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Ivan Illich and Leo Mahon: folk religion and catechesis in Latin America.

Priest and social critic Ivan Illich played a major role in discouraging Roman Catholic missions from the United States to Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, as detailed in a previous issue of this journal. (1) To make a long story short, during the early 1960s Illich first used his position as the director of a training center for missionaries to persuade would-be missionaries to go back to the United States; in 1967 he wrote a denunciation of American missionary activity called "The Seamy Side of Charity," which spread his ideas to almost every Catholic missionary in Latin America and also to the wider Catholic public in the United States.

This article contrasts Illich with Chicago priest Leo Mahon, who led a mission project in Panama sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago. Between 1962 and 1980 Mahon and a team of priests, nuns, and laypeople tried to establish an experimental parish that not only would reach the residents of the San Miguelito neighborhood outside of Panama City but also would serve as a model for other mission projects and for the rest of the Catholic Church in Latin America. For a time this experiment proved wildly successful, but eventually it, like many North American missionary projects of the time, ended in almost complete defeat.

Illich: Folk Religion vs. Consumer Catholicism

So what was all the fuss about in the first place? Why was Catholic priest Ivan Illich so upset about U.S. Catholic missions to Latin America? The story begins on August 17, 1961, when Monsignor Agostino Casaroli, speaking on behalf of Pope John XXIII, challenged the Catholic Church in the United States to send 10 percent of its priests, nuns, and religious brothers to Latin America, and American Catholics responded with a surge of interest and hundreds of new missionaries. (2) Illich, who had served as vice-rector of a Catholic university in Puerto Rico and had been commissioned by Fordham University to run a training center for future missionaries in Cuernavaca, Mexico, eventually came to believe that the influx of missionaries was part of a "multifaceted plan to keep Latin America within the ideologies of the West" and to turn the Latin American church into "a satellite to North American cultural phenomena and policy," as he wrote in "The Seamy Side of Charity." (3) Because of their cultural baggage, missionaries from the United States had transformed the church in Latin America into "the Lord's supermarket"; even the best missionaries were doing no more than "maintaining a clerical and irrelevant church." He had little but scorn for the vast majority of American missionaries, calling them "a colonial power's lackey chaplains," "U.S. liberals who cannot make their point at home," and "traveling escapists." These missionaries had to accept that they were "useless and even harmful" because they were purveying not true Christianity but a modern perversion of the religion. Illich was vehement in his denunciation of the missionary initiative, risking his very priesthood, because he saw this form of missions as a caricature of Christ's call to bring the Gospel to all nations. The Peace Corps, American cultural imperialism, the spread of American business models--these all were evils in his mind. Much worse, however, was the corruption of the body of Christ into "the Lord's supermarket, with catechisms, liturgy, and other means of grace heavily in stock." (4)

At the same time, Illich did not view popular Latin American Catholicism as deficient. Whereas many Catholic social scientists and missionary intellectuals saw the Catholic practice of most Latin Americans as clearly substandard, Illich had no such qualms, primarily because of his experiences in Puerto Rico. "For anybody who has ever breathed the atmosphere of the Island," he said of Puerto Rico, "there is no doubt that theirs is a Catholic folk-culture." He went on to describe the ways in which people who had little contact with the institutional church nevertheless "regularly ask their parents' blessing before leaving the house," "devotedly invoke the names of Our Lord or the Virgin," "plaster their homes with holy pictures," and "sign themselves with the Cross before leaving home." Because most Puerto Ricans lived "dispersed over the steep hills of the interior," they could not attend Mass regularly, baptize their children, or marry in the church. "'Bad habits' like these," he believed, "are not a sign of lack of Catholic spirit, but rather the effects of a peculiar ecclesiastical history." (5) In short, to Illich it would have been a blasphemy to replace Latin American folk Catholicism--a valid, even glorious, expression of Catholic faith--with the impersonal, consumerist version purveyed by American missionaries.

