Category Archives: witnesses

A bishop of the Church of the Poor

“What do you think?”
Monseñor Leonidas Proaño

Though the Latin American bishops did not have a very pronounced role in the Second Vatican Council, a number of them proceeded to put the reforms of the Council into practice. In November 1965, just before the close of the Council about 39 bishops got together and formulated what has become known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” A translation of an article by Jon Sobrino can be found here.

One of those bishops was the Ecuadoran Leonidas Proaño, who died on August 31, 1988.


After the Council, he proceeded to help in the founding of IPLA, the Latin American Pastoral Institute, which held short training sessions for many priests, including the Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande. After the session he and another Salvadoran, Higinio Alas, spent a month in Bishop Proaño’s diocese of Riobamba. It was there that Higinio was impressed by the persistent question of Monseñor: “What do you think?”

Monseñor Proaño was a great defender of the poor indigenous campesino. They saw him as one who treated them with a deep respect. He often went throughout his diocese wearing a poncho.

Respect was not enough and needed to be shown in social changes. One of the ways Monseñor Proaño did this was a redistribution of the land owned by the church in Ecuador. I don’t know the full details of this but this preceded later government efforts to redistribute land.

All this was based in a deep faith in God, expressed in this Credo:

   “Above all, I believe in God. I believe in God the Father. It is he who has given me life. He loves me infinitely. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. According to God’s plan, he became poor, lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.
“I believe in the [person] that is within me and that is being saved by the Word of God. I believe in the person that is within all of my brothers and sisters because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us. Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope. And for the same reason, I believe in justice. I believe in reconciliation, and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.
“I believe in the poor and the oppressed. I believe that they are tremendously capable, especially in their ability to receive the salvation message, to understand it, and to put it into practice. It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.
“I believe in the church of the poor because Christ became poor. He was born poor, he grew up in poverty, he found his disciples among the poor and he founded his Church with the poor.”

Revolutionary prayer: Merton and Barth

On December 10, 1968, two great twentieth century religious men died.

One, Karl Barth, was a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and theologian, who is renowned for his role with the German Confessing Church, which saw allegiance to Hitler as heresy and apostasy.

The other, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist monk, famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In his life of silence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote books and letters that shared his concern for deep love of God and his opposition to war, racism, and poverty.

Both these men shared a sense that prayer is essential for our spiritual life – and for real change in the world.

For Merton, prayer opens us to the new horizons that God is always revealing to us, if we would listen in prayer. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If your prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life—and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”—God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

In prayer, we can be vulnerable enough to lay aside our visions and open ourselves to the vision that God has for us and for our world. God opens us to what is possible – with God’s help and vision.

I think that is why Karl Barth saw prayer as important and wrote:

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.

When we pray we acknowledge that the powers of this world are ephemeral and often tied to fear and violence. When we pray we can see that allegiance to Hitler – and to systems of violence and racism – are apostasy, refusals to acknowledge a living God who call us to solidarity and nonviolence.

Prayer does not take us out of the world; prayer takes us where we can see that the world is not as God wants it; and prayer can change us so that we can be signs and agents of God’s vision for this world and for the Kingdom. Prayer can be revolutionary.

A saint to change the social order – and herself

“Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper…. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?… Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

 Today is the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day on November 29, 1980.

Dorothy Day may seem an anomaly to many people. Raised without religion, a radical activist, she hang out with literary and political outcasts. But her conception of a child led her to the Catholic Church, even though it meant separation from the man she loved who was the father of her child.

She embraced Catholicism, partly because she saw it as the religion of the poor masses. She was devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, an unlikely saint for someone who embraced radical change in society.

But for her change began from where she was. Yes, she struggled to change the world and politics, but it began where she was.

She situated herself among the poor – which was not easy for her. Her writings do not present an idealized poor; she knew their problems first hand – the smells, the quarrels, and more.

She loved the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the rosary – even as she struggled to feed the poor and help make real a little part of the world where love was made real.

She is the ideal saint for today – neither conservative, nor liberal.

She was a radical; she went to the roots. That meant she saw personal conversion as a first step, though not the only step, to personal and social transformation.

I met her once, at the end of a Friday night meeting at the Catholic Worker in New York City, as people were cleaning up. I don’t remember what she said, but I mostly remember her as being like a grandmother (which she was) – attentive, loving, present.

