“We are the people of the nation.
We are the people of God.
We want a place on earth.
We already have one in heaven.”
(interpreted from the Portuguese)
A “cry from the soul” of Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga, these lines, written in 1971 in the depths of the Amazon Jungle, were scratched on the back of a wild banana leaf with the point of a pocket knife. They are today a national hymn of Brazil and the rallying cry of 10 million landless peasant families.
A short wisp of a man with the courage of a martyr, Dom Pedro is typical of the fighting bishops of Brazil. Leaders of the world’s largest Catholic Church and in many ways its most progressive, Brazil’s bishops also are the shepherds of “a Church of the catacombs,” as Dom Pedro describes the military regime’s persecution of laymen, religious and hierarchy. Despite 13 years of such repression — or because of it — Brazil’s Church has emerged as “the only institutional alternative” to military dictatorship in this terror-stricken nation. It also has taken the lead in Latin America in pioneering experiments in new forms of worship and communication, including community base groups, lay-directed Masses and even married priests.
When Roman wags say that the Vatican will move to Brazil by the year 2,000, they are only half-joking — the statistical weight of Brazil’s 102 million Catholics is in itself a logic for such a move. But more important is the vision of Brazil’s Catholic leaders, for the Brazilian Church is far in advance of Europe and the United States in realizing the goal of Pope Julin XXIII and Vatican Council II to create a more responsive, democratic Church, a true “community of God.” In the view of many Catholic theologians, the Brazilian Church is the Church of tomorrow.
Because of the terrible social cost of Brazil’s so-called “economic miracle,” the Brazilian Church was one of the first in Latin America to denounce the causes of the continent’s misery. Once the odd-man out for criticising capitalism, Brazil’s “Red Bishop” Helder Camara now speaks for a majority of the Brazilian hierarchy — and for many of Latin America’s bishops. For, with the exception of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, it is almost impossible to find a bishop to say a good word about capitalism, particularly U.S. capitalism as represented by the multi-nationals.
Brazil’s case is particularly instructive because the country was singled out in the 1960s by Washington, the Pentagon and U.S. corporations as a model for development in the Third World. As the United States’ regional policeman and client state, Brazil consistently was favored with the largest amount of U.S. aid and military funding in the hemisphere; it also boasts the highest U.S. investment in South America, $2.5 billion.
Fortunately for the Brazilian people, the military regime’s special relationship with Washington has been offset by the Vatican which singled out the Brazilian Church as ITS model for development. During the fifties and sixties when Brazil’s generals were learning how to run a country in the Pentagon’s military institutes in the United States and the Panama Canal Zone, Papal Nuncio Carlo Chiari was encouraging Dom Helder Camara and a handful of progressive bishops to reorganize the politically conservative Brazilian Church. From the very beginning of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) in 1952, the Vatican gave the Brazilians free rein, urging the hierarchy to make its own decisions, in contrast to the other Latin American countries which were still under Vatican tutelage. The liberating influence of Vatican Council II contributed to this autonomy as did the Latin American bishops’ landmark meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. But the most important impetus for change came from within, from the daily experience of suffering and injustice of countless priests, nuns and bishops.
Although the Church did not sanction the 1964 military coup that toppled President Joao Goulart, with the exception of Archbishop Camara, there were few signs of open hostility during the regime’s first years in power. This was principally because of a struggle for power within the hierarchy between progressives and conservatives, the latter insisting on the need for dialogue with the military. Intentionally or not, the regime tipped the balance in favor of the liberals by refusing to temper political repression, and in 1971 a staunch progressive, Archbishop Aloisio Lorscheider, was elected president of the CNBB. Popularly known as the “Pope of Brazil,” Lorscheider has since been reelected to his CNBB post, named a cardinal and appointed president of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM).
