Category Archives: Liberation theology

Becoming one with the poor

…you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that for your sake he became poor although he was rich,
so that by his poverty you might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8: 9

God became poor.

It’s as simple and challenging as that.

God gave up power and identified with the poor.

This passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and the hymn to the God who emptied self (Philippians 2: 5-22) continue to challenge me, even as I minister here in Honduras among the poor. For i continue to live a rather middle class life.

And so, how am I called to follow Christ’s incarnation among the poor?

The Brazilian theologian Silvia Regina De Lima Silva posits a first step: contact with the poor.

I see the option for the poor as a change in our social position. You choose to begin to think about things from the perspective of the poor. Often this becomes a change not just in social place, but in geographic place. That is, if you want to opt for the poor you must at least have contact with these poor persons. Sometimes, not always, you also have to live with these poor persons, share in their lives.

I have a lot of contact with the poor, though not as much as I would like. But is that enough?

I think a second step is needed: recognition of the dignity of the poor, that I am not superior to them.

As retired bishop Dom Pedro Casadaliga said:

When I begin to understand that every other person, every poor person is an equal to myself, I can no longer retain my privileges, because to do that would be robbery. I cannot merely give donations, I must pay back what I owe. There’s a difference.

In my ministry with the poor, I try to remember that I am not above them, beter than them. Even when I’m leading a training of catechists, I try to reveal to them and to me that this is a joint process of learning, of finding God and sharing God’s love.

That will mean a change of life, The late US Jesuit, Dean Brackley, who served many years in El Salvador puts it well:

In the [United] States, the great challenge for Christianity is now downward mobility, if that makes sense. The challenge is not to help the poor to join the rich; it’s to help the rich join the poor. That’s where our salvation is. Remember what St. Ignatius called the dangerous road: the road of riches, honor and pride. Its converse is Christ’s road: the road of poverty, humiliation, persecution, humility. That’s where we find life.

This downward mobility will mean for some a change of place, a change of career. But fundamentally it requires of us a change of heart, putting our heart with the poor, as Jesus did.

As Brazilian theologian Clodovis Boff put it:

…it is not possible for a rich person, as a rich person, to be a Christian unless he puts his riches, his position, his strength at the service of the poor — which is extremely rare. It’s like a personal death.

As for the middle class, normally they don’t have such a firm class position, they blow with the wind, revolutionary or reactionary. The option for the poor demands a decision, a definition of class. It doesn’t matter what class or profession you are. The important thing is what side you’re on. In what direction do you put your strength as a professor, a doctor, a landowner, a business person.

What side am I on?

Jesus identified with the side of the poor.

Do I?

All the quotations, except for Dean Brackley’s, come from Mev Puleo’s The Struggle Is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation.

Father Dean Brackley

Last year, on October 16, Jesuit Father Dean Brackley died in El Salvador. Dean joined the faculty of the Central American University in San Salvador after six Jesuits were killed there in 1989.

I got to know him there – and I would occasionally try to have visitors visit with him. Here’s a part of a reflection he wrote, “Meeting the Victims, Falling in Love”:

These people [the poor] shake us up because they bring home to us that things are much worse in the world than we dared to imagine. But that is only one side of the story: If we allow them to share their suffering with us, they communicate some of their hope to us as well. The smile that seems to have no foundation in the facts is not phony; the spirit of fiesta is not an escape but a recognition that something else is going on in the world besides injustice and destruction. The poor smile because they suspect that this something is more powerful than the injustice. When they insist on sharing their tortilla with a visiting gringo, we recognize there is something going on in the world that is more wonderful than we dared to imagine.

