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A Latin American spirituality for today

30 November, 1999

David Regan CSSp believes that Latin America is poised to give a valuable lesson in theology to the rest of the world, now that it is experiencing the building up of communities inspired by the spirituality of liberation theology.

An original form of spirituality is growing up in Latin America, original because from and among communities of poor people. I propose, first to give an example of it in a Brazilian context, then, to compare some aspects of it with the Catholic spiritual tradition in order to verify its right to be called a spirituality. In third place I hope to show a possible worldwide relevance for this style of spirituality at the moment.

New approach to theology
During a course in the National Pastoral Institute, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1972, we were given photocopies, in Spanish, of Gustavo Gutierrez’ Teologia de la Liberacion, published a short time earlier, being cautioned against reading it in buses or other public places – the military dictatorship was in full flush in Brazil. We were helped to appreciate Gutierrez’ new approach by Leonardo Boff and others. It was several years later that I first met members of small communities who were living the liberating experience day by day and having their lives transformed by it. An example of the transformation will help explain what was happening.

In the early eighties, two Breton priests spent years in prison, in the North of Brazil, and later in Brasilia, before being expelled from the country for subversion. Their ‘crime’ was to have encouraged poor families to resist attempts to chase them from the small squatter holdings they had occupied in deep forest during decades. The case of the priests passed finally through the Supreme Court, where Judges took the opportunity of preaching lengthy sermons against ‘subversion’ to those bishops of the Episcopal Conference who were present, insisting on submission to constituted authority. (The legality of the military government – self-appointed in a right-wing coup – was not examined: ‘We are the Government because we have won a successful coup,’ was as close to a legitimization as the generals ever came, apart from mention of ‘preserving the traditional Christian values of the West’.)

The two foreign missionaries had lived at a distance from the area in which the peasant squatters had resisted attempts of gunmen (some of them former, or present, members of the police force) hired by big landowners coveting even these few fields, because they had been cleared and planted. Normally, uneducated peasants did not resist violent moves to have them abandon their small holdings, simply leaving everything that they could not carry and moving on to another part of the unoccupied forest to begin once more the process of establishing squatters’ rights through another ten years of painful clearing and occupation; this seemed preferable to being shot in the back while they worked. This time the group in question had resisted, remaining firm and united in face of threats and bullets.

Action of the Spirit
Puzzled at this reaction to oppressive violence, military authorities used their secret police to ferret out the ultimate leaders of the unheard-of resistance on the part of normally timorous poor people. Needless to say, their spies were ill-equipped to discern the action of the Holy Spirit! As suspect ringleaders of a subversive movement among the poor labourers they could only come up with these priests, who visited the small community once a month to accompany one of the regular prayer and reflection meetings of the group, and celebrate the Eucharist with them. Over the years, the community had grown in knowledge of the Bible, in conviction as to their human rights as children of God, and in mutual respect, love, and sharing. Their whole outlook on life had changed through the community experience that they shared. Leaders had emerged for different services in the community, growing in faith through their experience.

This is only one example, sufficiently typical, of a community living an experience of the quiet force of the Spirit amid their privations and the contempt with which they were customarily treated. Through their sufferings of near slavery, neglect of their legal rights, and often of hunger, and lack of health and education services, members of small communities became welded together through the word of God illuminating their painful path, and showing the way-ahead in faith and mutual love. Joyful celebrations, not only liturgical ones, but on other occasions deemed festive, remind us that joy is opposed, not to suffering, but to sadness, being one of the choicest fruits of the Spirit.

A new solidarity
A pastoral agent from outside may have helped a local group discover the spiritual riches of the Bible and shown its relevance to their day-to-day existence, but the experience became a spirituality only when community members took responsibility for their own lives in common and began to live a new solidarity, in mutual love and sharing, taking their own decisions in common, whether or not one of them had become an inspired leader. The gradual conversion of members made their newfound experience of the Spirit the central influence in their lives.

The uncommon style of spirituality developed in these communities is not individualist, as have been most spiritualities in recent times. It is communitarian (in a sharing of goods, dangers and thoughts in a way that goes beyond the formal simultaneity of domestic and religious exercises that sometimes passes for community in religious houses), and only comprehensible in the setting of the community that lives it. It is not elitist, available only to members of elite groups in the Church, whether religious or lay. Simple people, living in near destitution, victims of a wealthy but uncaring society, discover together that because of their weakness – and not in spite of it – they are God’s chosen ones. Achieving some understanding of their situation of marginalization and social exclusion, they cry out to the Lord to help them as he had helped his people in Egypt of old, perhaps raising up a leader from among them.

