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18 March 2010 Edition

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Liberation theology: Sharing the people's lot

Challenging injustice and oppression at home and abroad 

Here, two Irish priests, Tipperary man Fr Joe Cantwell and Fr Joe McVeigh from Fermanagh, talk to ELLA O’DWYER about their respective vocational journeys.
The Tipperary man went on what, in the 1960s, was known parochially as ‘the foreign missions’, to countries like Nigeria and Kenya, to work with the poor and oppressed. The Fermanagh man worked in another region afflicted by injustice – the North of Ireland.
Though these two men never met, they have much in common – they both challenged injustice and oppression. The two Joes are reading and acting from the same hymn sheet.

Joe Cantwell
“I did the Leaving Cert in 1959,” Joe Cantwell tells me. “At the time there was a great idealism around missionary work.  Colonialism was winding down and many new nations were emerging. I started seven years of training for the priesthood at the age of 18.” During his period of training in the 1960s, Vatican II took place. “The Second Vatican Council”, Joe explains, “brought fresh impetus to the Church. It was becoming outward looking, ecumenism (a movement promoting unity among Christian churches or denominations) was a must and in practice this had a profound influence on the church and its thinking. Not only did that affect our training for the priesthood, but it also had a deep effect on the emerging Christian communities in Africa, Asia and South America. It was a good time to be going on missionary work.”
In August 1966 Joe went to Nigeria, arriving there in the aftermath of a coup. “The Eastern Region of the country seceded and formed the independent republic of Biafra in ‘67. An embargo was then placed on the region, and in mid 1967 war broke out between the federal government and Biafra. The war lasted four and a half years and as in all wars the women and children suffered most and casualties were highest among that group. It is estimated about two and a half million died, most from malnutrition. That war gave birth to the aid organisation Concern.”
In late 1968 Joe was posted to Kitui in Kenya, an area granted independence a few years before.  “The Diocese I came to was just five years old. The climate was totally different, the area was semi-desert and the dry climate made for a much better kind of life, but there was always the threat of famine. There was famine every few years and that called for a different type of ministry. The Vatican Council had awakened a new sense of the social aspect of the Gospel.
“Education was just being set up in the area. Hospitals were being set up and facilities developed to meet local needs. Most missionaries were involved in parish projects as well as pastoral activities. Agencies like Gorta, Concern, Goal, Trócaire, Misereor and Caritas International helped support projects, provided funds and medicines, sponsored primary health projects, and in times of famine provided vital food aid. During the 1973 to ‘76 famine, one of the worst, the U.S. Catholic Relief Services came in with a food programme that saved tens of thousands of lives. All of us missionaries would have been involved in such programmes and put as much time into those as into direct pastoral activities. Those programmes were for people of all creeds and were administered by the Catholic Church without discrimination.”
There was no predicting what any day could bring for Joe – anything from building a house or helping to deliver a baby. There was no way of making a hard and fast plan. He once had a visitor who was very attached to schedules. “I had this visitor on one occasion,” Joe grins. “He stayed a few days with me. On the first night he asked me what my programme for the following day was. I explained I would take a load of cement to a group who were building a community hall after morning Mass. On the way back we’d be calling to a site of a well that was being dug for an isolated community, and then we’d call to a religious group.  He asked and then what? I said ‘I don’t know yet’. He advised that I should have each hour of the day planned.” 
The visitor had much to learn. “There was no use trying to tell him,” Cantwell says, “that it didn’t work like that. Anyway, we did our planned morning activities and arrived back at 11am to find a man waiting with a request to go and bring his wife, who had been in labour since the previous day, to the local health centre.”  So Joe and and his visitor set off on a long car drive before running out of road. To make a long story short, they ended up making a stretcher and carrying the woman to the clinic, only to find that the Health Assistant wasn’t equipped to treat her.  So Joe and his meticulous companion were asked to bring the mother to hospital – a two-hour journey. “We put the woman on a mattress in a truck, with a nurse holding and regulating a saline drip and set off. The news was good, the baby was born and mother and baby were fine.  We eventually got back to our mission at 10pm that day with my visitor happy to be silent!”
On the fundamental issues around which Joe Cantwell has worked all his life – justice and religion – “justice”, he says, “is an essential part of the Gospel and mentioned many times by Christ as being basic to religion. Most of us got involved in justice issues abroad and a number of missionaries that I personally knew died for just causes and some were deported. We lived amongst the poor; times of famine caused everyone hardship and pain – it was part of sharing the people’s lot.”

