by fr. Francesco Pierli
The World Social Forum (hereafter WSF) offers us an unique occasion to reflect upon the relation between mission and the world social transformation towards a higher level of social justice, of collaboration with God in order to complete the works of creation which is still in course, of liberation from so many kind of slavery that impoverish and crash the dignity of billions of people, and of the growing solidarity in a world that is each day more globalized and interdependent. This reflection has been prepared for the II° Comboni Social Forum.
Rome, 12.12.2008. The Virgin of Guadalupe

This reflection is divided into three parts. The first is on the relation between mission and social transformation. This is what this article is all about. The second, on the new social pastoral configuration in the beginning of the third millennium to guarantee a truly transformation (this is to be published in December). And the third, is about the Comboni Family, or if ones likes, the Comboni movement and the social transformation in the world today (this is to be published in January 2009).

Pilgrimage to the martyrs, prophets, and the labours of the Kingdom

To go to Brazil to participate in the WSF is for me, first of all, a pilgrimage through the continent and through the country where many martyrs and prophets for the cause of the Kingdom of God worked, gave up theirs lives, and are buried. Their testimony made visible a more just and brotherly social order that, respectfully, takes into consideration the integrity of creation. They sought with tenacity, vision, and courage the objectives that now the 2009 WSF tries to shade light upon and to propose to the attention of a world that is frightened and disturbed by the current financial crises. This is just one more confirmation of the fragility of the neoliberal system, which, arrogantly and violently, was imposed by the United States to the rest of the world.

Martyrs – Ezequiel Ramin: Land, ecology, and mission

He was before anything else a Comboni Missionary: Ezequiel (Lele) was sacrificed in 1985. Land problems were in the heart of violence in the Brazil of then and so it still is. Also in Africa this is becoming common, particularly in Kenya. There the population is four times bigger than it was in 1963, the independence year. The total of inhabitants was then of nine millions. Now they count thirty six millions. Crimes amongst the families because of the land on the sharing occasion are countless. The productive land is few; the regular rains that guarantee sowing and good harvesting became very rare. Water from rivers and lakes are getting less due to deforestation of the great mounts such as the Kilimanjaro and the Kenya mountains that used to guarantee regular rains and held great water reserves.

In Nairobi the number of cars has gone up in the rhythm of thirty thousands new cars circulating each year. But the roads are still those of the 1980’s. In the city more than a move away of cars, there is a burning up of fuel while trying to move away a few metres. Nevertheless the car culture has contaminated everyone. Public services are still a dream. So, there are many particular services of transport and these allow some people to take advantage at all cost by using inappropriate means of transport that look like moving chimneys. These unsafe means provokes constant accidents resulting in so many dead and invalid civil survivors.

Will the 2009 WSF, which will be celebrated in Belem in the Amazon, a key region for the world ecosystem, contribute to increase the ecological conscientiousness between us missionaries so that we will make it a pastoral aim amongst the people we serve? In the Christian communities, from the basic Christian communities to the parishes and dioceses, are the Catholics more sensible than others? Is ecology part of the missionary commitment of all of us Comboni Missionaries and Comboni Sisters? Is ecology one of the Kingdom values we are committed with? Are we also dependents cars in the view of a missionary: a machine? Is this the message we try to get across? In this context, how can we forget Chico Mendes, a martyr of the Amazon in 1988, a labourer and rubber collector who put together, as it was latter written, the cry of the poor with the cry of the earth?

Prophets – Franco Masserdotti: the mission and the Kingdom values

Franco Masserdotti was a great friend of mine since 1960 when we first met at the Novitiate of Gozzano (Novara). After that, he carried on studding and got a Degree in Sociology at the University of Trent and I, in turn, got a Degree in Theology in Rome. He was a confrere that, more than anyone else opened me up to the Latin America situation and made me familiar to names such as Luciano Mendes de Almeida, Aloísio Lorsheider, Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Frei Betto, indigenous cause, Medellin, etc. He helped me to go beyond Africa. There is a danger for us missionaries to leave aside the dimension of the world challenges and to close ourselves into a small space. “Parish mentality”, which in English means a limited horizon, bairrismo, the lack of breath that takes one beyond the front door. This gives us an inadequate perception of where the causes of poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation, and, above all, the structures without which it will not be possible to start the mechanism of a truly social transformation, are. Certainly one part of Franco should be assimilated by all of us from the Comboni Family.