The community experience of Israel, liberated through Yahweh’s intervention, has been paradigmatic for many of these contemporary groups in Latin America. As was the case with the Exodus, social, political and economic factors did not make of the experience a ‘secular’ reality; from beginning to end it was, for the participants, a primarily religious experience, under divine initiative. The Egyptians – like the dictators’ minions in Brazil – may have read it differently, as a threat to their hegemony.

Spirituality of the community
The starting-point for this spiritual adventure has been the common experience of pain and privation, suffered by the victims through human cruelty or neglect. The comfort of the Spirit in their uphill way results from poignant cries to the God who is believed to save those who trust in him. Prayer, and the place of God in life, in general – as is always the way with peoples of a largely oral culture – form an organic constant, not enclosed in a compartment, but with influence on all of life. That consciousness of God is heightened by the community experience, becoming a spirituality. A community form of asceticism is provided by the sharing, in mutual support, of members. Constant danger, and its attendant fears, provides an incentive to prayer and growth in trust of God. A new appreciation of Jesus Christ, his teaching and his sufferings, comes from Bible-reading and reflection, which may compare his free option for sharing in the vicissitudes of the dispossessed, with their own inescapable vulnerability.

Members of basic communities can often pinpoint the moment at which their belonging to a community of faith changed their lives. Their conversion experience may not have been dramatic, in the public sense, but was identifiable to them.

Spirituality has to do with bringing life, in all its manifestations, under the guidance of the Spirit of God. The spirituality of the liberation of a people may be marked by suffering at least equal to that of their slavery, but brings parallel joy and peace, with the confidence that they are following the path pointed out by Jesus, and living their vocation as children of the Father, in freedom. For slaves to live in freedom, taking up responsibility for their own lives, requires an apprenticeship. As with the Israelites in the desert, freedom does not come easily, and is accompanied by the craven temptation to chicken out and return to predictable misery.

Working to change structures
A theological presupposition of this spirituality is that God expects men and women to take up, in common, responsibility for their own lives and for achieving their potential for living as children of a loving Father who wants, above all, to see his image mirrored in his offspring. If that image has been destroyed irrevocably in some of them, these must be carried by the others, the picture of their fate stimulating their companions to greater efforts to change the structural conditions that made for such blasphemous desecration of the Father’s image in his children. This theological conviction marks forever the end of fatalistic acceptance of soul-destroying poverty as in any way willed by God, and correlatively, rules out any possibility of riches gained at the expense of the impoverishment of the poor, being divinely willed.

A contemporary problem for Catholics in the rich countries is that of finding valid evangelical experience in a culture that clings to its individualist possessiveness. How to be spiritual without abandoning the culture of prosperity is the problem facing spirituality in the first World. We may not close our eyes to the structural injustice of our globalized world and try to live in a spiritual cocoon far from it all. Like it or not, we are either victims of the world-system or its beneficiaries. As no one can simultaneously serve God and Mammon, to be a Christian demands a clear decision as to which side of this divide is to claim our allegiance.

Second phase
This new Latin American spirituality is related to the Theology of Liberation, those who had first articulated the theology becoming aware that they had been dealing with the second phase in a methodology whose first phase was one of experience, and trying to capture that experience in words. Communities were not founded according to a blueprint, but grew up when groups of families, perhaps with the help of a pastoral agent from outside, began to pray the Bible together and discovered its relevance to their own life-situation.

We are emerging from many centuries of the hegemony of doctrine in the Church. Doctrine can be largely controlled by others, not so experience. This is why Church authorities have tended to look askance at claims of spiritual experience: John of the Cross was not the only spiritual person to suffer for the originality of his experience. Religious institutes founded in recent centuries have tended to latch on to one or other of the well-known spiritualities already approved. Needless to say, initially many clerics were convinced that small communities reading the Bible without the constant presence and guidance of a priest or religious could only fall into heresy.

Community discernment is the usual means of verifying the validity of new experiences of life in Christ, individual or communitarian. Such discernment does not have to mean an exclusive exercise of isolated authority. Once more, at this level, the role of the Spirit in the community is primary, members from different communities meeting frequently to pray together and exchange experiences, learning from one another, and correcting possible abuses at an early stage.

