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Religious Life

From many, one voice for justice


Say “Rome” to most Catholics, and they automatically think “Vatican.” But outside the 109-acre confines of the Vatican city-state, there are many other slices of ecclesiastical life in the Eternal City. They are often less visible, less ballyhooed, but no less impressive.

An exemplary case in point is the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Promoters Group, a loose network of some 120 men and women religious with responsibility for raising awareness of social justice issues in their congregations. The group pools resources, plans activities, and networks with the tens of thousands of priests, sisters and brothers they represent around the globe.

Their aim is nothing less than mobilizing the vast resources of Catholic religious communities, their parishes and schools and missionary outposts, to construct a more just world. In that sense, the promoters, many of whom come from missionary backgrounds with personal experience of living amidst poor and oppressed peoples, offer testimony to the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on Catholic religious life.

The promoters played a key role, for example, in spurring religious communities to support debt cancellation. They put together letter and e-mail campaigns, organized demonstrations in concert with other religious and secular groups, and generally raised a fuss. Granted, there is much debt still to cancel, but the organizing is more than sound and fury signifying nothing. Consider this statement from U.S. Representative Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., ranking member on the House committee that controls the foreign aid budget:

“The debt relief issue is now a speeding train. We’ve got the pope and every missionary in the world involved in this thing, and they persuaded just about everyone here that this is the noble thing to do.” Callahan’s beleaguered surrender was The New York Times’ “quote of the day” for Oct. 18, 2000, and is worn like a badge of honor by the promoters.

A quiet witness

One week after the tragedies of Sept. 11, the promoters staged a quiet witness outside the U.S. embassy on Rome’s chic Via Veneto to call for peaceful solutions to terrorism. It was small-scale and respectful, but it made its point.

At the moment, working groups of the promoters are putting together booklets on two other social justice issues, trafficking of women and climate change. The idea is to provide religious communities with information and theological perspective to ground their own responses.

It should be said, however, that the life of a promoter is not all high-minded idealism. They have also been known to head out for pizza and wine after a long day’s work tilting at windmills, sometimes laughing and talking together well into the wee hours. (Occasionally the odd journalist is allowed to tag along, provided that tape recorders are locked firmly in the “off” position).

This is, perhaps, one key to their success. The promoters are not grim, finger-wagging prophets of doom. In a word, they know how to have fun.

Vatican II in action

They see their activism as an outgrowth of the council. “It’s Vatican II, it’s Gaudium et Spes [“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”] in action,” said Fr. Willy Ollevier, a Scheut missionary from Belgium and a member of the leadership team for the promoters, called the “core group.” It consists, by design, of two women and two men.

“In the late 1970s and 1980s, religious congregations were trying to read the signs of the times, seeing the great injustices and the great growing inequalities in the world. We were asking ourselves, how will we respond?” said School Sister of Notre Dame Cathy Arata, another core group member.

“In Rome, we are people from those different congregations internationally. We try to be one voice,” said Arata, an American. The promoters meet regularly to share information and to pool ideas for how to energize their communities around social justice concerns. There are two of these monthly meetings, one in English and one in Spanish/Portuguese.

Their gatherings, because of the climate of friendship that prevails, can allow sensitive issues to surface. Last year, for example, the promoters held a session to discuss reports of sexual abuse of religious women by priests that first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter. Some of the African promoters were angry, feeling that media coverage painted a deliberately negative picture of Africa and African Catholicism. Without resolving the question, the promoters were at least able to get it out into the open.

üOn a related front, the promoters have recently created a new working group called “Catholic Questions.” (An earlier working title was more provocative -- “democracy in the church”). The idea, by whatever name, is to provide a forum for discussing issues of ecclesiastical justice. The promoters do not aspire to being a pressure group in the church; they simply want to open a space to talk.

Catholic Questions group

Journalist Gary MacEoin has spoken to the Catholic Questions group. American Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, who often consults informally on due process questions in the Eastern Catholic churches, is slated to appear. The idea for the Catholic Questions group came from a talk by Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister in December 2000, when she challenged religious in Rome to talk about justice in the church. The promoters decided to accept the challenge.

So, just who are these people?

Each of the promoters has followed his or her own circuitous, idiosyncratic path.

Arata says her formative experience came in El Salvador where she worked from 1988 to 1999. As the civil war wound down, she worked with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees as well as the Chalatenango diocese in helping refugees get the needed documents to return home. Afterward, she did pastoral work with Salvadoran women.

“I saw the injustice, the oppression. I saw the political policy of the United States and how that affected the people,” Arata said. “I’ve often said, I’ve never felt the presence of God as I did there, nor have I ever felt the presence of evil so strongly.”

Arata was then asked by her congregation to come to Rome to be its second-ever justice and peace coordinator. She stresses the theological and spiritual dimensions of the work.

“There’s no doubt that the work we do is rooted in the gospel and in the social doctrine of the church,” Arata said. “I think for me and for all of us, the important thing is that we are grounded in that. We’re not just activists, do-gooders. What we do comes from contemplation, from an inner spot within us.”

