God Hears the Cry of the Poor
- Popular piety and the work of justice


In many parts of Peru parishes are made up of small rural communities. Each community has a patron saint and is generally guided by catechists. The priest visits periodically, generally for the feast of the patron and for the celebration of marriages and baptisms. Over recent decades a new style of community has developed, a committed Christian community that is part of the continent-wide birth of basic ecclesial communities.

The people in the Christian communities of Peru are well described as both poor and believing. These two characteristics are closely interrelated. The faith of the people is marked by their poverty and their poverty is marked by their faith. The cry of the poor is a reaction to their present condition; it is founded on their hope in God, and it results in a call to commitment. Far from being a hopeless cry of pain, it is the sign of the "reactivation" of the people's faith today.

Popular piety is the religion of large numbers of people. It is characterised by an attachment to and a belief in certain prayers, places, images and practices. It does not intellectualise. Generally it is devoid of any theory about commitment to a better society. It acts as strength and sustenance to those who practice it and it is a strong binding force in local communities. Sometimes it verges on the superstitious.

In the years following the II Vatican Council, a new type of Church developed in Peru under the leadership of a certain number of bishops. This church combined the energy of popular piety with a newfound realisation that faith made demands of the believer outside of the devotional practices. It was founded on a new knowledge of God as the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ and the God of liberation, who sets people free, even from the slavery of poverty and marginalisation.

This reflection is about the relationship between the faith of people in Christian communities in Peru and their quest for justice. It takes in the three striking realities in the practices of the peoples’ faith: popular piety, the Bible and the cry of the poor. All of this takes place in the context of an awareness of a new way of being Church.

I. Popular piety in the Teaching of the Church

Evangelisation begun in Peru with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1492. As history records, it was a mixed blessing. The missionaries accompanying the colonisers found, among the people, a very well developed form of religion. Evangelisation was understood by many as the process by which the people would be turned away from the worship of pagan gods to the worship of the Christian God. This process developed over five centuries. An important part of the development was the adoption by the people of the devotions of the Spanish evangelisers. The practices attached to these devotions became very strong and very widespread to the point that they seemed to replace the more universal practices of the Catholic Church, namely the Liturgy and the Sacraments. In the developments that have taken place in Peru, since the mid 1960’s, we can see a change in the understanding of popular devotion and its practices. In those years, people began to adopt a critical position in relation to what had developed in the practice of the faith. The problem was not so much the fact of the people's faith, which was not in question, as the expression of their faith in practices that are grouped under the heading of religiosidad popular (popular piety).

At a time when rapid progress in society and in the Church was calling on those who believe to demonstrate a new commitment in the world it appeared that popular religious practice was an obstacle rather than a help in people's following of Christ. Because the religious practices of the people appeared to be irrational and antiquated there was a fear that they could not survive in the modern world and that if they did survive, they would be something negative rather than positive.

Medellín: The religion of the oppressed

The Second General Assembly of the Conference of Latin American Bishops took place in Medellín in 1968. This assembly had the task of bringing the fruits of Vatican II to Latin America. Its conclusions were published in 16 documents that dealt with the questions of human development, evangelisation and growth in faith, the visible Church and its structures.

Medell¡n's position in regard to popular piety is set out principally in the document on "The Pastoral Care of the Masses".[1] Popular piety is the way in which the popular masses, as opposed to the elite, express their faith. The popular classes include people in semi-pagan ethnic groups, peasant masses which are deeply religious, marginal masses who have religious sentiments but very limited religious practice. These people face all the problems of the modern world. They are effected by the great changes taking place in culture and in society in general. Their own way of life has been seriously affected by internal migration.

The bishops recognised the quality of people who may find themselves among "the lowest cultural levels". Among them there are "enormous reserves of authentic Christian values, especially in the order of charity"; there are the seeds of the Word, as the elements of evangelical preparation; expressions of faith which are clothed, very often, in the "only cultural elements available to the people" -vows, promises, processions, pilgrimages and countless devotions.

The bishops were concerned with the impoverished nature of popular piety. In their opinion, it lacked participation in "the official cultural life of the Church"; its "adherence to the organised Church was weak"; it was prone to the adverse effects of its ancestral heritage, i.e. an acceptance of magic and superstition, a utilitarian approach to faith and a fear of God which sought to approach him only through intermediaries; and its cosmic approach was unable to deal with the advances of scientific knowledge in the world of today.

