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After 25 years Medellin spirit lives, no thanks to Vatican.

Brazil is prime target

of curial retaliation,

but it won't turn back

SAO PAULO, Brazil A quarter century ago, the Holy Spirit spread its wings wide over Latin America, sowing, with Vatican II as its plow, powerful seeds of creativity in the hearts and minds of the leaders of the region's Catholic church.

From Aug. 26 to Sept. 6, 1968, the Latin American bishops met in the Colombian city of Medellin and drafted a series of documents that radically changed the arcs of alliance of their institution, which was until then considered the third leg of the military and economic power tripod in the region.

If they followed the spirit of the Medellin texts, no longer were the Latin American bishops to rub elbows with medal breasted generals, powerful oligarchs and landed lords. They were to denounce the "oppression of institutionalized violence," of unjust political structures that "seeking unbounded profits foment an economic dictatorship and the international imperialism of money.' And they were to urge their pastors to work for "liberation" and "participation" in favor of the impoverished and victims of social injustice.

The conference of Medellin aimed to carry the reforms of Vatican Il to Latin America - a region that will soon house 50 percent of the world's Catbolics. But, according to Brazilian emeritus Bishop Candido Padin, who helped organize the meeting, None of the bishops had ever imagined that the reality in Latin America had reached such inhumane proportions. We were all shocked after three opening papers that graphically described the continent in which we lived."

So it should come as no surprise that the church, inspired in Medellin and reaffirmed at the bishops' subsequent hemispheric meetings in Puebla (1979) and Santo Domingo (1992) has been mercilessly persecuted by the economic and military powers of the region: At least 850 priests and nuns were killed in the 1970s because of their commitment to social justice.

Hundreds more, clerical and lay, have been martyred since 1980, including people like Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, three U.S. Maryknoll sisters and a lay volunteer working with the poor of El Salvador, six Jesuit priests in San Salvador and Colombia's Paez Indian priest Alvaro Ulcue Chocue.

Equally if not more difficult to bear than the assassinations, however, has been the ongoing persecution, directly and in more subtle manners as well, from right-wing members of the Vatican curia under the direction of Pope John Paul II. Accusing the most committed theologians, bishops, religious and laity of constructing "parallel magisteriums" tainted with Marxism, Rome, with the help of ultraconservative Latin American prelates, has led a powerful counterattack against the model of church forged in Medellin.

The Vatican has silenced theologians, intervened in independent organizations of religious, closed seminaries, prohibited theology professors from teaching, and, through the appointment of conservative prelates who attempt to restore pre-Vatican II models of church, has beaten down the creative initiatives of church officials and laity.

Many times the battles with Rome caused more damage than persecution by military dictatorships. A car>e in point is Sao Paulo's Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, one of the most powerful symbols of the Latin American church committed to the poor and to social justice.

Appointed archbishop of Sao Paulo in 1970, Arns became famous for his feisty opposition to the brutality of the country's military and helped to lead the Brazilian hierarchy to make a powerful commitment to defending human rights. The military could not suppress Arns'prophetic spirit, but the Vatican's persistent attacks against the Brazilian church, including the dissection of the Sao Paulo archdiocese against the cardinal's wishes, were almost impossible for him to bear.

Explained one of Arns'closest advisers: When Dom Paulo was fighting against the military, the nastier they were, the stronger he became. But as the curia gets nastier and nastier, they seem to suck the life out of Dom Paulo. You know, it's like being persecuted by your own father and mother."

The church in Brazil today provides an effective window into the process of growth and suffering of the church, inspired at Medellin.

Nowhere in Latin America were the teachings of Medellin more powerfully implemented than in Brazil, the world's largest Catholi country with the largest number of diocesan bishops. And nowhere in the region has the wrath of Rome been felt more strongly.

In Brazil, there were no fissures between the hierarchy and the laity like there were in places like Argentina, Chile and Colombia," observed Brazilian theologian Oscar Beozzo. There was cohesive unity between bishops, priests and laity. This meant, especially during the dictatorship, that a huge part of the church made a commitment to social change. This is why the Brazilian church has had the largest share of problems with Rome."

It is a complicated moment - socially and ecclesiastically - for those members of the Brazilian church committed to the poor and to social justice. The forces that oppress the poor are no longer personified in military dictatorships, but in the complex "economic dictatorship" ship" of neoliberal economic policy.

