Friday, February 14, 2014

Behind the scenes at Medellin: A woman's perspective

by Olga Lucia Álvarez Benjumea, ARCWP (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Evangelizadoras de los Apostoles
May 7, 2011

The mimeograph machine you see here1 has a lot of stories to tell. We worked as a team during the 2nd CELAM Conference (August 24 - September 6, 1968) which took place in Medellin, Colombia. This meeting was the beginning of a challenge for the Church in Latin America, a new period of ecclesial life, with deep spiritual renewal, generous pastoral charity, and genuine sensitivity to social concerns.

Dom Avelar Brandão Vilela, the President of CELAM, and Monseñor Eduardo Pironio, the Secretary General, expressed it well in their communique: "On the Latin American continent, God has shone a great light that reflects in the rejuvenated face of His Church. It's the time of hope. We are aware of the serious difficulties and huge problems that are affecting us. But more than ever, God is in the midst of us, building His Kingdom.

...Now the work of delving deeper, dissemination, and implementation begins. It's about studying in depth the conclusions adopted, making them known to all the People of God, and committing ourselves to their gradual application...It's not only the Bishops' commitment. It's the entire People of God who, at this providential time on the continent, are experiencing the call of the Spirit. The response requires deep prayer, maturity in the decisions, generosity in the tasks." (Bogota, November 30, 1968)

This communique, which was the presentation of the Final Document of Medellin, is filled with optimism, enthusiasm, and divine mandate!

Let's let the mimeograph tell us what it experienced and how four women were very attentive to it, providing it with ink, paper, and stencils. They cleaned and oiled it when it was tired, changed a spring if it failed. It knew that these four women cared for it as if they were caring for the Church.

"The twenty-four hours of the day weren't enough for us. We had to wait for that pile of stencils "typed" on electric machines and had to make many turns to make copies of those decisions that were so just, humane and new. I did this work in silence, but realizing the importance of the many flips." (the machine, hereinafter one of us, speaks).

Neither the mimeograph nor the four secretaries got dizzy from so much movement, but fatigue did not spare us, and only fresh water from those mountain peaks made us feel strong, renewed, and complete.

Some seminarians, very restrained every day, repaired them to remove the "junk". They were curious lads, eager to know what was behind closed doors and never supposed to get out. Not a single paper passed by them without them looking at it. They were drafts that announced the temperature of the Conference. They read everything before the hierarchs and the press itself...on the was a real fiesta!

These were the same young men who, the day we arrived, half-ironically half-joking, whispering along the clerical corridors, commented that "the women bishops have come", while we were carrying in the typewriters and mimeograph machines. Some of them are priests today and one is a bishop. They themselves told us.

With us was Mother Maria Agudelo, a philosopher and nun in the Company of Mary, who died 7 months ago. May she rest in peace. That holy and wise woman, a tiny figure, was our coordinator. The Holy Spirit could not be contained in her body; you could see it from outside. The image of God was present in her. She is the one who entered and left the conference room, always on the run, and brought us the documents that the working committees produced. The rest of us were lay missionaries from USEMI (Unión Seglar de Misioneros -- Lay Missionary Union): Beatriz Montoya, Helena Yarce and myself.

Out of the CELAM offices in Bogota, located at the corner of 78th and 11th Street, we had begun one year earlier to work intensively, contacting the bishops of the continent, special guests, and expert consultants and advisers on the different issues.

The Secretary of the Conference was Monseñor Plinio Monni (now deceased), an Argentinian, and his right hand man in everything was Father Cecilio De Lora, a Marianist priest. Monseñor loved to travel to Girardot2. He was a great collaborator in the parish run by Fr. Edgar Beltrán.

Beatriz and I worked full time with Father Cecilio in his office. Beatriz was his secretary and I, the secretary of Msgr. Plinio Monni. Helena supported us from the Secretariat of the Department of Missions, whose president was our bishop, Monseñor Gerardo Valencia Cano, Bishop of Buenaventura, apostle among the indigenous and Afro-descendent people and founder of USEMI, the movement to which we belonged. 3

Many times we had to take work home, subtracting time to rest. Beatriz and Helena were never lazy. They were women of great merits that did not go unnoticed.

