Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dom José Maria Pires: The trajectory of a bishop of the people

By Thaís Brito (English translation by Rebel Girl)
O POVO (em português)
June 22, 2015

His mother had African and Gypsy blood. His father came from a Portuguese family. During his career in defense of black people and the oppressed, Dom José Maria Pires was also known as Dom Pelé and Dom Zumbi. At age 96, the retired archbishop of Paraíba travels around the country to speak about the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965. He is one of the few living conciliar fathers in Brazil.

Born in Minas Gerais, he united a mineiro's calm with the frankness of a northeasterner to defend the poor during the military dictatorship. In the man from Ceará, Dom Helder Câmara, he found a personal friend and ally in the struggle for human rights. In an interview with O POVO, he recalls the pact signed by the Church to reach the weakest and pursue simplicity. After 50 years from the last conference, he thinks that a conversion to the Council's message is needed.

O POVO - Where do the nicknames "Dom Pelé" and "Dom Zumbi" come from?

Dom José Maria Pires - When I was ordained bishop in 1957, I was the only black bishop in the Brazilian episcopate. It was the time when Pelé was at his height, a young man. At one of our meetings, I came in a little late with another bishop. When I entered, they said, "Feola (Vicente Feola, former player of the national team), who was chubby, and Pelé." Then they started calling me Pelé.

OP - And how did the "Zumbi" come about?

Dom José - "Zumbi" was in Serra da Barriga (Alagoas), on the centenary of the abolition of slavery. We had made a pilgrimage to the mountain range, which was the seat of the Quilombo dos Palmares. There, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga (emeritus bishop of São Félix do Araguaia) says, "Look, Zé Maria. Pelé doesn't do anything for black people. You keep fighting for the blacks. So we're going to change your name from Pelé to Zumbi because he also gave his life for blacks." From then on they called me Dom Zumbi.

OP - And do these nicknames please you?

Dom José - No, they don't matter to me. Some call me José, others Zé Maria. I answer to all of them. (laughs)

OP - You entered the seminary when you were still young?

Dom José - I was just 12 in the seminary. At that time, we finished primary school and then entered seminary. The whole junior high part we did there.

OP - At the beginning of your studies, as a black child of humble origins, did you face difficulties or discrimination?

Dom José - I didn't think it was discrimination. Minas Gerais has a very high black population. Because of being a land of mining, especially diamonds, there were lots of slaves there to work the land. And a black person there is normal. Now, really whites made their exceptions and distinctions. For example, in my first year of seminary, at age 12, I had a disagreement with a colleague of mine. We fought, the person in charge came, he separated us and punished us. We were kneeling in the hallway. Then the director of the house came by, he saw us and called the person in charge. "What did these boys do?" He said, "They were fighting." Then the director: "This one is a very good boy, from a good family. It's that black one that's no good."(laughs) That was the view and we accepted it. I thought that black was inferior. Only later did I come to see that wasn't the case. Black is different. It's neither superior nor inferior; it's different.

OP - In 1965, you were transferred to João Pessoa. Did coming into contact with the people in Paraíba bring more the vision of a church dedicated to the poor? Or was that already part of your work in Minas Gerais?

Dom José - It was in part. Because at that time there was a very strong social distinction between Minas Gerais, which was in the south, and the Northeast. Mineiros are very quiet, withdrawn. There's a marked difference. But northeasterners are wide open... You come and talk with them half an hour, you already know their whole life. And there was a problem in the Church in the Northeast because, even during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), there was a very great divide in some diocese. One of them was Paraiba. The clergy were divided almost in half. The archbishop was 62, but was unable to work. So it was necessary to provide someone who was new and in condition to face that situation.

OP - What division was that? Were there two distinct visions of Church?

Dom José - The Second Vatican Council projected a new image of the Church and a new image of the priest. Before, the priest went around in a cassock, celebrating Mass and baptizing in Latin. He had to be someone quite remote; he celebrated with his back to the people. The Council projected a different image. He's the one who's social, talks to everyone, gets close to them. So a group of older priests stayed in that ancient rite, the younger priests didn't. So it led to tremendous confusion. In the Northeast, they had this. What does the Holy See do? It picks someone who doesn't know the Northeast. So they took me out of Araçuaí (Minas Gerais) and sent me there. So because of being a mineiro and knowing nothing there, I came in without any concern. I didn't take any step whatsoever and let the priests do it. It really was interesting for them, but it brought them together. Because the bishop was not on one side or the other. We managed to work. It wasn't my own merit, it was the mineirice [being from Minas Gerais]. Being a little different from them changed the situation. And I was turning into a paraibano.

OP - Was it in Paraíba that you came to know Dom Helder Câmara?

Dom José - I had already met him since he was elected bishop. But it was a fairly generic meeting, in that crowd of bishops. When I came to Paraíba, it was different there. I was his closest neighbor.

