Those of us living in the United States face the challenge of how to live and preach the full gospel, the prophetic message as preached by Jesus. How can we as churches move from consoling and pacifying messages to challenging ones? How can we move from caring solely for members of our own congregations to becoming communities of faith that work toward justice for all—toward the reign of God?
The story of Most Holy Name Parish in Lima, Peru, as told by Joe Nangle in Birth of a Church, is a challenging example of a maturing Christian’s attempt to implement the gospel vision of social justice in his own community of faith, as Marie Dennis writes in the book’s foreword. Nangle’s story of his parish “is an amazing gift—most relevant to the vocation of U.S. parishes in the context of a world still divided by violence and poverty, yet yearning for justice and peace,” she writes.
Like many of us who were missionaries to Latin America in the early 1960s, Nangle went to Lima as an unreflective proponent of a North American-style church and society. After 10 years of pastoring, he writes, he emerged a critical social analyst fully in touch with both Latin American realities and with the enormous influence of the United States on these realities.
When we missionaries arrived we found that the church in Latin America was biased in favor of the wealthy. When Nangle and his Franciscan brothers began work among the upper middle class in Most Holy Name Parish in 1964, they were initially very popular. During their first four years, their outreach ministries and building projects, such as a school for the poor, were garnering acclaim inside and outside the parish. But those programs addressed the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty.
The Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in August 1968, profoundly affected the focus and pastoral work of Most Holy Name. This remarkable gathering and its aftermath shook the church and Latin American society to its foundations, Nangle writes, and deeply affected his understanding of the gospel and the life of God. The bishops acknowledged the poverty of the majority of Latin Americans, Nangle continues, calling the situation “institutionalized violence” caused by the combination of wealthy Latin American interests and oppressive international economic institutions. The bishops wrote in one statement that the church “will lend its support to the downtrodden of every social class so that they might come to know their rights and how to make use of them.”
One of the conference’s greatest teachings, writes Nangle, was the insistence that the injustices done to the majority of Latin Americans, along with their dehumanizing consequences, were not only economic or political, but gospel as well. In response to the conference’s mandates, Most Holy Name Parish became a community where the call to question and analyze the status quo in light of the gospel and Catholic social teaching was proclaimed.
Many pastors in Peru, because of fear, lack of understanding, or reluctance to speak the prophetic word, avoided coming to grips with the mandate of the Latin American church. Instead, they operated with a spiritualized, otherworldly, and unengaged model, writes Nangle.
Nangle and Most Holy Name Parish’s pastoral council moved away from this pacifying approach toward a concern for all parish members, rich and poor. Giving voice to the voiceless became the hallmark of every aspect of the parish. They transformed the Catholic school to serve all people, not just the wealthy, created a health clinic, and began projects among domestic workers. The question always remained: How will we develop a “preferential option for the poor” that will lead to structural change by and for the poor themselves?
Of course, the privileged hate to be challenged, and the move toward a more prophetic ministry produced constant conflict. Most Holy Name Parish lost many members.
First World faith communities have much to learn from their counterparts in the developing world. By our baptism, we’re called to work to bring about the reign of God. Currently many U.S. congregations and parishes do fairly well in taking care of the parish family. But do we truly think of our brothers and sisters in the majority world as our family? How can we enlarge the focus of our ministry to include a global focus? Birth of a Church may help us answer some of these questions.
Gail S. Phares worked as a Maryknoll missionary in Nicaragua and Guatemala during the 1960s. She is a founding member of Witness for Peace.