Although certain topics were not discussed at the Conference, such as the situation of women in general and much less in the Church for example, other women were present, very worthy indeed. There was, as a special guest, Mother Margarita Ochoa, Superior General of the Missionaries of Mother -- now Saint -- Laura Montoya. Sister Ana, a Brazilian nun, then secretary of the Missionaries of today, Holy Mother Laura Montoya. There was Sister Ana (Brazilian religious and secretary of the Conferencia Latinoamericana de Religiosos - CLAR. Its president was Manuel P. Edwards and its general secretary, Fr. Luis Patiño. There was Mother Elvia Salazar. The men and women religious of CLAR were well represented.

It's worth noting that the women, laypeople, and Protestant brothers and sisters present only attended as mere observers.

The participation of laypeople was quite sparse and much discussed. From the nascent base communities that were budding, like the San Miguelito experiment in Panama, a pair of simple and unobtrusive spouses came as guests.

There was a team of women who performed logistical support in the rooms of the illustrious participants and others who took care of the kitchen and bathroom chores in general. There they were like invisible women, giving the best of their lives for the future of the Church.

Commenting on this, I cannot avoid "recalling" the presence of women at the Last Supper. Because if this happened here, something similar must have happened there, although it isn't even mentioned in the gospels.

Our mimeograph machine continues to share some details, indiscreet but friendly, in my opinion. It recalls a bishop from Nicaragua who, during certain rest periods, we would see reciting the poems of his compatriot Ruben Dario. There was another one, from Peru, now elderly, who had the idea of having a clothesline in his room on which to put his stuff. We had to buy him soap, an iron, etc...

With joy, we discussed among ourselves the achievement of the presence of the Cuban bishops. We wanted to know their story and their opinions about the "new" Cuba, but with so much work, we could not listen to them.

Indigenous and Afro-descendent people weren't invited, but there were those who spoke for them. They were those missionary bishops who raised their voices for those who had no voice: Gerardo Valencia Cano (Colombia), Leonidas Proaño (Ecuador), Víctor Garaygordobi (a Spaniard working in Ecuador), Samuel Ruiz (Mexico), Hélder Cámara (Brazil), José Dammert (Peru), Pedro Casaldáliga (a Spaniard working in Brazil), Don Sergio Méndez Arceo (Mexico), Ramón Bogarín (Paraguay), Dom Cándido Padín (Brazil).

Of the characters mentioned so far -- some may have escaped me, you'll understand -- I would note that the majority were missionaries. In April 1968, organized and convened by Archbishop Gerardo Valencia Cano, President of the CELAM Mission Department, and by its Secretary General, the well remembered Fr. Román, a meeting was held in Melgar, Colombia, which I daresay was definitely the one that paved the way for what happened next at the Medellin Conference. It's a shame that even among many missionaries, the Melgar documents are not known, valued, or appreciated. The Melgar meeting was preceded by the good meeting of the missionaries in Iquitos, Peru.

I remember how they commented in the hallways about the speech by Monseñor José Dammert Bellido, who shared his pastoral experience in Peru. He told how he was invited by his indigenous-peasant faithful to go to their farms to bless their cow, pig, or hens. Doesn't this attitude remind us of what we know about Francis of Assisi?

In the halls, I saw a diminutive figure dressed in black, a wise man, a holy man, very discrete, whose presence did not remain undetected. He had lived through Hiroshima in Japan. He was the Black Pope. That's what they called him. He was Father Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus. His memory remains etched in my mind.

Everything that happened in that meeting was a human and divine event worthy of comment and reflection. How it made us vibrate with excitement and hope!

Did Medellin leave the door open to a different ecumenism? Even though this was a theme that was left aside at that meeting, the Holy Spirit there whispered what we have begun to glimpse recently in our days in some spaces of interfaith communion.

I have had many ecumenical experiences -- meetings, documents, some joint liturgies of the Word -- but the one that most marked me in my life was the one I experienced at that meeting. The last day (September 6, 1968), at the closing Mass presided on that occasion by the Archbishop of Medellin, Monseñor Tulio Botero Salazar (a Vincentian), before finalizing the distribution of Communion, two people who were very loved and appreciated in our Christian world were invited to come to the Eucharistic table -- Bishop David Reed, an Anglican bishop who ruled over the Anglican Episcopal Diocese of Colombia, and Brother Roger Schutz, from the Ecumenical community of Taizé, France. Both went up to receive the Holy Eucharist through the central nave of the Capilla del Seminario Mayor, full not only of the Conference participants (247) but of outside guests for this solemn and spectacular moment. As the guests advanced, the People of God broke into applause that remains etched not only on the walls of the chapel, but on those rugged mountains of Antioquia.4

Little has been said about this beautiful and telling event, which was later on eclipsed by a wand, trying to erase and cast into oblivion the first ecumenical event where the Bread of Life was shared. Those of us who learned this spontaneous and daring lesson that the Holy Spirit, the Ruah-Sofia, performed through the person of Bishop Tulio Botero Sañazar, today are preaching and applying it little by little, without protagonism, in those meetings where the true inter-religious life that brings us close to the Divine Unity is taking shape.