Revolutionary movements failed to bring long-lasting structural changes to Latin America. Formal electoral democracies have only exacerbated the dire poverty in which the majority of the region's people live. As theologian Jose Comblin observed, the poor are no longer simply marginalized, they are completely "excluded" from lives of dignity.

"No one has nostalgia for the dictatorship, but it's true that the dictatorship was a concrete subject to fight against. The economic dictatorship that rules us today contains no concrete subjects to confront - just nebulous enemies like "the market," observed Brazilian priest Antonio Aparecido da Silva, a leading theologian on African-American culture.

"And, what we have experienced is the extreme pauperization of our people," the priest continued. "It is now a privilege to be considered |exploited' in Brazil because that means you at least have a real job. No one was prepared for the drastic consequences of neoliberalism. The church was prepared to work with workers, but no one was prepared to work with the |leftover multitudes' of people who bve not in poor favelas, but in the viaducts, the millions who live not just in poverty, but in extreme misery."

Bishop Luiz Demetrio Valentini, president of the Brazilian episcopal conference's social pastoral commission, said this situation has had its impact on the Brazilian bishops.

"The prophetic voices of the Brazilian conference of bishops were much stronger in the past. Today, the episcopal conference is more timid. People are tired. We are facing a very complicated situation of impoverishment - it is much more difficult to believe in concrete solutions than it was 25 years ago. People are disillusioned. The utopias we dreamed of at the time of Medellin, that we were sure were quick in coming, never materialized, and the problems and suffering of the majority of our people are much worse," Valentini explained.

Millions of poor people have found solace in fundamentalist Protestant churches, which claim a membership of 20 percent of the Brazilian population, up from 4 percent in 1960. Brazilian priest Benedito Ferraro said the Pentecostals and evangelicals offer a magical, spiritualized explanation to poverty and suffering - the devil. This explanation for everything somehow allows people to go on living."

Brazilian Methodist theologian Julio de Santa Ana said that as the Vatican tries to centralize control, offering fewer and fewer possibilities for people to affect the orientation of the Roman Catholic Church, these fundamentalist faiths "satisfy the profound desire of the great majorities to participate, to be agents in the production of sacred goods.'

In a sense, Santa Ana said, "the Pentecostal church is a society without classes. Anyone can go up to the pulpit and say a sermon. Women can be prophets; they are given an important place in society. Those who have no voice in society have a voice in the Pentecostal church. The problem is that the symbolic representation of this society without classes has no concrete consequences in life after the service ends."

Santa Ana also said the fundamentalist Protestants use anti-Catholicism "as a way to promote a symbolic rupture with a social order that people no longer want to be a part of, a social order symbolized by the old image of the Catholic church of the privileged."

Ironically, in hampering the development of a more pluralistic, participative church by focusing on authority, centralism and obedience, the Vatican is contributing to the growth of the fundamentalist Protestant churches.

In addition to the highly publicized silencing of theologians like Leonardo Boff, the Vatican has attempted to weaken the powerful collegiality and independence of the CNBB (Brazilian bishops' conference), the world's largest episcopal conference and one that generated such dynamism that its influence spread internationally.

Vatican appointments of conservative prelates, chosen for their distance from a liberation vision of church, have begun to change the face of the CNBB. Under John Paul II's papacy, 180 bishops have been appointed to the Brazilian conference of nearly 400 bisbops. Most of the new bishops are either moderate or conservative. Scores of them have connections with the charismatic renewal, a handful have close links to Opus Dei.

Priests who follow the liberation prophets such as Archbishop Helder Camara, Cardinal Aloisio Lorschieder and Arns have little chance of ascent nowadays, observed a U.S. priest who has lived in Brazil for 24 years. But Padin said that although a number of the new prelates refuse to implement the progressive orientations of the CNBB, In the end, many of the (conservative) bishops end up going along with the CNBB. The CNBB'S orientations are so well rooted that they cannot be easily swayed."

Rome has also opposed the creative, culturally incarnated liturgies of the Brazilian church that aim to "reach the hearts" of the African-American population, indigenous communities and popular sectors. The Vatican Congregation for the Divine Cult banned such initiatives as a popular liturgical directory, the African-American Mass of Land without Evil" and "Zumbi Mass," as well as the indigenous "Quilombos Mass." Such moves not only hurt the evangelical creativity of pastoral work in Brazil, they were also a harsh slap in the face to the authority and autonomy of the CNBB.

