Gospel Subversive

by Mark Chmiel

Even when they call us mad,
When they call us subversives and communists
And all the epithets they put on us,
We know that we only preach
The subversive witness of the Beatitudes,
Which have turned everything upside down
To proclaim blessed the poor,
Blessed the thirsting for justice,
Blessed the suffering. [1]

–Oscar Romero

In his introduction to All Saints, a daily, Catholic and catholic guide to traditional and contemporary saints, Robert Ellsberg acknowledges, “I can truthfully say of my own life that I have learned far less about the gospel from studying theology than I have from the lives of holy people. In part this reflects the narrative structure of the Christian gospel. The truths of Christianity are verified in living witness rather than in logical syllogisms.”[2]

Of course, that narrative structure deals principally with having a passion for the Reign of God and facing the inevitable consequences of conflict with and persecution by the reigning powers.In recent decades, some sectors of the Christian churches have lived out that very narrative with both courage and fidelity amid incredible horrors, often sponsored by the U.S. government.

One of the most famous exemplars this of compromismo, or commitment, is El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated after three years of ever-growing solidarity with the poor majority of his country. Much less well known, however, is another bishop, Pedro Casaldáliga of Brazil, whose antagonists have tried but were unable to silence him.Raised in a right-wing Spanish Catholic culture in the 1930s (with an uncle killed by the anarchists), he joined the seminary in his teens and became a priest in the Claretian order, throwing himself energetically into a variety of ministries.A visit to Africa had this effect on him: “I felt Africa, colonized and catechized, physically, like the blasts of tropical air that hit my lungs in the whitewashed airport of Nigeria, which look so composed beneath the all too peaceful ‘Pax Britannica.’ I had a mad sense of the reality and the call of the Third World.”[3] That “mad sense” only deepened, as he went on to become a missionary in Sao Felix do Araguaia, in Mato Grosso, Brazil in 1968.Soon thereafter, he was made a bishop.

Casaldáliga thus made his home in the Brazilian sertão, or hinterland.He wasn’t there long before he had a rude awakening:“During the first week of our stay in Sao Felix four children died. Placed in cardboard boxes, like pairs of shoes, they were carried from their houses, en route to that little cemetery by the river. That little cemetery where we would have to bury so many children (each family can count on three or four dying) and so many adults (who either died natural deaths or were killed)—some nameless, some without even a coffin.”[4] In the decades that followed, he repeatedly confronted such scenes of premature and preventable death–from poverty and repression of the wretched of Brazil who were exploited by the rich land owners, killed by their hired assassins, and seen as expendable by the corporations who eagerly anticipated the profits they could take away from resource-rich Brazil.[5]

Brazilian society was marked by lethal conflicts, and Casaldáliga unhesitatingly took the side of the oppressed.In his autobiography, he listed the many peoples who served him in the profoundest of ways:“The ‘Murcian’ families, the outlying districts, the workers, in Sabadell and Barcelona; the camp at Alto Aragon; the working families, the unemployed, the migrant field workers, the housemaids, the drifters of Sabadell, Barcelona, and Madrid; the colonized blacks of Guinea and Nigeria; the people of the favelas, the ‘operarios,’ the segregated blacks, the northeasterners, the men in hiding, and all those who have been imprisoned, tortured, and have died, for political reasons, in Brazil; the transient families, theposseiros, the peons, the Indians and the prostitutes of this Mato Grosso, of this Amazonia….All these have been and are my judges, my teachers, and my prophets in revolution. To them I owe this unwieldy translation of the gospel of Jesus that I am now trying to live.”[6]