OP - Dom Helder's beatification process has now begun; there's now a committee gathering testimonies about him...

Dom José - (interrupting) I was the first to give testimony.

OP - That testimony is secret, but what can you tell people about Dom Helder?

Dom José - I can tell them everything (laughs). He was a great priest, a great bishop. An ability to understand people, to coexist. He was an authority, but he never exercised authority. He never presided a Region 2 (a division of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil) session. He who was president. The one who presided was his auxiliary, Dom José Lamartine. He was there in the back like one of the other bishops. From time to time, he'd get up and say, "But, my brothers ...". And then he came out with his view, which was masterful. He had a good relationship with the people. Who ever heard of an archbishop of a city like Recife not having a car? Having no secretary, eating at home? It really was a wonderful witness. Because I was his closest neighbor, we had a lot of contact in order to see how things could move forward. I had a deep friendship with Dom Helder.

OP - Because of your actions in defense of the people during the military dictatorship, people still refer to you as red archbishops. To what do we owe this title and the idea that you were in a progressive wing of the Church?

Dom José - Everything depended a lot on the region of Brazil. There in the south, they didn't have the problems we had in the Northeast. The bishops in the south were much more settled. And they didn't believe in much of what people said. Recife, for example, was a cauldron. It was that constant boiling. That was the first reason. The second is the fact that we lived in the Northeast, seeing the situation of the people moved us a lot. Why? They had poor people there in the south too. But in the Northeast it wasn't the poor, it was the impoverished. You had to provide conditions for people to develop. Not in the south -- if someone wanted to work, there was land for him to work. In the Northeast, if he wanted to work, he didn't have land or anything; it was a kind of slavery. This completely changed our view. You're used to a region where there's a good coexistence. You come to one that's at war, right? That greatly obliged us to take a stand. With Dom Helder, it was the same thing. He was bishop of Rio de Janeiro. During the International Eucharistic Congress (1955), he was in Rio facilitating. Then he was transferred to the Northeast. He changed his language, changed his activity. Why? We are archbishops of the people. So if the people are suffering, our mentality has to change.

OP - How did the Church become close to the disadvantaged and act in their defense?

Dom José - It's what it has done since Vatican II. There were very serious events during that period, 1964 and 1965. The first for us was the military dictatorship. And for the Church, the closing of the Second Vatican Council. So we left the Council with that enthusiasm, wanting the Church to be of the poor. Then a group of 42 bishops celebrated in the catacombs of Rome and signed a pact to have the Church of the poor. It was saying: "We bishops will no longer live in palaces, we won't have any gold objects. Whoever has a gold cross will sell it, will donate it." Simplicity, right? Pay special attention to the poorest families. Instead of sticking with the more important ones. Not only the mentality changed, so did the lifestyle. That, to those in power, was communism (laughs). But we weren't bothered by that. They called Dom Helder a red bishop, wrote on the wall of his house. It didn't bother us.

OP - And did it make you stop acting for the people?

Dom José - No. Dom Helder used to do incredible things for an archbishop of Olinda and Recife. We were there at a meeting of Northeast Region 2, of which he was president. People came from the [Ministry of] the Interior and warned us that the property owners of that area had ordered the fence near where the poorer people were living, where they had their crops, to be opened to release their cattle there. Dom Helder tried to find out if it was true. And it was. Then he said, "And are we going to go on with our meeting here? Leaving the people to suffer like that? We have to do something." Dom Helder never decided what to do, he tossed out the problem, and we discussed it. That's where the solution came from. It came out of a gathering of opinions. The result was: "Someone has to go there and support the people." So four of us bishops went. Me driving a Beetle, Dom Helder beside me. When we got there, that thing was set up, it had over a hundred soldiers. Then one of the commanders came to greet Dom Helder. When they saw the bishops coming in, people cheered. Everybody was trapped in their homes, and the cattle were eating everything. People came out of their houses and Dom Helder started to recite the commandments of nonviolence with them. Dom Helder yelled, "First." The people said, "Never kill." "Second." "Never harm" and so on. Having finished the commandments, Don Helder said, "Now we're going to throw the cattle out." A soldier came and said, "You can't do that." He said, "So you're going to let the cattle eat the people's crops?." The soldier said, "But the owner has to do that." But it was the owner who ordered the fence to be open and sent the police to guarantee that. Dom Helder didn't argue anymore. He took some manioc, a small cassava rod, and said, "We'll deal with the cattle slowly. Because the cattle have eaten a lot of cassava and may feel bad if they run. Let's go slowly, OK?." Soon we four were herding cattle. It was a very symbolic thing.

OP - And with your actions in the Archdiocese of Paraíba, did you suffer any
persecution during the military dictatorship?