Illich's denunciation caused quite a commotion, as he intended. He prevailed upon the editors of the Jesuit journal America to publish "The Seamy Side of Charity" right before the commencement of the 1967 meeting of the Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program, an annual conference designed to encourage American interest in Latin America and the Latin American church. Illich and others then passed out copies of the article to all three thousand people in attendance. Catholic missionary activity quickly entered an era of confusion and doubt. Missionaries themselves suffered crises of confidence, while their supporters and advocates at home faced growing questions and criticisms about almost every aspect of missionary activity. (6) In combination with the general distrust of authority in the Vietnam era, revelations about the role of the CIA's use of missionaries, and the general malaise of the 1970s, Illich's article contributed to a tapering off of U.S. Catholic missionary activity in Latin America.

The Mahon Plan

But not all missionaries agreed with Illich that American missionaries were a destructive force. One of those who disagreed with Illich's basic premise (although not with some of his criticisms) was a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago named Leo Mahon. In 1962 Mahon proposed to his archbishop, Albert Cardinal Meyer, that Latin America was experiencing a crisis in which the church "may die or, at best, shrink to enclaves in a largely pagan continent" because of its shortage of priests, its population growth, and its rapid urbanization. According to Mahon, Chicago could help Latin America by setting up an experimental parish in a poor neighborhood of a major Latin American city. This experimental parish would develop "ideas, methods, and procedures" that would serve as models for the rest of Latin America. Because of the shortage of priests in Latin America, an influx of too many priests from the north would actually be counterproductive since it would not be reproducible in other parts of the region. Consequently, the experimental parish would have to focus on "the training and direction of laymen in functions formerly performed by priests--especially catechesis." (7) Meyer accepted Mahon's proposal, and in 1963 Mahon and two other Chicago priests began their experimental parish in San Miguelito, a shantytown on the outskirts of Panama City, Panama, with no paved roads, sewers, or electrical service. It then was home to 40,000 people and grew to several times that size by the time they left in 1980.

For a time, Mahon and Illich were quite close. In fact, in 1961 Illich said, "I believe that Mahon's catechetical approach is one of the most valuable things the United States will ultimately have exported to Latin America." In 1962 Illich's journal CIF Reports praised the lessons in Mahon's catechism, The Family of God, as "warm, simple, and clear [and] seriously theological," and a year later he called himself an "exponent of the Mahon Gospel." (8) Mahon had a similarly rosy view of Illich and used Illich's center for language and cultural training for his team of missionaries before they came to Panama; Mahon once told the director of another Catholic mission, "I would by all means advise your sending your men to Cuernavaca." (9) He also worked closely with Illich, for example, lecturing for four days to a training class at Illich's center in 1965. (10)

But while Illich was becoming more and more skeptical about the prospects for any kind of positive missionary impact in Latin America, developing the views that he expressed in his scathing 1967 article, Mahon did not waver in his conviction that beneficial missionary work was possible in San Miguelito and, by extension, throughout Latin America. As early as 1964 he was expressing doubts about the direction of Illich's center, which was not surprising, since by that time Illich was indeed attempting to discourage many potential missionaries. (11)

Many missionaries built Catholic schools and seminaries and saw staffing and running them as a major part of their ministry, but Mahon, because he believed that most poor Latin Americans did not know even the rudiments of Catholic theology, proposed the primacy of "catechesis," or in more common language, religious teaching; he was not talking about formal education that takes place in schools, but about the kind of teaching that could take place in the actual Mass and in informal groups that might meet in homes and neighborhood centers. He was not against Catholic schools; he simply believed that they were too expensive and used too much labor to educate a small, often wealthy, minority, when other methods could reach many times more people.