Immersion in spirituality of disinherited
Once the way was opened, catechists and missionaries, clerical, religious, or lay, began to help small communities get established and grow. In order to be of help, the would-be evangelizers had to undergo a conversion experience themselves in solidarity with group members, or they would do more harm than good. They had to learn to listen and feel with the excluded, accompanying their slow but sure growth, rather than running on ahead in an intellectual trip that did not belong to the spirituality of men and women of little schooling. Conversion to the weak ones could be traumatic, as paternalistic or materialistic attitudes proved difficult to shed. But those who managed to immerse themselves in the spirituality of the disinherited are the few who underwent a profound conversion and began to live a spiritual experience of a sort that they had not previously known.

All too few pastoral agents are versed in a theology that facilitate the ‘reading’ of everyday human experience in terms of the word of God; untutored community members may prove better at this, albeit at the simplest level. A key intuition in the Latin American Church is that to attain to a just society the obscenely unbalanced economic and political structures there obtaining require to be changed radically, and that the political action to achieve such change is a prime Christian task. Those who lack an adequate theological understanding of the process, and begin from life-experience as fed in by poor people, but without knowing how to read that experience in the light of faith, easily become more social activists than evangelizers. There is a delicate harmonizing to be respected, of striving for the efficacy of social action, while being convinced that it is, finally, God’s work.

On the side of the dispossessed
Latin America, where the scandal of huge and ever increasing income gap long reclined unchallenged inside a nominally Catholic culture, is the area where an evangelical reaction is beginning to make itself felt. Poor and ill-educated people found, in their reading of the Bible, that God, far from being always on the side of the ‘big battalions,’ is consistently on the side of the downtrodden and dispossessed. Simple men and women, surviving for generations with unrecognized squatters’ rights in deep forest, working as little better than slaves on big plantations or cattle ranches, unemployed, or earning grossly inadequate salaries on the peripheries of big cities, began to discover that before God they were the equal of anyone, and indeed, that they were the preferred among the Lord’s children.

This preference was due, it seems, to God’s love insisting that the divine image, in which they were created, be restored to those from whose lives it had been virtually stamped out through exploitation. Once the victims became aware of their situation and cried out to God, the long and painful process of their liberation had begun. Their pain may even have increased in the struggle to be free, but the joy of a new conviction, made such pain, and sometimes even martyrdom, bearable.

In many cases, the martyrdom was no metaphor, but a true, theologically identifiable death for the faith. In some countries of Latin America, through a biting irony, poor people, scarcely literate, had to hide their Bible in the mud floor of their hut, because the secret police or soldiers of the ‘Catholic’ bosses, political or economic, would kill them for possession of so subversive an instrument that taught the ignorant that they had rights before God, and that these rights could not to be revoked at will by any power on earth. A new spirituality had emerged from the sufferings of those marginalized by the rich world of the powerful. Poor people, who can face death with serenity, when necessary, for the sake of their newly discovered status before the Father, are living a deep and valuable spirituality, fully within the best Catholic tradition.

Dawn of new consciousness
In our situation of post-September 2001, a new consciousness is dawning, of the urgent need to bring succour to so many millions who exist in misery on the periphery of the rich world. United by hate, and striving for vengeance, angry men and women from different countries, are discovering the terrible power of death that they can bring simultaneously to themselves and their international exploiters.

Instead of deadly hate, there is room for discovery, on the part of the weak, of the positive, non-violent answer to their ills, of love and solidarity. If the weak ones in Asia, or Africa, as in Latin America, discover their privileged position before God, they too can confront their oppressors in the loyal struggle for their rights as human beings. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had communities of sisters, from cultural backgrounds other than Christian, living much of the spirituality of her institute. Men and women of faiths other than Christian, excluded from the fruits of world prosperity, may discover their God-given rights to a share of the cultural and material goods of our rich world, and work to achieve this – a whole people going forward to defend their right to life. Only spirituality can keep all the disparate factors in creative harmony, ruled by love.

This struggle is also capable of operating the conversion of the powerful, but that is a distant and difficult outcome demanding much effort. Meanwhile, many of the weak will die, but in a work of loving solidarity, at the hands of those who, to preserve their own privileges, wish to keep them enslaved, and not, in calculated hate, at their own assassin hands. A spirituality of the poor, communitarian and non-authoritarian, is now available to those who can discern the ways of the Spirit.

This article first appeared in

Spirituality, a publication of the Irish Dominicans.