The desire of the bishops was to lead all those people to a personal and community fulfilment. They were also concerned to bring them more fully into the one Church and thus to avoid any danger of their becoming sects. This would entail a recognition of the qualities of the people and a serious commitment to re-conversion and education. It would entail a commitment to the building of a community that is called together by the Word of God and bound together by the Eucharist. Something much more than the mere preservation of faith was needed. Among the practical steps which the bishops proposed in order to meet these demands, they list among others; the communication to the people of a sense of their being co-creators with God; the promotion of base Christian communities; closer attention to the real needs of the people; closer attention to the need for better forms of catechetics, better knowledge of the liturgy and a strong sense of communion with their bishops.[2]

The attitude of the bishops at Medellín could be described as negative or at least concerned. The bishops expressed concern over the distance that existed between the masses of poor and the mainstream of the Church (the sacramental and cultural life of the Church). They took major steps towards closing the distance, by moving closer to the world of the poor, i.e. the world of popular piety. In their treatment of popular piety the bishops stated the principle that: In our evaluation of popular religion, we may not take as our frame of reference the westernised cultural interpretation of the middle and upper classes; rather we must judge its meaning in the context of the sub-cultures of the rural and marginal urban groups.[3]

This was a recognition of the need to look at the people who practice the faith in the way the bishops described, in order to understand its full meaning. It implied an acceptance of the difference and value of the faith of the poor and oppressed. The strong commitment to the poor made by the bishops at Medellín added to the re-evaluation of popular piety. Their description of the Church as the Church of the poor, was an important shift in position with respect to the previous history of the Church in Latin America. Finally by insisting on a firmer commitment to evangelisation which took account of the needs of the people and which would take place in communities based on the Word of God and the Eucharist, they set the stage for much of what developed in the years after 1968.

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul placed his treatment of popular piety in the fourth chapter of Evangelii nuntiandi under the heading "The Methods of Evangelisation". That in itself is significant. He expressed his intention more explicitly when he says, "if it is well oriented, above all by a pedagogy of evangelisation, it is rich in values" and a little further on, "When it is well oriented, this popular religiosity can be more and more for multitudes of our people a true encounter with God in Jesus Christ". The Pontiff's reservations are explained by his concern about the shortcomings of popular piety, "It is often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions. It frequently remains at the level of forms of worship not involving a true acceptance by faith. It can even lead to the creation of sects and endanger the true ecclesial community." His reassurance is expressed in terms of the positive values of popular piety:

One finds among the people particular expressions of the search for God and for faith ... a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know. It makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism, when it is a question of manifesting belief. It involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence. It engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the Cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion.[4]

The basic approach of the document is positive. While the Pontiff recognises that in the past "these expression were for a long time regarded as less pure and were sometimes despised", he now is able to say that they "are almost everywhere being rediscovered."

Puebla: The people's potential for evangelisation

The Third General Assembly of Latin American Bishops took place in Puebla, Mexico, in 1989. In the section on popular piety in the Puebla document[5] the bishops state that popular piety is in a preferential way the religion of the poor and simple, but it takes in all social sectors. The bishops also refer in this section to those "who are baptised but whose Catholicism is in a weakened state".

The view of popular piety given by the bishops at Puebla is more positive than that of the bishops at Medellín. They attribute a greater value to the religious heritage of the people. They give a picture of a very full life of faith among the people, at least from the devotional point of view. The reason for this change may be due, a) to the fact that the study of popular piety, for which the bishops at Medellín asked, had been done and b) the fact that things had changed between the two conferences to the extent that while the bishops in 1968 lament the almost total absence of the Gospel and Church life, the bishops in 1979 speak of a manifest presence of both.

The bishops at Puebla managed somewhat to get over the frame of mind which speaks of inferior and superior religions. They state their position in these terms: "Like the Church as a whole, the religion of the people must be constantly evangelised over again".[6] They return to the question of communication that which has been a constant concern for centuries. The Gospel has to be communicated by means of dialogue: it cannot be imposed. Nonetheless, the most significant change in Puebla with respect to Medellín, is that the bishops recognise the, as yet, unstudied potential for evangelisation which is to be found in popular religious practice, particularly when it is infused with a greater familiarity with the Word of God through the reading of the Bible.

