Ediciones, 1999).
4. Los dientes de Joaquín (Managua: Fundación Libros para Niños, 2007)
5. Cinco noches arrechas (Managua: Fundación Libros para Niños, 2008).
6. La lechera y el carbonero (Managua: Fundación Libros para Niños, 2010)

Other interviews with María López Vigil

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The disease called man

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

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

This phrase is by F. Nietzsche and it means that the human being is a paradoxical being, healthy and diseased -- in him live the saint and the murderer. Bioanthropologists, cosmologists and others state that the human being is at once wise and insane, angel and devil, dia-bolic and sym-bolic. Freud would say that there are two basic instincts in him: one of life that loves and enriches life and another of death that seeks destruction and wants to kill. It's important to emphasize that both forces co-exist simultaneously in him. Therefore, our existence is not simple but complex and dramatic. Sometimes the will to live dominates and then everything radiates and grows. At other times the will to kill wins the game and then violence and crimes such as the one that occurred recently in Rio de Janeiro are produced.

Can we overcome this split in human beings? That was the question A. Einstein raised to S. Freud in a letter dated July 30, 1932: "Is there a possibility of directing psychic development to the point of making human beings more able to resist the psychosis of hate and destruction?" Freud responded realistically, "There is no hope of suppressing human aggression directly. What we can do is resort to indirect channels, strengthening the principle of life (Eros) against the principle of death (Thanatos)." And he ended with a resigned sentence: "being hungry, we think of the mill that grinds so slowly that we could die of hunger before receiving flour." Is this our fate?

Why am I writing these things? Because of the insane person who on April 5 shot and killed 12 innocent students aged 13-15 years and left 12 wounded at a school in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Already a number of analyses have been made and numerous measures have been suggested such as restricting the sale of weapons, putting together police security arrangements in each school, and others. All of this makes sense. But it doesn't get to the root of the problem. The killer dimension -- let's be specific and humble -- lives in each one of us. We have instincts to attack and kill. It's in the human condition. The interpretations we give it are unimportant. Sublimation and denial of this anti-reality do not help us. You have to assume it and find ways to keep it under control and prevent it from flooding the consciousness, strengthening the instinct for life and taking charge of the situation. Freud suggested it: everything that makes for creating emotional bonds between human beings, all civilization, all education, all art and competition for the best, work against aggression and death.

The crime committed at the school is horrible. We Christians know the slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod. Fearing that Jesus, newly born, would later seize power from him, he ordered the killing of all children around Bethlehem. The sacred texts bring the most moving expressions: "A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more." (Mt 2:18). Something similar happened with the families of the victims.

This criminal act is not isolated from our society. It's not that it has violence, worse, it is mounted on permanent structures of violence. Here privileges are worth more than rights. Marcio Pochmann in Atlas Social do Brasil brings some shocking data: 1% of the population (about five thousand families) controls 48% of the GDP and 1% of the large owners holds 46% of all lands. Can a peaceful society be built on such social violence? These are the ones who abhor talk of land reform and changes to the Forest Code. They value their privileges more than the rights of life.

The fact is that in psychologically disturbed individuals, the death dimension, for thousands of underlying reasons, can emerge and dominate the personality. They don't lose reason. They use it at the service of twisted emotions. The most tragic case, studied minutely by Erich Fromm (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1975) was that of Adolph Hitler. Since his youth, he was seized by the death instinct. At the end of the war, noticing the defeat, he asked the people to destroy everything, poison the water, burn the soil, liquidate the animals, tear down the monuments, kill themselves as a race and destroy the world. In point of fact, he killed himself and all his closest followers. It was the rule of the principle of death.

It is for God to judge the subjectivity of the murderer of the school students. For us to condemn what is objective, the crime of grave evil, and know how to place it in the area of the human condition. And use all positive strategies to face the Work of the Negative and understand the mechanisms that can subjugate us. I know no better strategy than seeking a just society in which the law, respect, cooperation, education and health are ensured for all. And the method that Francis of Assisi shows us in his famous prayer: to bring love where there is hatred, pardon where there was injury, hope where there is despair, light where darkness prevails. Life heals life and love overcomes in us the hatred that kills.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Australian Bishop Forced Out

At 67 years of age, Msgr. William Morris (photo) of the Diocese of Toowoomba in Australia is eight years short of the normal mandatory retirement age for Roman Catholic bishops and yet, this week, the bishop was forced into early retirement by the Vatican, which appointed Msgr. Brian Finnigan, the auxilliary bishop of Brisbane as apostolic administrator of the diocese. Bishop Morris was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Brisbane in 1969, and had served the Diocese of Toowoomba for 18 years, having been appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Bishops are seldom forced out early unless they have health problems that impede them from doing their job or have committed illegal acts.