Mahon's solution, as mentioned earlier, was to use a small number of priests to form a team with nuns and religious brothers. The priests would "train and direct a large group of laymen who would work with the best, most advanced ideas in popular catechesis and liturgy." Religious brothers and sisters would not, as was usual, work in parochial schools or other Catholic institutions but instead would develop "mass-scale catechetical methods." (12) This departure from traditional missionary practice highlights how serious Mahon believed the religious crisis of Latin America was. The lack of priests and the constantly growing megacities of Latin America were to him the perfect recipe for the church to lose the lower classes completely. For example, he agreed with theologian Juan Luis Segundo that most of Latin America was in a "pre-Christian stage." (13) On another occasion he stated to his bishop, "Panama is a Catholic country in name only," because, among other factors, only about 5 percent of the population attended Mass. The logical response was to make an all-out effort to spread the faith: "Much of Panama would like to be Christian but will first have to be instructed and converted, in the usage of the day, evangelized." (14) Institution building, school administration, and similar approaches were simply inefficient ways of responding to a spiritual emergency.

San Miguelito in Practice

Leo Mahon and two other Chicago priests arrived in San Miguelito in 1963 and immediately began taking stock of their surroundings. Their first observation was that Catholicism in their neighborhood was the province of women and children and that very few men seemed to feel comfortable at Mass. They also learned that Panamanian priests had supported themselves through "stole fees," which were in effect charges for services, so that, for example, a Mass, a funeral, and baptism each had a specific price. (15) As for popular religion, theAmerican priests were dismayed to learn that residents of San Miguelito considered themselves good Catholics if they were baptized, were devoted to a specific saint, and had holy pictures in their houses---even if they were adulterers who never attended Mass and had demonstrated no evidence of love for their neighbors. (16) "Being Catholic," concluded Mahon, "was devoid of the messages of Christ and meant being totally dependent on external religious practices." The religion of the masses of Latin America, in his view, was based on "deviated doctrines," and its celebrations were "pagan festivals covered by a layer of Christianity so thin as to be transparent." (17)

Mahon was thus deeply convinced that folk Catholicism was not enough, that it was, in fact, not very Catholic. He put a strong emphasis on catechetical efforts because he believed that most people in San Miguelito simply did not understand basic Catholicism. For instance, he reported, "Few, if any, of those who attend have a clue as to what the Eucharist truly means"; for them, it was just "a near superstitious continuation of an ancient tradition." He did not accept local traditions as set in stone; instead, he critiqued them and tried to improve them, for example, adding more doctrinal content to the processions that the community carried out during Holy Week. In the past these processions had failed to provide "a sense of living mystery and of the necessity of inner conversion," but he reformed them by adding more teaching and explanations of each liturgical action. (18)

Mahon's approach could be quite confrontational, as when he tried to instruct a group that was planning a feast in honor of Saint Rose, a Peruvian who had made herself ugly to preserve her chastity, but that knew almost nothing about who she really was. "To be devoted to St. Rose," he said, "means to have respect for one's own body, but above all for the integrity of women." He went on to explain that it was wrong and irrational to celebrate her while rejecting everything that she stood for. "To honor her as the patroness of the community without resolving to stop whoring, to put away your concubines, to offer your hand in marriage to the woman with whom you are living not only does not make sense, but rather is the same as dishonoring the saint," he argued. (19) For Mahon, in short, popular religion was neither beautiful nor pristine; it was a conglomeration of poorly understood traditions that needed to be reformed or, in some cases, jettisoned entirely.