One of the new criticisms of popular piety introduced at Puebla was that it has not done enough to change sinful structures in society: "the gap between rich and poor, the menacing situation faced by the weakest, the injustices, and the humiliating disregard and subjection endured by them radically contradict the values of personal dignity and solidary brotherhood.”[7] At the same time they point out that "the people of Latin America carry these values in their hearts as imperatives received from the Gospel. That is why the religiosity of the Latin American people often is turned into a cry for true liberation"[8]

"Popular" as an alternative

Against the kind of purist who would say that everything in popular piety should be preserved, Franklin Pease and others would say that we have to avoid thinking that we have to solidify and perpetuate old forms of living, but rather see how the people’s way of living need not be destroyed by modernity but maybe renewed in itself and give new impetus to the people. Thus what is "popular" would emerge as an alternative. What comes under the heading "popular" can be seen in two ways. Firstly, in relation to the more advanced and better off groups in society, the word often refers to what is traditional, backward, ignorant, or unqualified. Secondly, it refers to a majority in society which has a cultural heritage of its own and a wisdom of its own, built up over generations. It is in this second meaning that the culture of the people is emerging from what was considered by some to be backward, and beginning to offer itself as a real alternative in Peruvian society. Within this second understanding of "popular", the religious aspect, religiosidad popular, is taking on major importance.

It is part of the history of the people that in order to preserve their life and identity they have had to fight against the dominator's interests. Irarrázaval takes up this point to show that the people, through their own religious practices and customs, have resisted the efforts of others to take away the native culture and make them conform to the standards and values of an alien culture.[9] He would say that the Church, even with the best of intentions, has contributed to this "aggression" towards the piety of the people.

In a world that places great emphasis on the rational and scientific, the bishops at Medellín reminded us of another aspect of popular piety which is readily admitted by all even if its implications are not as easy to estimate. It is more emotional than intellectual. Sometimes this may amount to an anti-intellectualism where emotion always takes precedence over understanding. Nevertheless the bishops at Medellín acknowledge the value of a faith that is "simple, emotional and collective".

A Closer Look at the Religion of the People

There is a question as to the extent to which the rituals practised in the religion of the people are a sign of magic, superstition, fidelity to culture or real faith. To the extent that any of the first three dominated and to the extent that the people in the Christian communities still view ritual in the same way, the quality of their faith might be equally in question. However it seems that there has been a distancing from the rites and rituals of the past and a much greater emphasis on commitment to the struggle for the poor.

The emergence of social consciousness is seen in the 1987 Survey, La religión popular en el Perú.[10] The Survey dedicated a large section to a study, in general terms, of the present state of the religion of the people based on interviews with a sample of thirty people from different backgrounds and places. In it the authors of the Survey try to trace the personal religious development of these people and study the crisis points in order to see what values were at play when crisis and growth occurred.

Religious awareness for all concerned began in childhood through the influence of parents, and to a lesser extent, through priests, religious and teachers. The terms of reference used are those which are common to most people of a catholic upbringing; the Mass, devotions and "fiestas", the simple prayers that are said at home, the visits to the Church and the kindness of some priests. The important point in this is that people learned their faith, more through the process of socialisation, than from the formal teaching of religion.

In relation to the content of the people's religious formation, there are certain tendencies which are seen both in their religious practices and in their sense of ethics. In religious practices there is a clear tendency to retain the simple prayers and practices learned at home or in the community and a great tendency not to continue to receive communion after the reception of First Communion. In regard to the ethical side of their lives the accent is placed on what is of most importance for the life of the group rather than on the personal private sins of each one. The people's sense of survival plays a significant part in their understanding, as we can glean from the fact that a significant number of informants mentioned the act of taking an extra piece of bread without permission as being seriously sinful.

Changes occur in different ways, as people get older. In some cases religious practice stays on the same lines and just continues as before except that as adults people take on greater responsibilities within their communities and take part with a greater degree of understanding and conviction. In some cases there is a movement away from the religious practices of youth towards a social commitment and a new understanding of religious responsibility which entails a reinterpretation of the religious practices of their youth. The option for the poor is of considerable significance here, according to the editors of the Survey.[11]

Furthermore, in some cases, there is a rejection of the ways that people learned in their youth which produces a distancing from all forms of religious practice. The reason given for this, more often than not, has to do with the increase in family and work commitments so that there is less time for going to Church and keeping up with the religious practices that people were used to. Sometimes there is simply a losing of interest in both Church and religion, while there are also examples of a reaction to the way that Mass and devotions were conducted, such as where there was very little participation by the people in the celebration. A significant number have abandoned the practice of their faith altogether. Others have come to a new and more mature awareness of their religion and their faith.]

The advent of Committed Christian Communities

What emerges in the study of the popular culture in Peru is the constant use of collective language. It emphasises the strong community dimension in the life and the psyche of the people. That same notion of community has acquired new importance in the recent history of the Church in Latin America with the advent of Base Christian Communities (BCCs). The development of communities in Peru follows the general lines of development which have been seen throughout Latin America. However it is important to see the particular nature of the developments that took place in Peru.[12]

In the years following Vatican II a new style of Christian community began to emerge in Peru. These communities, made up of groups of 10, 15, 20 or even much larger numbers, began to meet on a regular basis. At their meetings they would talk about what was going on in their communities and they would read the Bible and they would find a connection between the two.

