Roberto Barros Dias, SJ (Brazil)
Brazilian Jesuit Roberto B. Dias visited Japan from September 20 to October 12 at the invitation of Japan’s “Latin America Christian Network” (Lakinet, RECALJ in Brazilian language) and lectured in several places around the country. Fr. Roberto is 43 years old and lives in Joao Pessoa, Paraiba State in the northeast of Brazil, where Jesuits have a house of studies for young Jesuits gathered from several states. He has been there for ten years coordinating the Jesuit juniorate studies. He is also deeply involved in serving basic Christian communities in the local parish.
Lakinet, founded in Japan in October 2006, aims at reflecting on how to live one’s faith by learning from Latin American people. Through direct contacts with them they build common solidarity links. The Latin American theology of liberation which formerly attracted world interest is practically unknown in Japan, but nowadays in Brazil it is actively involved in building basic communities and in developing biblical studies. Lakinet takes a positive interest in sharing Latin American Christians’ spirit of faith and joy in living the gospel of Jesus Christ and aims at establishing friendly solidarity with Latin American Christians, most of whom are extremely poor. At the same time, it aims at a real understanding and cooperation from both sides, Japanese and Latin American Christians. The organization is ecumenical and counts 82 members. Its 3 main activities are:
1- Ordinary exchanges with Brazilians
2- Research and Japanese translations of Brazilian biblical studies
3- Public relations
Lakinet’s representative, Mr. Okura Ichiro, participated in the liberation theology studies group organized several years ago by the Jesuit Social Center and, as a result, our Center was able to cooperate in arranging for a public lecture by Fr. Roberto at Sophia University and in providing for his lodging in Tokyo. We present here the present situation of liberation theology in Latin America, quoting from the lecture given at Sophia University on 1 October 2010.
The Brazilian Catholic Church
Many people visiting Brazil often ask me about the situation of liberation theology and basic Christian communities. Nevertheless, unless one has first-hand experience of the life of basic Christian communities, it is impossible to understand them. Out of my own experience dealing with such communities I would like to present to you the Christian life of people in Brazil during the past ten years.
Brazil is a large country with a wide variety of societies, cultures, and religions. In the year 1500, when the Portuguese arrived, there were about 5 million natives living in the region. Later on, a million and a half slaves were brought over from Africa and nearly 2 million Europeans migrated to Brazil. Some 300 years later the number of natives had diminished to 1 million, while it is believed that African slaves had increased to perhaps 6 million. The present population by races consists of 53.7% whites, 38.4% mestizos, 6.7% blacks, 0.4% natives and 0.4% Asians.
During the colonization era the King of Portugal governed the Church and the Catholic Church, being far from Rome and lacking priests, developed as an independent popular body. Following Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1889, the Vatican stepped in to govern the Brazilian Catholic Church. Nevertheless, due to 400 years of independent development, Catholics in Brazil still hold on to a mixture of orthodox and popular faith. Their original faith is also passed on even today.
On the other hand, after independence from Portugal, both the State and the Church fostered corruption and oppression.
However, with the establishment of a military government in 1964, this situation changed. Since then, the Catholic Church has publicly criticized the government’s oppression and violation of human rights, as well as its suppression of the freedom of religion and speech. The Church has taken a clear stand for the oppressed masses. It is within this historical background that liberation theology and basic Christian communities came into being.
Basic Christian Communities, a new Face of the Church
Right after World War II, dictatorship collapsed and rapid economic development took place under liberalism and capitalism. In the same period, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire advocated the education of the oppressed masses in order to liberate them. This educational stance had a strong and rapid impact.
Simultaneously, the Second Vatican Council (1962~65) urged the Catholic Church to improve her relationships with Protestant churches and opened its doors wide towards modern society. Following the same trends, the Latin American churches under the guidance of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference gathered in Medellin in 1968 took a clear stand in favor of the poor, making this a priority issue for Latin American Catholics.
After the military coup of 1964, the economic situation rapidly improved, but the oppression and violations of human rights increased notably. The Catholic Church suffered persecution for standing on the side of the people. Many priests, lay people, and religious were assassinated. Nevertheless, the Church continued to support the masses, strengthening their faith through the liturgy and organizing groups for social awareness. Basic Christian communities and the theology of liberation bolstered this attitude of the Church.
The birth of basic Christian communities is complex and there is no one single model. One type consists of a group of Christians gathering to read the Bible. They come together out of the need they feel to guide their daily life by the Word of God. In this way, they relive dynamically the environment in which the people of God lived, and by learning about their vicissitudes from the Bible, they come to realize the real problems that are causing of their own sufferings.
A different type follows a contrary pattern. People gather together because of a real need to demand their right to housing and land. Reading the Bible in public, they discover their own identity in the Book of Exodus, which embodies the cries of people for freedom from slavery.
There are also other groups organized in the churches by Sisters and missionaries to do volunteer work.
Ecclesiology and the Theology of Liberation
The basic Christian communities combine traditional theological ecclesiology with the new theological thinking of Vatican II. The model they follow is that of the first Christian communities. Their identity consists in promoting an active role for Christians in the activities of the Church, in contrast with the hierarchical model based on the central role of priests.
Vatican II made a notable contribution to theology by stressing the importance of the “people of God.” First, it noted that the Church exists in the world. Then it showed that the concept “people of God” contains rich theological value and that the Word of God is made evident in the life of the Church. Furthermore, the Council promoted lay participation in the activities of the Church and in the renewal of the liturgy. Following on such reforms, the basic Christian communities realized they were the “people of God on a journey.” People, according to the basic Christian communities, are not disparate groups but a group of people participating willingly and actively. They look very much like the Israelites journeying towards the Promised Land, as described in the Book of Exodus.
Let’s take a look at the reforms brought about by Vatican II. The Council stressed that the Church must be at the service of the world in order to implement the Kingdom of God. The coming of the Kingdom means that God’s salvation of the world is a reality and that the Church is not the owner of the Kingdom but only its symbol.
At the same time, the ministry of the Church as affirmed by the Council is not something determined only legally. Paul VI recognized that even lay persons not ordained as priests have their own proper role of service in the Church. This outlook gave rise to discussions pro and con within the Church, but basic Christian communities have trained large numbers of lay people to serve the Church through Bible study and liturgical groups, as well as by living their faith and working as Christians in their local environment.
The Practice of Basic Christian Communities
The essential role of the communities is the service they provide to society. In the first place, Christianity means simply to live as Jesus did. When a community acts in visible ways following Christ in daily life, that community is shaped after Christ. The vitality of a community enriches its creativity and action.
Conservatives criticize the activities of basic Christian communities for being political and unrelated to religious faith. But, in fact, basic Christian communities regard faith and daily life, the Word of God and social responsibilities as totally intertwined. These communities, as well as liberation theology, have given birth to a new Brazilian political culture. Movements of landless people, the pastoral ministry of indigenous communities, the organization of blacks and of a new labor party, all these have been deeply influenced by such Christian communities. Option for the poor is at the basis these changes. Reading the Gospel, we understand that God has a loving preference for the poor. Jesus announced his Good News to the poor, selected poor people for his disciples, lived with them, and died in extreme poverty. The poor are not simply welcomed preferably into God’s Kingdom. The Latin American Bishops’ Conference gathered in Puebla in 1979 made the following statement:
“The Church has been helped to discover the dynamism inherent in the poor for evangelization through the rising of basic Christian communities and its compromise to be with the poor and the oppressed. And because many of them practice in their daily lives the evangelical values of service and solidarity and of their simple availability to receive God’s gifts, they, constantly, question the Church and call it to conversion.” [Free English translation of the Spanish Puebla Document n.1147]
The famous liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, explaining the “preference for the poor,” says that it does not mean we just show sympathy for them or that the poor are the object of charitable activities. We must cooperate for their liberation so that they may become the main actors in their own history. The task of Christians who assume social responsibilities is to accompany the poor on their journey towards the Promised Land and to cooperate to reform society so as actually to bring about the liberation of the poor.
Modern Issues (1) Realities we can see
During the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005) Latin American politics and social realities faced big changes. That fact also produced important challenges to the basic Christian communities and the theology of liberation.
Mass media hardly pays attention to these and they do not make any appearance even in official Church documents. As for the Catholic Church, the 20th century closed with a negative evaluation of the results of Vatican II. During the 1990s the excitement brought about by Vatican II was lost and theological thinking as well as liturgy underwent a setback. The formerly respected hierarchy returned to its old pre-Vatican style and the original charism of the Church was immured immovably within a framework stressing personal salvation and guidance by the institutional Church. Today’s new religious leaders like to talk about “conversion” rather than “liberation,” about “healing” rather than “struggling.”
On the other hand, the movement for reform promoted by basic Christian communities and liberation theology continue to function within the Church. At the last assembly of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, the bishops re-affirmed their option for the poor and the importance of continuing to build basic Christian communities. These communities make the Word of God better understood, encourage people to fulfill their social responsibilities in the name of the Gospel, create new apostolic tasks for the faithful, and promote education for the faith among adults.
Nevertheless, invested with renewed privileges, the hierarchy is trying to turn the Church back to pre-Vatican II days. For my part, when I see the signs of today’s revival of social ministries and basic Christian communities, I feel that such a reverse to the old Church is unsuitable to our times. What is the task of basic Christian communities and liberation theology for Latin American churches in the 21st century? I would present here a comparison with the charismatic movement.
*Characteristics of basic Christian communities and liberation theology:
- The practice of the faith in life
- The importance of service, stressing the relationship of morality and politics
- Demands for social reform
- Reflection and the importance of meditation
- Option for the poor
- We are in the world.
- We are part of the local church.
- We aim at renewal of the institutional Church.