Ollevier said he was nudged into justice and peace concerns by two life experiences. The first was being a student at the Catholic University of Louvain during the 1960s. “Gutiérrez was our Bible,” he said, referring to Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. “Studying theology for us meant being very socially involved.”

To forgo the priesthood

So sensitized was Ollevier, in fact, that he decided to forgo becoming a priest and head off to the missions as a religious brother. “I said I don’t want to be a priest, because that would make me part of the oppressive structure,” he recalled.

Twenty years later, Ollevier was ordained. The decision came out of his spiritual evolution, but he’s far too humble to discuss it. When asked what motivated the decision, he jokes that he was thinking about his retirement. “What if I need to find some convent of sisters that will pay me to say Mass?” he joked.

The mission to which Ollevier was sent was Taiwan, and his 20 years there are the second formative experience. “ When I got there, Taiwan was a very conservative, anti-communist church,” he said. “Through the years I saw a change, and I was part of it ... the democracy movement, the end of martial law.”

For a brief period, Ollevier was the head of Amnesty International in Taiwan.

“That’s a very positive experience I carry with me, the possibilities of nonviolent change. The capacity of the Chinese people to suffer and not respond with violence is incredible. I know people who were in prison for 10 years, who were on painful hunger strikes. Yet there is no hatred in their hearts, no desire for revenge. It’s amazing.”

Good Shepherd Sr. Caroline Price followed an even more unusual path to peace and justice work, involving the New Zealand Air Force and the rough-and-tumble sport of rugby.

From 1969 to 1981 Price was in the Air Force, finishing her distinguished service as the very first female flight operations officer in her country’s history. During that time she also followed rugby because her brother was big into the game.

“There was a movement in New Zealand in the 1980s called ‘halt all racial tours,’ ” she said. “South African rugby players were coming to play. No blacks were allowed to be on the team, and many New Zealanders said there should be no tour until there was a mixed team.

“I started to think about it, and I thought, they’ve really got a point,” she said.

A moment of clarity

That moment of clarity sparked an interest in justice concerns, which also become caught up in New Zealand’s potent anti-nuclear movement. (In 1985 New Zealand adopted a “no nuclear” policy under which American ships are denied entry to New Zealand’s internal waters if they are nuclear powered).

After she entered religious life, Price gravitated to justice and environmental issues. She worked for a time for the Aotearoa New Zealand Council of Churches on racism issues. In 2000, she was asked to come to Rome to set up the first-ever justice and peace office in her order’s history.

Christian Br. Anton de Roeper, a promoter and resource person in his capacity as secretary of the separate Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Union of Superiors General and International Union of Superiors General (the main umbrella groups for men and women religious), has the simplest answer of all for how he got started.

“I was just told to do it,” he joked.

The Englishman, de Roeper, served as secretary of education for the massive Christian Brothers educational system, and in that capacity he found himself relying on Society of African Missions Fr. Frans Thoolen, a Dutchman and de Roeper’s predecessor at the commission, for information on justice issues. As it happens, the commission’s office is in the Christian Brothers headquarters on the Via Aurelia.

(Thoolen now works in the Vatican, in the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, where he is the desk officer on refugee issues).

“I found myself increasingly interested,” de Roeper said. “It’s important work.”

Ollevier said he believes work on behalf of justice and peace has come of age in religious life.

“It’s not divisive anymore, not sectarian,” he said. “Before there had been difficulties, some congregations said they didn’t want to get political, we don’t want to get involved. Today most congregations recognize that this is where the heart of our message is.” Not that everything’s perfect. As Ollevier spoke, Price interjected: “I don’t think that radical label is completely gone.” Heads nodded around the table.

Granted that things have come a long way, what made the difference?

Ollevier said the fact that many religious congregations have missionary operations is a factor. “We’re always in touch around the world, so that makes it very real, very hot. It’s different from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which offers resources and works with the bishops on their ad limina visits, but is much more distant,” he said. “We always have people coming and going.”

Arata said the impact of liberation theology has taken root. “There is a real sense of the church acting as a voice for the poor,” she said.

Finally, Ollevier said, the promoters have gotten a tremendous boost from the man at the top: John Paul II. “It’s amazing how much support we have from the pope’s statements. We say that we are all becoming papal exegetes!” Ollevier said. “There is an extraordinary treasure on ecology, on justice, on the debt, and we use it to the full.”

“Some of his statements in terms of what we hear regularly from the pulpit are radical, and we don’t always take that in,” Price said.

One danger that some promoters see is a trend in the church toward personal piety rather than social engagement. “I feel a challenge, sometimes even anger, toward groups that are moving away from the social doctrine and moving into a purely devotional approach,” Ollevier said.

Yet Arata remains hopeful.

“Many, many religious are doing this kind of work,” she said. “The challenge is how we can all network together better, and use all of our personnel and financial resources to be a stronger voice.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

The Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Promoters network in Rome may be contacted through Christian Br. Anton de Roeper. His e-mail is jpicusguisg@rm.nettuno.it

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002