Like Bishops Camara and Casaldaliga, Lorscheider lives in the North of Brazil, the country’s poorest, most backward region, with 28 million starving people. Although Sao Paulo’s archdiocese has since joined the battle under the fearless leadership of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the bishops of the North spearheaded the conflict between Church and State. In Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and the other cities of the South, it is possible to ignore the poverty by avoiding the outlying slums. But in the Amazon jungles and the coastal ports of the feudal North, poverty is everywhere. Religious and hierarchy either subscribe to a plantation slave economy that has not changed in four centuries or they protest. There is no middle ground.
It was the bishops of the North that opened the first volley in the Church-State war by issuing a series of documents on poverty and human rights violations in the early 1970s. “Impoverishment Of A People,” a public endorsement of socialism, marked a milestone in the history of the Latin American Church as the first time a group of influential bishops had taken such a radical stand.
Some of these pastoral denunciations were later enlarged and signed by all of Brazil’s 243 bishops, including, in 1973, a declaration against torture and political repression in Brazil. In November of last year, after an unprecedented attack on progressive priests and bishops, the CNBB closed ranks to issue a “Pastoral Letter to the People of God,” the most scathing criticism of the government yet published.
While each regional grouping of bishops faces different problems, all are united on the crucial issue of land because Southern and Central Brazil has been infected by the poverty of the North. In contrast to 20 or even 10 years ago, there is no more unoccupied territory to relieve the pressure of the land-starved peasants who are migrating by the millions to the already swollen slums of the South. Brazil’s last reserve, the Amazon Jungle, has been appropriated by the multi-nationals, and there is no place left for either the peasants or the rapidly dwindling Indian population. The “posseiro,” or landless one, has become the “posseiro urbano,” or the slumdweller without wages. Because of this migration, the richest agricultural country in Latin America cannot feed itself. Brazil now imports black beans, the staple of the poor Brazilian’s diet, from Chile and powdered milk from the United States and Europe, this with the largest herds of cattle and dairy cows on the continent.
Contrary to the thesis of U.S. businessmen and government officials, Brazil’s problems cannot be explained away by the population explosion. Contraceptives and family planning clinics may help to reduce the number of poor people, but there will still be millions of impoverished Brazilians so long as the government sticks to its model of development. Instead of altering the feudal pattern of land tenure and promoting the internal market, the regime has given over-priority to exports in order to finance industrial development and to pay for the generals’ expensive tastes in military hardware. As a result, farm land that was once cultivated to feed the Brazilian population has been converted to export commodities such as meat and soybeans. Thousands of peasant families have been forced off the land by “rural enterprises,” a multi-national euphemism for “latifundia.”
The new, largely foreign-controlled industries and farming enterprises cannot possibly produce the jobs to absorb the human avalanche of 30 million people that the government says are on the move. And without money or a job, these people cannot afford to buy the products of Brazilian industry. The internal consumer market therefore depends on the 15 percent of the population that works in factories and the 5 percent that inhabits executive suites, with the result that many basic, locally manufactured products, such as shoes, are more expensive in Brazil than they are in the export markets of Europe and the United States.
For all the razzmatazz about Brazilian nationalism, the economy is actually more dependent on foreign markets and foreign corporations than it was when the military took power, and with it, the government has run up a $28 billion foreign debt, the highest in the developing world. Meanwhile, the rich have grown richer while the poor starve. During the seven-year “economic miracle,” which collapsed last year, the richest 1 percent of the population increased its share of the national wealth from 11.7 to 17.8 percent while the income of the poorest 50 percent of the population fell from 17.7 to 13.7 percent. Inflation, which was considered one of the chief failings of former President Goulart’s government, is now galloping back to pre-coup heights.
Brazil’s economic planners like to pass the buck for their economic headaches to the oil-producing nations which were responsible for the country’s whopping $4 billion fuel bill last year. But Brazil was already on a spending spree to buy capital equipment and know-how before the oil hikes occurred.
