By Marcelo Barros, a Benedictine Monk
Marcelo Barros, Benedictine Monk and author of 30 books, like "O Espírito vem pelas Águas". Ed. Rede-Loyola, 2003. Email: irmarcelobarros@uol.com.br, will be, with fr., Pierli animator in the II Combonien Forum Social in Belem. This is his contribution for the preparation of this event.
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Roma, 23.12.2008


Despite being a Comboni of heart, for I do not belong to the Congregation, I feel myself insecure to point out some questions and challenges for the Second Comboni Forum (CF II) in Belem, 2009. I had the honour and the joy to participate and to assist in the First Comboni Forum (Nairobi, January 2007). There I witnessed a new phenomenon, at least in terms of what I have known regarding Religious Congregation: although that was not a General Chapter or any official instance of the Congregation, there was a meaningful presence of missionaries from the whole world and, having as the start point the cause of the poor and a new possible world, they tried to put (at least in those days) the whole Congregation in a state of Forum.

The World Social Forum (WSF) began with a group of volunteers activists who decided to gather together to oppose themselves to the current economic order and to support a major articulation of experiences that could take the world to a social and a cultural transformation. They have done this without any official mandate given by any authority. They did not represent (even today) any institution. They have just acted as citizens. The WSF process was increasing till become what it is today: a meeting point for humanity to which people come just as people and not because they maintain any especial position or have specific titles. What convokes them all is a concrete and immediate project for a possible new world. So, from the WSF and integrated with it a lot of other forums such as forum of politics authorities, judges, educators, and communications agents began to be organised. Besides this, two forums on liberation theology have been done and the third is being prepared. What constitutes these forums is their being an open and democratic space for discussion and articulation for grassroots experiences.

When I say that the First Comboni Forum (CF I) was an attempt to put the Congregation in a state of forum (I prefer to say that it was an attempt to and not that it actually put) I do not want to make any bombastic statement that might sound interesting but without any practical consequences. Instead, I refer myself to the fact that the Comboni Missionaries gathered for the CF I and began to think their mission and their unity in the Congregation having as basis this new logic of a radical democracy, of an openness to dream and to an utopia, and at the same time, trying to keep it in the strict scope of reality having into perspective the possible stages. Now the preparation for the CF II asks ourselves to deepen this: what does it mean, from below and in a prophetical way, to put the Congregation and the mission in a state of forum?

I do not intend to give any answer to the questions that should interest and involve all the participants. What I propose here is, from the history and the process of the WSF, to raise some questions and point out challenges for the CF II.

1. Concepts that have become power on the journey.

In a human civilisation which, in some years time, will count nine billions of inhabitants is no longer possible to conceive the world as a mere space of production and consume, a place for economic disputes, even between peoples. The movements that look for “another possible world” want first of all to rethink our ethos, and do this no more thinking of a struggle between social classes or between the political parties and unionists, but thinking in the valorisation of the popular cultures and spiritualities.

The Greek word ethos has just been like reinvented to express the human communion of peace and justice within the world. In its origin, this word is linked to the life in the polis, the city, the place of traditions, of values and human realisations. Enrique Dussel explains: “Ethos is the start point to comprehend what makes the humanum, that is, it is like the base that supports the human, like a dynamic source, and not something static. Ethos is in the origin of the norms and of the diversity of the religions and cultures. We see the ethos as the first printed mark of the Creator in human beings”(1).

According to this comprehension, ethos is the way the human beings behave in their relations and in their organisation of life in the common house which is the planet Earth. The explanation and deepening of this is what we call Ethic. In the modern world, it was Heidegger who better rescued the meaning of ethos as the house, the human living together, from his own reading of the Pre-Socratic Heraclitus (5th Century BC). His contribution is in the sense of reinterpreting the Ethic from an integrating vision of the being as a place from where derivates all the symbolic world and the life itself is understood not as a line divisor, but as an instance that approximates all beings, a celebrative circle of the cosmic existence”(2).

This ethical comprehension is, overall, an affirmation of the human capacity that goes beyond the rationalised morals requirements. It takes as the start point the faith in human being and shows that the secret of life is care, love, integration, affection, tender… In the year 2000, the “Earth Charter”, which was approved by UNESCO, said clearly: “humanity must choose its future”. This is what the alter-worldly movements are doing. This is the WSF’s ethical and cultural base.

What can this Ethic, that is present and active in the popular movements, teach us who live in a Religious Institution? Do we, in our human relationship with one another and in our own way of dealing with people, put ourselves in this ethical dimension? How can we deepen this way?

2. Movements for liberation and Peace

We cannot talk about this subject without taking a good look at what is going on in Latin America. This is the continent where the alter-worldly process, in a certain sense, began and it is there where the forum process is provoking more structural changes both in the political and social fields. It is good to have an understanding of some elements of this movement.

