We Have No Heroes
Rev. William Messenger

For two weeks in June, 2001, 20 Catholic campus ministers from around the U.S. traveled through parts of Peru and Bolivia. The trip was co-sponsored by the Maryknoll Missioners and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association. A response to the Church’s Synod of the Americas, it was an opportunity to make ministerial contacts between campuses in the U.S. and those in South America.

To understand the Church in Peru and Bolivia, one must understand the people—culture
and politics. But is this not the same everywhere? Even in the USA, the new experiment of separation of Church and State was initially greeted with skepticism in Rome. It sounded too much like a previously failed experiment in Europe. Only the intervention of great American prelates like Bishop Carroll enabled Rome to embrace this young nation’s approach to politics in a multi-religious society. But the culture and politics of Peru and Bolivia are different.

These are two predominantly Catholic countries where the struggle is for the rights and freedoms of the common people against the power of the oligarchy.  It is really the story of two churches—two churches that use the same name, yet read the gospel through vastly different lenses. One church might be called the Church of the people, the other the church of the prelates.

The key to understanding the difference can be found in the profound insight of Pope John Paul II and the struggle in his native Poland. The Gospel of Solidarity should motivate the hierarchy to seek justice for all the people of God. Indeed, in Peru there are a number of bishops who are so moved by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Yet there are many more who would be unable to recognize the ministry of Jesus were he today walking the streets of Lima, as once before he walked those of ancient Galilee. One reality serves as a tragic example.

In Peru there exists a massive problem of spousal abuse. As in other countries, it has many causes, not the least of which is high unemployment and the attendant lack of self-worth. But the response of the two churches is very telling. The church of the prelates writes official reports to Rome stating that no such problem exists, all the while espousing a now-discredited notion that women are bound by wedding vows to endure abusive marriages. On the other hand, the Church of the people responds by setting up shelters, providing counseling and education for both husbands and wives.

The cultural and political situation in Bolivia is even worse. During two hundred years of independence, Bolivia has had more than two hundred governments. Although the current democracy is eighteen years old, it is precarious at best. Political instability breeds a demoralized population with little self-esteem. One Bolivian put it succinctly, but profoundly: “Unlike the USA we have no national heroes”. How could it be otherwise? In a society where individuals and certain groups are denied basic human rights, where no one knows from day to day who will control the government, how can a people feel good about itself? Even during our brief sojourn it was obvious that the university students in Peru were much more self-confident and self-possessed than their counter parts in La Paz. This in spite of the fact that the level of poverty in Peru, the employment rate and the human rights situation are nothing to brag about. Even the brightest and best of the students in Peru have little hope of finding a job once they graduate. On our first day in Lima we learned that the pilot who successfully landed our plane in the evening might also be taxiing us around town the next morning.

At first glance one might think that hope is a fleeting commodity just out of reach of the majority of the population. Where are the teachings of Jesus? Where are the values of the Gospel? Not surprisingly, one finds that the Church of the people represents an unending incarnation of the Word—giving new flesh to the same Gospel of
Solidarity that enabled the Pope to instill hope in the oppressed people of Poland.

Turning our attention to campus ministry in Peru and Bolivia, it is easy to see the re-emergence of a Church that is no longer aligned with the powerful. This Church is at the service of the poor and in Solidarity with all those who are willing to listen to the humble carpenter from Nazareth, and courageous enough to embrace the dignity of all God’s people. The Catholic campus ministry at four universities in particular, plus one educational and one pastoral institute all deserve special recognition for their commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ in a society fraught with injustice and inequality. These are the Jesuit Institute “Antonio Ruíz de Montoya” in Lima; the Andean Pastoral Institute and Cusco University in Cusco; the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno; and the University of San Andrés in La Paz.

Beyond the demands of education itself, these institutions challenge the students to seek new solutions to old and persistent problems. They encourage students to study the ministry of Jesus in such a way that they can address such issues as racism against native peoples, poverty, unemployment, land distribution and self-determination in light of the Good News. For university students, the fear of not finding a job after graduation is not merely an obstacle to overcome. It frequently is a cause of hopelessness and low self-esteem. Although assisting students to develop a healthy self-esteem is common to campus ministry even in the U.S., in Peru and Bolivia it presents one of the greatest challenges facing campus ministry. The students we met at the above-mentioned universities are filled with a passion for the Gospel and a desire to share their faith with one another. In late June a group of students from the campus ministry at Puno conducted a seminar for the students at one of the university departments. It was a peer led seminar on self-esteem. Though the seminar started out poorly the student leaders were committed and saw it through to completion. The result was a significant boost in the morale of the participants, some of whom only now have begun to believe in themselves—that they are made in the image and likeness of God, and that they have value independent of their success in life. It also enabled many of them to appreciate their native cultural heritage, specifically Quechuan and Aymaran, in a world that frequently dismisses ancient cultures as primitive and anachronistic at best.

Early in this third millennium the Church of the people is also confronted with new and somewhat unanticipated problems, such as ecology, free trade zones, and globalization. It is not only extreme and radical groups on the fringe of a New World order who oppose these last two international developments. Thoughtful and peaceful people also question the wisdom of establishing unfettered and untested economic processes that hand more and more wealth to fewer and fewer people, thus plummeting the poor deeper into a pit of poverty and despair. Yet the hands of the clock simply do not turn backward. As Maryknoll Father Steve Judd has noted, globalization is here to stay. It is the Church’s duty to see to it that globalization moves forward according to Gospel values, enriching not just the developed and industrialized nations, but the poorer and emerging ones as well. The University of the Altiplano, in concert with local government is helping to develop programs to restore the health of Lake Titicaca, by cleaning up the pollution and developing recycling and refuse diversion programs. Together, the people also are restocking the lake with its natural fish population and developing farming and fishing techniques that will preserve the fish habitat for future generations. The students speak of these activities with a passion and enthusiasm that refuses to be undermined by the complexity of the issues—gathering for civic and community forums and making their voices and concerns heard.

As I look back on the short visit to Peru and Bolivia, I must disagree with the assessment that they have no heroes. For me the heroes are the men and women, lay, religious and clerics who belong to and serve the Church of the people. Their dedication, their service, their lives, are creating a new breed of Catholic leaders—leaders who will re-incarnate the Gospel for a new age. For me it was a rare privilege to meet the real heroes of Peru and Bolivia.

(Rev. William Messenger is a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles)