Dom Pedro Casaldaliga, pastor, prophet and poet, celebrated his 90th birthday on February 16, 2018. We would like to honor him with some thoughts that, in my judgment, reveal the thread running through his life as a Christian and as a Bishop: the relationship he developed with poverty and liberation. Risking his life, he has lived and witnessed both the poverty and liberation of the most oppressed, the Indigenous and the peasants expelled by the land grabbers from the lands of São Felix del Araguaia of Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Poverty is a fact that has always challenged human practices and all types of interpretation. The poor challenge us so much that our attitude towards them ends up defining our ultimate situation before God. This is attested in the Book of the Dead, of Egypt, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition that culminates in the text of the Gospel of Mathew, 25, 31ss, as well.
Perhaps the greatest merit of bishop Dom Pedro Casaldaliga has been that he took absolutely seriously the challenges the poor of the whole world, especially those of Latin America, connected to us; and their liberation.
He certainly lived the following process. Before any reflection or strategy for helping, the initial reaction is profoundly human: to let oneself be moved and filled with compassion. How can we not listen to their pleadings, or fail to understand what their pleading hands seek to tell you? When poverty becomes misery, it raises in all sensitive persons, such as in Dom Pedro, feelings of indignation and holy rage, as is clearly seen in his prophetic texts, especially those against the capitalist and imperialist system that constantly produces poverty and misery.
Love and indignation are at the base of actions seeking to mitigate or abolish poverty. Only those who profoundly love and do not accept this inhumane situation are effectively on the side of the poor. And Dom Pedro witnessed that unconditional love.
But we are also realists, as the book of the Deuteronomy warns: “For the poor shall never disappear from the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to the needy in thy land” (15,11). It is said in praise of the Church of the origins in Jerusalem: “Neither was there any among them that lacked” (Hch 4,34) because they had everything in common.
These feelings of compassion and indignation caused Dom Pedro to leave Spain, to go to Africa and, finally, to land not just in Brazil, but in the interior of the country, where the peasants and the Indigenous endure the voracity of national and international capitalism.
1. Readings about the scandal of poverty
To adequately understand the anti-reality that is poverty, it is good to first make some clarifications that will help us be effective in our presence with the poor. Present in the debate even now are three different understandings of being poor.
First, the traditional, which understands the poor as the one who does not have, who does not have the means of life, not enough rent, no home, in a word: who lacks material goods. The poor survive unemployment, or sub-employment, and with low salaries. The system considers them economic zeros, burned oil, left overs. There, the strategy is to mobilize those who have, to help those who do not. For centuries, a broad assistance was organized in the name of that vision. A welfare policy, but not a participatory one, came into being. It is an attitude and strategy that maintains the poor in a dependent state; the poor have not discovered yet their transformative potential.
Second, the progressive, has discovered the potential of the poor and has already perceived that this potential is not being utilized. Through education and professionalization the poor can become qualified and developed. This way, the poor are inserted into the process of production. They reinforce the system, become consumers, if on a minor scale, and they help perpetuate the unjust social relationships that continue producing poor human beings. The State is assigned the principal role in the task of creating places of work for the social poor. Modern society, liberal and progressive, has taken over this vision.
The traditional reading sees the poor, but does not capture their collective character. The progressive reading discovers this collective character, but has not seen that this character is filled with conflict. Analytically considered, the poor results from mechanisms of exploitation that impoverish them, thus generating a grave social conflict. Having revealed these mechanisms was, and still is, the historic merit of Karl Marx. A critique should always be made of the type of society that constantly produces and reproduces the poor and excluded, before integrating them in the current processes of production.
The third position is la liberadora, that strongly believes that the poor have the potential not only to strengthen the work force and reinforce the system, but principally to transform its mechanisms and its logic. The poor, concientizados, self organized, and joined with other allies, can construct a new type of society. The poor can not only project, but also carry out the construction of a democracy that is open for the participation of all, economic and eco-social. The universality and plenitude of this endless democracy is called socialism. This perspective is neither one of welfare nor is it progressive. It is truly liberating, because it makes the oppressed the main actor of their own liberation and the creator of an alternative vision of society.
The Theology of Liberation assumed this understanding of the poor. This Theology opts for the poor, against poverty and in favor of life and liberty. To make oneself poor in solidarity with the poor, means a commitment against the material, economic, political, cultural and religious poverty. The opposite of this poverty is not wealth, but justice and equity.