It seems that the victim offers us the privileged place (although not the only place) to encounter the truth which sets us free. The poor usher us into the heart of reality. They bring us up against the world and ourselves all at once. To some extent, we all hold reality at arm’s length — fending off intolerable parts of the world with one hand and intolerable parts of ourselves with the other. The two go together. As a rule, our encounters with the world place us in touch with internal reality, as well. In particular, when the world’s pain crashes in upon us in the person of the victim, the encounter dredges up from within us the parts of ourselves that we had banished. The outcast outside us calls forth the outcast within us. This is why people avoid the poor. But meeting them can heal us. We will only heal our inner divisions if we are also working to heal our social divisions.
The victims of history — the destitute, abused women, oppressed minorities, all those the Bible calls “the poor” — not only put us in touch with the world and with ourselves, but also with the mercy of God. There is something fathomless about the encounter with the poor, as we have said — like the opening of a chess game with its infinite possibilities. If we let them, the poor will place us before the abyss of the holy Mystery we call God. They are a kind of door that opens before that Mystery.



A journalist of the poor

There are many types of journalists.

Some are spokespersons for those in power and report only what supports the continuation of their friends. They may be tempted by their access to power, to privilege.

Some only look for the strange and titillating, whether it be macabre deaths or the sex lives of the rich and famous.

But there are those who take their calling as journalists seriously and seek to find out what is really happening, in service of the truth.

Their writing challenges the status quo.

This can be dangerous. In Honduras in the last three years, 25 journalists have been killed, many for speaking out against political corruption, structural injustice, and organized crime.

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1989 of a US journalist who dared to speak the truth, Penny Lernoux.

She worked in Latin America and laid bare the structures of injustice in society and the church but even more she told the stories of the poor and those who cast their lot with the poor, especially in her first book, Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America — The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy.

But she was not one to just show up at press conferences or to get stories from US Embassies or government spokespersons. She listened to the poor where they lived. As she wrote:

It was through them that I became aware of and entered into another world — not that of the U.S. Embassy or the upper classes, which comprise the confines of most American journalists, but the suffering and hopeful world of the slums and peasant villages. The experience changed my life, giving me a new faith and a commitment as a writer to tell the truth of the poor to the best of my ability.

That brought her back to a practice of her Catholic faith and a deep understanding of the power of the powerless Christ. As she wrote:

 You can look at a slum or a peasant village… but it is only by entering into that world — by living in it — that you begin to understand what it is like to be powerless, to be like Christ.

Penny Lernoux’s challenge is to see the world through the eyes of the poor, to enter their lives to be with them in their joys and struggles.

It is the challenge that begins with the story of the Good Samaritan that is today’s Gospel (Luke 10: 25-37):

seeing the man who fell among thieves,
being moved by compassion,
going near,
touching the man,
pouring out oil and wine over wounds,
and lifting him up to take him
to a place of healing and rest.

 The priest and Levite looked on from afar; but the Samaritan drew near. So did Penny Lernoux. And so are we called to draw near.

This entry, as many others, owes much to Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.



The challenge of Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II [Karol Wojtyla]  died on April 2, 2005. I’ve found him an enigmatic figure. He said enough to disturb almost everyone, though mostly more liberal Catholics have found him problematic.

He was formed in the totalitarian environment of Nazism and Soviet Communism and so tended to see most of the world from this perspective. I think that because of this he was very suspicious of Latin American liberation theology. Yet he told the Brazilian bishops that “it was not only useful but also necessary.”

When he went to the Latin American Bishops’ conference meeting in 1979 his prepared remarks seemed fairly critical of the bishops’ activism in support of the poor. Yet when he visited the indigenous people he spoke warmly of the need to protect their rights.

Some US Catholics have thus used Pope John Paul II to support a libertarian political and social agenda. But it is not clear that that was his stand.Many of these same Catholics also ignore his stand against the death penalty and his opposition to the Gulf War and the Iraq war.

But these words of Pope John Paul II at Yankee Stadium on October 2, 1979, are a continual challenge to the US and its treatment of the poor and ought to be central to our faith:

The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance and not just of your abundance in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.


Two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence

Today I’d like to recall two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence.

Dom Helder Câmara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil, defender of the poor, apostle of nonviolence, born on February 7, 1909, in Fortaleza, Brazil. He died in 1999.

This small frail man was such a threat to the Brazilian dictatorship that for several years it was not permitted to mention his name in the press or other medias of communication.