The people’s conversations at these meetings represented their perception of what was going on in the area of the society to which they belonged. The people's perception of their situation was a real perception, shared in common, and accurate enough to be taken as a reasonable representation of the facts of the situation in Peru. It is in the people’s reaction to their perception what we can detect their spirituality. What we see in the lives of those people is an expression of faith and a quest for justice. They have developed a new social consciousness and have come to take part in committed Christian communities as a way of answering the call of faith in the pursuit of justice.

In a relatively short space of time people have seen the emergence of a new and different Church agenda, where the option for the poor responds to the mission of preaching the Good News and of working for justice; where the people are able to say "we are the Church"; where the rhythm and practice of the faith is made up of meetings as well as celebrations, and where commitment speaks louder than status in responding to the cry of the poor.

The nature of the meetings is significant. Serious attention is given to the ordinary concrete problems of the people. The Bible is used as a matter of course. The needs and hopes of the people become clearer and this leads to greater organisation. There is a willingness to be involved in society. That willingness is based on the belief in a better world that corresponds to the creative desire of God and on the belief that this better world will be brought into existence by God through the action of those who have become converted to his Kingdom, rather than by those who are simply socially and politically active.

Faith today is practised by people who have come to possess the faith in a new way, as something which they have been given by God, and given in greater measure because they are poor. It is a faith which contains a demand for generous transforming love. This has changed the way that people view even the religious practices of the past. Promises and "magic" have given way to awareness and commitment. Popular piety, bereft, in the past, of sacraments and of a social commitment, has found its way back into the mainstream of the Church through a new understanding of the sacraments in the life of the community and an awakening to the social and economic needs of the poor.

All of this takes place in a Church that is consciously a local Church. At the same time, the people maintain a close relationship with their pastors and the universal Church. They have no desire to become a sect. Meetings which become established on a local level, particularly those which are concerned with the life of women, of youth, with human rights, and base Christian communities, develop and become established on a national level and then on an international level until the solidarity of humanity is built in a new way which begins from the spiritual giftedness of the people. The interests of local communities do not remain only in the community. They spread out to embrace the wider reality of the Church and society on the national and international levels. In a country that has known the ravages of poverty, corruption, terrorism and exploitation, the Church, and especially the Church in the newly constituted Christian communities in Peru, is a sign of life and hope by showing what can be done to rebuild fraternity, based on the giftedness of the people.

A people both poor and believing

Why did so much happen in Peru? More particularly, why did it happen among the poor in Peru? Some of the reasons are found in the heritage of the people. They are a people who have believed in God all their lives. Similarly, they are a people who have lived in communities for generations. While some of the legislation on the statute books in Peru today militates against the existence of the communities by threatening the common ownership of land, the heritage of the people, their closeness to the land, and their common ownership of the land over generations, is showing resistance. In the traditions of the people, the land cannot belong to any one individual. The land belongs to God and is the place from where life and communion are made possible. In this sense the land is sacred. That belief is stronger than anything that modern strategies of production and efficiency can teach. Land is life. The people want to live. At the moment that people began to be alienated from the land, life itself was threatened.[13] People who have been forced to leave the land and to move to the towns and cities, sometimes find no place to call their own. However, the story of Villa El Salvador is the story of people who together and through huge efforts in cooperation have found a place to call their own, even in the huge metropolis of Lima.[14] So much of the success of communities is based on the belief that no one can succeed on his/her own. Not only that: no one is supposed to succeed on his or her own. For someone to succeed on his/her own is already a contradiction of a belief in sharing which is a concrete expression of love.

Perhaps none of this would be extraordinary or significant, if the people about whom we are talking were not the poorest of the poor who have "irrupted" on to the local scene where they had no role before. New studies in history and anthropology continue to show that the traditions and heritage of the poor contain a store of values which society cannot afford to discard. The terms "ignorance" and "superstition" are terms which should not be used lightly, just the same as the terms "development" and "profit from production" are not always to be taken as positive values.