Were there tensions at the Conference? Of course, and they even reached us. It was that document that Monseñor Luis Eduardo Henríquez (Venezuela) delivered to me personally to get it out immediately because, according to him, the Assembly was just going to approve it. I showed my colleagues what had come, we looked at it ..., it had to be discussed and it was left in the consultation. "Don't mess with that document. This is the one you have to get out," another one told us. The counter document was left out. The mimeograph machine was scared about what would happen now. It worked faster than ever, yelling, "Girls 5, be careful. You're burning me up!" And what about the bishop who brought that one? He's coming to take account! "Quiet, girls, I'm exhausted. One of my springs has burned, a nut has pulled away." Thus the "Colombian counter document" didn't happen. Anyway, the bishop who handed it to me wasn't Colombian and I remember his reaction. His face turned red as a tomato with annoyance. I was the one who had to face him.

In the breaks, like a lunch time, we were able to see new faces of people who went up to greet and share with the prelates. I remember then Governor of Antioquia, Dr. Octavio Arismendi Posada (recently deceased), a member of Opus Dei.

There were also amusing things that haven't been told in the serious writings. Among the guests was an Italian priest, Fr. Egidio Vigano. At the tail end of the meeting, we suddenly heard over the loudspeaker, the voice of a man yelling at the top of his lungs, "Father Bígamo ["Bigamist"], to the telephone!", "Father Bígamo to the telephone!" We almost didn't get to the receptionist's cabin to silence the loudspeaker.

It's worth recalling that you could still smell the gunpowder that ended the life of Father Camilo Torres, an odor that reached the 2nd CELAM Bishops' Conference in Medellin in 1968 like a stigma. Hence, every priest, nun or layperson with words of openness to the poor, was "involved" with the guerrillas.

Theologians, sociologists, canonists, biblical scholars, bishops, priests, men and women religious, laypeople, participants and observers by their presence were echoing: "I have seen the affliction of my people." (Exodus 3:7)

The final documents reflected it: "He is the same God who, in the fullness of time, sent His Son so that, made flesh, he would come to free all men from all slavery to which they are subjected by sin, ignorance, hunger, poverty and oppression." 6 And they go on, saying:

"As the Christian believes in the productiveness of peace in order to achieve justice, he also believes that justice is a prerequisite for peace. He recognizes that in many instances Latin America finds itself faced with a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence, when, because of a structural deficiency of industry and agriculture, of national and international economy, of cultural and political life, "whole towns lack necessities, live in such dependence as hinders all initiative and responsibility as well as every possibility for cultural promotion and participation in social and political life," (Populorum progressio, No. 30) thus violating fundamental rights. This situation demands all-embracing, courageous, urgent and profoundly renovating transformations. We should not be surprised therefore, that the "temptation to violence" is surfacing in Latin America. One should not abuse the patience of a people that for years has borne a situation that would not be acceptable to anyone with any degree of awareness of human rights." 7

They have tried to throw a curtain of smoke over Father Camilo Torres. This was felt in Medellin (1968) and more for future generations, but the smell of gunpowder is very strong and is still sensed. Thus today we have to say that this man, in what he said and left in his writings, always stressed and lived love in his Christian commitment. The story of his death still hasn't been clarified. He turned up dead on February 16, 1966 in Patio Cemento (Santander). Some say it was in combat; others that they made him pass as a guerrillero, or, as we would say today, the Camilo case seems to be part of the "false positives."

For those who didn't know him or have barely heard of him, he left consigned in his memory the following words addressed to the Christian Movement in February 1966, four months before his death: "I do not intend to proselytize among the Communists and to try to get them to accept the dogma and teaching of the Catholic Church. I do want all men to act in accordance with their conscience, to look in earnest for the truth, and to love their neighbor effectively. The Communists must be fully aware of the fact that I will not join their ranks, that I am not nor will I ever be a Communist, either as a Colombian, as a sociologist, as a Christian, or as a priest." 8

 The guidelines the Holy Spirit promoted at that historical moment filled many of us with joy and missionary dynamism to experience an authentic gospel and the footprint has remained, the afterglow has remained (there have been many echoes), although they want to put it out and erase it from history, we won't let them. It is and remains the continuity of Vatican II for our people, learning, remembering, taking up Gaudium et Spes ...It was an attempt to present the Gospel and Vatican II in our tongues, among our peoples. It was inculturating the Gospel in our culture, hence its motto: "The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council."