I saw him once at a “coffee shop” and center run by the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the 1982 United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament. I can’t remember what he said and he spoke in English with a very strong accent. But I remember most of all his enthusiasm with wide gestures. Looking back they make me recall his large heart and his love for all people and, indeed, for all creation. But he also could speak very forthrightly, denouncing injustice wherever he encountered it:

“I used to think when I was a child, that Christ might have been exaggerating when He warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts. That is the source of my conviction that it is both democratic and Christian to bolster human frailty with a balanced, firm, and just moral pressure based on nonviolent action.”

On February 7, 1988, Dominique Barbé, O.P., a French Dominician missionary to Brazil, peacemaker, died. He too was an advocate of nonviolence in the face of injustice and oppression. He saw his role as a missionary for the nonviolent reign of God. As he wrote:

“A missionary, an evangelist, is a person sent to destroy the structures of selfishness and to build the structures of sharing. This happens on three levels: the level of the individual, the community, and the society. It is like three intersecting wheels: the circle of personal life, the circle of community of the followers of Christ, and the circle of society.”

The Red Bishop of Cuernevaca

Monseñor Sergio Mendez Arceo, bishop of Cuernevaca, Mexico, “the red bishop,” champion of liberation for the poor, died on February 6, 1992. An outspoken advocate of the poor, he had also renovated the cathedral, with a large baptismal font. Part of the renovation also revealed a mural of the Mexican martyrs of Nagasaki who were killed there on February 5, 1597, and whose feast is celebrated in many parts of the world (outside of Mexica) on February 6.

On November 30, 1984, he spoke of the blessedness of those who suffer persecution for the sake of justice:

“Blessed are those who suffer persecution, those who for justice suffer persecution. . . . Thus we can call blessed all our people, beaten down and oppressed: when they take consciousness of oppression and struggle to be liberated, when they really long for justice; thus, in those moments, those who have already passed the ultimate test of giving their live for their desire [for justice], would be the ones who give us joy, the joy of so many brothers [and sisters] who form, with Jesus, heaven, the heaven we seek, the fullness of the Kingdom.”


A sixteenth century bishop for the indigenous

On January 27, 1554, Bishop Pablo de Torres, O.P., bishop of Panama, died. This Dominican priest and bishop had been exiled for defending the Indians.

As Enrique Dussell explains in A History of the Church in Latin America:

[He] attempted to enforce the  New Laws [on dealing with the indigenous], but he soon clashed with the encomenderos [Spanish landowners who had indigenous as their indentured workers] by defending the Indian to the ultimate degree of his authority, even to excommunicating the offenders when it was necessary. But the local governor as well as the Supreme Council of the Indies nullified Torres’ actions. The saddest aspect of the situation in Panama was that the Archbishop himself, Loayas, condemned Torres, a judgment confirmed by the Supreme Council. Pablo de Torres left his bishopric in 155 not only saddened by his inability to defend the Indian, but also because after his return to Spain he was accused of treason and never permitted to return to Panama.

The Church has not lacked those who took up the cause of the poor and the marginalized, even though many, even within the Church, have sided with the powerful oppressors.

May the example of Bishop Torres encourage other followers of Christ to speak up, not counting the cost.

A prophetic denunciation, 1511

Five hundred years ago today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a Dominican friar mounted the pulpit of the church in Santo Domingo, Hispañola (now the Dominican Republic), and preached a fiery sermon denounced slavery and the system that enslaved the native peoples of the Americas.  Fray Antonio de Montesinos, O.P., did not speak for himself alone but for the whole community of Dominican friars. The reaction was fierce, but the word had been spoken.

“You are all in mortal sin! You live in it and you die in it!

“Why? Because of the cruelty and tyranny you use with these innocent people. Tell me, with what right, with what justice, do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars on these people, in their mild, peaceful lands, where you have consumed such infinitudes of them, wreaking upon them this death and unheard-of havoc? How is it that you hold them so crushed and exhausted, giving them nothing to eat, nor any treatment of their diseases, which you cause them to be infected with through the surfeit of their toils. so that they ‘die on you’ [as you day] — you mean. you kill them — mining gold for you day after day? And what care do you take that anyone catechize them, so that they may come to know their God and Creator, be baptized, hear Mass, observe Sundays and holy Days? Are they not human beings? Have they no rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not grasp this? How is it that you sleep so soundly, so lethargically? Know for a certainty that in the state in which you are you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks who have not, nor wish to have, the faith of Jesus Christ.”