Who has not come across the famous phrase of Bishop Hélder Câmara: “If I give bread to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why they are poor, then they call me a communist”. In the Unite States a woman at the same age as Hélder Câmara joined the same wave movement: she was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She wrote in her memories: “I have read a lot about the life of the saints and I was impressed by their generosity and dedication. But I still ask myself, why none of them, not even one, asked themselves: why there are so many impoverished people?” A mystic woman and engaged with the social transformation, Dorothy found in the spirituality and in her prayers a vision and the necessary strength to live coherently for the poor at the cost of police persecution, some time in brief period in jail, and with perplexity shown by not so few ecclesial circles. The cause of her canonisation has just been opened!

This multitude of martyrs, prophets, and builders of the Kingdom of God gives us the guarantee that the religious, social, and political dimensions and the mission are inseparables. That is why a ministerial pluralism that involves priests, laity, and active religious people, interdependent and complementary in the apostolic communities, is so urgent. In order to promote and to spread out this vision of an apostolate that integrates the religious and social dimension and brings together consecrated people and the laity, the Comboni Family created in 1994, as a fruit of the first African Synod, the Institute of Social Ministry, which is a Faculty in the Catholic University of Nairobi.

A structural change: making people more active and less passive

Vatican II begins one of its main documents, Gaudium et Spes, with a vast analysis of the social change/transformation, a main characteristic from the end of the second millennium and beginning of the third:

“Today's spiritual agitation and the changing conditions of life are part of a broader and deeper revolution. As a result of the latter, intellectual formation is ever increasingly based on the mathematical and natural sciences and on those dealing with man himself, while in the practical order the technology which stems from these sciences takes on mounting importance. This scientific spirit has a new kind of impact on the cultural sphere and on modes of thought. Technology is now transforming the face of the earth, and is already trying to master outer space. To a certain extent, the human intellect is also broadening its dominion over time: over the past by means of historical knowledge; over the future, by the art of projecting and by planning. Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences not only bring men hope of improved self-knowledge; in conjunction with technical methods, they are helping men exert direct influence on the life of social groups. At the same time, the human race is giving steadily-increasing thought to forecasting and regulating its own population growth. History itself speeds along on so rapid a course that an individual person can scarcely keep abreast of it. The destiny of the human community has become all of a piece, where once the various groups of men had a kind of private history of their own. Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems, a series as numerous as can be, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis” (GS, 5).

It is true! In the last 60 years the road has been global and vertiginous. We people with white hair have witnessed and are subjects and objects of immense transformations. When I first read the biography of Comboni by Fusero in 1975, Africa was still a European colony. However, in that very same year the first sub-Saharan nation became independent: Ghana of Kwame Nkruma. After that, came the fall of the colonialism during the 1960’s and went on up to the liberation of Mozambique in1975; Africa got a new configuration. But history did not end with the independency: there came about no democracy but dictatorships regimes. Political powers were taken by force in the context f a bipolar world: Russia/Communism and United State/Capitalism. A world order, it can be said, that created the ideal humus for dictators both from left ad right wings, particularly in Africa and Latin America. They played between the two superpowers in order to consolidate power in detriment of their own people.

Nevertheless, the Christian communities have not been passive and inert. In Latin America, particularly, they have played a unique and very important role on the difficult path to liberation and to the end of the dictatorships. Liberation theology has been a fruitful expression of this with no little ramifications also in Africa and Asia. Liberation theology gave the vision and rooted the social and political dimensions in the faith and thus, promoted a new way of reading the Bible. The popular movements, in contact with the basic Christian communities, made the reading updating. The local Latin American churches got together in Medellin in 1968, long before others continents to translate and to incarnate the Vatican II into the local context. In no other continent the Vatican II had a systematic and popular welcoming as it did in Latin America: Medellin and Puebla are witnesses of this.