When the people's situation and their heritage are understood in the light of the Gospel, they acquire new dimensions of meaning, and are filled with new motivations. In terms of the Gospel, the so-called ignorance of the common people has quite another meaning. It becomes the wisdom, which can confute the learned. [1Co 1:26ff] Life in community is not just a matter of living together and sharing for practical purposes. It comes from the very nature of humanity and is a reflection of the vocation of the people of God and finds its highest ideal in the life of the Trinity. In practical terms, it is the only way in which the law of love can be fulfilled. In this light too, social, political and economic concerns take on new meanings in relation to the overall salvific plan of God and the fruitfulness of creation as part of that divine plan.

While all these aspects are important the revolution that took place in the Catholic Church in Vatican II might well be the single most important factor in the emergence of the people's new motivation and sense of Church. In talking about Vatican II we know that, as a historical event, the Council was itself the result of revolutionary thinking that gathered in a reservoir, to be released for the whole Church with all the authority of the Magisterium of the Church. The teaching of Vatican II inspired all kinds of forces in Latin America. It provided the green light for the emergence of a Latin American Church. It changed the identity of laity from passive recipients to real agents. It gave approval and support to theologians to find new language to explain the love of God to the poor and to describe the Christian vocation in the world of today. It launched the new realisation of the Church as the Church of the poor and as a pilgrim people.

The people in the Christian communities are heirs to a belief which goes back into the oldest part of judeo-Christian tradition. The cry of the poor is heard by God. That they have come to discover this aspect of faith today is due in part to the circumstances in which the poor live, which called for some response other than resignation, fatalism or armed revolt. It is due also to the tradition of the Church, which is able to bring out "treasures old and new", and respond again to the call that comes from the poor.

II. The Emerging Spirituality

The spirituality of the people today bears much of what has come down from past generations in a believing people: faith in God as the provider of all that is good, deep devotion, a sense of community, an ability to resist and endure all that is difficult in life, an ability to celebrate. These are some of the more important elements from the popular piety of past generations which have found renewed meaning in the new vision of the people. The celebrations of the processions that are traditional to Holy Week, and the way the patron saint of the community might be a new found source of inspiration are good examples.

The concept of “cry” is both ancient and new. It is a key to understanding the religious experience of people in Christian communities of the poor. The cry comes from the people as a reaction to the existing situation as they perceive it. The cry is born of a relationship of faith. It is addressed to God, as the God who is attentive to the sufferings of his people and it is addressed to humanity where God's love is incarnate. It is the cry of people who are tried by suffering but who still continue to hope. The cry itself is God's gift. God turns the hearts of the people to himself and responds to their cry. His response is the renewal of faith that has come to the people, which has brought them into church communities, given them a keener understanding of the values of the Kingdom of God, a closer relationship to Jesus Christ, and a capacity to work for their own liberation and to be evangelisers. This is the new mind which St. Paul speaks of when he says: "Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do." [Rom 12:2] In the experience of the people, the cry and the new mind go together.

a) A people who know how to pray

Is it too bold a statement to say that only the poor person can pray? The cry is a form of prayer. The one who prays enters into dialogue with God. God is not some amorphous entity, who can be described simply as a superior being. He has an identity which he has made known through all generations, and in the fullness of time he sent his own Son. God is the kind of God who is revealed in Jesus. It is possible to pray to a God of our own making and our own imagining. Prayer to a God of our own making is not real prayer. Much less is prayer to a God who has eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, a mouth but cannot speak. The God of the poor is the God who hears their cry, sees their suffering and speaks in their favour. (Ex 3:8) The poor are those who are poor by reason of material circumstances, and those who are able to recognise that everything comes from God, which was the way that Gutiérrez defined "spiritual childhood". The experience, which the poor who cry have of God, is a contemplative experience, and it is a source of strength and joy. Thus, they have become evangelisers to one another, and they have reminded the Church to see God in the least of their brothers and sisters.

There is no real contemplation without a grasp of the will of God. When the words of Mary are quoted, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord" the Christian has to know that the will of God is the liberation of the poor. Gutiérrez was in earnest when he said that devotion to Mary is one of the aspects of the faith that has suffered most manipulation in the past. There was always a preference for the suffering Mother at the foot of the Cross, rather than the prophetic witness to justice in the Magnificat. "No one can be unaware of the adulteration of devotion to Mary, or the way she has been used to falsely spiritualise the Christian message to the point of making it simply like a little lap dog." [15]

b) A people who are committed to justice

A people who find it hard to get enough to eat, who are denied the benefits of proper education, proper health care, and who are merely tenants in their own land, look for justice. The hope of the poor in Peru has been rekindled through their commitment to justice. They know that this commitment is the commitment of the whole Church. They have heard it at meetings. They have heard it from their pastors. They believe it is possible to live in a society where all will have a proper share. To accomplish this, the relationships which exist in society will have to change in such a way that the awful differences and division between rich and poor will cease to exist. The poor believe that they can bring about this change of relationships. By establishing autonomy in their communities, by reaching a high level of organisation, and by finding new confidence in the expressions of their faith and culture, the people are already showing their willingness and ability to be the agents of their own destiny in the pursuit of a just society. Their struggle for justice finds its inspiration in the practice and Jesus, whom they see as one who shared their poverty, set himself against the false and unjust understandings of religion in his own society and achieved the victory in his death and resurrection.

