Saturday, June 17, 2017

François Houtart and Miguel D'Escoto -- Servants of the Oppressed

by Frei Betto (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Gente de Opinião (em português)
June 12, 2017

François Houtart passed away on June 6th in Ecuador. He was 92 years old and had the revolutionary enthusiasm of a youth of 20. Our last encounter was in March 2017 when I gave a series of talks in Quito at the invitation of President Rafael Correa. François went with me the whole time. We went together to Pucahuaico, where the body of Monsignor Leônidas Proaño, an indigenous bishop identified with liberation theology, is buried. The chapel at the foot of the Imbabura volcano was full of native and working class people. Houtart presided at the Eucharistic celebration.

The next day, Rafael Correa offered us lunch. He had been François' student in Louvain, Belgium, where Houtart taught Sociology and Religious Studies for years to students from the periphery of the world, among whom were the Colombian Camilo Torres and Brazilian Pedro Ribeiro de Oliveira who told us:

"In 1975, I went back to Belgium to begin my doctorate. The first working meeting with Houtart, my adviser, dismantled everything I had prepared for the thesis on popular Catholicism. He said it was insufficient because it did not have a sociological explanation. To add to my astonishment, he added: 'As you should not be unaware of, only Marxist theory is really explanatory. The rest are merely descriptive.' I stumbled out of there, not understanding how a priest, who had been an expert at the Council [Vatican II], even collaborating in the writing of Gaudium et Spes, had become a Marxist without leaving the Church. Gradually I understood it: he was actively opposing the US war against Vietnam, and so he had discovered in the theory of class struggle a theoretical tool capable of elucidating what was at stake in that war, the anticolonialist movements of Africa and Asia, and the Latin American dictatorships. The best part is that he convinced me once and for all. The last time we participated together in a Sociology of Religion conference, we were the only sociologists to use Marxist tools to explain religious facts. I joked with him, asking him to take a long time to die, so I wouldn't be alone using Marx to understand religion ... "

François was tall, he had very clear eyes and smiled easily, even when expressing, at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2005, pertinent criticisms of the Brazilian government in the presence of President Lula. A slow speaker, his scientific reasoning was didactic, since he had left Europe to live in Latin America and to devote himself to the social movements of countries of our continent, Africa and Asia. In 2016, he advised the national congress of the MST [the Landless Workers' Movement] in Brasilia.

We stayed together on several occasions when attending events in Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia. I always wondered how a man over 80 years of age found so much enthusiasm to travel around the world, often carrying a heavy suitcase with books of his, without ever complaining about lodging in a native tent high in the Andes, in an MST settlement in Brazil, or in a rice planters' hut in Vietnam.

In his years of study in Rome, François had as a colleague a young man named Karol Wojtyla. He told me that the Polish seminarian had an obsession with learning languages. He used the holidays to travel to the regions of Europe where he would learn a new language. On one occasion he accompanied Houtart to Belgium, interested in improving his French and learning Flemish.

One night, Wojtyla returned to the house in heavy rain. His Polish shoes had been ruined by the water. François found a Belgian seminarian who, as he wore the same size as the Pole, could give him a new pair. Decades later, now a priest, the donor of the shoes wanted to be received by Pope John Paul II. The bureaucracy alleged lack of time. When he sent a note to the pope, reminding him about the shoes, the doors of the Vatican opened.

In 2016, Houtart invited me to Ecuador for a seminar on Pope Francis' socio-environmental encyclical Laudato Si'. From the work together in those days came the publication, signed by both of us, Laudato Si - Cambio Climático y Sistema Económico ("Laudato Si': Climate Change and the Economic System" -- Quito, Centro de Publicaciones, Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, 2016).

During the trip we made last March to the Andean region of Ecuador, François told me about his participation at the age of 15 in the resistance against the Nazi occupation in Belgium. He and a friend decided to build a homemade bomb to derail a train of Hitler's soldiers. They were unsuccessful and the attack cost him a tug of his ears from his mother. He also told me that he had more than ten brothers and sisters. A decade ago, with everyone alive, they gathered to commemorate the 1,000 years of the sum of their ages.

During John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January 1998, Fidel invited Houtart to advise him, accompanied by Pedro Ribeiro de Oliveira, the Italian theologian Giulio Girardi, and myself. These were days of intense community work.