The regime’s agricultural policy is equally far-sighted. Most government stibsidies go, not to the small and medium-sized producers of black beans, milk and other staples of the Brazilian diet, but to the giant exporters of cattle, soybeans, sugar and coffee and the importers of powdered milk and other substitutes. Unless the exporter is selling to himself, as is the case of such multi-nationals as Anderson Clayton, these cash crops can wreak havoc with local economies. Brazilian soybean prices, for example, fell by nearly 50 percent during 1973-4 due in large part to international market manipulations by the United States, the world’s largest soybean producer.
Although Brazil’s annual agricultural growth rates of five percent and more have outstripped those of other Latin American countries, the government can hardly argue that the people have benefitted when 40 percent of the population is suffering from malnutrition. On the contrary, at a recent meeting of international nutritionists sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, Brazil was singled out as an example of how a people fail to benefit from agricultural progress. The argument of a pro-military foreign agronomist that “the rest of the world is better off because Brazil can export more than 10 million tons of soybeans a year” is not convincing when the Brazilians themselves are left with nothing to eat. But then neither is the government’s argument in favor of the cattle ranches that have ousted thousands of peasant families in the Northeast and the Amazon in order to supply the tables of the rich, industrialized nations with steak. With an average daily wage of 73 cents — when there is work on the cattle ranches — the Brazilian peon is lucky to eat plantains and manioc, much less black beans. At $1 a lb., these beans are his equivalent of filet mignon. If he eats meat at all, it will be once a year on the feast day of the village’s patron saint. Yet this, in the philosophy of Brazil’s military, is progress.
It is no use talking to the government about the plight of the peasant or small farmer, claims a Catholic theologian in Rio, because the regime “only thinks in terms of balance sheets. For these people, justice is a bore. The Church, for its part, does not have a mathematical language so it has nothing to say to the narrow military mind which is totally closed to philosophy.
“Although many of the technocrats working for the government and the multi-nationals were brought up in the Church, they have been blinded by their belief that technology is the magic answer to Brazil’s underdevelopment. In the scheme of the multi-nationals there is very little room for religion.”
“All social problems, whether they are abandoned children or homeless slumdwellers whose huts have been washed away by the rains, are treated as cases for the police,” added a priest working in the slums of Salvador, Bahia.
In a recent typical case, a young teenager was arrested in Vitoria for trying to organize the city’s abandoned children into a work cooperative. After he was beaten and tortured, the boy was sodomized in the local jail.
As in other Brazilian cities, abandoned children are considered eyesores to be removed from downtown streets, usually by police trucks which round up the unlucky youths and transport them to another state, where they are left with a warning never to return. Brazil’s 3.5 million abandoned children are not seen as a social ill but as statistics to be eliminated. These roundups are normal procedure, explained Police Investigator William do Amaral, after one such operation came to light in Sao Paulo. “Everybody (in the Police) does this,” he said, adding that “I myself have done the same in the interior (cities).”
The most cowed people in South America, the Brazilians nevertheless protest spontaneously on occasion as occurred recently in Rio when angry slum housewives rioted over the scarcity of black beans. But these local fires are quickly put out. Even Sao Paulo’s powerful business community has been forced to temper its criticisms of the regime’s economic performance. As Finance Minister Mario Henrique Simonsen pointed out, “They don’t have the guns, do they?”
Brazil’s bishops agree with Simonsen, but they describe the situation from another viewpoint. “Were it not for the guns, for the torture and the terror, this regime could not survive,” said one bishop. “And were it not for this regime, foreign corporations could not continue to make enormous profits at the expense of the Brazilian people. The government has all the legal instruments necessary to control these companies, just as the United States has, but the military ignores them.”
The international banking community that is holding Brazil’s enormous foreign debt can also rest easy. “As long as Mario Simonsen is finance minister, Brazil will pay its foreign creditors before everything else, including social welfare,” said the executive of a large U.S. investment banking firm.