c) A people who carry the Cross of Jesus

The devotion which people in Peru have to the Cross has various explanations. It is a symbol of the power of God, and thus the Christian form of sacred objects used by people down through the centuries. The presence of the Cross in the villages and country areas, reminds the people of the holiness of the place. The Cross is also the reminder to them of the death of Jesus, as the innocent victim. As such it gives deep meaning to their own sufferings. We are talking about the deep and unjustified suffering of which the people have been victims. Gutiérrez writes about it as the suffering of the innocent and laments those who die "before their time". Our speaking of the deep spiritual values of the people should not distract us from the recognition of the awful suffering which is part of their daily lives. Peru in the last thirty years has had to deal with the deteriorating economic health of the country and the senseless multiplication of acts of violence against the people, from terrorists on the one side, and the forces of law and order acting in the name of "national security", on the other. The people's survival and their resistance in these difficult circumstances is explained, at least in part, by their closeness to and identification with the Cross of Jesus. In former times the Cross of Good Friday gave them strength in resignation. Now it is like as if the love that is expressed in the Cross has come through to them more forcefully than ever.

In the Latin American reflection, little or nothing is said directly about self-denial as a form of Christian asceticism. This is even clearer, if by self-denial we mean the practice of self-denial as a penitential exercise, which has no direct relationship to the circumstances in which people live. From the point of view of people engaged in the struggle for justice, commitment presents itself as the new word for self-denial. Commitment to the struggle in the very difficult circumstances of today is itself a living of the reality of the cross and calls for a very great spirit of self-sacrifice in favour of the poor and oppressed. It has already produced its martyrs.

d) A people who cherish community

In this way of life there is very little of the psychological approach to the spiritual, so popular in other currents of spirituality. There is little or no talk of self- discovery or of self-fulfilment. There is a journey which takes place in the community but it is not described as a journey, so much as a struggle. It is the struggle that calls a person away from any kind of self pursuit in the pursuit of justice and unity for the community. It is a journey towards full and integral liberation, whose anticipation must, according to the divine plan, be seen already in this world.

The people's desire for community comes from two sources. One is their age old tradition of living in community as a form of social structure. It is the way of life to which they are most accustomed. The second is the desire for community which is born out of the struggle for justice. This desire for community is the result of the knowledge that in order to achieve justice people must be part of and be supported by a strong community. It is also the result of the isolation which is suffered by people in a society that has made them feel that they do not belong, and opposes their efforts to bring about social justice. Hence the term used in Peru, "committed Christian communities" has a particular significance, where community, more than being an end itself, is the place and the way of fulfilling the commandment of love.

III. The Wider Implications

Because of the reality of the spiritual growth that has become evident in countries like Peru, liberation theology has answered its critics. As a contribution to the theological tradition of the church its significance has been affirmed by theologians in all parts of the world.[16] When Gutiérrez brought his major written works to the University of Lyons in 1985 as his doctoral dissertation he placed the dialogue between Latin American theology and European theology on a new level as the panel of Gérard Defois, Henri Bourgeois, Maurice Jourjon, Christian Duquoc, Jean Delorme, Bernard Sesboüé‚, and Vicente Cosmao attested.[17] On the same occasion, the Chancellor of the University of Lyons, Card. Decourtray is quoted as saying "His (Gutiérrez's) reflection can help us in our spiritual lives. The key words which he uses are gospel love and the contemplation of Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour". The influence of liberation theology has passed from Latin America, to the Continents of Asia and Africa, and into the movements of Black liberation and Women's liberation. There is little fear about the future of liberation theology. Gutiérrez's own view is that the future of liberation theology is not what is most important, but rather the future of the people. The value of liberation theology for them is found, above all else, in its attention to the spiritual experience of the people and the liberating will of God, made manifest in concrete circumstances of oppression.