Dom José - Not persecution. Dom Helder and I had restrictions. For example, Don Helder made many trips abroad. And they would hold his passport. In those days, the passport was only for that trip. The passport stayed with the Federal Police. When it was almost time for the trip, someone would come there with his passport. It was pressure on him. They also put pressure on us by violating [the privacy of] our correspondence. You could see it clearly. There was that kind of persecution, then intimidation. I scheduled a visit to the Potiguara Nation, which is some indigenous people who have a whole city there in Paraiba. A police officer came and said, "Do you have permission to enter there in the indigenous area?." I said, "No, I don't need authorization." He said, "Oh, you need it." I said, "But I'm not there just to visit; I'm going to make a pastoral visit. I'm the archbishop so I'm going to visit them." The policeman said, "Ah, but if you don't have authorization from the army, you're not going in there." I said, "Okay." We got there with a nun and another guy; there were the police. They asked for my documents. I handed them over, they looked at them and opened the gate. What they did a lot was intimidate people. If you would give in, it was their victory. But if you would insist, they didn't have the courage to confront you. It was a very interesting time (laughs).

OP - The Center for the Defense of Human Rights was founded during that period in 1971. Was that institution linked to the Archdiocese? How did it help people?

Dom José - Our center for the defense was the first one that emerged in America. The Council emphasized the issue of human rights a lot, people's rights, the value of the individual, including in the Church. And how would we help people, mainly the poor who were being hardest hit? So you would resort to a lawyer to defend so and so who was arrested. But it didn't happen because you would need people who would take this seriously. Then the diocese of Paraíba decided to hire a lawyer to stay just on that account. That's where the Center for Human Rights started. We now had a lawyer, one of those who doesn't wait around for something to appear. There's a land problem over there, he goes there to get to know it, spends a lot of time there and has all the data to make a defense. It was a blessing for those poor people knowing they had a lawyer. And some cases weren't for the attorney to solve; they were an army thing. He'd give a letter to the guy to go to the Grupamento de Engenharia [Corps of Engineers]. Then the citizen would go and say, "Look, this is a letter to the commander." The commander would read the letter; it was from the lawyer. He'd tear the letter up and say, "When you have problems, you don't need to go there to that Communist place."

OP - To this day, you are called to meetings to talk about the Second Vatican Council. In addition to changes in the image of priests and the proximity to the people, what change in the role of the Church would you highlight?

Dom José - It's not a matter of changing. All that earlier doctrine is still valid. You will now focus on those things that are important to the people. Before, the image of the Church was like a pyramid. At the top is the Pope, then come the bishops, the priests, the religious, and at the base are the people. Vatican II projected another image. The Church is the people. It's all here; there's no one on top. Here's the pope, the bishops... Each with his role. It's like in a company -- people have authority precisely to exercise that function. In the Church, there are some who are assigned to be in authority for the benefit of the journey. The Church is the people of God on the way. It's not static; it's not an institution that is standing there. On this journey, you have constant change. The Church is ready for these changes. On this journey, you need food for the road. Prayer and the Eucharist are great food. And the Eucharist isn't a prize for pious people, it's food for those who are traveling. So it changes completely. It doesn't negate the old stuff, but projects a different image of Church for today.

OP - Were this theory and this image conceived during the Council applied?

Dom José - It wasn't conceived during the Council. It's the original image of the Church. The apostolic communities began that way. What we were doing after the Council is what John XXIII called renewal. Going back to the sources. How was the Church in the beginning? How was it born? Let's go back to the sources. Now, the theory speaks of sources. But it happens that, over the centuries, things change. Women today no longer dress like they dressed in that period. So we have to get up-to-date. So the Church has to be faithful to that beginning, but updated. You'll keep the ardor, but use the opportunities to update it.

OP - And how was the Church's dialogue with other Christian denominations? The Council discussed ecumenism. Was it important to talk about that?

Dom José - Look, ecumenism was something a bit theoretical before. With Vatican II comes the practical stuff. We're going to meet because we have something in common between us. For example, every year we have a meeting of bishops and evangelical pastors. What do we have in common? The Bible. If it's the Bible, in the morning we have to have a celebration of the Word. And the one who presides is a Protestant. In the evening, there's a celebration of the Eucharist. The one who presides is a bishop. And everyone attends. And during the day we'll discuss issues that concern society. For example, we'd talk about violence. It matters to Protestants and Catholics that people understand one another and come closer.

OP - You are of African descent from your mother. In the dialogue with other religions, how do you view the spirituality of millions of blacks in Brazil who have a heritage of Catholicism and African culture, combining devotion to the saints and the orixás?

