Monthly Archives: April 2012

The “Mad” Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Thirty-five years ago, fourteen women arrived at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina to silent walk in protest of the disappeared members of their families.

It was an act of great courage and thousands joined them for their weekly walk around the Plaza, each women with a white scarf around her head. They were called “locas” – mad – by their detractors. But these were the brave women who stood up in the face of repression when men – including church leaders were silent or even complicit with the repression. Only four Argentinian bishops clearly condemned the crimes of the Argentinian dictatorship.

Later committees of mothers of the disappeared appeared in other countries, for example, El Salvador.

Still there are too many unsolved cases in Latin America of the disappeared. Impunity still continues – and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still march, I believe.

I just learned of this today from  notice of Radio Progreso here in Honduras. There is an article on the mothers by Philip McManus in the book he co-edited with Gerald Schlabach, Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, which I’ll read later today.

But here is a quote, on page 95 of that book, from one of the mothers that should inspire us in the struggle for justice:

Like all the mothers, I came to demonstrate to defend the life of my son. Today I can see further ahead. I don’t want another mother, in this country or in any other, to have to live through what I have. Beyond my personal case is the basic principle of the systematic use of repression and state terrorism as a method of government which I must denounce and combat.

Sad to say, many more mothers continue to suffer the disappearance and the death of their children and spouses.

May this violence cease and may we accompany the women in the struggle.


Holy troublemaker Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena died at thirty-three on April 28, 1380. A member of the lay Dominicans, she became a major force in troubled times in the Church. She was a terrible pain in the side of many – especially within the church. But this grew out of her deep love of Christ.

For about three years she enclosed herself in her room in contemplation with the Lord – suffering terrible temptations but also mystical experiences of the presence of Christ.

Something happened on the day before Ash Wednesday in 1367. She described it as a mystical espousal with the Lord who place a ring on her finger, visible only to herself.  But what is even more extraordinary is that this began a second stage of her spiritual life, a life devoted to serving the poor, the sick, prisoners and victims fo the plague. She resisted, wanting Christ for herself. But, as she related in The Dialogue, Christ tells her:

You must love others with the same pure love with which I love you.

She also gathered a group of disciples around her who affectionately called her Mamma.

But this was not the only call she believe she received from the Lord. In 1374, after a near-death experience, she began to speak publicly  and preach about the evils of corruption in the church and poverty. She also was a peacemaker, especially between feuding families in her hometown.

Some church authorities were upset by a lay woman preaching but her holiness won out.

She was especially adamant that the Pope who was residing in Avignon, France, should return to Rome. Her letters are full of strong words, addressing the pope as if he were a naughty boy. “Be a courageous man for me and not a coward,” she wrote.

This, of course, set tongues wagging about this troublesome woman. But she finally persuaded Pope Gregory IX to return to Rome. But after his death there were more troubles when a Pope and an anti-Pope were elected.

Although she supported the very unworthy Pope Urban VI, she also had strong words for him:

Sweetest father, the world cannot bear any more; vices are so abundant, especially among those who were put in the garden of Holy Church to be fragrant flowers, shedding the fragrance of virtue; and we see that they abound in wretched, hateful vices, so that they make the whole world reek! Oh me! where is the purity of heart and perfect charity which should make the incontinent continent by contact with them? It is quite the contrary: many a time the continent and the pure are led by their impurities to try incontinence. Oh me! where is the generosity of charity, and the care of souls, and distribution to the poor and to the good of the Church, and their necessities? You know well that men do quite the contrary. Oh me miserable! With grief I say it –your sons nourish themselves on the wealth they receive by ministering the Blood of Christ, and are not ashamed of being as money-changers, playing with those most sacred anointed hands of yours, you Vicar of Christ: without speaking of the other wretched deeds which they commit.

In light of the current controversies about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, we should recall the life and preaching of St. Catherine of Siena who was not afraid to speak out in the face of the evils of her time, even those found in the papal household. She, like many religious women I know, saw evil and spoke out, based in her love of Christ and love of His poor.