The new way of being Church is based on a preferential option for the poor. It is the vision of people who have been converted to the Kingdom and who show that conversion through commitment to the integral liberation of the poor. How are we to understand the option for the poor? First of all it is God's own option. Secondly, it is a way of life that is proposed for all. God's option was revealed through the Exodus, the prophets, the wisdom of the psalms, and the person and mission of Jesus. The sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom is that Good News is preached to the poor and the process of their liberation has begun.[Lk 4:16-18]

As a way of life which is proposed for all those who follow Christ, it means that in a world where there is a clash of interests, the Christian will support the interests of the poor; in a world where there is a clash of wisdoms, the Christian will adopt the wisdom of the poor; in a world where it is possible to choose different ways to follow the Lord, the Christian today, who makes this option, will choose the way of poverty, as a spiritual value, as a way of protesting against the injustice done to the poor and as the way of solidarity with the poor in the pursuit of a better world.

The process of liberation is more than social and political activity in the pursuit of justice. It is an act of faith in the fullness of life. As a process it embraces the whole of human life in all its aspects. It takes its direction from the liberating and saving work of Jesus in his obedience to the Father. It draws its strength from prayerful, contemplative encounter with God, whose gifts are freely given.

The gratuitousness of God's love is emphasised again and again in what both the people and the theologians say. The ones who are most capable of rejoicing in such a gift are the ones who have already been gifted by the Spirit and they are the poor. The freedom of God's love increases the need for commitment rather than the reverse. Active involvement in the community is both the fruit and the occasion of contemplation. Whenever we say something about God, we need to recognise that the more we have contemplated and the more we have been committed, the truer will be what we say. To know God is to do justice, is the oft quoted saying from the prophet Jeremiah. [Jer 22,16]

Change the structures?

How much of the call to Christian faith today means changing structures? Does the Christian vocation today, and hence Christian spirituality today demand the changing of unjust structures? It is true that one can practice self-denial and many of the other Christian virtues even in the face of, or even because of, unjust structures. A Christian is not called to change structures simply for personal convenience. The problem is that love does not allow us to leave others in their suffering. To change the structures that cause one's brothers and sisters to suffer is a real expression of Christian faith and love. Berdaiev said it very precisely, "When I am hungry, that is a material problem; when my brother is hungry, that is a spiritual problem." [18] In order to be obedient to the will of God and responsive to the motion of the Holy Spirit, the Christian will abhor and denounce the sin that makes his neighbour suffer and the denunciation will sound merely like an empty drum, if there is not also work to change the structure.

Here we are not talking about a short-term isolated campaign to change structures, but rather a growth into the way of the Kingdom, where the structures will be conformed more to the Gospel, because society will possess more of the converted heart, and will thus take on the behaviour which corresponds to the Kingdom. It is a question of knowing that conversion and change of structure go hand in hand. Just as the make up of society today, and the presence in it of what Pope John Paul II refers to as mechanisms,[19] is the result of many generations of decision making, so the new society, which the poor long for, will be produced over generations, once the signposts have been changed. Signposts which directed people towards the preservation of selfish interests, even where this meant exploiting other people, and exploiting natural resources, will be replaced by those which direct people towards greater communion. Signposts which pointed towards death, will point towards life in its fullness, in accordance with the Spirit. This is not a question of changing the structure first, and conversion will follow. Neither is the reverse the case. The need for conversion is felt very acutely in Latin America by those who have heard the cry and who are committed to the liberation of the poor.[20]

Latin American spirituality has not yet been established as a school of spirituality and indeed may never be. It is the claim of liberation theology and likewise of Latin American spirituality that they pose questions that people everywhere must face. By insisting on the unity of history, the way of the poor, and the primacy of love, it is saying nothing that has not always been part of the tradition of the Church. However, in every age, there is need for a prophetic voice to call people back to the covenant. By being brought back to the covenant, the followers of Jesus are being reminded that to know God is to do justice. They are being reminded to choose all that leads to life and to reject all that is the agent of death.

If there is a transfer point between the Latin American experience and that of other parts of the world, I believe, it lies in the cry of the poor, the call to the followers of Jesus to hear that cry and the belief in the fullness of life. There is a cry in every part of the world. It exists where people have become aware of the sorrowful state of the human condition. It is possible to do all kinds of good work, but if it is not in response to the real cry, to what extent will it be in obedience to the will of God? Will it not be largely the fulfilment of some individual sense of duty, some desire for personal perfection, some belief that God made some people the dispensers of charity while he made others the unfortunate receivers, or worse, the askers, whose asking goes unheeded? Human co-creatorship with God means that every human being was intended to be both a dispenser and an asker. There is a cry in every human being. The cry must be heard and answered through a deep sense of faith and a firm commitment to operative love in community. That seems to be the conclusion that we can best draw from the study of the spirituality of the people in Peru.