Much of the Chicago team's early efforts focused on lay leadership development. The three priests spent much of their time during the first six months on house-to-house visitations, but because they were convinced that priests could no longer do all the pastoral work in Latin America, they invited Jesus Rodriguez, a married Chicago layman with eight children, to give all-day conferences, or "missions," on three successive Sundays. (20) Rodriguez spoke in simple but radical language, for instance, calling Jesus not "king" or "lord" but "great revolutionary leader." As the priests had hoped, many parishioners who were impressed by the commitment and passion of a fellow layman asked how they could become like him. (21)


Mahon then began devising an ever-expanding series of programs designed to evangelize, build community, and create lay leaders who would in turn evangelize, build new communities, and create new lay leaders. He first focused on a group of thirty men, using a catechism he had written for work among Latino immigrants in Chicago called The Family of God. (22) Then Mahon sent these men out to visit their neighbors and to lead their discussions of The Family of God, after which they invited their students to a weekend retreat called a cursillo, or "little course," designed to bring them to the point of commitment, not just to God and to Catholicism, but also to their local parish. Other programs included courses for young people and married couples, parish councils that exercised real leadership over parish affairs, monthly days of reflection, and a training school for lay cursillo teachers. The extent of these programs' success can be measured by the fact that in 1971 they had trained more than 7,000 cursillo teachers in San Miguelito. (23) The team rapidly expanded from its initial location into other neighborhoods, building simple church buildings as they went. Priests and lay leaders from other Latin American nations were starting to visit San Miguelito, fulfilling Mahon's early hope to serve as an example and a model. (24)

It should be emphasized that all this activity was premised on the insufficiency of folk Catholicism. For Mahon and his allies, the primacy of the catechetical approach to building lay leaders rested on the failure of folk Catholicism to create truly Catholic individuals and on its inability to foster true Catholic community. None of the new programs in San Miguelito would have been necessary if folk Catholicism was a fruitful approach to Catholic life. The corollary of this idea of the insufficiency of folk Catholicism was that missionary activity in Latin America was both necessary and possible. If Mahon was right, the multitudes of Latin America were in great need of instruction in Catholic faith and practice, and missionaries like his team from Chicago could be extremely beneficial to them. Mahon thus provided both the rationale for American Catholic missions in Latin America and a practical model for them to follow. For a season, Mahon and San Miguelito were regarded as on the cutting edge not just of Catholic missionary work but of the Catholic Church in Latin America more generally. For instance, in 1968 when Rene Laurentin wrote a book on "the Catholic Church's position on the continent today," he focused on three influential leaders: Ivan Illich, Brazilian bishop Helder Camara, and Leo Mahon. (25) In 1972 Enrique Dussell, the distinguished historian of the church in Latin America, called San Miguelito "unique in Latin America" and called for its use as a model for the region. (26) According to one author, by 1973 the San Miguelito experiment had influenced the creation of thirteen similar communities "in at least ten other countries," including Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the United States. (27) Unfortunately for Mahon, however, by 1975 he was back in Chicago, and in 1980 Chicago's last remaining priest was called home from San Miguelito. (28) Tensions with Panamanian priests, conflict with the government of Panama due to Mahon's vocal criticisms of its policies, and a new Chicago archbishop who did not share the vision for San Miguelito, along with the general antimissionary spirit fostered by Illich and similar critics of missions, led to the ending of the archdiocese's support for the project. It seemed that Mahon's efforts had been wasted and that Illich had won another victory.

Who Won?

Illich and similar critics really did pop the balloon of Catholic enthusiasm for missionary work in Latin America. The gradual buildup of American missionaries responding to the pope's call for 10 percent to go to Latin America resulted in the 1968 peak of 3,391 who answered the call to work in the region. Responding in large part to the doubts awakened by Illich's article, more than 500 missionaries had left the field by 1970, and numbers continued to drop through the 1970s, so that by 1979 there were only about 2,300 American Catholic missionaries left in Latin America. (29) Illich and his allies rejoiced.