Until the Carter administration, “business before anything else” dominated the United States’ policy towards Brazil. Documents from the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, which were recently made public show that, just as in Chile, the U.S. government was very much involved in the overthrow of President Goulart, who had been confirmed in office by a four to one vote. Under “Operation Brother Sam,” Washington sent a naval task force to the South Atlantic, including an aircraft carrier, six destroyers, one helicopter carrier, four oil tankers and 100 tons of arms and ammunition, to aid the Brazilian military in case the Goulart government withstood the first attack. As things turned out, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon was able to call off the operation within hours of the putsch led by Gen. Humberto de A. Castelo Branco, who became the first of a series of military dictators. Public statements to the contrary, both Gordon and the U.S. military attache, Gen. Vernon Walters, participated in the plotting. Walters, who later became deputy director of the CIA, was particularly helpful as he had roomed with Gen. Castelo Branco in Italy during World War II and was an intimate friend of the general.
At the time of the coup, one-third of the officers on active duty had been trained in the United States. According to a Rand Corporation study by Luigi R. Einaudi, Washington’s Latin American military expert, “the actively anti-communist and openly pro-American stance of the 1964-7 Branco government was a result of, or was related to, their American training. A major goal of much — if not all — American-sponsored training is to contribute to such attitudes.”
“Such attitudes” not only have produced a 13-year reign of terror in Brazil. They have fashioned the basis of Brazil’s Doctrine of National Security (see Newsletter No. 4), an openly fascist model of totalitarianism that has been copied by five other South American regimes.
Why was this possible? “Almost everything that happens in the rest of the world is somehow made to appear related to U.S. national security, whether it occurs in the heart of Africa or in Paraguay or Bolivia,” explained theologian Jose Comblin, the Church’s foremost historian on the Doctrine of National Security. “In such a concept, the American citizen is prompted to feel threatened by economic, political and even cultural changes in the rest of the world.”
The threat in Goulart’s Brazil included controls on the foreign drug companies, among other multi-nationals, and these were abolished by the military government. Although Ambassador Gordon was later to have doubts about the monster that Washington had helped to unleash, as evidenced by the Johnson Library documents, no one else in the Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations showed any scruples. To cement Washington’s special relationship with the generals, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to Brazil in February of last year to sign a “consultative agreement” with the regime for semi-annual talks on trade, the transfer of technology and world problems, bringing Brazil into the United States’ exclusive club of allies with Japan, India, Canada and Iran. Kissinger said that he was particularly happy to be back in Brazil because “there are no two peoples whose concern for human dignity and for the basic values of man is more pronounced in the day-to-day lives of their people than Brazil and the United States.”
Mr. Kissinger obviously had not read Amnesty Internationel’s documented reports of the repression suffered by “one out of three Brazilians,”including blackmail, torture and imprisonment.
Even if the regime wanted to reduce the repression, as many Brazilian bishops believe President Ernesto Geisel would like to do, this is impossible because the government is a prisoner of the repressive police and military apparatus that it created. As Geisel recently admitted to Archbishop Geraldo Penido, police and military agents simply do not respect government orders to end the practice of torture.
Following the example of David who restored the confidence of the people of Israel by confronting Nebuchadnezzar, Brpzil’s bishops have resolved to beard the monster in its den, cost what it may. This is not only because of a moral commitment to defend the poor and the oppressed but because they are the only leaders in Brazil in a position to protest. As a popular saying correctly notes, “There are only three things that are well-organized in Brazil — the military, the Church and ‘jogo do bicho’ (a type of lottery).”
Protest has cost the Church dearly, with over 100 religious imprisoned, expelled or murdered, threats and physical violence against bishops and the censorship or closure of Church media, including newspapers and radio stations. But the Church is too well entrenched in Brazilian society to be crushed by the military. On the contrary, the more persecution the Church suffers, the more it becomes “a Church of the prisons,” the greater its political and moral influence in Brazil.