Worker training

 In 2016, François sent me an interesting account about his formation, which I'm transcribing here in Spanish:

"During my seminary years in Malines (Belgium), I participated in numerous meetings of the JOC ["Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique" -- "Young Christian Workers"] in Wallonia and Brussels, during vacations. That's where I found out about the situation of the working class of that period (1944-1949). Just after the post-war period, Europe's reconstruction effort was accompanied by over-exploitation of labor, and the social conditions of young people were particularly scandalous."

"The regional and national JOC congresses provided information on the broader framework of the economic and social situation. In addition, I was able to visit different factories and coal mines. The Belgian JOC put me in touch with the movement in France, the Netherlands, England, Germany and Spain, and little by little the international dimension also became an important part of my introduction into the world of work."

"On many occasions, I met with Monsignor Cardijn (founder of the JOC) and was very impressed by his combativeness, his insistence on the incompatibility between social injustice and the Christian faith, and his knowledge of the lives of young workers. I also discovered the pedagogical method -- not starting from above imposing knowledge, but from below, discovering reality: seeing, judging, acting."

"This experience prompted me to ask, after my priestly ordination, to begin studies in Social and Political Sciences at the Catholic University of Louvain. I spent 3 years there, staying in permanent contact with the JOC, following certain sections, traveling through Europe for meetings with the movement. My undergraduate thesis was devoted to the study of the pastoral structures of Brussels, having discovered, on the one hand, their absence in the working class environment, and on the other, the identification of Christian religious culture with bourgeois culture, creating a divorce from the working class and, in particular, young people."

"During the last year of my studies in Louvain, I was the chaplain of the Young Workers Home in Brussels, a service of JOC for youth who had faced Juvenile Justice."

"On the European level, I had the most contacts in France, particularly in the Paris region -- St Denis and other suburbs. I became friends with some worker priests, and I even stayed in their homes."

"After getting a scholarship at the University of Chicago (1952-1953), to continue studying Urban Sociology and the Sociology of Religion, I lived in a parish where I worked as chaplain for JOC in the city. It was also the occasion of many meetings with JOC in the United States. During Easter vacation in 1953, I went to Havana to attend a JOC Congress of Central America and the Caribbean where Cardijn was present. I was able to have meetings with the local sections and meet with the national chaplain of Cuba. That put me onto the Latin American problem which I had wanted to know about for some time. After the congress I accompanied the JOC chaplain of Haiti to Port-au-Prince and I spent a week in the country in visits and meetings with the Haitian movement."

"Then I gave classes for a semester at the University of Montreal, and also participated in the activities of the movement. From there I moved again to Latin America and for 6 months I traveled to almost all the countries, from Mexico to Argentina, always with JOC, thanks to contacts made during the international congresses. It was a great learning experience, discovering the continent from below. Once more I discovered the chasms between the rich and the poor and the unbelievable exploitation of urban and rural young people. I was struck by the role of the priests attached to the movement in the renewal of a Church so alienated from the people and so close to the social elites and oligarchies. They were active in all fields: social, liturgical, pastoral, biblical. Many of those priests belonged to religious orders and quite a few of them had studied in Europe."

"That contact with Latin America was what made me begin, in 1958, a socio-religious study about the continent as a whole, with teams in each country, several times with members of JOC. It ended in 1962 and was published in some forty volumes, which led the Latin American Bishops' Conference to ask me for a synthesis in three languages to distribute at the entrance to the Second Vatican Council to all the bishops and to be with them as a peritus during the 4 years of conciliar work."

"Meanwhile Cardinal Cardijn had asked me if I would agree to be the international chaplain of the movement, which obviously interested me a lot, but my bishop, Cardinal Van Roey didn't approve this idea."

"Then, having worked in Asia during vacations at the University of Louvain, where I was teaching Sociology of Religion, I also got in touch with JOC in Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines. With my colleague, Geneviève Lemercinier, we took charge of a training seminar on social analysis for JOC activists in Hong Kong. In South Africa, in the middle of the apartheid era, I participated for 3 days in a national meeting with young white, black, and mixed race workers, which was prohibited in principle, in a convent of the Oblate Fathers in Bloemfontein."

"Everywhere in Latin America, Asia and Africa, I met in the following years with former members of JOC, both in trade unions and in development NGOs, or in progressive and also revolutionary political parties, like in Nicaragua or Bolivia."