This last perspective was and continues to be witnessed and practiced by Dom Pedro Casaldaliga in all his pastoral acts. He even risked his own life to support the peasants expelled by the great landowners. With the Little Sisters of Jesus of Father Charles de Foucauld, Dom Pedro helped with the rescue of the tapir, threatened with extinction. There is no social and popular movement that has not been supported by this pastor of exceptional human and spiritual quality.
2. The other poverty: evangelic and essential
There are still two dimensions of poverty that are present in the life of Don Pedro: the essential poverty and the evangelic poverty.
The essential poverty results from our condition of creatures, a poverty that consequently has an ontological base, that is independent of our will. This poverty arises from the fact that we have not given existence to ourselves. We exist, dependent on a plate of food, some water and the ecological conditions of the Earth. We are poor in this radical sense. The Earth neither belongs to us, nor have we created her. We are her guests, passengers on a journey that goes far beyond. Still more: we humanly depend on persons who welcome us and who live with us, with the ups and downs belonging to the human condition. We are all inter-dependent. No-one lives in himself and by himself. We are all involved in a network of relationships that guarantee our material, psychological and spiritual life. That is why we are poor and dependent one of the other.
To accept this condition humaine makes us humble and human. Arrogance and excessive self-affirmation have no room here because they have no base to sustain them. This situation invites us to be generous. If we receive our being from the others, we must also give it to the others. This essential dependence makes us be grateful to God, to the Universe, to the Earth and to all the persons who accept us just as we are. This is the essential poverty. This type of poverty made Dom Pedro a mystical bishop, grateful to all for everything. There is also evangelic poverty, proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth as one of the beatitudes. In the version of the gospel of Matthew, it is said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5,3). This type of poverty is not directly linked to having or not having, but to a mode of being, to an attitude that we could call spiritual infancy. Poverty here is synonym of humility, detachment, interior emptiness, renunciation of all will to power and self-affirmation. It implies the capacity to empty oneself to welcome God, and recognition of the nature of the creature, before the richness of the love of God that is gratuitously communicated. The opposite of this poverty is pride, boasting, selfishness and the closing in on oneself to the others and to God.
This poverty signified the spiritual experience of the historical Jesus: He was not only materially poor and assumed the cause of the poor, but He also made Himself poor in spirit, because He “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And finding fashioned as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Flp 2,7-9). This poverty is the path of the Gospels, which is why it is also called, evangelic poverty, suggested by Saint Paul: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Flp 2,5).
The prophet Zephaniah witnessed this poverty of spirit when he writes: “In that day shalt thou not be ashamed for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against me: for then I will take away out of the midst of thee those that rejoice in thy pride, and thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain. I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord” (3,11-12).
This evangelic poverty and spiritual infancy constitute one of the most visible and convincing attributes of the personality of Dom Pedro Casaldaliga, seen in his poor but always clean dress, in his language filled with humor even when he strongly criticizes the absurdities of the economic-financial globalization and of the neoliberal arrogance, or when he prophetically denounces the mediocre vision of the central government of the Church in the face of the challenges of the wretched of the Earth, or about issues concerning all of humanity. This attitude of poverty is exemplary manifested in the encounters with Christians of the base communities, usually poor, as he sits among them and with profound attention listens to what they say, or when he sits at the feet of lecturers, be they theologians, sociologists or carriers of other qualified knowledge, to listen to them, taking notes of their ideas and humbly asking questions. This openness reveals an interior emptying that makes him capable of continuously learning and presenting his wise thoughts about the paths of the Church, of Latin America, of Brazil and of the world.
3. A Star in the Sky
When the present turbulent times have passed, when mistrust and meanness have been swallowed by the vortex of time, when we will look back to the past and consider the last decades of the XX Century and the beginnings of the XXI Century, we will identify a star in the sky of our faith, a star shinning after having crossed clouds, endured darkness and overcome tempests: it will be the figure, simple, poor, humble, spiritual and holy, of a bishop who, even though from other lands, became our compatriot, and even though distant, he made himself near, and made himself the brother of all, a universal brother: Dom Pedro Casaldaliga, who celebrates today his 90th birthday.
Leonardo Boff theologian an philosopher, member of the Earth Charter Initiative