In Latin America the new liberation movements came about with the insurrection of the indigenous people from the South of Mexico (Chiapas, 1st January 1994) against the creation of the America Free Trade Area. Since then, the indigenous conquered the whole world proposing an alternative to the neo-liberalism system. They have done this with no-violence and out of the revolutionary Marxist traditional modes. Instead, they have made use of the internet. Communication was privileged. They have spread around poetries of the sub-commandant Marcos. Besides this, they have promoted two international meetings in the Laconda jungle. These were meetings of humanity for Life and against neo-liberalism. On these occasions, they had the presences of people like Danielle Mitterand, Mario Soares, and the Peace Nobel Prizes Rigoberta Menchu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel. These meetings were the precursors of the WSF which began in 2001 (Brazil) and also of the movements that generate a new political situation in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and other countries across the continent.

In the WSF, for the first time, people from the various peoples, races, and cultures gathered simply as human persons standing for the impoverished and assuming the cause of justice. It was the first time that the Indians dalits had the word and spoke up for the whole world with authority and freedom. In Nairobi the inhabitants of the barracópolis and the teenagers from Kibera, though this was not planed, were the main protagonists of the WSF VII.

These movements want to refund the Politic with new bases, but for that they are inserting themselves in the grassroots movements having in common no longer a political ideology or even a single strategic vision, but an ethical option. Although this Ethic is not so explicit and is not even named as a Peace Ethic, it is being organized and consolidated as the deepest and most efficient way that currently exists in the world for the permanent conquest of peace.

The most recent happening in Latin America has been the insurgence and strengthening of the indigenous and black people movements. The social and political process that has led to new and more popular governments together with the elaboration of a new and more democratic Constitution in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela (even in Brazil and Nicaragua) would not have been possible without the raising of the indigenous movements and, hardly, they would have arrived at the point where they are now if there had not happened the journey of the basic Christian communities and, along with their experiences, the Liberation Theology. The great turn over of these movements took place in the 1970s when mission was understood no more as a movement to conquer new Catholics, but as a service to life and for the cause of the oppressed. In 1968, in Medellin, the Catholic Bishops of Latin America proclaimed: “Let there be presented to the Continent and to the whole world the face of a paschal and missionary Church, poor and dispossessed of the means of power, committed with the liberation of the whole humanity and of each human being in all their life dimensions” (Cf. Medellin, 5, 15).

This text, whose inspiration is owing to Bishop Hélder Câmara who was present at the Conference, is the inspiring text of a new pastoral movement seen as a social and political service from which has originated a whole range of socials pastoral activities with a prophetical character. Actually, this leads to see how the sister churches, specially the Catholic Church, have taken part in this process.

3. The forwards and backwards on the ecclesial journey

The ecclesial process is complex and diverse. It is not fair to make general statements or even to make analysis only looking at what happened at the Vatican or in the Episcopal Curia. In the God’s people plan, that is, at the grassroots levels, let us take as an example the preparation for the 12th interecclesial meetings of the basic Christian communities that will take place in the city of Rondonia in the Amazon in July 2009. Those, like me, who have followed the journey of these events since the 3rd meeting (city of João Pessoa, 1973) and have assisted most of them since the 6th meeting (city of Trindade, 1986), know well that the preparation of an interecclessial meeting of basic Christian communities has never been so deep and well articulated as the preparation for the 12th meeting. Beside this, those who follow the afro-descendent and indigenous pastoral work can only thank God for the profound and meaningful meetings which have animated this journey. One cannot deny that this popular journey is happening in a Catholic Church setting that seems to make all efforts to deny and nullify the Second Vatican Council. The problem is not only the Pope himself who does not save efforts to lead back the Church to the pre-council state (if he could), but the powerful and centralizing structure, that is little evangelical and favours ideological occasions and pure worldly flattery.

In the ecumenical field, and also in the Catholic context, the great Christian movement at the end of the 20th century and beginning of this new century is Pentecostalism. They say that in Africa 80 out of 100 Christian are Pentecostals. I am not sure about the number in Latin America, but I believe it quite a high number if we consider the Pentecostals churches, the neo-Pentecostal and the Pentecostal-alike movements (Catholic Charismatic Renew or newborn Christians) presents in all historical churches like the Roman Catholic churches.

In Chile, the God’s Assemble and others Pentecostals churches took active part in the struggle against the military dictatorship. However, in the great majority of our countries a fundamentalist reading of the Holy Bible together with a puritanism that comes from a popular Protestant tradition have made it difficult to have a more critical and transforming approach by the Pentecostal churches in the social and political realm. On the other hand, on the side of Catholic missionaries or people from historical churches there is a lack of an ecumenical and pastoral formation that enables them to keep a good relationship with the Pentecostals and a grave omission in relation to this phenomenon. In a world marked by the religious and cultural pluralism the so-called macro-ecumenism, that came about as an explicit movement in Latin America in 1992, has offered an answer for the action of the churches to develop a dialogue with the popular cultures and has been taken as an important element for the historical churches to become less westernised and become more capable of really being universals structures. Unfortunately, few pastors are aware of the importance of this road and thus open for the changes.