Out of this experience of walking with the “nobodies,” he asked this question: “Why is every reaction of the homesteaders and peons who are defending their rights, and of those who stand by them out of sheer duty to conscience and the gospel, branded as subversion to be crushed by pitiless repression, with prison, interrogation, torture, intimidation and terror, expulsion, death?”[7] The answer became clear: In the quest for profits, the guardians of the capitalist system will mete out the proper punishment to those who do not exhibit the proper submission before the transcendent needs of the rich.And so, by making an option for the oppressed, Casaldáliga also made the correlative and dialectical option against capitalism and their beneficiaries.[8]He explained some of the consequences:“We had now made a clean break with the fazendas. We could no longer celebrate the Eucharist under the shelter of these lords of the earth. No more traveling in their cars or airplanes, no more sharing food or whiskey at their tables, no more being ‘assisted’ at Mass by those who were systematically enslaving their lesser brothers. That was no longer the Lord’s Supper! We were losing the friendship of the great and facing up to them. No exploiter or profiteer from exploitation could be a godparent at a baptism, for example. We stopped accepting rides from them, we positively shunned their company and their smiles. We even ceased greeting the most barefaced offenders. (On the other hand, we were winning the trust and love of the poor and oppressed.)” [9]

In his manual on Latin American spirituality, co-authored with José Maria Vigil, Casaldáliga wrote,“Today we cannot define the meaning of life without facing up to the poor, or without declaring ourselves in relation to the crucial conflict of our age: the peoples against the great powers.”[10] They further explained some of the theological dimensions of this great conflict: “I would answer that Christ also came for everyone and opted for the poor. And condemned the rich. And he rejected privilege. And he was sentenced, tortured, executed, and put on the cross by power holders representing large landowners, law, and empire. The gospel cannot be regarded as for everyone alike. The worst thing you could say about the gospel would be to call it neutral. I often say that the gospel is for everyone, on the side of the poor and against the rich. Here’s what I mean. ‘On the side of the poor,’ in whatever they have of gospel poverty, and against the fact that they must live as outcasts and perhaps in despair. And ‘against the rich’: against their ability to live in a privilege that despoils the vast majority of their brothers and sisters, against their ability to exploit these brothers and sisters, against the insensitivity in which they live, against the idolatry in which they are sunk.”[11]

As a bishop in a largely Catholic country, Casaldáliga used his position and national and global ecclesial networks to publicize what he saw taking place around him. In his pastoral investigations and letters, he named the names of individuals and businesses, members of the military and police who called for and enacted the repression against those who refused to be passive before injustice.He was unsparing in his criticism not only of secular powers but also the Roman Church: “I do not believe in the Vatican as a state, as a ‘world-power,’ as a bureaucracy. It troubles me. It acts as a drag on the footsteps of the church of Jesus.I wish it would stop. I lament and reject all the titles, privileges, and benefices of bishops and priests and religious. One can ‘explain’ all this as the baggage of history; but one cannot justify it. I believe that the gospel follows another route.”[12]

For four decades, Casaldáliga has been committed to living out the radical option for and with the poor with all its perilous risks. He extended his concern and solidarity, for instance, to the people of Nicaragua, whom he visited during the Reagan administration’s contra terrorist war. There, he traveled to the dangerous border areas and offered consolation to the widows, wounded and besieged people.[13] In his journal written during those months, he noted, “The visits and the contact are a comfort to all of us and make us like brothers and sisters. I’ve always thought informal visits, with a little faith and human affection, are the most effective kind of pastoral activity.”[14]

In late April, I had the privilege of hearing one of my former students speak to my current Social Justice students.After three years at Baylor Medical School, Don Lassus,along with his fiancée Caitlin Polley, spent 11 months working with Doctors for Global Health in rural El Salvador. The next day, with some of Don’s stories and passion reverberating in my consciousness, I pulled off my book shelf a biography of Pedro Casaldáliga,Mystic of Liberation. I immediately began reading it and went to read or reread every book by the Brazilian bishop I could find in English.When I traveled with Mev Puleo in Brazil in 1990, I was able to meet several of the church workers whom she interviewed for her book, but, unfortunately, I could not stay long enough to travel with her to Sao Felix to meet Dom Pedro. In Mev’s interview with Pedro, he observed, “Anyone who goes through a university or seminary or novitiate isn’t poor, because we have more possibilities, a culture, a backing that simple poor people lack.But I, or any relatively bourgeois intellectual or family, can and should ‘betray’ our class and opt for the causes of the poor — the organizations, demands and movements of the poor who are trying to liberate themselves.You as a journalist can work for the International Monetary Fund, but instead you’re trying to serve the Third World and the church of the poor, in solidarity….In the United States there is always a Trojan horse of international solidarity, there in the heart of the empire!Many people from the United States are in Central America, El Salvador, Nicaragua — even giving their lives in martyrdom.”[15]When he was in Nicaragua, he also said, “Just as there is a death-dealing internationalism of power, profit, and the arms trade, so there is also the life-bringing internationalism of solidarity.”[16]