Bishop Morris' "crime"? A 2006 Advent Pastoral Letter in which he expressed to the faithful his concern about the priest shortage in his diocese. "We do face an uncertain future with regard to the number of active priests in our diocese", said Bishop Morris. The estimated numbers of priests in "parish-based ministry in 2014" would be six aged 65 and younger (three in the 61-65 year group) and eight aged 66-70, with a further five in "diocesan ministry" including the Bishop himself.

Bishop Morris went on to offer some possible solutions in his Letter:

"Given our deeply held belief in the primacy of the Eucharist for the identity, continuity and life of each parish community, we may well need to be much more open towards other options for ensuring that Eucharist may be celebrated. Several responses have been discussed internationally, nationally and locally:

* ordaining married, single or widowed men who are chosen and endorsed by their local parish community;

* welcoming former priests, married or single, back to active ministry;

* ordaining women, married or single;

* recognising Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church Orders.

"While we continue to reflect carefully on these options, we remain committed to actively promoting vocations to the current celibate male priesthood and open to inviting priests from overseas ...

"As a pilgrim people who journey in hope we need to remain open to the Spirit so that we can be agents of change and respond wisely to the needs of all members of the local Church of Toowoomba".

The Advent pastoral letter sparked an investigation, led by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, who visited Toowoomba and spoke to priests and laity at length, and also spoke with other Australian bishops. That Apostolic Visitation, according to a letter released by Bishop Morris, led to an "ongoing dialogue between myself and the Congregations for Bishops, Divine Worship and Doctrine of the Faith and eventually Pope Benedict". The consequence of that dialogue, according to Bishop Morris, was that the Pope determined that "the diocese would be better served by the leadership of a new bishop." In the letter, Bishop Morris also complains that he was denied due process, as he was never allowed to see Archbishop Chaput's final report or prepare a defense for himself.

Bishop Morris was asked to resign but refused. "I have never wavered in my conviction that for me to resign is a matter of conscience and my resignation would mean that I accept the assessment of myself as breaking communio which I absolutely refute and reject and it is out of my love for the Church that I cannot do so." Instead, he opted to take an early retirement.

Since penning the letter explaining the events that transpired, leading up to his retirement, Bishop Morris has given additional statements to the press. In an interview with The Australian, he said: "I believe there is creeping centralism, a creeping authoritarianism and fallibility in the way the church operates and discusses issues...It is not just Pope Benedict: it is the whole Curia (Vatican bureacracy), with Benedict as the leader." And in a letter to priests in the diocese, Bishop Morris criticized the treatment of his peers in the clergy. "It has been my experience and the experience of others that Rome controls bishops by fear, and if you ask questions or speak openly on subjects that Rome declares closed . . . you are censored very quickly, told your leadership is defective . . . and are threatened with dismissal."

In another interview with the Brisbane Times, Bishop Morris said he believed Rome was increasingly exerting its might in silencing bishops across the world. "I believe the Vatican hasn't given me a voice ... and that means it hasn't given the people a voice," he said. "The church is governed with all the bishops in the world and the Pope and I think in many ways the local bishops have been sidelined - they've become like branch managers - and have lost a lot of their voice ... in the governance of the church."

Since his forced retirement, Bishop Morris has received overwhelming support both from the faithful in his diocese and from his fellow priests. Eight of the priests who serve under him issued a statement complaining that he had not been treated fairly or respectfully. They described his removal as "profoundly disheartening." "The far greater majority of priests and lay people of the diocese have found the pastoral leadership of Bishop Morris to be constructive, informed and life-giving," the priests said.

Bishop Brian Finnigan, who has been appointed to administer the Toowoomba diocese, also issued a statement in which he praised his predecessor's handling of a sexual abuse case involving 13 young girls and a former Catholic primary school teacher in the Toowoomba diocese during 2007 and 2008. Fr. Peter Dorfield, Vicar General of the diocese, added that Bishop Morris had helped the victims' families seek civil court action if they wanted it. "He encouraged compassion and justice for these families," he said.

In the end, Bishop Morris says, "I believe that a conversation needs to be had, whether its on the ordination of women, whether its on birth control ... whatever in the life of the community or the life of the world...My issue has always been that I need to be a voice for the people."