How do we put ourselves in relation to this pastoral dimension and mission that is service to the world? What ecumenical dimension has our sense of mission and our concrete work?

4 - Spiritual ecumenicity in the popular movements

Contrary to hierarchies that are stuck to their dogmatism and do not accept the different, the process of the WSF has helped the communities that took part in it to live a great ecumenicity with a spiritual character. All the WSF editions have given space to the indigenous villages, to many black people movements, to ecumenical laity celebrations for peace, and to the movements of young people and of those who look for space and debate. In Italy, in the early 1990s, Ernesto Balducci, a Philosopher of a new politic and a prophet of peace, wrote: “In our days to renounce to the violence, to the arms and to the war is one imposition of the consciousness. However, for many it is still a demanding from reality. It would have been already a contribution for peace if the disciples of the Utopia and those of realism, instead of accusing each other and of getting divided, made an effort to come together in the same movement and to understand the reasons of each other”(3).

In Latin America, men consecrated to peace like Hélder Câmara and Oscar Romero, understood all that since the 1960s and developed a dialogue with the movements of liberation, even if they kept on affirming that they were against any kind of violence. Currently the WSF gathers together not only movements of consciousness, but also groups and movements committed with the social and political transformation of society, many of them through the culture and education. The new Ethic of Peace gives base to an enormous and multiple movement for Peace, but it goes beyond of a pacifist movement. These movements developed themselves as elements of a new Ethic and spirituality that is closely linked to the Justice and to the Liberation of the whole humanity. They have inaugurated a new globalisation from below putting in evidence the protagonism of the little ones.

The first element of this new spirituality is the fidelity to what is real. The very motto of the WSF is “a new world is possible”. This “possible” does not put any limit to the utopia, but makes ways of fidelity to what is real. Some times, in Latin America, left wing groups lost because they believed so much in the utopia that they did not sufficiently care to base themselves on reality. Now the new socialist spirituality does not renounce to the utopia, but consider the realism a priority.

Here we realise how humanity is fragile. At the Eco 92 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, scientists had declared that, on the Earth, the most threatened living being is the human specie. And, concretely, it is threatened by wars and by the violence that attack the world, but even more by the permanent war of hunger and injustice that, in 1968 in Medellin, the bishops of Latin America called of “structural injustice”, that each day is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of innocents children. That is why the way of Peace and Justice passes through the liberation from this unjust structure that oppresses the whole humanity. It is all about a non-violent revolution which is carried out based on spirituality and on the valuing of the different cultures and on which the equality of man and woman, just as the care for the whole nature, are fundamentals elements of this process of liberation and peace.

5. What about the Comboni Forum II?

To put our mission in a state of forum it is necessary to review and to deepen our understanding of mission. If what we want is to debate mission, but without reviewing our comprehension of the church and of the world, we may not succeed in reviewing profoundly the mission. A missionary vision thought of from a Christendom point of view is going to confirm us in the perspective of conquering and proselytising, which is contrary to a comprehension of Forum. A forum is not just a meeting. The meeting consecrates a daily process that gives consistency and truth to the debate during the forum. The CF II cannot hide itself behind of or go outside the process of the WSF which is lived out by many popular organisations from the whole world. That supposes that the Congregation or the part of it that is involved in this journey get into a process of synodality, democratic relationships, and permanent openness to the debate of all the necessaries themes making sure that no taboos-themes is left out.

The WSF in the Amazon will be centred on sustainability. The CF II should deepen how we live it out in the light of our faith. What is the place of sustainability and of communion with the creation in our spirituality and how do we express it? How can we come out of this forum with a vision of mission based on the cultural and religious pluralism and in a perspective of a liberation pluralist theology?

Marcelo Barros
Brasil, June 2008

  • (1) DUSSEL, E. Para uma Ética da Libertação Latino-americana II, Eticidade e Moralidade. São Paulo: Loyola, 1977, p. 85.
  • (2) OLIVEIRA, JELSON – BORGES WILTON, Ética de Gaia, Ensaios de Ética Ambiental, São Paulo, Paulus, 2008, p. 16.
  • (3) FLAVIO LOTTI, Un´Ispirazione per i movimenti per la Pace del nuovo secolo, in Testimonianze, 421- 422, p. 184.

    Photos Comboni Press. WSF Nairobi 2007, presence of the Comboni Missionaries
  • The meaning and task of a Second Social Comboni Forum