Being attentive is essential to this spirituality; loving attentiveness to the cry and loving attentiveness to God, to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross. A mistaken notion of contemplation has concentrated on the strange and unusual aspects of contemplation while the history of Christian spirituality keeps telling us that it is in the ordinary giftedness of Christian life that contemplation finds its truest home. It would be mistaken to limit the notion of contemplation to the borders of extraordinariness and lose sight of the loving penetration of the divine mystery that is enjoyed as part of ordinary Christian life and is a fruit of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That does not fail to take account of the distinction between mysticism, properly so-called, and contemplation. Those who experience strength, joy, solidarity, conversion, solitude, simplicity and endurance, and understand that these come from God are among the many who take part in the Christian communities. Their attentiveness to the cry and to God, in his many ways of being present, and their remarkable gifts, is what allows us to judge that contemplation is present in this spirituality.

How are we to avoid canonizing this spirituality prematurely? In describing the advances and the direction of the spirituality of the people as we have done, there is a tendency not to see the struggle, frustration and disappointments that are part of the daily lot of all those who are involved in the life of the communities. There were indications of some of the difficulties in the evaluations done at the Puno meetings for "Christians in the struggle": the lack of continuity, the presence of divisions, the ease with which personal interests come in the way of the community endeavour. There is further evidence in the continuation of practices from the past that have not been evaluated or changed to meet the needs of the people today. Not all of popular piety has found its way into the mainstream of the Church. We see the limitations also in the openness of people like Gustavo Gutiérrez to dialogue and study, in the recognition that the final word has not been said. While there is considerable optimism in the observers and proponents of this spirituality, the claims they make are a mixture of realism, modesty and prophecy. There is realism here, because no one can claim to have to been fully converted; modesty, because of the conviction that it is the spirituality and theology for Latin America today, which recognises that other parts of the world will rightly find their own responses and hence their own spirituality; and prophecy, because of the belief that in the cry of the poor and the community struggle for liberation, something essential is being said about all Christian spirituality. All those who believe are called upon to hear the cry of the poor and then to respond.

Miceal O’Neill, O.Carm.
Terenure College, Dublin.

[1] II Conferencia General del Episcopado Latinoamericano, Medellin: Conclusiones, Bogotá: CELAM, 1968. (Medellín)
[2] Medellín, Pastoral Care of the Masses, III, 10-15.
[3] Ibid., I,4
[4] Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, n.48
[5] III Conferencia General de Episcopado Latinoamericano, La evangelización en el presente y en el futuro de América Latina, Lima: Edic. Paulinas, 1981. (Puebla)
[6] Puebla, n.457
[7] Puebla, n.452, which quotes the Pope’s homily at Zapopán. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, LXXI, p.230.
[8] Puebla, n.452.
[9] D. Irarrázaval, Medellín y Puebla: Religiosidad popular, pp.20-21.
[10] La Conferencia Episcopal Peruana, La Religion popular en el Peru – Informe y diagnostico. Investigacion pastoral sobre las manifestaciones de la religiosidad popular en el Peru: Proyecto del Episcopado Peruano, 1978-1984, Ed., Jose L. González, Hortensia Muñoz, and Teresa M. van Ronzalen, Lima: 1984. Published in Cusco by the Instituto de Pastoral Andina, 1987. (Survey)
[11] Survey, n.825f.
[12] J.Klaiber, Religión y revolución en el Perú, 1824-1988, Lima: Centro de Investigación, Universidad del Pacífico,
[13] Los Obispos del Sur-Andino, “La tierra de Dios, derecho del pueblo”, in Pastoral Andina Docs. 4, March 1986.
[14] Villa El Salvador is a large suburb of Lima. These suburbs which grew up as more and more people came to Lima from the provinces began to be called pueblos jovenes, a reflection of the spirit with which they would make progress, from wickerwork shelters to proper new towns.
[15] G. Gutiérrez, La Fuerza histórica de los pobres, Lima:CEP, p.232.
[16] AA.VV., Vida y reflexión: Aportes de la teologia de la liberación al pensamiento teológico actual. Lima: CEP., 1983.
[17] See, “Lyon: Debate de la tesis de Gustavo Gutiérrez”, Páginas Separata n.71/72, Oct. 1985.
[18] Ncolai Berdiaev (1874-1948) quoted by F.Malley in “Las Casas et les théologies de la liberation”, La vie spirituelle, 139(1985)663, p.68.
[19] Sollicitudo rei socialis, n.16.
[20] G.Gutiérrez. Beber en su propio pozo,p.124-125.


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