The Synod of the Bishops of 1971 in Rome had seen in the popular movements something such as the signs of the times. Social events marked by a powerful and mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit, the first protagonist of mission, opened the door to a new season. Here some pieces:

“Scrutinizing the signs of the times and seeking to detect the meaning of emerging history, while at the same time sharing the aspirations and questionings of all those who want to build a more human world, we have listened to the Word of God that we might be converted to the fulfilling of the divine plan for the salvation of the world.
At the same time we have noted the inmost stirring moving the world in its depths. There are facts constituting a contribution to the furthering of justice. In associations of people and among peoples themselves there is arising a new awareness which shakes them out of any fatalistic resignation and which spurs them on to liberate themselves and to be responsible for their own destiny. Movements among people are seen which express hope in a better world and a will to change whatever has become intolerable.
The uncertainty of history and the painful convergences in the ascending path of the human community direct us to sacred history; there God has revealed himself to us, and made known to us, as it is brought progressively to realization, his plan of liberation and salvation which is once and for all fulfilled in the Paschal Mystery of Christ.
The power of the Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead, is continuously at work in the world. Through the generous sons and daughters of the Church likewise, the People of God is present in the midst of the poor and of those who suffer oppression and persecution; it lives in its own flesh and its own heart the Passion of Christ and bears witness to his resurrection.
Hope in the coming kingdom is already beginning to take root in the hearts of people. The radical transformation of the world in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord gives full meaning to the efforts of people, and in particular of the young, to lessen injustice, violence and hatred and to advance all together in justice, freedom, kinship and love”.
(World Synod of Catholic Bishops, 1971 on Justice in the World, 2,4,6,74 and 76)

Gustavo Gutierrez – Leonardo Boff – Paulo Freire – Chico Whitaker

Prophetic personalities rooted in the world of the poor, scientifically competent and charismatically influential, they accompanied the journey with an appropriated reflection without which the consciousness process will no be possible. Such consciousness was to help people to assume themselves as full subjects and to go beyond the apathy and passivity. Without that (critical) consciousness one may fall into a kind of ideology that is very far from the evangelical message and praxis. One can not forget the beginning of the 1970’s when Gustavo Gutierrez, the first amongst the liberationist theologians, wrote his classical Liberation Theology. This writing sanctioned a new way of doing theology based on a new way of being church: the basic Christian communities (in Africa they called small Christian communities). Paulo Freire with his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which had great success in Africa and, we from the Institute of Social Ministry, studied it from the beginning to the end. Who did not feel challenged by the famous affirmation of chapter III: “Action without reflection is activism that does not transform; and a reflection without an action is a discourse that does not leave a mark?” Leonardo Boff with his book Christ the Liberator contributed to translate and to reintegrate the classical theology into the current world, but abstract of Redemption in that no less biblical but more fruitful and pastorally applicable Liberation. Finally, Chico Whitaker, also a Brazilian, a great collaborator of the Brazilian Bishops Conference (CNBB) in the times of the dictatorship; just like Freire, he also had to go into exile for 15 years (1966) and gave a important contribution at the launching and accompaniment of the WSF in the beginning of the year 2000.

Mission and social transformation

The use of the Bible shows a mentality of who makes use of it and reveals the vision of world of its reader. For many centuries the classical biblical quotation for the mission was Mathews 28:16-20: “Go, therefore, and teach all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And teach them to observe all that I commanded you”. Since baptism is the official entrance in the Church, mission was seen with a very ecclesiocentric tonality, almost at the service of the numerically growth of the Church. The Kingdom of God that inspired the motivations and actions of Jesus had disappeared. In the year 2000 others biblical texts were taken, though the previous one was kept. The first between all new the texts was that of Luke 4:14-22 that reveals us the missionary consciousness of Jesus manifested in the Synagogue of Nazareth by using the words of Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk 4:18-19).

Here mission is very global and brings together the religious with the social dimensions, a personal conversion with a communitarian transformation. This is the mission of the Church we find elaborated in Gaudium et Spes and that is latter taken at the Synod of Bishops in 1971 from which we present other relevant pieces:

“Gathered from the whole world, in communion with all who believe in Christ and with the entire human family, and opening our hearts to the Spirit who is the whole of creation new, we have questioned ourselves about the mission of the People of God to further justice in the world.
Listening to the cry of those who suffer violence and are oppressed by unjust systems and structures, and hearing the appeal of a world that by its perversity contradicts the plan of its Creator, we have shared our awareness of the Church's vocation to be present in the heart of the world by proclaiming the Good News to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, and joy to the afflicted. The hopes and forces which are moving the world in its very foundations are not foreign to the dynamism of the Gospel, which through the power of the Holy Spirit frees people from personal sin and from its consequences in social life.
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.
At the same time as it proclaims the Gospel of the Lord, its Redeemer and Saviour, the Church calls on all, especially the poor, the oppressed and the afflicted, to cooperate with God to bring about liberation from every sin and to build a world which will reach the fullness of creation only when it becomes the work of people for people”.
(World Synod of Catholic Bishops, 1971 on Justice in the World, 1,5,6, and77)