Would that we had more Christians like him who speak out boldly against injustice and oppression!


I have seen some reports that the sermon was delivered on December 5, 1511. But Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote that it was the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 1511. Las Casa also noted that  the Gospel reading  was John 1: 19-28, what the Dominican Rite Missal used on the fourth Sunday of Advent.

The impoverished

In October while I was in the US I gave a presentation at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames on “Why are the people I work with in Honduras poor?”. That was the original title I had suggested, but as I began to prepare I realized that the title was wrong. It is better to ask why they are “impoverished.” Poverty is not so much a state as the result of a process of impoverishment. The impoverished are not poor by nature; conditions and structures have brought them to poverty.

This is an insight that is often hard to understand and to accept, since it asks questions about wealth, power, and privilege.

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women were killed on the grounds of the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador. They were killed because the Jesuits had been asking questions about wealth, power, privilege, and oppression.

One of the Jesuits killed, Father Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., expressed this very clearly:

 “Basically the poor are impoverished due to hoarding and exploitation by the rich; and the rich are enriched at the cost of the impoverishment and misery of the masses. To free the poor by giving them access to living conditions consonant with their dignity as human beings and children of God entails sacrificing the privileges of wealthy oppressors. Hence, when faced with the news that the Kingdom of God is coming, the rich feel challenged and called to accept God’s justice and kindness, by allowing themselves to be re-created and changed by that justice into brothers and sisters, and persons in solidarity. ‘Be converted and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Only conversion, metanoia, change of mentality, new eyes in order to see reality with love in solidarity with which God sees it, can enable the approach of the Kingdom to ring out as good news in the ears of the rich — conversion to God who comes in gratuity and kindness to remake things, the God of the Kingdom.”

Father of the Poor

In the sequence for Pentecost, Veni, Sancte Spiritus – Come, Holy Spirit, there is a phrase that has intrigued me for years:

Veni, Pater pauperum
Come, Father of the poor.

The Holy Spirit is addressed as the Father of the Poor. Whatever could this mean?

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Love, works through and with the poor.

José Comblin, the late Brazilian-Belgian theologian shared some ideas in an article on the Holy Spirit in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. I need to study it, but here are a few quotes:

The Holy Spirit acts in the world by means of the poor. This principle has been unambiguously established by Paul (1 Corinthians 1:26-2:16)….

…the Spirit acts on the underside of history. It does not reject the mediation of concrete, historical forces –neither scientific and technological development, nor economic development, nor political power, nore even in exreme cases, military mediations. But it subordiantes them all to the power of the poor. The Spirit acts by means of patience, perseverance, protest, petition…

For me the Spirit is like a breath – a wind – a force that can not be seen but which moves us to life and to love. And thus the Spirit of God is the Father of the Poor, the lover and protector of the most vulnerable, the force that moves among them, showing forth the power of God in weakness.

I see this especially in the resilience of the poor, their perseverance in the face of poverty and oppression, and in the ways they use to live – not with lots of technology but with lots of simple creativity.

The Holy Spirit is Father of the Poor in another way.

So often we are paralyzed by fear – as were the followers of Jesus on Easter Sunday and on first Pentecost, hiding behind closed doors. Jesus came on Easter and the Spirit came on Pentecost to drive out fear.

In his commentary on the Sunday readings, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year,  Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote:

The presence of the Spirit in the church, in each one of us, must lead us to defend the dignity of God’s children whose rights to life and truth are being violated. Becoming paralyzed with fear of the powerful or of losing our comfort and privileges in society means that we refuse to receive the Spirit of love.

And so Father of the Poor, come, cast out fear, cast out poverty, use the poor of the earth to transform all of us.

Come, Holy Spirit.