by Jon Sobrino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
February 23, 2012
The ten years from Medellin (1968) to Puebla (1979) were unique in the modern era of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Then began a decline which Aparecida (2007) wanted to curb, though to this day there remains much to do.
In making this judgment, we are not looking at the church as the sociologists analyze it, but we are looking at "the passage of God." It is certainly more difficult to gauge, but it touches the deepest dimension of the Church, and at what service it should be -- briefly, what it brings to human beings and the world as a whole. And obviously one has to ask "which God" is passing through history at a given time.
It was a quantum leap. The poor irrupted, and God irrupted in them. It was a founding event that penetrated the faith of many and configured the Church.
Surprisingly, the priority for the assembled bishops was not the Church itself, but the world of poor and the victims, that is, God's creation. Their first words proclaim the reality of the continent: "massive poverty, the product of injustice." The bishops acted, above all, as human beings, and allowed the reality that cried to Heaven to speak. They are the cries God heard in Exodus; they made Him come out of himself and enter decidedly into history. Similarly, with Medellín, God entered Latin American history.
Starting from the irruption of the poor, and of God in them, Medellin thought about what it is to be church, what is its identity and core mission, and what should be its way of being in a world of poor people. The answer was "a church of the poor," similar to the dream that John XXIII and Cardinal Lercaro had. It did not succeed in the Council, but it did at Medellin. The Church felt compassion for the oppressed and decided to work for their liberation. For many, with more or less explicit awareness, it was hailed as a blessing. For others, it was perceived, rightly, as a serious danger.
Power soon reacted. In 1968, Nelson Rockefeller wrote a report about what was happening, and that that new and dangerous Church had to be weakened and curbed, and that is what happened at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Oligarchies with capital, armies, and death squads unleashed a persecution against the Church, unknown in the history of Latin America. The persecution, and standing firm in it, made it clear that something new and evangelical was happening: the Church of Medellin was with the poor and persecuted people, and incurred the same fate. Thousands were killed, including half a dozen bishops, dozens of priests, men and women religious, and many lay women and men. With limitations, errors and sins, it was a Church that was much more chaste than prostituted, much more evangelical than worldly.
Within the Catholic Church, Paul VI promoted and encouraged this new church, but high officials of the Roman Curia and other local curiae discredited it, treated its flagship representatives -- the bishops too -- poorly and unfairly, and designed an alternative church, different and even opposite, more devotional, intimistic, one of movements that were submissive to, and defenders of the hierarchy. And what had to be avoided was that the Church would get back into conflict with the powerful. The popular church, born around Medellin, faithful and lucid, one of base communities, that experienced the poverty of the continent, suffered double persecution from the oppressor world and, fairly frequently, from the Church itself.
Such a Church was a witness and follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnated, advocate for, and companion of the poor, it carried the cross and frequently died on it. It announced the Good News as Jesus did in the synagogue at Nazareth. It had its "twelve apostles", the Fathers of the Latin American church with Don Helder Camara, one of the pioneers, with Enrique Angelelli, Don Sergio Mendez Arceo, Leonidas Proaño, with Monsignor Romero, pastor and martyr of the continent, and others. It became ekklesia, in which women and men, religious and laity, Latin Americans and foreigners, came to form an ecclesial body, a great community of life and mission. Between those at home and those abroad a solidarity was generated that had never been seen before -- they lifted each other up. Hope and joy grew. And from the love of the martyrs was born a breath of resurrection, free from all alienation, which referred back again and again to history to live in it as risen ones.
In that Church, the Spirit blew, the spirit of Jesus and the spirit of the poor. That spirit inspired prayer, liturgy, music, and art. And it also inspired prophetic homilies, lucid pastoral letters, home-based theological writings, not just imported texts that had not been through the crucible of Medellin.
In the center of it all was the gospel of Jesus. Luke 4:16: "I have come to preach good news to the poor, to set the captives free." Matthew 25:36-41: "I was hungry and you fed me." John 15:13: "No one has greater love than to lay down one's life for the brethren." And Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One, Acts 2:23: "The One whom you killed, God has brought back to life."