Christian humanism and Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain, husband, philosopher, died on April 28, 1973. A major philosopher in the twentieth century revival of the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, he was involved in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

He is seen as a major proponent of Christian Humanism which inspired the Christian Democratic movements and parties in Europe and Latin America (often proposed as an alternative to Marxism). There are still many who claim to advocate a Christian Humanism, including the current president of Honduras, Pepe Lobo. However, they would be advised to head these words of Jacques Maritain, quoted in his friend Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“They keep in their minds the settings of religion for the sake of appearances or outward show. . . but they deny the Gospel and despise the poor, pass through the tragedy of their time only with resentment against anything that endangers their interests and fear for their own prestige and possessions, contemplate without flinching every kind of injustice if it does not threaten their own way of life. Only concerned with  power and success, they are either anxious to have means of external coercion enforce what they term the ‘moral order’ or else they turn with the wind and are ready to comply with any requirement of the so-called historical necessity. They await the deceivers. They are famished for deception because first they themselves are trying to deceive God.”

Bishop Gerardi, martyr

Bishop Juan Gerardi, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, founder and director of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, active in the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI), assassinated, Guatemala City, was killed on April 26,1998. He was 75 years old.

He had been the bishop of the diocese of Quiché, but had to leave because of the violence in 1980. He had also asked all priests and religious to leave because of the violence.

After a visit to the Vatican he tried to return to Guatemala but was denied entry to his native country. After a two year exile in Costa Rica, he returned. In 1984 he was named auxiliary bishop in the Guatemala City archdiocese.

As director of the Human Rights Office he took a major role in the Recovery of Historical Memory project which presented a major study of the deaths and disappearances that plagued Guatemala for Decades. (It is available in English, Guatemala: Never Again!, published by Orbis Books.)

He once wrote:

The Church, in solidarity with and in service of a people that is persecuted and tormented, is also called to share the suffering, the persecution, and the death which confirm the authenticity of its solidarity and service. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that the servant is not greater than his Master. In Guatemala, the Church is paying dearly for its defense of the poor and its solidarity with those who suffer.

Guatemala suffered hundreds of deaths of lay pastoral workers, priests, and religious for their commitment to the poor. Bishop Gerardi also gave his life, gunned down just two days after presenting the findings on human rights violations.

Would there were more bishops like Monseñor Gerardi and Monseñor Oscar Romero who have the courage to face real persecution because of their defense of the poor. These are the real heroes of faith who give their lives in service of others.

Organizing – a holy endeavor

Cesar Chávez, organizer of farm workers, died, on April 23, 1993. Born of Mexican-American farm workers, he grew up in the poverty of migrant workers and became a symbol of the struggle of poor migrant workers, largely Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Filipinos in his time.

Under the influence of a priest and a community organizer, he began to work for the unionization of the farm workers, a notoriously difficult task. Facing major difficulties, including the opposition of the growers and competing unions, he did manage to form the United Farm Workers.

A deeply religious Catholic he often brought used religious symbolism in his efforts, including banners of our Lady of Guadalupe. He had the support of many religious leaders and others. A famous photo is his breaking his fast at the end of a Mass accompanied by Robert Kennedy.

He lived a very simple life, receiving the same wage as other farm worker organizers, $5 a month plus expenses.

Here is a prayer that is attributed to him:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable,
so I may know my people’s plight.

Free me to pray for others,
for you are present in every person.

Help me to take responsibility for my own life,
so that I can be free at last.

Grant me courage to serve others,
for in service there is true life.

Give me honesty and patience,
so that I can work with other workers.

Bring forth song and celebration,
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.

Let the Spirit flourish and grow,
so that we will never tire of the struggle.

Let us remember those who have died for justice,
for they have given us life.

Help us love even those who hate us,
so we can change the world.


The Bible as weapon

On April 19, 1980, Juana Tum de Menchú and her son Patrocinio, both catechists, were abducted and killed in Guatemala. Two of the thousands of Guatemalans killed in the second half of the twentheith century, these are notable because of Nobel Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the daughter of Juana and sister of Patrocinio.