"The lessons I've learned from JOC have been numerous and fundamental. First was knowledge of the working world, its struggles, its organizations. Then the method -- seeing, judging, acting -- which gives a very effective reflection framework for the analysis of realities and for the implementation of an action that is adapted to them. If I studied Sociology and if I continued the research work constantly, it was to refine the "seeing" in very different and complex societies. This also allowed me to discover that society could be read from above, but also from below, and that the Gospel option was to read the world with the eyes of the poor and oppressed. There is no neutral science, especially within the framework of the human sciences."

"The pedagogy of JOC and its adaptation to a specific environment of young workers, often hardly literate, has taught me to use simple language, to correctly structure the reasoning so that it is understood -- in a word, to get off the academic pedestal and also learn from those who have practical knowledge that is often despised by so-called 'wisdom'."

"Finally, it's also JOC that has led me to delve deeper into the social dimension of the Gospel, and to understand that what the Lord asks for is love in practice. It's not just about a personal attitude, but this love implies building a just society and following the example of Jesus in his society, where he proclaimed the values of the Kingdom of God -- love of neighbor, justice, equality, mercy, peace -- and fought all the oppressive economic, social, political and even religious powers. Not in vain did he die (executed) on the cross."(Quito, 01.03.16)

His passing

Nidia Arrobo Rodas, who worked with François at the Fundación Pueblo Indio del Ecuador [Ecuador Indigenous People's Federation], tells of his final moments:

"Our dear François went as he lived, with total serenity, whole, lucid, diaphanous, on his feet...The night before, after an Act of Denunciation at IAEN (Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales) about the Tamil genocide, we ate supper as usual, the "soup" he liked so much, and for him it was vital to have it in communion in our mini-residence at nightfall and, as usual, he went off to sleep...Of course he kept working in his room...We don't know until what time...Because even at eleven at night we were still receiving his emails."

"At dawn, we guess he got up to go to the shower and his strength failed him...He had gotten out of bed, he had sat down in his recliner very near his bed, and with his hand on his heart he stayed sleeping in the deepest sleep of his life, very placidly, without making any noise, very quiet...A massive heart attack...At half past seven in the morning...he awoke in God."

"Precisely in April we had gone to the cardiologist, at my request, because he was feeling very agitated and like he was lacking oxygen...The cardiologist asked him to have surgery on his coronary artery because it had narrowed and the pacemaker was no longer responding as it had when it was put in four years ago. He said: François, the surgery is imminent...He chose to have it in Belgium at the suggestion of the cardiologist himself...But as much as he insisted, he didn't make the decision to travel right away: 'I have many commitments, I have to end the Houtart professorship in June and then I'll go," he told me. Again I told him it was a long time to wait...But he was the absolute master of his will and his decisions...He chose to finish everything he had planned here and travel to Belgium in June for his surgery which, as he would say sportingly, was a very small thing."

"With this, he had tickets bought and bags ready, to travel yesterday (June 9), but first to Bogotá, then a week in Cuba, then a week in Brazil and arrive at the end of June in his Belgium ..."

"I knew he chose freely to live with us, he felt happy, he was happy...and I think that deep in his heart he wanted to end his days right here."

"The final celebration took place -- at my request -- in IAEN, that  Wednesday, exactly at five in the afternoon, the day and time he was to have ended his professorial program this year."

"We are desolate...We were happy with his jovial presence, full of friendship, fineness of spirit, delicacies and incredible details; but at the same time I know he was happy in our midst...He always said so and this fills me with joy and gratitude."

"Nonetheless we feel he is among us, he is alive, goes on, and will go on living and resurrected in the liberation struggles of all the impoverished all over the world, and in the birth pangs with which the INDIGENOUS PEOPLES and our Pachamama moan."

"As is noted in his will, we cremated him...and as soon as possible his ashes will rest with those of his mother in his native Belgium."

Miguel D’Escoto

Two days after Houtart left us, I lost another friend, also a priest and a revolutionary like him, Father Miguel D'Escoto, dead at 84 years. Minister of Foreign Relations of Sandinista Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, he presided the UN General Assembly in 2008 and 2009.