Surveys, sociological and anthropological, economic and political studies offer data and provide explanations about the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. They tell us if we are going up or down in number and influence in society. From that perspective, I have nothing to add. And strictly speaking, the future of what we call "Church" is not my biggest concern, although I have lived and live in it, and I'm used to belonging to the family.
What interests me, and makes me happy, is that "God passes through this world." And the reason is simple. The world is "gravely ill", Ellacuria used to say -- "sick unto death," Jean Ziegler says. In other words, it needs salvation and healing. Therefore, as a believer and a human being, I wish that "God would pass through this world" because that passage always brings salvation to the people and the world as a whole. We had the blessing of feeling that passage of God with Medellin, with Monsignor Romero, with many popular communities. With many good people, mostly simple folk. With a host of martyrs. And also, although that can only be felt "in a difficult act of faith," as Ellacuría used to say to explain the salvation brought by the suffering servant of Isaiah, with the crucified people.
How are we today? Being simplistic in such serious matters would be committing a grave error. It would be unfair not to see the good which, in many ways, exists in the churches. And it would be arrogant not to try to find it, even though sometimes it hides behind a shell that doesn't clearly reflect Jesus of Nazareth. In any case, the passage of "God" will always be an inscrutable mystery, and only on tiptoe and with maximum respect for all human beings can we talk about it. But with all these precautions, something can be said. We will mention the realities of the faithful and their communities, but we have in mind above all the entities, high in the hierarchy, historically very responsible for what happens, and who can not be held to account effectively. With simplicity, I will give my personal view.
Pentecostalism in various forms abounds, as a kind of church that is distant from the real life and death problems of the majority, even though it brings encouragement and comfort to the poor, which is not be disdained when they have nothing to hold on to for their lives to be meaningful -- the situation in wealthier classes is different. A large number of movements proliferate, dozens of them, church media -- radio and television stations -- proliferate that are excessively submissive to the ideals and standards that come from the curiae, without giving a sense of freedom to take into their own hands a gospel that proclaims the good news to the poor, in the form of justice, and without hinting at the need for a reflective, minimally scientific, study of the Word of God, and in general the theology offered by Vatican II and Medellin. Devotions of all kinds proliferate, older ones and those of today. Jesus of Nazareth, the one who went about doing good and was crucified, is easily cast aside in favor of the Child Jesus, whether of Atocha, Prague, the Child God, this said with great respect. The mighty Jesus of Galilee, of the Jordan, the prophet of denunciations around the temple of Jerusalem, is easily diluted in favor of devotions based on apparitions with an excessively sentimental and mellifluous background. To put it simply, Divine Providence can become more attractive than the Father of Jesus, the Son who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and giver of life, and the Father of the poor, as is sung in the Pentecost hymn.
Overall in the Church today it's hard to find the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, freedom in the face of power, that doesn't cease to be power because it's sacred. One notes excessive obsequiousness and submission to all that is hierarchy, which becomes paralyzing fear. From positions of ecclesial power, triumphalism appears, and what I have called the multitudinous mediagenic ministry of apotheosis. In many seminaries, discourse and thinking have been replaced by memorization. At meetings of the clergy, as we know, questions, discussions and debate have been replaced by silence. The pastoral letters of the seventies and eighties -- a real source of pride for the churches that occasionally regain freshness, in Guatemala for example -- have been replaced by short, demure and restrained messages, with arguments taken from the Pope's latest encyclicals. The institutional center no longer seems to be in Latin America, but in distant Rome. All this is said respectfully.
How God's passing through Latin America will be, and with whom He will pass, remains to be seen, and ultimately it belongs to God. But it is up to us yearn for it, work for it, and learn how it happened in the past around Medellin.
It's good to know and analyze the swings in membership and influence of the churches in society. According to the data, the Catholic Church is declining in both areas. But we must remember more the roots from whose sap we have experienced the passage of God. And water them humbly, with living water.
What will happen to our church and all churches has yet to be seen. My hope is that, whatever happens on the outside, it would be to put itself at the service of God's passage through this world, the God of Jesus, the compassionate and crucified prophet. And God, the giver of hope.
These are questions we can always ask. But perhaps it is good to ask them at the beginning of Lent. This time requires fortitude from us to walk to Jerusalem. And it offers us the hope of meeting the crucified and risen Jesus there.