Religion and Catholicism in Latin America – A conversation with a Jesuit priest

Father John Jairo Montoya Rivera, SJ is a second year student from Colombia in the Master’s of Latin American Studies program. He has served as a Jesuit priest for twenty years after leaving his job as a lawyer. Before coming to Georgetown, he worked as the country director of the Jesuit Refugee Service to support victims and displaced persons of the armed conflict. We asked him for an interview in order to learn his perspective religion and Catholicism in Latin America. The below are some excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and thematic considerations.

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photo credit: Yahoo News

On the role of the Catholic Church in Colombia:

The Catholic Church in Colombia is huge, for good and for bad. We do a lot of things… We work with victims, we work in high schools we educate high class level, we have high class colleges and high schools, we have good universities, but we have more popular work for working class people, for poor people, so we are everywhere. So basically we combine, we combine, we try to not to be isolated from each other, we try to connect our work with high schools, for instance.

Is the Church involved in the conflict beyond relief efforts?

You don’t know! Bishops, Jesuits, they never tell you I’m doing this or that, but they’re doing [it] for the sake of people. They achieved great things in a very humble and silent way…

People believe that the Catholic Church now is very hidden in this peace process, but my sense is that this is not true, it is just the opposite. The Church is very active, it’s doing a lot of things, especially in those regions where the war took place and is more intensive. Parish priests, pastors, bishops, religious women, Catholics, they are very involved in the community, doing a lot of things …  it’s not very well known…. I think probably because of that, it’s more effective.

His opinion of the historical relationship of the Church with people and political structures:

Religion is very associated with the establishment, with political issues. So, the church provided a kind of infrastructure to this new kingdom for Spain at a time of the conquest. We have to break that. We are living in another time. The way we take Christianity – we follow the same path. Religion, Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, is associated with politics, with power, with state infrastructure and not with daily life, with the real commitment to your beliefs. And I think there is a discontinuity. There is a disruption and we have to fix it. And I think it takes time, probably centuries. It’s another way of living. That’s why it’s interesting to see Catholics, in Europe for instance, they are very committed. … In Latin America, it is more a forum, it is more a structure but It hasn’t been rooted in our heart and in our life. For us this is a historical part and we have to break it. It takes time.

… in Latin America because the church was a tool, it was used by the empire to conquer the territory and it was an excuse. [More recently] in Nicaragua, for instance, Daniel Ortega. Now, he is very close to the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church supports his government. In exchange, Nicaragua is one of the few countries in Latin America that forbids abortion. It is not legal, still not legal, in exchange. I remember the first time I went to Peru and I attended a mass by a very conservative cardinal who is still in the same position – the cardinal of Lima –  and the homily was terrible because the previous week the congress passed a law allowing abortion in two or three cases. He was furious, he sent all congress makers to hell. So when politicians try to be independent from the church, the church uses her power to put people against politicians and politicians are afraid of that. They worry. Because of the votes.

I think the state has to be for everyone, not for Catholics. As a priest, I can say in mass or in my speeches – Catholic women don’t commit abortion. I can say that. But within our own boundaries. But I don’t think the state can do that. Because the state has to be for everyone. It’s a personal decision. It’s public policy. The church can say something, but the church cannot impose her values to make them public policy. And it is very difficult. The hierarchy of the Church in Latin America, they don’t understand that. When a politician says something like that, they say “you are anti-Catholic, you are anti-Christian” and politicians don’t want to fight with bishops. The state has the duty to make public policy for everyone.

On the spread of Protestantism in Latin America:

So uhhh we have a very Roman Catholic traditions, liturgy, which is wonderful, it’s nice, but sometimes has nothing to do with the people’s culture. That’s why people don’t feel include, or they feel that what the priest is doing that is so strange, they don’t understand, why the pastor uses, or she, they use the same language, they belong to the same community, is very different. And I think we have to learn something from them. So I don’t demonize the evangelical church, the only problem I see is that sometimes in Latin America evangelical churches unfortunately are used politically… there are some politicians who previously are pastors and they became politicians because they use the church as a constituency, I think it’s a mistake. The other thing is that some pastors just found the church just to take money from people, I think [those are] the only two problems I see.

Will the influence of Pope Francis maybe make Catholicism more accessible in the way that Protestant religions are accessible?

I think so. I think –  I don’t think the main purpose of this pope is just to – I mean, I don’t think pope was elected as tool to cut the advance or the progress or the rise of the evangelical church in Latin America. I don’t think so. In fact, he’s very close to these movements. I think there is some revolutionary aspect in this papacy is the language he uses to approach people. Is a common language, everyone can understand. And I think we learn from him, that. And he’s very insistent.  