A diplomat's son, D'Escoto was born in Los Angeles in 1933. He became a priest through the Maryknoll order and was one of the founders of the New York publisher Orbis Books that in 1977 in the United States published my book Cartas da prisão under the title Against principalities and powers.

It was D'Escoto who received Lula and me in Managua on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in July 1979. He took us to the house of Sergio Ramirez, then vice-president of the country, the night of July 19, when we then met and talked at length with Fidel Castro.

In January 1980, he came to São Paulo in the company of Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, to participate in the first world congress on Liberation Theology. He was one of the Sandinista Night speakers at TUCA, the theater of the Catholic University of São Paulo.

On Sunday November 29, 1981, in Managua, we met again in his house which belonged to the executive who presided over the Nicaraguan Central Bank at the time of the Somoza dictatorship. Daniel Ortega, the Secretary-General of the Sandinista National Liberation Front René Nuñez, Fathers Gustavo Gutiérrez, Pablo Richard, Fernando Cardenal, Uriel Molina, and the Social Welfare minister, Father Edgard Parrales, were there.

D'Escoto had just come back from Mexico and he described in detail the recent conversations about Central America between President López Portillo and General Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State. In the minds of the guests, an undisguised satisfaction at the efficiency of Sandinista espionage within the Mexican government.

We talked about the circumstances of the Church, the international campaign against the Revolution and the Sandinista Youth, now under the care of Fernando Cardenal. I was worried about the mechanistic nature of the Marxism that had spread among the Sandinista youth, mere apologetics from old Russian manuals. I stressed the importance of the priests in power -- D'Escoto, Parrales and the Cardenal brothers -- publicly explaining their life of faith. I feared they would project a more political than Christian image.

On Saturday November 16, 1984, in Managua, I returned to D'Escoto's house. I asked him why he hadn't gone to the OAS meeting in Brasília. "In order not to give credit to the OAS," he answered, "which continues to serve as a tool in the hands of the United States against the sovereignty of the people of Central America."

We celebrated the Eucharist under the wicker porch in the backyard. We read and meditated on the Gospel of Matthew 4:25 ff. D'Escoto blurted out: "My body and mind are tired, because they no longer follow the fast pace that circumstances impose on me. I dream of enjoying solitude, taking time for myself and not having to be always on the phone. However, I know that for the moment, this is just a dream. From my intimacy with Jesus, I take the strength that sustains me."

At the end of the celebration, he said to me: "I want two things from you: I am reading with great pleasure Dom Pedro Casaldáliga's latest book. I know he'll be going to Spain soon. Ask him to come through Nicaragua first. And ask Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns to come to Daniel [Ortega]'s inauguration next January 10th."

"Why don't you call Dom Paulo now?," I suggested.

We tried but the cardinal of São Paulo wasn't home.

Eleven days later I personally gave the message to Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns. The following year, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga visited Nicaragua.

In March 1986, I met him again in Havana with Rosario Murillo, current vice-president of Nicaragua and wife of Daniel Ortega, and Manuel Piñeiro, head of the Americas Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. We talked at length about the situation in Nicaragua and the explicit support bishops Obando and Vega were giving to Reagan's aggression policy. D'Escoto was of the opinion that the priests, religious, and laity should courageously confront the archbishop of Managua, leaving, if necessary, for ecclesiastical disobedience. The latter led to the suspension by Pope John Paul II of his priestly functions, a measure repealed by Pope Francis.

In January 1989, in Havana, we saw each other at the commemoration of the 30 years of the Cuban Revolution. He entertained himself in a long conversation with Leonardo Boff about the theology of the Trinity. "It is the basis of my spirituality," I heard him say. And he lamented the situation of his country: "The hardest thing for the people of Nicaragua isn't American aggression, but the lack of support from the Church."

We had other meetings later,such as during the period he presided the UN General Assembly, which led him to disbelieve entirely in the effectiveness of this important institution manipulated by the interests of the White House.

With the disappearance of François Houtart and Miguel D'Escoto, the cause of the poor and liberation theology have lost something in Latin America. They have left us a legacy of how to live the Christian faith in a world divided between a few billionaires and multitudes of destitute people, and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in this troubled beginning of the twenty-first century.

Frei Betto is a writer, author of Paraíso perdido – viagens ao mundo socialista (Rocco) among other books. Photos: Frei Betto with François Houtart (top) and Miguel D'Escoto (bottom).

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