Jesuit university president hopes Pope Francis can help church in Peru “regain its prophetic voice”

Men carry a replica of Peru's most revered religious icon, the "Lord of Miracles," during an Oct. 18, 2017 procession in Lima. Each year thousands of Catholics gather to commemorate the image's survival in a 17th-century earthquake that destroyed Lima. (CNS photo/Mariana Bazo, Reuters)Men carry a replica of Peru's most revered religious icon, the "Lord of Miracles," during an Oct. 18, 2017 procession in Lima. Each year thousands of Catholics gather to commemorate the image's survival in a 17th-century earthquake that destroyed Lima. (CNS photo/Mariana Bazo, Reuters)

Peruvian Catholics are awaiting Pope Francis’ visit “with joy and expectation” and “hope that his message will be that of unity and hope: unity for a country that is polarized politically, but, above all, very fractured socially; that has been unable to recognize its rich historic, ecological and cultural diversity, which is one of the greatest gifts of God.”

That is what Ernesto Cavassa, S.J., president of the Jesuit-run Universidad Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, in Lima, Peru, said in this interview with America on the eve of the papal visit (Jan. 18-21). Father Cavassa was provincial of the Jesuits in Peru from 1998 to 2004, and president of the Conference of Latin American Jesuit Provincials (CPAL) from 2005 to 2012. In this latter role, he was designated by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Jesuits, to represent him at the CELAM assembly in Aparecida, and there he came to know Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

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The following is an edited and condensed version of an interview translated from the Spanish by Matthew Ippel, S.J.

How are Peruvians viewing the visit of Pope Francis?

Peru is a particularly religious country with a strong presence of “popular religiosity.” More than 90 percent of the population expresses some type of religious conviction, the majority being connected to the Catholic Church (75-80 percent), mainly due to family and/or cultural tradition. Among Catholics there is joy and expectation awaiting Pope Francis’ visit, although most are only familiar with his message in a general way. The growing evangelical churches view his visit with skepticism and remain distant from the enthusiasm that this event is generating.

What have been the major changes in the country since John Paul II’s visit here in 1985?

John Paul II visited Peru twice: in 1985 he came for five days and traveled to eight cities and in 1988 he was present for 40 hours in the Marian Eucharistic Congress of Bolivarian Countries. Those were dramatic times for Peru: an economic crisis that kept the majority of the population in poverty along with internal political violence provoked by the terrorist activity of Shining Path, which murdered thousands and has left Peruvian society fractured to this very day. In his first visit, the pope coined a phrase that became a slogan: “Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no.”

Father Ernesto Cavassa was provincial of the Jesuits in Peru from 1998 to 2004, and president of the Conference of Latin American Jesuit Provincials from 2005 to 2012.

The Peru that Francis will visit has overcome terrorism, recovered democracy and been able to maintain continuity in various government policies thanks to the “National Agreement.” It has grown economically on average of 4 to 5 percent annually since 2000, has established broadly successful social policies and been able to reduce poverty, especially in urban areas, allowing for a growing middle class with greater possibilities for a better quality of life. The economy grew from 2004 to 2015 without interruption mainly due to extractive industries and the strong international mineral prices. In the same period, poverty was substantially reduced from 58.7 to 20.7 percent.

Peru has become a middle-income country, with macroeconomic policies that give confidence to national and foreign investors. Nevertheless, it maintains a high level of income inequality that keeps a large population at the margin of these benefits, especially those who live in the highland rural zones of the Andes, in native Amazonian communities and at the edges of the big cities. Many children also are left out of the “progress” (infant anemia has increased), and above all girls and young women in rural areas are subjected to human trafficking or a lack of a quality education. Many elderly people, after years of work, are left out of an adequate pension system.

Given the charges of corruption against the president (and the failed impeachment), how would you describe the political climate now?

Corruption has developed systematically in the political, economic and social spheres, becoming a serious problem. It causes grave dangers that affect the human development of millions of Peruvians, obstruct economic growth and competitiveness, and deteriorate the governability of the country and citizens’ trust of its politicians. Corruption has paralyzed large public works that affect basic services like health, education, transportation, housing and access to water and sanitation, leaving thousands of workers unemployed.

More than 70 percent of Peruvians tolerate corruption or are indifferent to it.

Surprisingly, there is a high social tolerance of small or large corruption. More than 70 percent of Peruvians tolerate corruption or are indifferent to it, and many are resigned to live with these acts. Social tolerance of, indifference to or complicity in corruption do not allow for a direct struggle against it. On the contrary, in many cases these social ills allow for the election of questionable or corrupt authorities.

What are the biggest challenges facing the country?

The country needs to find a way to combat corruption with the strong support of its authorities and the active participation of its citizens. It is necessary that more citizens, especially young people, commit themselves to public ethics, a culture of honesty and the prevention of corruption.