Joe McVeigh
Fr Joe McVeigh wasn’t on the missions; he spent his time working in the North of Ireland. He learnt about liberation theology through books. Also he had friends who went on the missions, including his cousin, another priest, Sean McGrath. “We were ordained together in 1971,” the Fermanagh Joe tells me, and Sean has worked there now for nearly three decades. He used to tell me all about the poverty there. First he was in Grenada in the West Indies and then he went to Brazil, so he saw and experienced the poverty and kept me informed. He became radicalised and politicised through that experience.
“My family suffered discrimination all down the years and most of my neighbours had to emigrate to get work. So I had real experience of discrimination under a Unionist government down the years. In that regard, I suppose I was a bit different to many priests who were ordained in 1971. Certainly priests in the South wouldn’t have had experiences like that, no understanding of it even.”
Living in the North was an education in itself. “When the conflict and the Civil Rights Movement started I very much identified with the protestors. Priests in the 26 Counties didn’t show much sympathy or solidarity with the people of the North. Then we had Bloody Sunday and internment without trial, when a lot of my neighbours were lifted and taken away. That was all part of my own politicisation. I was more politicised from early on, just like the priests who went to Brazil or Africa and South America.”
The social divide in countries like Brazil and Central America is very stark, as Joe McVeigh points out.  “I’ve been to El Salvador and the poverty hits you right away, whereas here it’s not blatant. It’s more hidden. The starkness of the poverty in Central America or in Brazil where Jim Crowe, a participant in the programme, worked was massive. If you’d any kind of a conscience at all and if you were concerned with the social teaching of the gospel you’d see the injustice.
“We have to note that the second Vatican Council from 1961-’65 brought in change. It redefined the meaning of the church’s mission in the world. Instead of being hostile to the world, it said let’s engage with the world. That didn’t translate in the European or Irish church, which didn’t adopt that change into local situations. The change did impact in places like South America, where the church set out to address the oppression of the poor and the human rights abuses, so the church gave leadership in places like that.
“It didn’t happen in Ireland because the church hierarchy here is so right wing and aligned with the government. Most of the priests in the hierarchy of the church are from middle class backgrounds, without any real experience of poverty and oppression. As I said, my experience was different to that. The best development I would say in Brazil in terms of the church was when people started reading the Bible in a radical way, from the point of view of the poor and that led to a whole new way of looking at Gospel, looking at Jesus as a prophetic figure who took on the authorities in his time.”
Joe McVeigh, along with Fr Des Wilson and Fr Raymond Murray, was among the few clergy in the North who took a stand against the oppression going on in that part of Ireland.
“In Ireland it was very difficult because if myself or Des Wilson took a line on justice issues like the political prisoners or the border roads, we’d be called all kinds of names, like Provo priests. But none of that deterred me. The IRA were considered outside of the fold altogether. It was hard going for me down the years. I was being called in to account for myself by the bishops. I was reported to the bishop once, because I gave a sermon on the Birmingham Six, for preaching politics from the pulpit.”
But Irish clergy have done so much good overseas. “Some of those priests and nuns who work on the missions are heroic in my view. Then we have that side of the church – the abuse of power and the abuse of children. The very early missionaries went out to convert people and at times destroyed the indigenous culture.”
Liberation theology, Joe says, is about “putting the social Gospel of Jesus Christ into practice in situations of oppression and taking the side of the poor. You have to make a choice, you can’t stand neutral. You’re either on the side of the rich or the side of the poor. That, with my own historical experience in the North, showed me that liberation theology was the only way that the church could be authentic in any revolutionary situation.”


On God’s Mission is the title of a documentary, recently broadcast by RTÉ, which looked at the progression of missionary Catholicism from a role in saving souls to one of saving lives. This transition arose out of changes in Catholic Church thinking after the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of what is known as Liberation Theology – a social – and people-based interpretation of the Gospels.
At a time when Irish people are hurt and angered by the knowledge that members of the Catholic clergy in Ireland and abroad have participated in some of the worst forms of corruption and abuse, it’s worth noting the radical and incredible achievements of very different representatives of that same Church, men and women operating from a theological philosophy far removed from that of the institutional hierarchy.
Clare man Fr Jim Crowe, a participant in the programme, has worked with the poor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for 30 years. Speaking on the programme, Fr Crowe said: “In a country like Brazil, where 20% of the people have 89% of the wealth, that’s inhuman, that has to change. We’re not preaching the truth if we don’t challenge those situations.”


Republican Frances McCole has a degree in Theology. She says: “Liberation theology is a re-interpretation of the message of Jesus of Nazareth as a call to people to become fully human, that is to be fully spiritually, mentally and physically developed. It recognises that to become spiritually developed means to also be free from mental and physical oppression.
“For oppressed Christians it means that they are mandated to try to end their own oppression. This had huge resonance in Latin America and gave a theological basis for the work of progressive Christians throughout the world.
“Liberation theology challenges many aspects of the institutional Catholic Church, which has sought to discredit its proponents.”

Also see McGuinness says Brady should consider his position and A reflection on the Irish Catholic Church and the clerical scandals


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