One could clearly look at San Miguelito as another instance of North American missionary failure in Latin America. Leo Mahon managed to stay for only twelve years, and the whole project lasted less than two decades. In most of the parishes and churches that the Chicago team had set up, by the 2000s there was far less activity and excitement. Reflecting on the San Miguelito experiment, one Panamanian scholar reported that by the 2000s, the Catholic youth of San Miguelito demonstrated far less commitment than their predecessors had in the 1960s and 1970s, and even those who had participated in the experiment during those decades felt a sense of disillusionment. The church in San Miguelito had not been able to sustain the catechesis, social involvement, and basic enthusiasm of the Chicago years. But the same scholar also reported that the church had changed substantially: "Now there are more possibilities for self expression and action in the Church. Bishops ... in many ways allow their priests and their faithful to develop their own initiatives." In fact, he believed that the Panamanian bishops had adopted the same goals that Leo Mahon and his team were championing during their time in Panama. (30)

The missionaries who did stay in Latin America changed, in many ways in a direction of which Leo Mahon would have approved. They focused much more on the creation of lay leaders, having learned from Mahon and many others that this was the only feasible way to provide pastoral care to a region still experiencing a desperate shortage of priests. In cases of grave injustice, many were willing to join Latin American priests in criticizing the governments of both the United States and the country in which they were working. (31)

"For the most part," argues one scholar, "U.S. missioners in Latin America in the 1960s more than overcame the ideological commitments Illich forecast." Far from being pawns of the State Department or of the McDonald's Corporation, missionaries had an "intense experience of face-to-face encounter" with the poor, a "mysterious and transforming" encounter that often made them deeply critical of the United States and its influence. When these missionaries returned to the United States, they performed a sort of reverse mission, "sensitizing Christians to the complexity of the Latin-American reality." (32) Meanwhile, the rise of base ecclesial communities, lay catechists, and the new ecctesial movements (such as Focolare and the Neocatechumenal Way) meant that, even apart from missionaries, lay Catholics were studying the Bible and teaching and learning Catholic doctrine to a degree never before seen in Latin America. In short, despite the termination of the Archdiocese of Chicago's experiment in San Miguelito, mission to Latin America continued along the lines pioneered by Leo Mahon in Panama, even as catechesis and lay leadership took off throughout the region. Who was more influential? In 1980 most observers would have said Ivan Illich, but looking back thirty years later, it is clear that Leo Mahon's priorities carried the day. It is also clear that Mahon's fundamental conviction that folk Catholicism was not forming moral, committed Catholics and therefore needed to be reformed had been adopted by the Latin American hierarchy and laity. The active and growing segments of the Latin American Catholic Church, with their base ecclesial communities, the charismatic renewal, and movements like Focolare, all agreed that folk Catholicism was not enough.


(1.) Todd Hartch, "Ivan Illich and the American Catholic Missionary Initiative in Latin America," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 33, no. 4 (2009): 185-88. The picture of Leo Mahon on p. 187 of this article is from Leo Mahon, with Nancy Davis, Fire Under My Feet: A Memoir of God's Power in Panama (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2007), following p. 99; used by permission.

(2.) Agostino Casoroli, "Appeal of the Pontifical Commission to North American Superiors," in Mission to Latin America: The Success and Failures of a Twentieth-Century Crusade, by Gerald Costello (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 273-82; see also pp. 44-51.

(3.) Ivan Illich, "The Seamy Side of Charity," CIF Reports 6, no. 3 (February 1, 1967): 2, 3; originally published in America 116, no. 3 (January 21, 1967): 88-91.

(4.) Ibid., pp. 5, 7, 8, 9.

(5.) Ivan Illich, "Not Foreigners, Yet Foreign," in Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 39; originally published in 1956 in Commonweal.

(6.) Costello, Mission to Latin America, pp. 122-29, 163-86.

(7.) Leo Mahon to Albert Meyer, February 15, 1962, Box 1, File 1 (1:1), San Miguelito Mission Records, University of Notre Dame Archives, Notre Dame, Ind. (Except where noted below, all correspondence is located in these records.)

(8.) Ivan Illich to John Considine, October 21, 1961, Papers of the Latin America Bureau, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Catholic University of America, 186:52; Illich to Mahon, May 4, 1963, 1:3; David Efroymson, "A Review: A New Catechism," CIF Reports 1, no. 5 (October 1962): 43.