Nor does the Brazilian Church hesitate to call on the Vatican and world opinion to denounce human rights violations and to protect its own people. The Brazilian government has backed away from any number of confrontations, such as Bishop Casaldaliga’s threatened expulsion in 1975, after the Brazilian hierarchy went to the Pope. Archbishop Camara has no doubts that he would have been murdered long ago, just as six of his religious and lay aides were, it it were not for world opinion. It would hardly do to assassinate a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize who is the best known living Churchman in Latin America.
Although there is a price on the heads of at least a dozen bishops in Northern Brazil, nobody has dared shoot, at least not yet. Reprisals have been taken instead against priests, nuns, lay leaders and peasants, which is “why we have decided to put ourselves at the front of the firing line in order to shield the rest,” said one of the bishops.
Typical of those at the head of the line is Bishop Casaldaliga, who repeatedly has exasperated the large landowners and military authorities in the Amazon region of Sao Felix by organizing peasant cooperatives, schools and health units and by giving the landless “posseiros” moral support. (Casaldaliga also was the first of many bishops to be arrested for military interrogation.)
Like most of the bishops of the North, Dom Pedro tirelessly harps on the “need to unite end to know your legal rights.” He also is a thorn in the federal government’s side because, in addition to writing enormously popular verses, he keeps publishing these documents about the “latifundia” of Volkswagen, Rio Tinto Zinc, Swift Meat Packing Co. and other multi-nationals that have received tax write-offs to develop cattle ranches in the Amazon.
Because land speculation in the North is a free-for-all racket, the only law is the law of the strongest. Under Brazil’s legal code, any peasant who has occupied the same land for 10 or more years supposedly is entitled to its ownership. But these rights have not been respected by local government authorities or the land speculators who use armed posses to drive the squatters from their farms by burning, pillaging and killing. What is not accomplished by force occurs through coercion.
Dom Jose Maria Pires, a tall, mulatto bishop popularly known as Dom “Pele” after Brazil’s famous soccer star, tells the story of a land dispute in which the peasants lost a crop of 20,000 bananas after a large rancher sent in a tractor to destroy the trees. Or of the 174 families whose homes and chapel were burned to the ground by a band of armed mercenaries last June. The week after the attack, 18 priests travelled to the village to say Mass on the chapel’s ruins in a gesture of solidarity with the people.
Similar stories are repeated constantly throughout the North where the complaint is always the same: “I had to migrate because of the ‘latifundia.”‘
The size of some of these ranches staggers the imagination — spreads of 2.5 million-acres. Yet seemingly there is no limit to the greed or the pettiness of their owners. One peasant woman, for example, who refused to leave her small plot was forced to stand by helplessly as workers from the neighboring ranch built a fence through the middle of her hut. The lean-to kitchen was cut off from the rest of the shack because it was located on land claimed by the rancher.
In another typical case, a land development company simply bulldozed the village of Santa Teresinha off the map. When Father Francisco Jentel protested against the destruction of a health clinic built by the peasants, he was jailed and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for “inciting the people to revolt.”
Last October, in another display of rural violence, a policeman shot Father Joao Bosco Penido Burnier dead in the presence of Bishop Casaldaliga. Burnier and Casaldaliga had gone to the police station in the town of Ribeirao Bonito in the southern part of Amazonas State to protest the torture of two peasant women, one of whom was forced to kneel for hours on bottle caps while pins were stuck in her breasts and beneath her fingernails. After striking Father Burnier in the face, the policeman shot him with a dum-dum bullet.
So enraged were the villagers by Burnier’s murder that on the day of his funeral they tore the police station apart stone by stone. A cross was erected in front of the ruins to mark the spot where “the police killed Father Joao Bosco who was defending freedom.”
