Page 6, 21st October 1966

21st October 1966
Page 6
Page 6, 21st October 1966 — CHANGED Countries and their Catholics

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Locations: Rome, Jerusalem


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CHANGED Countries and their Catholics


WHEN Pere Lebbe arrived in China he was horrified to find that Chinese priests were placed in the refectory below their European brethren. that there were no Chinese bishops-a set-up in fact hard to distinguish from the colonialism of the countries from which the missionaries came.

When the first Japanese bishop was consecrated many French missionaries refused to work under him. Perhaps, partly because of the anticlericalism at home. they, most of all, were determined to show themselves as Frenchmen.

"It may well be true," says Thomas Merton. "that the French missionary who brings the truth of the Gospel to a West African pagan is bringing him the truth indeed. But unfortunately the fatal tendency has too often been to assume that everything he was bringing, down to his clothes, his table manners, his Cartesian habits of thought, his Gallic self-esteem and in a word the infallibility of the hien peasant were all pure revelations of God and His Church."

Unconscious colonialism? White Christians today having poured the new wine of the Gospels into the vessel of their Kerala in building houses for their families.

He described as a drime the money poured out by some missionaries on large monasteries, churches and even on solely casual relief to the starving who after the expenditure of vast sums remained as poor, as vulnerable as of old. He did of course give to the starving, begged much for money to support orphans, who he said were less well fed than dogs were in Europe.

But help that was permanent must also be primary, he argued. The value of the houses built, the land bought, during his own nearly 40 years in India remains. These families are self-supporting and the yield from their land amounts yearly to many thousands of rupees.

Both Fr. Caironi and his successor, Fr. Zucal, have been criticised, as have any who break away from the accustomed missionary pattern. They are told they should be "concerned only with souls". Both have had to prove that their social work was no barrier but an aid to their apostolate.

Some reader may already be murmuring: surely the bringing of the gospel is the first preoccupation of the missionary? No one would have agreed more heartily than Fr. Caironi, but the word "first" is ambiguous. What may come first in value need not at all be first in time.

SO GREAT a revolution has taken place and is still developing in this century that the older generation sometimes feel they arc living in an unreal world, while younger people need historical knowledge and imagination to visualise that of their grandparents. And for both generations another step is needed--to connect missionary methods with world changes.

First. comes the fact that while we all assumed half a century ago that the white world was Christian, few would be simple enough to maintain this today. We are living in a world in which the missionary effort is as crying a need in post-Christian as in pagan lands. Secondly, the sharpest division in this world is no longer between individual nations: France, England, Germany. It is between capital and labour, wealth and misery, the haves and the have-nots, exploiters and exploited.

Thirdly, the attitude once known as that of an Uncle Tom, the illusion felt by Thomas Merton to prei/ail still among even liberal whites, that the coloured man only wants to be welcomed among them as a "little black brother", has almost totally vanished. Coloured as much as white have pride of race, religions and traditions rooted in their own cultures. Brothers we should be as Christians but equal brothers, each giving and each receiving from the other.

Fourth, the social services once rendered by Christian priests and nuns to the world have now been largely assumed by the State: hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages. But the habit of building remains,

so that new converts and a certain number of missionaries who see the scene clearly are troubled by it.

From Vietnam, China, Kenya. Palestine come such questions as Why do a handful of nuns live in so large a house?

How many houses could be built for the poor just with one wall of the religious building near us?

Why these large landed holdings?

Why have the missionaries made us lose the faith they

brought us . . their standards of living are above ours and above the gospel?

In a book published last year Paul Gauthier, a priest-workman from Jerusalem, describes 20 families making what homes they could there. Only recently he notes "a baby died of malnutrition in one of those caves. Its name was Ais8a (Jesus) and its mother's name was Mary."

Taking another baby named Jesus to the hospital on Christmas Day in an almost dying state he had to startle into attention the leisurely nun filling in her entrance form. "We have so many of these Aissas," she was saying. He tried to shock her into a realisation of the baby's state. "Just write down `Christmas Day', that his name is Jesus and his mother's Mary, and put him into a bed." Startled she said: "Thank you. One sometimes forgets."

HE PRIEST-WORKER experiment, whatever its errors, proved abundantly that the working class needed to be, could only be, reached from within. The new missionary approach has recognised and accepted this fact with all its implications.