Reflecting on this witness of catechists I want to share this quote from Rigoberta Menchú:

“…for us the Bible is our main weapon. It has shown us the way…. any one of my community, even though he’s illiterate and has to have it read to him and translated into his language, can learn many lessons from it, because he has no difficulty understanding what reality is, and what the difference is between the paradise up above, in Heaven, and the reality of our people here on Earth. We do this because we feel it is the duty of Christians to create the Kingdom of God on Earth among our brothers [and sisters]. The kingdom will exist only when we all have enough to eat, when our children, brothers, [sisters], parents don’t have to die from hunger and malnutrition. That will be the ‘Glory,’ a Kingdom for us who have never known it.”

Witness for peace and unity

Fr. Max Josef Metzger, peacemaker, ecumenist, was executed by the Nazis in Germany, on April 17, 1944. After being a chaplain in the First World War, he began to work for peace. This, of course, brought him in conflict with the Nazi authorities when he sought ways to rpomote a negotaited end to the Second World War.

At a 1929 peace conference he said:

“The Peace Movement must make this radical activism its own with a holy conviction of conscience as Francis of Assisi, with a holy reverence for God’s created life which was withdrawn from the grasp of [humans] by the unqualified ‘thou shalt not kill,’ with the conviction of the divine power of a holy nonviolence in the service of the Kingdom of God, with the holy determination to realize this Kingdom of God all along the line. this is what will bring peace, this spirit of the ultimate,  personal self-offering even at the cost of one’s own life, as Christ paid it on the cross, the self-offering for truth, justice, love, peace, for the Kingdom of God on earth.”


Opening doors and the poor

In his commentary on today’s readings, Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote, “Jesus opens the doors which fear had closed.”

In most of the resurrection stories from the Gospels, fear seems to be ever-present. And so Jesus tells the apostles gathered behind closed doors, “Peace.”

It takes a lot to go beyond fear. The disciples of Jesus seem only have been able to put aside fear with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

What happens then? With hearts and doors open, they soon become a community with “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32) and there is “no one poor among them” (Acts 4:34).

Perhaps the account is a little utopian, but it reflects the call of God in Deuteronomy 15: 4: “Let there be no poor among you.”

But it’s so easy to close our doors – and the doors of our hearts – to the poor, especially when we do not see them and when their presence provokes fear.

How then will we live as disciples? with hearts, houses, and churches open to the poor, sharing with them so that there is no poor among us?


It’s a challenge but it’s what God calls us too. As St. Alcuin of York reminds us:

Whatever we have comes from you…. Let us give with equally generous hands to those who are poor, breaking bread and sharing our bread with them. For you have told us that whatever we give to the poor we give to you.”

The quote from Alcuin of York is taken from  Megan McKenna’s  Breaking the Word.

Uneducated and untrained

Observing the boldness of Peter and John
and perceiving them to be uneducated and untrained men,
they [the Sanhedrin] were amazed…
Acts 4: 13

Praying this reading for the Saturday after Easter this morning, I too was amazed – and heartened – to see again how scripture, especially the New Testament, highlights the wisdom of the poor and simple.

I find myself, at many times, defending the poor against those who think that because many don’t have formal education they don’t have much to offer the world and they are easily manipulated. Some think that the way to solve the problems of the poor is to educate them so that they can become middle class citizens. Formal education is important, but insufficient.

But the scriptures tell us that God has revealed his wisdom to the simple, not to the wise and the learned (Matthew 11: 25).

And so God asks us to listen to the poor – not just their cries of distress, but the wisdom that they bring us – their resilience, their hospitality, their trust in God.

They may be uneducated – αγραμματοι, in Greek – and unlearned – ιδιωται, but God works through them to confound the powerful and arrogant.


Love and justice

“Love without justice is a Christian impossibility, and can only be practiced by those who have divorced religion from life, who dismiss a concern for justice as politics and who fear social change much more than they fear God.”

Alan Paton

Alan Paton died on April 12, 1988. He was as South African white novelist, author of Cry the Beloved Country, an opponent of apartheid, and an advocate of racial justice.