That reminds of the story of a little boy at a dinner at the Rochester, NY, Catholic Worker, who when he saw Dorothy said: “All day long they said Dorothy Day is coming and now she’s here and she’s just an old woman!”

She was who she was – not someone else. She sought to be the person who God made her to be.

Than meant being an old woman who prayed daily, who read Russian novelists, who listened to the opera, and one of whose last public actions was being arrested in support of farm workers.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Crucified peoples

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of two women and six Jesuits at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador.


The Jesuits, only one of whom was a native Salvadoran, had spent their lives at the service of the poor, some in direct work with parishes and the poor, others as world-renowned intellectuals. Some were both – Father Ignacio Martin-Baro was a social psychologist and also served with the parish of Jayaque; Father Segundo Montes was a sociologist and an advocate for Salvadoran refugees and displaced because of the civil war.

I remember the morning when the word reached Ames, Iowa, where I was serving as a campus minister. I was outraged; I called my senator and spoke with an aide who insisted the killings were the work of the guerilla. I told him that he was absolutely wrong and that Salvadoran archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas had placed the blame directly at the feet of the US-backed Salvadoran forces.

In 1990, Orbis Books published Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, with article by Jon Sobrino, the martyred UCA rector Ignacio Ellacuría, and several other of the Jesuits. I used it several time when teaching the course “Belief and Unbelief” at Iowa State University.

What especially struck me were these words of Jon Sobrino that reflect on a meditation of Ignacio Ellacuría, related to St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises:

Something that was very original and extremely relevant to our situation was Ignacio Ellacuría’s interpretation of the meditation on our sins in the presence of the crucified Jesus. He related it to our Third World, and asked what have we done to cause all these people to be crucified, what are we doing about their crosses and what are we going to do to bring them down from the cross.

That is a good meditation for today – and for everyday, as we seek to look at the crucified peoples of the world, who often suffer from our sins as Jesus died for ours.


Paying the price

“What does it mean to be a Jesuit today? to commit oneself under the banner of the cross in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice which that very faith demands…. We will not work in the promotion of justice without paying the price.”

These words from the Constitution of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, were written in the 1970s. They were prophetic words in light of the Jesuits killed in many parts of the world.

Tomorrow is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs of San Salvador Central American University (UCA) who were killed by Salvadoran military forces who were trained and financed by the United States.

A plaque with the above words from the Jesuit Constitution graces the wall in the UCA chapel where they are buried.


But dying while seeking justice is not just a recent experience of the Jesuits.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of two Jesuits in Paraguay, Saints Roque González and Alonso Rodríguez, who were working among the Guarani in the Jesuit “reductions,” places of refuge for the native peoples. Though they were killed by chiefs who saw them as agents of the colonial exploiters, they had given their lives for the marginalized and often enslaved Guarani.

The struggle for faith and the struggle for justice are not separate; they are part of the same endeavor to live as members of the Kingdom of God. We need to show people the loving God we worship but we also need to accompany them in their efforts to live as children of that loving God.

It is not always easy and sometimes comes at a step cost. But God calls us to commit ourselves under the banner of the Cross, a banner of love, of mercy, of justice, of self-giving.


The poor and peace

El Greco's St. Martin

El Greco’s St. Martin

St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is celebrated today, is well known for a simple act of charity.

He had been forced to join the military, probably in part due to his father being a member of the military. One day, in Amiens, in the cold of winter, he encountered a beggar. Having nothing more than his cloak, he cut it in half and gave one half to the poor man. That night in a dream he saw Christ clothed in the cloak; Christ affirmed the charity of this simple act: “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with this cloak.”

Martin then proceeded to be baptized.

But baptism brought another challenge.

Martin refused to go into battle. “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

He was accused of cowardice and imprisoned, though he was subsequently released from military service.

Martin shows us that the way of Christ is care for the poor, sharing what we have, and refusing to kill, even our enemies.

Neither of these acts is easy, but love of the poor and the love of the enemy should be the marks of a follower of the poor man of Nazareth who died on a cross, forgiving his enemies.

They are also what we need today.

Today is also Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I, the war to end all wars.