On his calling to the priesthood:

Since my childhood I wanted to be a priest, but I went to the university and I changed my mind and I decided to become a lawyer. So I worked some years as a lawyer. But when I was working as a lawyer I had two strong experiences with death. And those experiences changed my life. So I was on the borderline. And because I wasn’t sure at that time what to do with my life – I was 23 years old – these experiences both, they were very strong and they pushed me to make the decision. And I think when if you ask me “what is the reason or what is the moment you decided to become a priest or religious in this society?” I would answer the day everything became relative for me… after these things happened and everything became relative – secondary – this possibility, it was no longer a possibility, it was a reality. And I decided to leave behind everything. It’s very difficult to explain it, I think it’s the first time I’m saying that. It’s difficult. I think if you take any priest or any woman who decided to join the religious life why, that’s difficult. I mean, it’s like if I ask you why you marry this man. I don’t there is not a why because why is very rational, and it’s very emotional.

The most meaningful thing I think is – a personal encounter with God, and then with a personal encounter with people’s reality. But not people in abstract. With real people. When I am with victims and I can listen, I can touch them, I can hug them, I can help them, and I find that meaningful because of my faith. So both go together.

What do you think your biggest challenge for your work is?

To keep my faith. And to be aware, always, that the solutions to the problems are not in my hands. They are in God’s hands. But I have to work hard as if they were in my hands.

So is your faith tested in your work as a priest?

Absolutely, every day. And I think a challenge I have too is just to find a way to share my faith with people, with different people taking into account their diversity. To find the right world for everyone. And, of course, to witness what I say.

On Pope Francis and liberation theology:

I don’t think people love him because he is Latin American, because we have some bishops in Latin America who are very conservative and they represent the other side of the Church.

No, it’s just because of his understanding of the role of the Church in Latin America, the way he took his leadership, which is attractive for Latin Americans, for Europeans, for non-believers, for many, many many people, yeah?

But I would like to say with Pope Francis, liberation theology became an official theology of the Catholic Church.

That only happened with Pope Francis?

I think so, because he endorsed … the liberation theology statements, just go to the ground, work with people, it’s a kind of incarnation, yes? It’s a kind of theology from below, not from above…. so what he’s trying to do is put the church close to the congregation and the result is that some people who don’t believe, they come to the church, even here in the United States, It’s incredible. I know a young couple, they are atheistic, and they decided to become Catholics and they baptized, and they become Catholics and they baptized their kids as Catholics, just because of Pope Francis. That’s incredible.

How do you feel about that, in particular?

Not, me, I think especially theologians, who were especially in the past were censored by the Catholic Church because of their writings, or their speech, they are, they now feel free, and they can talk freely, yes? Because they feel the Pope backs or supports them, and I think this is one of the most important contributions of this papacy to the Latin American Church is just liberation theology. [This] is one of the characteristics of the Church in Latin America, and is now officially part of the Catholic Church teachings…

What do you mean surpassed? Took them to a higher level?

Yeah, he went far [in a speech to the Congress of the People of Bolivia]. They asked people, fight with your rights! Don’t be alone, don’t be silent. Ask the government for your rights, and don’t be here in this wall, in this room, go to the street. … I really recognize that speech as one of the milestones in this papacy until now, well probably it would be more, but I think it is one of the most important speeches this pope has delivered for Latin Americans.

There are some priests, some officials who are more conservative, who may not agree with everything he says, do you think that’s true?

Of course! But this is normal, this church is a million, is a billion people. And this is everywhere, it’s normal, it’s normal. We have conservatives, we have leftists, we have people in the middle way. But that’s fine, that’s normal in such a big organization. The key point here is just to be a good Christian. And how? And I think it’s just to take the Gospel, which is more important than the doctrine of the Catholic Church, is what Pope Francis said, just at the beginning of his papacy, the Gospel is more important than the Doctrine. So we serve the Gospel, we proclaim the Gospel, we don’t proclaim the Doctrine, the Doctrine changes, has to be updated. The doctrine has to be put to serve people, to help people, to live the gospel, and not in the opposite. Sometimes conservatives, they rely too much on the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and not the Gospel, that’s the problem.

Denisse Garcia and Rachel Martin are first years in the Master’s in Latin American Studies and Managing Editors of Transformaciones. They collaborated on this article. 

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