As I prepare this reflection, I am getting ready to be with a church leaders group as we head to Mexico to take a look at the “deep integration of the north of the Americas.” A Canadian company stands accused of illegal gold mining in Mexico and a KAIROS (Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives) delegation is on its way to investigate. I am one of two representatives of the Religious Orders of Canada on the Board of KAIROS and the Board’s chair. The Canadian church leaders will meet with local people to bear witness to their struggle and bring details home to Canada. Foreign mining in Mexico is a by-product of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the trade liberalization policies that affect the poor. When our Mexican partners raised concerns about this Canadian-owned mine, we felt we had to investigate. Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
Hundreds of women and girls have been murdered in the northern free-trade zones of Mexico in the last decade. We want to explore the links between free trade and violence, especially these attacks against women, which seem to be continuing with impunity. The Canadian delegation will also share their concerns in a meeting with Gaetan Lavertu, the Canadian Ambassador to Mexico.
Why are the Redemptorists of the Edmonton-Toronto province so committed to KAIROS and its work? Why do we see the cry for justice to be an integral part of our charism and pastoral life? Why is biblical justice so central to evangelization in the North of the Americas? These questions and others have been debated for years among the confreres. To evangelize and be evangelized by the poor has been difficult. It seems that it was easier to evangelize, preach and catechize our catholic people when we were an immigrant church and a labour class. Now that Catholics in North America have become the “property class,” it is not so easy. For we too have become middle class and that is, for many, a problem, for others a blessing. I think of Mark 14: 66-72. Here we find Peter warming himself at the “fires of the powers.” When questioned and named as “being one of them,” Peter denies that he knows the man. We too have been warmed by the fires of the North American culture. We Canadians and Redemptorists have profited from the standard of living that we enjoy and hence find it difficult to be with and to take on the agenda of the poor.
Traditionally Redemptorists have been very good at works of charity, not so with justice. Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Catholic archbishop brought a preferential option for the poor to the centre of Christian social thinking. The gospel is so contrary to the way of the world that it has to be shown, not merely told. Pope Paul VI said: “What the world needs today are not teachers but witnesses.” Pope John Paul II sees the “new totalitarianism as economics” and the unjust economic structures that keep so many peoples of our world in poverty and hunger. While affirming the extraordinary works of charity, we must also point to that other gospel demand – the work of justice. This call is much more difficult and much less understood. Charity and justice are not the same. Both are necessary but those who engage in the ministry of justice will encounter misunderstanding and opposition within the society at large as well as the church and our congregation.
I had the wonderful privilege of studying theology in Germany. I was ordained a deacon in 1968 by a bishop who as a young priest in 1939 in a sermon spoke out against National Socialism. Gestapo agents were in the church and he was arrested after the Mass. From 1939-41 he was sentenced to do time in Sachsenhausen and from 1941-45 in Dachau, liberated then by the U.S. marines who entered Bavaria. In the 50’s Johann Baptist Neuhausler was ordained a bishop and in the 60’s ordained me a deacon. He told me something on that ordination day that has haunted me since: “Whenever the icon of God, the human, is defiled; you Paul with your life must say no.” During this time, I also saw the Berlin Wall and a people divided over ideology. But it wasn’t until 1974 while representing Canada in a delegation to East Africa that I encountered structural sin. I encountered an Africa that was living at the mercy of international economic structures. Much of this hunger and poverty was designed. The world was economically and politically structured to benefit the rich. And I was a citizen of the rich. This exposure was a formative event in my life. Things had to change. I started on a journey that has led me to this moment. My Redemptorist commitment and vocation finds itself centred in the work of justice. My community has become others who are doing the same. I have discovered that here in Canada many who are committed to the work of justice, forty years ago or so would have been interested in becoming a priest or a member of a religious order. Such is no longer the case.
Redemptorists who are committed to the work of biblical justice often walk a lonely road. Many are marginal to church and our congregation. Dom Helder once said that “even God is experienced as absent.” And yet when one hears that call, one can do no other. I am reminded of what Peter said to the courts when he was on trial in chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles: “I cannot promise not to say what I have seen and heard.”
The world in which we live is a far different world than the one of the time of St. Alphonsus. He was very creative in bringing the “good news to the poor” in his day with creative means and a sense of lived community. His ability to risk and to be creative must be a characteristic of Redemptorists today. We need to accompany the poor. We need to take on the agenda of the poor and with them speak the truth to the structures of power. During the eucharist we say: “gifts of the earth and the work of human hands will become for us the Body and the Blood of the Lord.” We have so structured our world that the gifts of the earth and the work of human hands are denied to many humans. How can we celebrate the eucharist and not be aware of this reality and do all in our power to right some of these wrongs! We also say in the eucharist: “do this in memory of me.” Do what? Do life as Jesus did it. The Beatitudes are the Magna Carta of discipleship, of the faith. Is our life truly based on these attitudes of being a disciple of Jesus in these our times? Are we truly concerned about the integrity of creation and the destruction that is caused because of the greed of the human species? I find in Micah 6:8 a wonderful way to name our vowed life in our time: “Do justice, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God.” Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God. We are also told that the best definition of this Kingdom is found in Romans 14:16 – “ For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
It seems to me that as Redemptorist preachers of the Word, it is important that we hear this biblical call and the call of the poor in these our times.
Paul Hansen C.Ss.R.