Thursday, March 6, 2014

A new book about the Bishop of Saltillo...

Msgr. Raul Vera, the progressive Roman Catholic bishop of Saltillo, Mexico, is the subject of a new book, El evangelio social del obispo Raúl Vera ("The Social Gospel of Bishop Raul Vera" -- Grijalbo, 2014). In this book based on interviews, the bishop talks about everything from his image ("I don't want to be the good boy or seem like it") to his struggles on behalf of miners, migrants, and gay people, to his views on Mexico's current government (Nieto "would have to clean up the elections to gain legitimacy"). The book also contains a prologue by Mexico's well-known anti-violence campaigner Javier Sicilia. Here, the book's author Bernardo Barranco writes about it in an opinion piece in La Jornada (2/26/2014 -- English translation by Rebel Girl):

One cannot remain indifferent towards people who in the last two years have been shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. We are referring to Raul Vera, who is the face of a Church committed to social justice and human rights. A person who enjoys broad social recognition and respect among different sectors of the country. Paradoxically, his secular prestige is inversely proportional to what he is granted within the episcopacy. I have been able to see this during the presentations we have been doing about the book, El evangelio social del obispo Raúl Vera, conversaciones con Bernardo Barranco, Editorial Grijalbo [Penguin Random House - Mexico], which has just been distributed in the main bookstores of the country.*

I could observe the respect with which Raul Vera is treated by very different journalists and opinion leaders such as Carmen Aristegui, Leo Zuckermann, Ricardo Rocha, and Javier Aranda. He's been cheered by irreverent radio programs like "El Weso" and "Charros contra Gánsters." And special mention is deserved by Martha Debayle who, at the end of the interview, was already proposing Vera as the next candidate for the presidency, clearly contrary to Article 130 of the Constitution.


Moreover, Vera's strong words reflect the outrage of the period. His actions as a priest mirror the feelings and will of a great number of Mexicans who see in the Dominican friar a brave civic and spiritual attitude. Raul Vera's ability to call people together is indisputable. Not only was the Bernardo Quintana auditorium at the International Book Fair in the Palacio de Minería last Saturday, February 22nd, overflowing, but a large group of people, unfortunately, had to remain outside the presentation of the book, due to the stubborness and lack of courtesy of the authorities who organized the fair.

I've been asking myself why these religious figures arouse considerable empathy. My answer is in Pope Francis himself. Keeping them in perspective, both figures represent renewal, freshness, and social commitment to the poorest. As Nancy Gibbs of TIME magazine substantiated by naming the Pope Man of the Year, in less than a year Francis has done something notable. He didn't change the language but he changed the tone and temperament which are important in a Church built on the substance of symbols. Monseñor Vera is heir and repository of a legendary Latin American generation of bishops, priests, male religious and nuns who followed the renovating impulse of Vatican II. He is a disciple of a Catholic progressivism that reached significantly into the social movements in Latin America. Therefore, his performance contrasts with the limited presence and smallness of most of the current Mexican prelates.

This book shows that Raul Vera is not an accident that was born in Chiapas, nor is he the result of a sudden conversion. In Vera, a miracle of conversion is not at work, but rather a long process of maturation in which not only personal circumstances but the mystique of the Order of Preachers -- the Dominicans, as they are commonly known -- have played a part. The legacy of Bartolomé de las Casas, Fray Antonio de Montesinos and Fray Francisco de Vitoria, among many others. Also the seeds of struggle in this religious activist were palpable even before he opted for the priesthood. Vera is the son of a double revolution symbolically at work in the sixties: the 1968 university revolt -- a movement in which Vera actively participated, and the ecclesial aggiornamento which was enshrined in the Council and subsequently took shape in Latin American liberation theology. But Don Raul goes further. He is not content to criticize and bring up the transformation of unjust structures. He stands in solidarity with specific causes and champions the dignity of women, indigenous people, miners, migrants and homosexuals, among others.

Although he doesn't consider himself a rebel bishop, it cannot be denied that he has received criticism for his decisions and positions in favor of respect for sexual diversity. From Rome, the Curia has demanded various explanations from him and it has been nervous about his ministry to homosexuals and his tolerance towards unorthodox priests. The Catholic right has been harassing him since his time in Chiapas, denigrating his career. In the book, Raul Vera talks about his university battles against MURO [Movimiento Universitario de Renovadora Orientación], the great uncle of El Yunque and the current Mexican Catholic right. The intransigent conservatives paint banners against him, they slander him in Rome, stalk him, and even threaten him. Vera can be generous, even with those religious actors who attack him.

However, to my surprise, he is quite orthodox in doctrinal matters. He has bolder answers to secular problems than to religious ones. In spite of that, he was very blunt during our conversations, denouncing clericalism as a cancer in the Church. The bishop of Saltillo questioned a Church that feels it is above society, even before hearing Francis' criticism of the self-referential Church. Monseñor Vera's formula is simple. He is an honest and consistent person. He lives the gospel with all its demands and knows how to convey his faith with fervor. In his simple home, he has no swimming pools or gyms. He doesn't appear in society magazines. Although he dialogues with everyone, he is not fond of attending banquets with the wealthy. He doesn't play golf or use a Mercedes, nor does he have arrest warrants for million-peso fraud. He's simply a pastor who is consistent with the gospel he preaches.

One final note. The conversations with Raul Vera contained in the book took place at a time of transition between two popes. At the beginning of our dialogue, Vera's voice was silenced and overriden by most of the Mexican bishops since it clashed and, therefore, was confined. Now, with Pope Francis, with all his proposals for renewal, Don Raul has been repositioned and has become an obligatory reference point for an apathetic episcopacy, lazy about following the path of change that the current pontiff is proposing.

* For those interested in the book, it is presently available electronically in Kindle format from Amazon and Nook from Barnes and Noble. It will eventually also be available in paperback in the US.

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