WHEN I was a child at school 25 years ago, we bought "black babies" for the missions: we paid sixpence for a cut-out paper doll and pasted it in our books and understood that in some way we were doing good.
I don't think that I ever tried to visualise these children less fortunate than myself, and I certainly never doubted that 1 was better then they. It took four years in Latin America for me to realise that underprivileged people are every bit as human as I am and have just as much right to food, health, shelter and education.
Even now, with this realisation branded deep in my soul, I know that there is a massive gulf between the way I think and talk and the way I live.
I went to Latin America not because I wished to bring the gospel to the poor or because of interest in Allende's Marxist government: I went because I was fed up with long hours of work in the British National Health Service and I thought that life in a country with a good climate and ample domestic help might be more ageeable.
Poor known as people and friends
My vision of Chile was a perfectly correct one, but it was incomplete: I had not taken into account the masses of people who live in conditions of sub-human poverty. It was not, however, until I became friendly with some of the Irish and American missionaries in Santiago that I came to know this other side of Chile.
My first encounter with the Englishspeaking missionaries was purely social, when the British Consul introduced me to the Columban Fathers who lived a few doors away from me.
Through them I met many of the North American priests and sisters and it was in going to see them in their homes in the poblaciones (shanty towns) that I came to understand something of missionary life in Latin America.
An increasing number of priests and nuns are leaving their comfortable town houses and moving out to the poblaciones to be with the people. They live in houses very like those of their neighbours and, apart from having a shower and a lavatory, they have no more than the people around them.
Living as they do among the poor, the missionaries have come to know them as people and friends. They share their food, their hopes, their joys and their sorrows, and in this sharing they live the Gospel Message that "you should love one another us I have loved you".
That this sharing is a prerequisite for effective preaching of the Good News is clearly expressed by the Chilean Bishop Fernando Ariztia: "The Church, like Jesus on the road to Emmaus will be recognised only in fraternal sharing. This is its condition for credibility. In this time, evangelisation takes on the visible shape which we call solidarity."
I think that living alongside the poor instead of apart from them is a change of enormous significance and it is part of a new pattern of mission work the world over: "One doesn't go down to the ghetto and work with negroes. One moves into a certain neighbourhood and gets to know Millie and Tommy and Jimmy and Mary". (from "Listen Pilgrim" by Christopher William Jones.) It is a momentous change because there is a true meeting between the missioner and the indigent population, and in that encounter there is the discovery that people living in conditions fit for animals are truly human.
It seems to me that perhaps there are two levels of knowing: we know in our intellects that the very poor and oppressed are fully human, but it is only when we know them as persons that the awful truth of their abused humanity touches us in the depth of our being and we are moved to weep, and to vomit — and to act.
It is possible to read about thousands of people dying of starvation in Bangladesh and to feel no more than a passing sense of sadness: but the death from malnutrition of one child that he has known personally can change a man's whole life.
Imprisonment and death of priests
It is not coincidence that we read so frequently of the imprisonment and death of priests throughout Latin America. In the past few weeks we have been told about a Brazilian bishop who was found naked and bound in the gutter, of a Brazilian priest who was shot in the presence of his bishop because he protested about the torture of a parishioner, and today I read that an Irish Little Brother of Jesus has been arrested in Buenos Aires.
So long as the Church follows Jesus Christ in striving to bring the Good News to the poor, to bind up hearts that are
broken and to preach liberty to captives, just so long will she be reviled and persecuted us he was.
". . the Son of Man is crucified always "And there shall be martyrs and saints." (T. S. Eliot) I believe that the importance of the missionary Church lies not only in the taking of the Good News from the "developed" nations to the countries of the Third World but also in the message that is brought back by the messenger to the Church which sent him.
This is a hard message that all men are created equal in God's sight but that they are not receiving an equal share in the earth's riches.
It is hard to recognise as Good News the message that we must eat less and live in smaller houses and work longer hours so that men and women who eat too little and have no houses may survive. This sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ should open men's hearts to the needs of their brothers and be the basis for the building of the Kingdom of of God on earth; but our hearts are hard, and it is easier to call the messengers liars or eccentrics or fools than to heed them,
Sacrifice call to hierarchy
Perhaps, though, the Gospel is beginning to be spread, for in the United States in July not only did Dom Helder Camara and Mother Teresa speak at the Eucharistic Conference in Philadelphia, but at the Conference on Global Justice in New York young missionaries, priests, nuns and lay people were invited to address a panel of bishops and senior Church members, and had the courage and audacity to call upon the hierarchy to lower their standard of living, so that the clergy and the faithful might be inspired to follow.
Dom Helder, Mother Theresa, and the missionaries of the Third World have put their hands into the wounds of the oppressed Christ and in seeing have believed.
The profound personal conversion which this realisation has brought about has given them a courage and freedom of spirit envied by thousands; and yet their secret is available to all. "If any man would follow me let him deny himself and take up his cross."
Hard words: and yet we should see, too, from the radiant joy and irrepressible merriment of these prophets of our time the truth that "everyone who has left houses, brother, sisters, father, mother, children or land for the sake of my name will be repaid a hundred times over . ."
'Dr Sheila Cassidy was arrested and tortured in Chile last year after she had tended a wounded guerilla leader at the request of local missionaries. She is soon to join the Sacred Heart Sisters.