*Characteristics of the Charismatic Movement
- Faith experience in life
- The importance of theology and prayer
- Demands for personal conversion
- The value of feelings
- Search for the “lost sheep”
- We are inside the Church.
- We are part of the universal Church.
- We aim at establishing the social status of the Church.
Modern Issues (2) Unseen Realities
The liberation theology and basic Christian communities that existed outside the hierarchy during the 1970s and 80s are still alive today. Naturally they underwent changes following on new social, political, and religious situations, but even today one can see many priests and lay persons putting into practice the “option for the poor” in their daily life and their ordinary pastoral service. Many leaders of leftist parties and Brazilian labor unions fighting for justice and the implementation of morals have received their training in the Church. Again, civic organizations working for the protection of women’s and children’s rights and in cooperatives receive the support of members of basic Christian communities.
Their interest is in finding ways to correct the unjust social and economic situations that arose from neo-liberalism. I can give several examples, such as liturgy suited to our culture, new religious education, biblical study groups, pastoral ministry with children, with AIDS patients, and with black people, pastoral care of those who live by collecting garbage, and ministry to correctional prisoners. All these activities show the face of living Christian communities and, in my opinion, manifest the demands of liberation theology regarding community building.
The Church’s mainstream is not sympathetic, but in July 2009 the 12th Congress of National Basic Christian Communities was held in Porto Velho, Rondonia State. This noteworthy event, together with the Latin American Bishops’ Conference of 2007, became a huge “life festival.” The Brazilian bishops mentioned in a special way the above Congress of National Basic Christian Communities at their Conference in May 2010:
“We would like to stress again the fact that basic Christian communities continue to be a symbol of vitality in the Church. They are composed of disciples of Christ gathered in community to listen attentively to the Word of God. In this way they strengthen their fraternal love, share the wonderful events surrounding their lives, and shoulder their task to build a better society. As the Conference of Latin American Bishops gathered in Medellin affirmed, basic Christian communities are the fundamental nucleus of the Church, the basic cells of Church institutions, the center of evangelization, the modern fundamental human unit.”
Modern Issues (3) Challenges and Spiritual Care
Brazil today has become one of the leading countries of the world. The sudden changes in market economy during the past twenty years have confronted the Catholic Church and the basic Christian communities with enormous challenges. Among these are the beneficial technological advances in the market, globalization, and sudden urbanization. The most operative element nowadays is the market and, as a result, those with no economic power are left behind. In Brazil as well as in other countries, the poor are not only unable to enjoy economic benefits, they are socially marginalized. Such exclusion obliges people to take refuge in drugs and escalates public violence. In a society where global urbanization and the market economy reign supreme, what can be done to revitalize human relationships and solidarity in order to become able to live and work together? How can we extend the Kingdom of God in modern times when many individuals live in a world of friction?
The Spirit of God alive in basic Christian communities helps us to understand that in God there is a Trinitarian relationship. The Mass, where we gather to pray together in communion, makes us members of the Church of God. Thus, it is impossible to think of a spirituality that does not care for each individual. In other words, just as God cares for each one of us, the Spirit of God is present within us whenever we serve one another. To serve is the fruit of love. In this way, a gratuitous universal love manifests a spirituality of service working within the basic Christian communities.
Such communities serve the faith of people. Consumerism and individualism pervade contemporary Brazilian society, making Christian faith increasingly ambiguous. Basic Christian communities encourage people, accept them, show them respect, and preserve in them the value of the commandment of life rooted in the Gospel: “Love God and your neighbor as you also love yourself.”
Basic Christian communities promote service and solidarity. They provide education for the poor in their difficult life situation, heal the wounded, produce bread and share it, and help people form community. In this way, they give witness that God is alive among us.
Moreover, they educate people to respect all life on earth. At the same time, they promote participation of people in micro-finance groups in order to help families live human lives and thus recover the true meaning of what economic activities should aim at.
Finally, basic Christian communities also promote religious dialogue. They keep alive a spirituality of dialogue as a sign of brotherly love. In my parish we work together with other religious groups to solve problems of poverty, a common issue for all of us.
The Word became Flesh to Live among Us
Listening to the Word of God and living our faith in community are essential to basic Christian communities. The Word of God is read in the daily lives of the communities, so that it is always present in activities initiated to overcome social inequality and injustice. The members of the communities fulfill their social roles and participate actively in the Church. Lay people, the core of the Church, give testimony that the Church is reborn by the breath of the Holy Spirit, that a new lay apostolate has been born.
In the 21st century we must live humanly as people with spirituality. Christians today cannot be called Christians unless they have a preference for the socially marginalized. They cannot be called members of the Church unless they are ecumenically minded. And, unless our century accepts as a priority the preservation of the environment, it simply cannot continue to exist.” (Don Pedro Casaldaliga)
From the editor: This article is based on the Japanese translation of Fr. Roberto’s Portuguese lecture by Ms. Koinuma Makiko, NCC Protestant Minister, missionary in Brazil. We express our deepest gratitude for her cooperation.