Dom José - In the beginning, the Church condemned all that. Because it entered Brazil and America through those who came from Europe. They were all Catholics. They thought religion was that, that it had to be that way. Anyone who didn't practice that way, in that style, was out. Indigenous stuff was considered superstition. Black stuff was superstition. So it threw candomblé out. Time passed and then we discovered that God is really present in all these cultures. You have to respect different cultures. It wasn't easy. In 1992, we still had a strong argument about this in Santo Domingo at the General Conference of the Latin American Bishops [CELAM]. We saw that what the Church believes in is the inculturation of faith, of the gospel. And I can't live my faith the same way as someone from over there in Europe, who has a completely different lifestyle. The faith is the same; the way of life is different. For a European to pray, the quieter it is, the better. Not for a black person. The more dancing, the more he thinks he's praising God with his dances and drumming. Until 1992, this inculturation process wasn't accepted. In Santo Domingo, the need to inculturate the gospel in America was adopted. That required an adaptation and showed that cultures aren't bad. What's fundamental in the Afro [Brazilian] culture? The orixás. If they had understood this from the beginning, blacks would have worshiped them. The orixá is like my guardian angel. Everyone at birth has their orixá. In Catholic doctrine, everyone has their guardian angel. So is it just because the name changed? Everyone in the Catholic Church worships God. In the African culture, I worship Olorum. I only changed the name, right? The fact that the Vatican has given attention to these cultures has caused a lot of stuff that was previously impossible to become easy. This dialogue between different religious cultures is still there too.

OP - The Council also brought the message of a more merciful and less condemning Church. We see this idea a lot in Pope Francis' speech, going to the outskirts and reaching people. In your opinion, what does the Church need in order to follow this path and have a more merciful view?

Dom José - It would just need one thing. For Vatican II to be studied more in the seminaries. All this is in Vatican II. A Church that's not in the center, that's at the margins, on the periphery. It has to go to the periphery because that's really where its mission is. You would need people to convert to Vatican II and want to put it into practice. Because it isn't easy.

OP - So it would be a conversion?

Dom José - It would be. And this conversion is not only in the people. It begins the bishops. It would be returning to the original tradition we gradually lost over time. The important thing is to return to the early gospel communities. People even lived as brothers and sisters. There wasn't "this is mine." This here is ours. Communities were really living in brotherhood. They weren't concerned about defending this or that. They were concerned about living the gospel. We need as much as possible to go back to that spirit of brotherhood.

OP - Why does the vision of a Church for the poorest need to start with the formation of priests?

Dom José - According to the gospel, the Church has to be of the poor. Christ, by making himself someone like us, made the option for the poor. He could have been born in a big city; he was born in Bethlehem. He could have been born in a palace; he was born in a cave. He didn't even have a house. The first time he slept, he slept in a trough. The manger is the trough where they put food for the animals. He made this option for the poor. He didn't exclude the rich, but the preferred option was for the poor. So if the Church wants to be faithful to him, it has to see where there is more poverty. Not just material poverty -- sometimes it's intellectual poverty, people who aren't accepted, who committed a crime. All these people who are experiencing physical, material, intellectual or spiritual poverty are the main target of the Church.

OP - So how should this training converted to Vatican II be applied?

Dom José - The model is in the Gospel. Christ wasn't a teacher like the others. The others had their classroom, their disciples came and sat down, then they gave their lessons. Christ was different. He went out among the people and was carrying on his life. And they were learning -- how I treat people, how I should assist so-and-so. Training today should give a lot more space to reality. Not just be intellectual training, just studying philosophy, theology. That's part of it too. But contact with reality is indispensable. Priestly formation should be much more integrated into the lives of the people. Since Vatican II, there have been attempts in this direction. Some have succeeded, others not. For example, the time of the Teologia da Enxada ["Theology of the Hoe"]. Young people who went into a rural environment, went to a property that belonged to the Church to work and study. The teachers went there periodically, they studied in their free time. The teacher would come back later and would want to see how they were discussing it. It didn't succeed, but those who were ordained at that time are excellent priests. Even bishops and some are also archbishops. We would need it to be more assumed by the Church such that we could have doctors and teachers with intellectual training side by side with pastors coexisting with the people during the whole training period.

OP - How is liberation theology viewed at the Vatican? Is there a division within Catholicism?

Dom José - The answer isn't easy. For those of us who live in an areas where people are still very enslaved...There are many people who go hungry in a country like ours, which could feed twice the population it has. For those people, the useful theology is one of liberation. They have to be freed from hunger. In other places, people have to be freed from vice. A theology that is theory is useless to them. No, it has to be something practical. This will require that pastors better know the reality. Be more in touch with the situation of the people and be able to reflect upon it. How are the people being led? Is this what God wants? If not exactly that, what should we do so that people get on the path of God's will? Liberation theology is something that, in a country like ours, is indispensable. In the past, theology was theory. You learned all those theses. Liberation is seeing how people are, asking if that's what God wants and doing something.

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