Local churches – social actors: protagonists of a profound transformation

The local churches are social actors and this is deduced from what has been said above. Here we just wish to add some points in order to show how in fact this social responsibility is put into action. One of the many fruits of the Vatican II was the rediscovery of the local churches as the sacrament of salvation of the peoples, through cultures, by the continents and thought the environment in which they are located. “Local” means a profound relation with the human, social, political, and financial continent in which a local church is situated. Sacrament of salvation is commonly said to be all that the word salvation implies; it has to do with presence and action of this particular community, a local church. Salvation is for all but the vehicle that makes it visible and orientates it is the community of those who, through baptism, have accepted to be sacrament of salvation to all the others. Your personal salvation depends on how many have efficiently carried through your own vocation of being a vehicle of life, faith, liberation, communion, and solidarity shown to all the others.

Pope Paul VI committed himself to give the churches of all the continents a theological spiritual, juridical, and apostolic cohesion of his own; also with visible logistics structures so that they could operate as a vehicle of salvation to the related continents. This meant a great investment from a financial point of view which was faced with the solidarity of the economically better off churches such as those in Germany (Miséreor e Míssio). In Latin America: CELAM in Bogota, in Africa SECAM in Accra. Big ecclesial meetings have shown continental collegiality (solidarity): in Latin America in Medellin and Puebla; in Africa in Kampala, Blantyre, Nairobi, and Accra.

In one of these big meetings, Jomo Kenyata, the founder of the Kenyota nation, pronounced a famous phrase to the bishops: “You churches must be the consciousness of the nations”. Those who know the history in the last fifty years should remember the important role of the churches in the process of liberation of not few nations. In the Philippines of Marcos, in Poland of the communist regime, in Malawi of Kamuzu Banda; the tribute of blood and ideas given in many countries of Latin America, from Salvador to Chile, from Guatemala to Brazil, with great figures such as Oscar Romero and the Jesuits of the University of Salvador, the Cardinal Raul Silva Henrique, defender of the human rights in Chile of Pinochet, as Hélder Câmara, Ezequiel Ramin and Chico Mendes in Brazil, just to mention some. Beside this, some local churches in Africa, in the 1990’s, in many nations facilitated the transition from a dictatorship military regime into a more participative and democratic political system. This not to mention the support in moments of emergency caused by wars and social instabilities and by natural disasters such as flood and draught.

Also the Nobel Prize for Peace given in the last fifty years to preeminent Christians such as Alberto Luthuli (South Africa), Rigoberta Menchú Tum (Guatemala), Desmond Tutu (South Africa), Lech Walesa (Poland), Adolf Perez Esquivel (Argentina), Madre Teresa of Calcutta (India), Martin Luther King (United States), are a sign of the social commitment of these local Christians communities.

Conclusion: a new configuration of the social apostolate/pastoral

Reflecting upon the history of the last fifty years we can say that the golden moment of the social presence of the Christian communities is linked, both in Latin America and in Africa, to moments of social emergency due to dictatorships or social instability or even due to natural calamities; in Europe it is linked to the choke with the communist regime. The local churches succeeded in being efficient when they had a clear enemy to face, a “devil” to knock down. Its task is much more complex when it comes to the moment to put forth proposals to build a new order. This is because the “devils” disappear or at least it is more difficult to identify them. This is the challenge of the current moment that finds the Christian communities with little direction and insecure about what to do after the meaningful and effective presence of the last decades. The task now is to invent with courage, discernment, and daring a new configuration of social pastoral. Can we make it? Do we, Comboni Missionaries and Comboni Sisters together with the Christians communities, have spirituality, life style, scientific competency, and enough cohesion to begin a new epoch of social pastoral? We shall com to this in the next article.

Francesco Pierli – mccj
A reflection for the occasion of the VIII World Social Forum 2009