The priest’s death must have shocked the federal government, too, because, for once, there were no reprisals against the peasants. Then too, Burnier was the second religious to be killed in three months. Father Rodolfo Lunkenbein was assassinated in July by the henchmen of a large landowner because he had attempted to protect the land rights of the Bororos Indians. Lunkenbein had protested to government authorities on 19 different occasions about the ranchers’ campaign against the Indians, and it was public knowledge in the Bororos region that the landowners were gunning for him since 1974. “Rodolfo knew he was going to die,” said one of his friends.
Like the “posseiros,” the Indians gradually have been deprived of their land, and without land, say Brazilian anthropologists, the Indians are destined to die. Since the beginning of this century, Brazil’s indigenous population has dwindled from over one million to 110,000, and four-fifths of these survivors are threatened by the government’s ambitious 3,000-mi. Trans-Amazon Highway and other jungle roads. Brazilian anthropologist Paulo Lucena reports that the Mayuranas Indians are so desperate that their leaders have decided the tribe must die because “they cannot fight back any longer and their children face a terrible future.” According to the military governor of the Amazon center at Boa Vista, the Indians will not survive the next five years if the road construction program continues. (Luckily, the Trans-Amazon Highway has been temporarily halted due to lack of funds.)
So far, the Amazon’s colonization has been an ecological disaster. Volkswagen, for example, which owns 287,000 acres in the Araguaia region has been accused of burning 7.5 million trees on 23,250 acres by Brazil’s leading landscape designer, Roberto Burle Marx, a charge that has been substantiated by the Skylab satellite. According to Volkswagen spokesmen, the government Amazon development agency SUDAM gave the company permission to destroy the trees. Meanwhile, Italy’s Liquigas has purchased six million acres in the heart of the Xavantes Indians’ territory. Sixty Indians died when the military forced them to move from the land.
Yet none of the government agencies charged with controlling the region have done anything to stop the destruction. The government Indian institute FUNAI, for example, which is supposed to protect the aboriginal population, has repeatedly stated that “the Indian cannot stand in the way of progress.”
As the Manaus newspaper “A Noticias” editorialized, “The Indian was and continues to be a defenseless victim. His lands are invaded, his reserves robbed, his women raped. The police of Boa Vista know this. So does FUNAI. We are the only ones who do not understand why the Indian continues to be exterminated under the titular eye of FUNAI.”
Although the Brazilian Church has always been assigned the job of caring for the Indians, religious and bishops were prohibited from working with the tribes in the Mato Grosso region by a 1974 edict after the bishops published a description of the Indians’ plight called “The One Who Must Die.” FUNAI’s director, Gen. Ismarth Araujo Oliveira, deeply resents the Church’s “meddling” Missionary Indian Council, particularly its president, Bishop Tomas Balduino, whom he has accused of “favoring subversives” because he wrote a letter to a political prisoner.
The campaign against the bishops of the North has been paralleled by an equally vicious guerrilla war against their brothers in the South, who have incurred official wrath because of their denunciations of human rights violations. As in the North, reprisals range from the petty to the violent. Sao Paulo’s Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, for example, was the object of a smear campaign including fake photo montages showing him engaged in sexual orgies. The government also prevented Arns from sending money to aid the victims of Guatemala’s 1976 earthquake in order to discredit him in Central America.
Dom Adriano Hipolito, the bishop of Nova Iguazu, suffered even worse treatment. A fearless journalist, Bishop Hipolito has frequently denounced the Brazilian Anti-Communist Alliance (AAB) as a “bunch of thugs directed and protected by the police” who earn their living by terrorizing the impoverished populace of Nova Iguazu, a huge slum on the outskirts of Rio. In September, the AAB kidnapped Bishop Hipolito in his car, beat, stripped and painted him red before throwing him onto a deserted road. The AAB then blew up the bishop’s car in front of the Rio offices of the Brazilian Bishops Conference.