Splitting Sao Paulo

One of the Vatican's most damaging attacks against the progressive Brazilian church was the division of the Sao Paulo diocese, the largest Catholic diocese in the world, with 18 million inhabitants in the city's greater metropolitan area. The Vatican's plan for Sao Paulo was not only an affront to the cohesiveness of pastoral work in the diocese, perhaps the most dynamic of Latin America's church of liberation, but it was also a strategy to crush the influence of Arns.

Sao Paulo's model of decentralized decision-making caused great discomfort to John Paul II's Vatican, which has tended to concentrate on a feudal, centralized model of authority and power.

In Sao Paulo in the 1970s, for example, before there were auxiliary bishops, members of the clergy, religious and laity voted for vicars. Democratic diocesan assemblies were in charge of out- lining and designing pastoral priorities. The voices of the laity, religious and the poor acquired decisive clout in the direction of church affairs under Arns' leadersbip.

Arns, who is not afraid to employ creative solutions in the face of the uncertainties brought on by "modernity," began to devise a remarkable administrative and pastoral plan for Sao Paulo in the early 1970s. Pope Paul VI enthusiastically backed Arns' ideas: He said he thought the bishops in other large cities could do something similar," Arns explained.

The plan consisted of dividing the archdiocese into three smaller independent dioceses. But Arns aimed to conserve unity of pastoral initiatives and general orientations through a coordinating committee of bishops for the greater metropolis. Under this strategy, wealthier sectors would continue to share resources with poor ones, and people who trekked across the city daily for jobs or study would feel the cohesive presence of a united church at work and at home.

According to Arns, Pope John Paul II gave his support to the plan during the 1979 meeting of Latin American bishops in Puebla, Mexico.

In 1989, after consultations with the pope in Rome, Arns was confident that the pope was going to respect his plea that two sections of Sao Paulo not be turned into independent dioceses. Arns was afraid these areas did not have the resources to exist autonomously without archdiocesan support. The blow from the curia's crosier, however, came less than a week later. The decree from Rome dividing the archdiocese completely disregarded Arns' suggestions.

All I can say is that the division was carried out in a way very different from the plan I had proposed," Arns said. "Sao Paulo was divided into four dioceses, and the new bishops had no obligations to coordinate as a unified body. The pastoral urgencies of big cities were not contemplated. Rome did not make any consultations as to which bishops it should send here or about the division of the territory.'

One of Arns' close advisers said the pope's about face hurt the cardinal most. "We thought, |Is it possible that the pope could lie to the cardinal?'

the adviser recalled. But you never know. Even with the division of the diocese, the pope could have been telling the God's honest truth, but it made no difference because the people in the curia already had their decree drafted.'

Arns'dream of having the church of Sao Paulo speak effectively to the city was crushed by Rome's iron hand. Now we have four dioceses in the city, all with pastoral plans and priorities that are different from those of the archdiocese," commented a leading member of the church here. "Everything is disjointed There used to be citywide unity on things like pastoral programs for the workers, the base communities, human rights. No more. The division shows that Rome is centuries behind the times when it comes to dealing with the urban areas."

Return to feudalism

The imposition of Rome's model of church through the dissection of the Sao Paulo archdiocese was felt most powerfully in the Santo Amaro region. Santo Amaro, as well as Campo Limpo, have become conservative levers the Vatican is using to debilitate Arns' influence and the unity of the Sao Paulo church.

Santo Amaro, a region of more than 1 million inhabitants, used to be one of the most active hubs of grassroots Christian movements in Sao Paulo. The Christian base communities from this area began a campaign against the cost of living that spread to the national level. Pastoral programs for poor and working-class people thrived. Youth groups flourished. Tiny utopias of solidarity took root.

When Rome divided the archdiocese, it named Franciscan Femando Figueiredo to head the Santo Amaro diocese. Figueiredo, a conservative with links to Opus Dei, has managed to completely disorganize the pastoral dynamics that existed throughout the entire sector,' said a priest who works in the area.