(9.) Mahon to Illich, December 3, 1963, 1:3; Mahon to Roger Bartlett, June 4, 1964, 1:4.

(10.) Mahon to Philip Berryman, April 9, 1965, 1:9.

(11.) Illich mentions Mahon's "concerns about my behavior, my direction of CIF," in Illich to Mahon, June 9, 1964, 1:4.

(12.) Mahon to Albert Meyer, February 15, 1962, 1:1.

(13.) Mahon to John Hotchkin, June 2, 1964, 1:4.

(14.) Mahon to John Cody, February 7, 1973, 3:13.

(15.) Mahon, John Greeley, and Robert McGlinn to Albert Meyer, March 7, 1963, in Francisco Bravo, The Parish of San Miguelito in Panama: History and Pastoral-Theological Evaluation (Cuernavaca, Mexico: Centro Intercultural de Documentacion, 1966), pp. 342-43.

(16.) Mahon, Greeley, and McGlinn to Meyer, February 17, 1964, in ibid., p. 376.

(17.) Leo Mahon, Fire Under My Feet: A Memoir of God's Power in Panama (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2007), pp. 55, 82-83.

(18.) Ibid., pp. 44-45, 74-76.

(19.) Ibid., p. 85.

(20.) Robert J. Delaney, "Pastoral Renewal in a Local Church" (Ph.D. diss., Westfalische Wilhelms-Universitat, Munster, 1973), pp. 14-15.

(21.) Mahon, Greeley, and McGlinn to Meyer, October 9, 1963, in Bravo, The Parish, p. 366.

(22.) Although not exactly the text they used in 1963, a similar version of this catechism appears in two Maryknoll publications (Maryknoll, N.Y.): Leo Mahon and Sister Mary Xavier, The Family of God (1964); and Leo Mahon and Madre Mary Xavier, Catecismo de la Familia de Dios (1965).

(23.) Delaney, "Pastoral Renewal," pp. 18-19, 26-27.

(24.) Priests of San Miguelito to Cletus O'Donnell, April 19, 1965; and Mahon to John Cody and Thomas Clavel, October 25, 1966, both in Bravo, Parish of San Miguelito, pp. 426, 454-55.

(25.) Harold Blakemore, review of L'Amerique latine a l'heure de l'enfantement, by Rene Laurentin, International Affairs 47, no. 1 (January 1971): 249-51.

(26.) Enrique Dussell, quoted in Francisco Blanco, "San Miguelito, una rica experiencia eclesial," in ADITAL: Noticias de America Latina y Caribe, February 20, 2004, .asp?lang=ES&cod=11066.

(27.) Delaney, "Pastoral Renewal," pp. xi, xv, 114-124, 154-55.

(28.) Robert McClory, "Chicago Cuts Panama Parish Aid," National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1980, p. 2.

(29.) Costello, Mission to Latin America, pp. 163, 209.

(30.) Francisco Blanco, "San Miguelito."

(31.) Costello, Mission to Latin America, pp. 200, 209, 219, 223; Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America--the Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy (New York: Doubleday, 1980), pp. 370-408.

(32.) Stephen Judd, "The Seamy Side of Charity Revisited: American Catholic Contributions to Renewal in the Latin-American Church," Missiology: An International Review 15, no. 2 (April 1987): 4-5, 8-9, 12. If one includes U.S. Protestants, the impact of missionaries is even more clear, for the success of Protestant missionaries spurred Latin American Catholics to reflection, self-criticism, and reform, as indicated in Samuel Escobar, "Missions and Renewal in Latin American Catholicism," Missiology: An International Review 15, no. 2 (April 1987): 33-44.

Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky. He has written Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935-1985 (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2006) and currently is writing a book on Ivan Illich and another on the rebirth of Latin American Christianity.
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Author:Hartch, Todd
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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