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Rome dogma as route to touch people's lives.

ROME -- Maurice Restivo is in Rome completing a doctorate in dogma at the Gregorian, but his heart is in Cali, Colombia. The young Basilian priest cannot shake Cali loose.

"One day, I went to visit an old woman who lived right by the open sewer where it pours into the river," he said recently. "She lived in a hut, 1 meter 30 wide, maybe 2 meters long, bamboo with can wrappers closing out the light, but not much. I could read the prayer book with the light coming in through the cracks.

"Two rooms with beds, no water of course. She said to me, |God is good, bless me my God. God loves the poor.' I came away from there saying, my God, how can she be in a situation of such utter poverty, the stench, the smell, and say that? How can you believe in a good God when you see this?"

Restivo said that, growing up in the United States, though "we were poor by North American standards, it is very easy to believe in a good God. But does this mean God is not good for the whole southern half of the world?"

Ordained in 1986, Restivo, son of a first generation Sicilian-American father and a Belgian mother, went to Colombia for two and a half years. The parish had 25,000-30,000 people, medium-sized by Colombian standards. In addition to poverty, there was oppression.

A parish catechist involved in Amnesty International and seven others organized a rally because, during daily electricity rationing, Cali's poorer sections were without electricity longer than the richer sections.

All eight disappeared during Holy Week. They found the catechist the following Wednesday. All were tortured, hands tied behind their backs, killed by suffocation with plastic garbage bags tied over their heads before being thrown in the river.

When the Basilians agreed to Restivo's further study, he visited four U.S. universities. "I wanted to see where the church can or should touch people's daily lives," he said. "I find the church often being a supermarket for the sacraments."

At Fordham, Jesuit Father Avery Dulles said of Restivo's search: "That's what Ignatius wanted to do, and no one has quite put their finger on what it is."

Dulles told Restivo that inculturation needed work, and Gregorian Professor Gerald O'Collins recommended that Restivo "be in dogma so that you know what you're going to inculturate."

Dogma, as O'Collins explained it, was different from other branches of theology in that it deals with current questions within the church. It is not apologetics, he said; the people are believers already.

So, about a year behind schedule, Restivo is pulling together his thesis on the difference between faith and religion according to Jon Sobrino, and comparing that with Karl Barth. Sobrino "I find very challenging to my own faith," said Restivo, "but liberation theology has come to answer a lot of questions I have."

Liberation theology's interpretation of scriptures, as Restivo sees it, is saying to the poor that "God doesn't want this; don't be happy with your life as it is. God came to give you not just spiritual, eternal life but life, dignified life, now."

But to put it frankly, he said, much of the church in Latin America is allied with the power, not the poor.

In Roman circles, he finds there is a "certain, not quite tangible unease or fear about the whole liberation theology movement."

Restivo also battles questions of his own life-style and says with a self-deprecating laugh, "So here I am in Rome, living with First World comforts and studying Third World theology."

Meanwhile, he gets on with his thesis, listens to an eclectic mix of Spanish music, Latin American folk, soft rock and classical. He reads little beyond what is required -- though recently back from the Holy Land he read a volume on intifadah liberation theology, and reads Sojourners -- and tries to pray.

Next, he will probably be at the Basilians' seminary in Houston. With shadows of the old lady in Cali flickering across his soul.
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Title Annotation:Father Maurice Restivo
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 30, 1993
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