"Figueiredo is a strategical person in the movement of the church back to a feudal vision in society. His attitude is, I rule here. This is my domain.' His presence here is part of the larger plan by the Vatican to weaken Dom Paulo's (Arns') power and to change the entire pastoral line of greater Sao Paulo," the priest added.

The more affluent inhabitants of Santo Amaro, in the past disgruntled with Arns'unbending commitment to the poor, have embraced Figueiredo's model of church. The charismatic renewal in the area has grown substantially in the past four years. People committed to the vision of church rooted in Medellin have been marginalized.

Religious from Santo Amaro said Figueiredo, who reportedly hopes to be a candidate for archbishop of Sao Paulo in three years, when Arns reaches mandatory retirement age, has waged a "lowintensity conflict" against progressives in the zone.

Figueiredo also wrested authority from the base community leaders. He publicly said they had no real authority," said a leading member of the Santo Amaro diocese. But we asked ourselves, T%t kind of gospel authority has a bishop who has been imposed by Rome?"

While the people!s responses to Figueiredo's policies are significant, the withdrawal of support for grassroots Christian initiatives in Santo Amaro has had devastating effects on pastoral work. Religious and laity from Santo Amaro say only 20 or 30 base communities continue to meet in the area, as compared to more than 100 in the late 1980s.

I feel completely devalued,' said a woman who has been involved in the base community movement for 18 years. "The laity used to fill in the gaps for the priests by leading the celebrations. But now the priests come, and all they want to see is the collection plate filled to the brim for themselves. Before, all the money we collected went back to the community through things like kitties to provide eyeglasses for the poor. I have lost hope, but I haven't lost my faith.'

A nun working in Santo Amaro said Figueiredo has given Opus Dei free access to the seminary. He refuses to follow the CNBB's teachings on youth. Instead, he has brought in a neoconservative youth movement from Peru, the nun said.

If he is named archbishop, it will cause a deep crisis within the church of Sao Paolo," said another Brazilian nun. Signs of hope

In spite of Rome's counter-reformation in Brazil and throughout Latin America, the church rooted in Medellin continues to thrive.

The closer Brazilians are to the grassroots, for example, the more hope they harbor. A young woman who works as a volunteer at a church-supported house for people with AIDS in Sao Paulo's Vila Alpina district shrugged and smiled when asked if she feared the changes taking place in the diocese. My commitment doesn't depend on the bishops,' she said.

Dominican Frey Betto, a beloved Brazilian author and liberation theologian, points to events in the Brazilian city of Recife as a sign that the church of Medellin will prevail. In 1988, the Vatican appointed conservative bishop Jose Cardoso to replace Brazilian prophet and architect of Medellin, Helder Camarra.

"Cardoso publicly deauthorized everything - the base communities - he even called the police to force the leaders from the church," Betto said. He made sweeping changes. But the base communities didn't lose hope. They didn't lose faith. People kept on working on their own. They didn't allow themselves to be scandalized." Many religious and laity said the further away they are from the machinations of Rome's power, the more freedom they have to act. Religious women especially are constructing "new paradigms" of religious life that are closer to the life of the laity, to the people of God, said one Brazilian nun.

An example of this is Maria Cecilia Garcez, who took a sabbatical from her congregation because her superiors did not support her living in the street with abandoned children. "For my congregation, my leaving is probably seen as a division," Garcez said. "But for me, it is a radical deepening of my gospel commitment. I live on my small salary, and sometimes it's hard for me to meet my own needs. But religious life protected me too much. I never felt cold. I never felt hungry. Now, though, when I share in the suffering of the street children, when I begin to help them find alternatives, this is when I feel the true charism of communion with God.'

Mexican Camilo Maccise, presently the superior general of the Carmelite order, said "Prophetic minorities are always misunderstood by the powerful. In salvation history, it is the minorities that open the paths, as pioneers, acting as the vanguard of evangelization. And this is today what characterizes religious life in Latin America."

Garcez said Rome's measures can do harm, but in the end, no bishop or archbishop or pope, for that matter, is going to make us detour from our gospel commitment. They can create obstacles by not supporting us, but this treasure, this conscience in Christ we have obtained, no pope can take it away.

This is what the institutional church fears most - that it will lose its monopoly of power over people like us. The church is not afraid of social transformations, of communism or capitalism. It is afraid of losing its macho power."
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Title Annotation:1968 Latin American Bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia
Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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