It was the first time that Latin America had spoken and showed its theology from daily life in the events of our lives, our reality, our oppression and feelings of liberation: "When this begins to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your liberation is at hand." (Luke 21:28)

What is left of Medellin 1968 today? Those who know say, and tell us as much: Women are still invisible and have the Letter of Paul on their backs.(1st Corinthians 14:34).

In the conferences that followed -- Puebla, Santo Domingo -- the presence of "non-Catholic" brothers and sisters decreased considerably. The Good News didn't count for them. Or for women, either. Texts like the one about the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), the Samaritan woman (John 4:6-15), and Paul's "There is neither Jew nor Greek..." (Galatians 3:28), must have been kept in the wastebasket where the "indigent", avid for the Good News, would find and recycle them.

Jesus' dream of Divine Unity (John 17:21) without barriers, without denominations, buildings, or hierarchies -- one Law alone, that of the Love of God! The dream of the Good Pope, John XXIII, the dream od Paul VI, of John Paul I (the Smiling Pope), the dream of our martyred leaders -- Oscar Arnulfo Romero (Saint Romero of America), Teresita Ramírez, Yolanda Cerón (nuns), Father Rutilio Grande, those simple women and the Jesuits (murdered in El Salvador), Monseñor Gerardi (murdered 13 years ago in Guatemala), the catechists of Cocorná-Antioquia, the dream of so many women and men, young people and children, the impoverished will not remain in the caverns of "eternal" darkness this time.

The 2nd Latin American Bishops' Conference, that meeting, was, is and will be a dream made true, living out in practice the plan of God's Kingdom, according to the Good News, according to the guidelines of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council (1962), always seeking the Truth that sets us free (John 8:32). The search for Truth is not trapped, not enclosed, not denied. It is sought and found! And we will go on blowing on the embers that the Spirit of God made rise up like a great flame and light that will never go out to make itself present in the history of salvation that continues in our 21st century.

So like the mimeograph machine in our story, many others throughout Latin America served to give voice to many base Christian communities in the countryside and in the barrios. Thousands of mimeograph machines continued to preach the good news to the poor. Where there wasn't electricity, gelatin duplicators and many other ways were used to bring hope to birth. Just as we invisible women at the Conference gave it movement to proclaim Jesus the Liberator, many other women and men (from the countryside and the barrios, from the unions and the Church as People of God) did it to advertise their assemblies, their marches, to reproduce pieces of the Gospels, to publicize the minutes of community meetings, to do popular education, that is, mimeographs that put into action all across the Continent the agreements of Vatican II and the Medellin Conference. 9


1) Personal archive, photo taken by Br. José Arnaiz, a Marianist now deceased, official photographer of the Conference. From left to right, Olga Lucia Álvarez and Helena Yarce. (It was an era when computers didn't yet exist and so it was very strenuous to type and then print out everything...)

2) Girardot is a tourist city with a lovely climate and good swimming pools.

3) USEMI, formerly UFEMI (Unión Femenina Misionera), was founded by Monseñor Gerardo Valencia in the wake of Vatican II. It is a completely lay institution serving the disadvantaged and impoverished in various regions of the country, indigenous and black communities (Departamento del Cesar, Sierra Nevada, Pretoria-Choco, Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca, Rio San Juan).

4) In the corridors, it was learned later that they had requested to be allowed to take communion and claimed to believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. An argument that was remedied by the ban on communicatio in sacris. Canon 844 and 861.

5) "Girls" is an affectionate term used for young women among Antioqueños.

6) Cf. Synthesis of that situation in the working document of the 2nd Latin American Bishops' Conference, Nos. 1-9. (1968)

7) Final Document of the 2nd CELAM Conference (1968), No. 16

8) United Front (Bogota, September 2, 1965 -- available in English here)

9) All of the above from personal experience without editing.

Photos: Olga Lucia Álvarez as a clerical worker during the CELAM Conference in Medellin, 1968, and last year as a Roman Catholic woman priest going over the Mass readings with lectors at the Centro Cultural Melendez.

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