Recalling this, I want to share the words of General Omar Bradley, which compliment the example of St. Martin:

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Mankind is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Would that we learn how to live and love as Martin showed us, following in the steps of Jesus.

For love of the world

All too often I hear people making a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the worldly.

Fifty years ago today, on October 13, 1964, Madeleine Delbrêl died in France. For many years she and groups of women lived and worked in Ivry, a working-class city near Paris. These communities of contemplatives living in the world were, as she called them, “missionaries without a boat,” immersed in the lives of their neighbors, many of whom were Communists.

She felt a call to live in the world. As she wrote in We, the Ordinary People of the Street,

Christ does not provide his followers with a set of wings to flee into heaven, but with a weight to drag them into the deepest corners of the earth. What may seem to be the specifically missionary vocation is in fact simply what it means to be embraced by Christ.

Despite any apparent contradiction, we diminish and falsify our love for Christ and the Church wherever we diminish that which draws us to the world and enables us to plunge ourselves into it. This is what the love of the world means, a love that is not an identification with the world, but a gift to it.

That love let her see the grace that comes in responding to the ordinary in daily life, in recognizing God coming to us in every moment:

Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others. It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen… Whether we are sewing or holding a meeting, caring for a sick person or tapping away at the typewriter…. Is the doorbell ringing? Quick, open the door! It’s God coming to love us. Is someone asking is to do something? Here you are! It’s God coming to love us. Is it time to sit down for lunch? Let’s go — it’s God coming to live us. Let’s let him.

This awareness of God in the ordinary let Madeleine open herself to her neighbors and show them God’s love.

Though I find ways to do this now, living in town and going out to the countryside, I am looking forward to moving out to a rural village where, I pray, I can be present to the people, recognizing God’s presence there and responding in love.


On October 7, 1772, John Woolman, a Quaker tailor and writer, died in England of smallpox.

He had lived, worked, and traveled around the Philadelphia area, but had gone to England to spread his message of the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery.

Many years ago I read his Diary and was impressed by his simplicity as well as his fervor in visiting other Quakers with his message of resisting oppression by refusing to cooperate with slavery.

He consistently refused to stay with slave owners; he also ate no sugar or molasses since they were the products of slave labor.

In his plea for the poor he wrote:

O that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundations and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses, and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.

Though few of us are as consistent as he was but we should keep his example in mind as we seek to live as disciples of the peaceful Christ.

Conformed or transformed

Be not conformed to this age,
but be transformed
by the renewal of your understanding.
Romans 12: 2

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 16: 21-27, Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan,” the adversary, the one who plots against the Lord. Peter wants to block the way of the Cross.

For Peter is thinking – or better, reasoning – not as God does, but as humans do.

We look for advantage, for ways to get ahead, to be in control.

But Jesus transforms the world by giving us a new way of thinking – a way of giving oneself.

Today I recall two people who died on August 31 – one from the US, John Leary, who died in Boston in 1982; the other an Ecuadorian bishop, Leonidas Proaño, who died in 1988. I wrote about them in a blog entry last year, which can be read here.

I met John Leary several times at Haley House in Boston. What always struck me was his simplicity, his lack of arrogance. He was actively engaged in resistance to MIT’s nuclear weapons lab, to abortion, to military intervention – but I never saw the self-righteousness I have seen in some activists.

It was probably his life of prayer, his opening his room to the poor, his service to those in need that kept him grounded.

If no one told you, you would not know that he was a graduate of Harvard University. For him, that was not important.

He was a person who was not conformed to this age but had allowed himself to be transformed by Christ and the poor.

Will I let myself be transformed – or do I let myself be formed by the search for recognition, for security, for honors and wealth?


May God transform me.

Which side are you on?

Simone Weil was an enigmatic woman. She felt called to be a Christian but never entered the Catholic Church. She loved Greek philosophy but found ancient Roman society repulsive. She was very critical of Judaism, even though she was born of non-practicing Jewish parents. She died in England, though she longed to be parachuted into France to help. She died probably because she refused to eat more than the rations that the French were living on under Nazi occupation.

But I still find her appealing. I first read The Need for Roots in the early 1970s and should read it again to see if it still speaks to me. Her notion of prayer as “attention” is very appealing.

But she was also a woman who sought to be on the side of the marginalized. As she wrote:

“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”

Which side am I on?