Don Lassus bore witness to these truths in his sharing with us at Saint Louis University. In so doing, he challenged us to find our own ways to be part of the Trojan horse of international solidarity.

Gospel Poverty
A Poem by Pedro Casaldáliga [17]
Having nothing.

Carrying nothing.
Able to do nothing.
Asking nothing.
And, by the way
Killing nothing,
Silencing nothing.
Just the gospel, like a sharp knife.
And grief and laughter on your face.
And the hand held out and firmly gripped.
And life, on horseback, as it comes.
And this sun and these rivers and this purchased land,
To be witnesses of the revolution already unleashed.
And that’s all!

[1] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), comp. and trans. James Brockman, 48.

[2] Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (New York: Crossroads, 1997), 5.

[3] Pedro Casaldáliga, I Believe in Justice and Hope (Notre Dame, IN: Fides/Claretian, 1978), 19.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Casaldáliga: “For me the first act of teaching and of prophecy has been just that: the tragic realty of the people, their poverty, their state of captivity; this has shaken the church and it will shake it even more.” Quoted in Teofilo Cabestrero, Mystic of Liberation:A Portrait of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga of Brazil(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981), 138.

[6] Casaldáliga, I Believe in Justice and Hope, 220.

[7] Ibid., 80.

[8] His societal vision, then, is one of socialism: “I understand by socialism the greatest possible participation of all the citizens, and at the greatest possible level of equality, in the wealth of nature and production. To achieve that, obviously, it will be necessary to tear out and destroy the egotism of capital, the privileges of the minorities, the exploitation of human being by human being.” Ibid., 38.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Pedro Casaldáliga and Jose-Maria Vigil, Political Holiness: A Spirituality of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994), 24.Therein (page 145), the authors aver that “[We] must be constantly on the watch for poverty and seek it out, in order to be with the poor and share their deprivations, their demands and their struggles. We cannot insult them by any type of luxury or superfluity in our lives, in our families or our institutions, civil or ecclesiastical.”

[11] Pedro Casaldalgia, In Pursuit of the Kingdom: Writings 1968-1988 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books),138-139.

[12] Casaldáliga, I Believe in Justice and Hope, 190. As a bishop, Casaldáliga has always refused to wear the bishop’s miter and ring and use the crozier.

[13] Never one to avoid conflict, he noted “I said when I got here that I’m convinced that truth is on Nicaragua’s side. I’ve never hidden my political stance. Everyone knows what it is. I’ve never denied that I have an ideology. In fact, I don’t accept anyone saying they don’t have one. Of necessity, we all have, and must have, ideology, in order to be complete human beings, ‘political animals,’ as Aristotle put it a long time ago. I have my ideology, my politics, my passion for Nicaragua and for this Nicaraguan revolution—even though I see its defects, its limitations, and even its sins. Whether they be venial or mortal, God knows and the people will be the judge.” Pedro Casaldalgia,Prophets in Combat: The Nicaraguan Journal of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga (Oak Park, IL: Meyer, Stone, 1987), 95.

[14] Ibid., 48.

[15] Mev Puleo, The Struggle is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), 241, 244.

[16] Casaldáliga and Vigil, Political Holiness, 48.

[17] Casaldáliga, In Pursuit of the Kingdom, 135.

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