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Bourgeois takes ‘Close SOA’ message to Rome

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Roy Bourgeois, Vietnam veteran, Maryknoll priest, in Rome for the first time, wanders into St. Peter’s in late January, awed by the size of it all and feeling very small.

“I’m sittin’ there,” he reports. “Just thinkin’.” He is a Cajun from Louisiana and he still has the accents of the bayou.

“And ah’m thinkin’, ‘There’s something wrong here. The power of the keys. But what’s it for? Is it about bein’ No. 1? Or is it about service?’ ”

Ever since his missionary service in Bolivia and in El Salvador, Bourgeois has felt that the official church has been kowtowing to the rich. And he has just come from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, where a Latin American priest confirmed it for him.

“Through much of John Paul’s 21-year reign,” the priest told him, “the bishops have usually been on the side of the oligarchy, who keep on exploiting the poor.” He puts much of the blame for this on the papal nuncios, who come from the upper levels of Rome’s priestly caste system and often have the final vote on who gets to become a bishop.

So here is Bourgeois, in his jeans and his windbreaker, a rather young-looking 61, thinking about Vatican politics on a bench in St. Peter’s and about the cause that has obsessed him since 1990 -- closing down the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., which has one aim: to shore up the power of the elites in Latin America.

“Ah’m thinkin’ that this is a very sad situation. And ah’m also thinkin’ there is somethin’ I can do about it.”

He can say something on Vatican Radio, because he is scheduled for a live interview there the next day. But what to say? And how to say it?

Oh, he will tell the interviewers how he founded the School of the Americas Watch to seek public support to close this training ground for Latin American military and police types.

And he will tell them that he met for four hours with 150 members of the justice and peace commission of the International Conference of Major Religious Superiors and spent an hour the next day with the head of the Jesuits, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

These superiors have their own networks in the United States and they told Bourgeois they have ways of getting to perhaps 100 U.S. bishops who haven’t yet signed a petition urging Congress and the president “to close the doors of this shameful military school forever.” (Exactly 146 bishops have signed so far.)

But Bourgeois feels he needs to say something more. At Mass the next morning, Bourgeois has his answer. He knows what he needs to say.

CUT TO: The offices of Vatican Radio on the top floor at Via Della Conciliazione 3.

FADE IN: Roy Bourgeois and three English language interviewers, plus a woman who’s translating what he says into French and a young man translating into Italian.

ACTION: Bourgeois takes 10 minutes to give his practiced spiel on the SOA, where the U.S. Army has trained 60,000 military men to kill priests and nuns trying to bring bread and justice to the poor.

Then, with some trepidation, he says, “Ah’m not goin’ to talk about politics now. I wanna’ talk about Jubilee justice.

“Ah think it’s time the church tried somethin’ new. For 2,000 years, the men have been in charge, and the men haven’t done the job. We need to bring in the women in the church. We can’t be healed unless we get our women to address the sufferin’ of the poor. We need women priests, we need women bishops, to take leadership positions in every church office. When women get their voice in the church, we will have more justice in the world.”

The French translator gulps. She knows what the Vatican thinks about women priests. But she goes ahead and gives a fair rendition in French of Bourgeois’ words. The young Italian is more prudent. He skips the sentence, “We need women priests, we need women bishops.”

Any more questions? No. Bourgeois has said enough to get them all in trouble. The interview is over. Listeners around the world get 15 minutes of recorded music to fill in the silence left by the departed Cajun.

The three English language interviewers stop Bourgeois and invite him to stay for coffee. One of them says, “I think this is the first time anyone has ever heard this on Vatican Radio.”

The Italian translator’s strategy of omission, however, extended to coverage of Bourgeois’ Rome visit by the Catholic News Service, the official agency of the U.S. bishops. In reporter Cindy Wooden’s 350-word story, no mention is made of his Vatican Radio appearance or his call for women’s ordination.

“I didn’t think it had anything to do with the story. A lot of people have said this. It wasn’t news,” Wooden told NCR.

“I didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it. If a story goes out to the States saying it was on Vatican Radio, people think it’s a big deal. But how many people actually heard it? Three?”

Whatever the size of his audience, Bourgeois isn’t scared. Next day, he phones Bishop Jim Harvey in the papal household, tells him who he is and, though he doesn’t get to see the pope, he takes Harvey a copy of his videotape documentary on the SOA, “School of Assassins.”

He tells himself, “Maybe the pope will learn somethin’.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000