In response to these attacks, Brazil’s bishops issued a thunder-and-brimstone letter last November in which they stated that no amount of persecution will silence them or sway them from their mission to protect the poor and the oppressed. Furthermore, said the bishops, the Church no longer is willing to accept a situation “in which the people only receive the crumbs from the table of the rich but is demanding a fair distribution of (the nation’s) wealth.
“Why is it that only a few people can eat well while the majority go to bed hungry?” the bishops asked. “Why is it that some people, including foreigners, are able to amass millions of acres of land for cattle and the export of meat when our poor people are not even allowed to continue cultivating the tiny piece of land on which they were born and grew up? Why is it that only a few people have the power of decision?
“The organized forces of evil do not want to share anything with the poor and the humble who constitute the majority of the (Brazilian) people. Only the great end powerful have rights. The humble are allowed to possess only that which is strictly necessary to survive in order to continue serving the powerful. To mistreat these poor people is to mistreat Christ.”
As the weekly Brazilian news magazine “Veja” later commented, the Church-State confrontation has reached the point where no amount of diplomacy can “put out the fire.”
“The Church is not prepared to eat humble pie,” explained a Brazilian theologian. “The only conditions acceptable for an armistice are the restoration of democracy and the abolition of the Doctrine of National Security. None of us foresees such a possibility in the near future so the war will continue.”
The Church may have no guns to shoot, but it has plenty of other ammunition, including 40,000 Christian community groups in rural villages and city slums. The first in Latin America to experiment with these groups, Brazil’s Church is slowly but surely forging a new type of Brazilian who not only knows his rights but is prepared to unite with others to demand them.
Patterned after the Church’s early Christian communities, these base groups comprise an enormous laboratory for religious, social and political development, including new forms of worship such as community suppers to celebrate the Eucharist. Under the leadership of Cardinal Lorscheider, the Brazilian Church has taken a giant step forward into the Church of tomorrow where laymen and priests are equals and share equal religious and social responsibilities. Lorscheider also favors the ordination of married men in these communities, not only because there are not enough priests to go around, but because these ministers will form the backbone of the “community of God” promised by Vatican Council II.
At a week-long meeting in Vitoria last year, the bishops of the North conferred with peasant leaders of Christian communities throughout Brazil to experiment in new forms of communication. Contrary to the usual format for such meetings, it was the peasants who did all the talking, not the bishops, and the peasants who drew up a list of Church priorities, st the top of which was land. Though some of them were barefoot and all were poorly clothed, these peasants obviously believed that they were infinitely richer than the generals and business executives who live in the marble palaces of Rio and Sao Paulo. “We are the people of God,” one of them told me, “and we know that the Brazilian Church belongs to us, to the poor and the humble.”
At the Sunday Mass that concluded the conference there was no doubt of his assertion. While 10 bishops set behind the altar, most of them in shirt sleeves, a stream of peasants and workers came forward to recite portions of the Mass or to tell the rest of the 3,000 people in the church about their personal experience of Christian solidarity. After the epistle, nine peasants gathered before the altar to present a playlet about the problems of the land-starved people in Northern Brazil.
“My family is hungry and we have no land,” said the first peasant to the second, who wore the large, white sombrero of Brazil’s wealthy ranchers.
“I don’t want to hear your troubles,” replied the rancher/ peasant. “Get off my land.”
Another peasant with a priest’s collar then approached the rancher to tell him how Christian he was for donating money to build a cathedral (much laughter).
“Wh,qt shall we do?” asked the first peasant of the rest of the troupe. “The rancher tells us we must leave this land.”
“Let’s go to the cities to find work,” suggested one.
“No,” said anothor. “We will only end up in the slums. We must stay and fight for our rights.”
“That’s right,” said a third peasant, who began to chant a Brazilian version of “We Shall Overcome.”
As Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga stepped down from the alter to join the peasants, the chant was taken up by the rest of the people in the church until, gradually, it become a deafening cry: “We want a place on earth. We already have one, in heaven.”
Received in New York on March 15, 1977
©1977 Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.