Paul Gauthier has by special permission worked in Palestine for sotne years. There he has seen men go mad because they had no food to give their chil dren, he has seen embarrassed tourists gazing at an orphan girl raking the dustbins for food for her brothers and sisters, he has worked for contractors who would not supply the gloves and the goggles which alone could save their workmen's hands and eyes and who paid the lowest possible wage knowing the supply of men was inexhaustible.

He has watched men in grinding toil building a convent wall, toil that could have been halved had convent incurred the expense Of substituting cement at the foundations instead of deepening them "in rock-like soil".

No doubt the nuns felt that expense saved was a tribute to "Lady Poverty", to whom he heard the Superior of another convent make reference as she talked to one of her underpaid workmen who was striving to keep alive a family, uncertain when even this poor job would end.

Gauthier does not blame, but deeply laments the unreality of a nun who applies such language to a convent life, lived in certainty of daily food. clothing, a permanent home and care in old age.

Against the convent wall were shacks in which whole families were crowded: a leaking roof, rags, semi-starvation was their portion, and a workman striking the wall exclaimed "1 cry to God and no answer comes from this great wall." Gauthier longed that the wall, once symbolising withdrawal from the world for the world's sake, should now be broken down.

Two books, one by Gauthier himself, "Christ, the Church and the Poor", the other about his work "Eat from God's Hand" tell the story of his own experiences in the cradle of Christianity, of his foundation of the Companions of Jesus of Nazareth the Carpenter, of their tremendous work first in housing families themselves

and then founding a housing cooperative, thus transforming the lives of people who often were paying half a week's wage in rent for an airless hole.

Both these books tell of the initiative taken in Rome and the formation of a group called Church of the Poor, formed of men from all countries hitherto unknown to one another but working on similar lines.

Its leader, Cardinal Lercaro, had taken into his episcopal palace 50 poor buys and made them his own family. There were bishops from South America who had handed over diocesan land for the housing of the poor, who had refused to build cathedrals but turned the money into housing and the distribution of land in family plots.

Yet others had gone down to live in a poor house in a poor quarter among their people. There was the Bishop of Huancevila (Peru) who shares his diocesan property between 300 workers-who in their turn pay an annual subscription for the building of new churches and schools.

One of his priests, Fr. McLellan, started a co-operative with 23 Indians: after a few years its membership reached 60,000 families. "We must act at once," he said lately, "God knows if we are in time. The only thing we are sure of is that tomorrow will be too late."

This is the fear of the group who met in Rome. And while "Eat From God' s Hand" chiefly chooses its examples from South America, bishops and priests from India, Africa, Japan, Canada, West Germany, Yugoslavia, Egypt. Vietnam, Hungary and many other countries attended the meetings. The South Americans were predominant in numbers, but one of them had owed his conversion to the ideal of a poor church to Cardinal

Gerlier who had asked him after the Rio de Janeiro Eucharistic Congress of 1956 whether "we can afford such ostentation in a city surrounded by slums."

When this bishop, Helder Camara, was received by Pope Paul in the third Council session, the Pope, who had already as Cardinal Montini witnessed his tremendous slum clearance, held out his arms saying "Welcome, my Communist Bishop".

It was Camara who wrote to all his fellow bishops at the Council urging that they should make "a re-examination of conscience" on their attitude. "Are some churchmen exploiting vast estates? he asked. "May there not be sweat and blood in the alms we receive?"

He requested all the bishops, and a few responded, to give up "pectoral crosses of gold and silver" as a sign that they would enter upon "a style of life in keeping with the simplicity of the gospel".

What are the heartening elements in this picture? First, I think the immense response to the Holy Father's appeal for the underdeveloped countries. In Australia for instance (where I happened to be) "Operation Compassion" brought huge collections. In England, Cardinal Heenan gaVe the whole Lenten Alms to the Sudanese refugees.

Secondly, and far more important, you cannot read books and newspapers, still less travel the world, without realising that there are groups springing up everywhere-and that the poor men in co-operatives respond with all their heart.

Through these social efforts they begin to re-discover the Church, if other churchmen do not crush what a few arc starting. This is the immense danger. The harnessing of the Church to the world of the rich remains a massive fact. I know many people who say . the efforts being made come too late.

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