In addition, Peru needs to strengthen political institutions. In macroeconomic terms, Peru should stop being a primarily extractive country by diversifying its productive capacity to agro-exporting, aqua-cultural, forestry and manufacturing areas with due care of the environment.

Peru also needs political reform that allows a broad swath of the population to participate in the political life of the country based on an adequate electoral reform, reconstructing the judicial system so that it can be effective in administering and securing the separation of powers and the due respect between these powers.

How has the Peruvian church changed since John Paul II’s visit?

The church in Peru born out of the Second Vatican Council was one of the most lively in Latin America. The Peruvian bishops, under the leadership of Cardinal Juan Landázuri, actively participated in the Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979) conferences, organized by the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM). The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez is one of the most significant proponents of Liberation Theology.

The preferential option for the poor, the formation and replication of the Christian Base Communities, the commitment of the laity, and of vast sectors of the Church in Peru, including Andean and Amazonian populations, provoked a joyful missionary and evangelizing zeal in diverse zones of Peru and an important and extended effort of theological formation of thousands of believers. It also was expressed in a vigorous effort of civil participation, in a solid commitment for dignity, human rights, justice and peace —especially in the dark years of the armed internal conflict as well as the gradual recognition of the ethnic and cultural diversity and in the subsequent interest and care for our common home.

The armed conflict that began in the 1980s and the following economic crisis weakened the organization that had flowered broadly among the poor, which also affected the organization of the church itself. The visit of John Paul II occurred in this national context and signified a relief for Peru’s mostly Catholic population.

Under the pontificate of John Paul II the church in Peru began a process of “revision” of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council.

At the same time, under the pontificate of John Paul II the church began a process of “revision” of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council and promoted by the conferences of the CELAM. In Peru, this process influenced the appointment of bishops, the formation of seminarians from a clerical and “careerist” bias, the lack of support for active participation of the laity in the parishes and dioceses, the promotion of Catholic movements, the control of theological thought, and the deterioration of relations among religious orders. The more progressive ecclesial proposals were ignored and the more active pastoral agents were put aside.

In these same years, from 1972 to 2007, the presence of evangelical groups grew from 2.5 percent to 12.5 percent, while the number of Peruvians who identify themselves as Catholics decreased from 96.4 percent to 81.3 percent.

It is from this complex situation—of growth and weakening—that one can better visualize the importance of this upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Lima and to Peru. His personal emphasis on the joy of the Good News, and of putting into practice the justice and mercy that comes from Scripture, his provocative call to young people, and his recent invitation to live the unity of the church in dialogue, fraternal service and the love of God must be highlighted.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this church today? Are there still strong divisions among the bishops?

The major strength is its people, the believers, particularly those who live their faith in line with the Gospel and in solidarity with those who suffer most. Many people are committed to a more just and caring Peru as a result of their faith. The clearest testimonies have been the martyrs who have given their lives during the difficult years of violence. The people perceive that, in general, the church is on the side of those who suffer.

There are still different approaches in the episcopal conference, and this division is expressed publicly with a negative impact on the church’s image. In recent times, nevertheless, the conference has issued pronouncements about the situation of the country that have been well received.

There are still different approaches in the episcopal conference, and this division is expressed publicly with a negative impact on the church’s image.

Two situations have marked the image of the church [in Peru] in recent years: first, the conflict regarding the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru between the archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, and the university; and second, the repeated claims and allegations of sexual abuse by diocesan and religious priests, of the cover-up of these by some bishops or church authorities, and of systematic abuse of power—in addition to the two previous crimes—by the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae. These public and repeated situations profoundly damage the church’s image and affect its credibility. A new generation of pastoral agents, with a renewed evangelical spirit in line with the Aparecida Conference, is called to take the next step, pursue justice for the victims, heal wounds and bring the church out to the peripheries so that it can be renewed from there, like the style of Francis.

How would you describe the faith of the Peruvian people?

Over the course of three colonial centuries, the Andean ancestral religiosity was elaborating a creative synthesis—not without conflict—with the Catholic faith brought by the Spaniards. This synthesis is found in the so-called “popular religiosity” that forms part of the cultural productions of current Peru, gathering lively and significant elements (the belief in God, faith in a future world, the link with some aspects of daily life) but also some of the negative features of the culture (machismo, racism and discriminations of different types).

The church must recognize the strength and influence of popular devotions among the broader population.

This religious faith expresses itself institutionally through feasts, rites, hierarchies, social groups, not necessarily linked to the tenets of the Catholic Church. The patron feasts or the large celebrations have their own norms and authorities; more often than not they enter into conflict with the pastors and with the bishops. Nevertheless, the church must recognize the strength and influence of these popular devotions among the broader population. The feast of the Lord of Miracles, initially located in Lima, has extended throughout the country and the world. It’s now a sign of identity of the Peruvians abroad.

What would you like the pope to say?

The slogan for the pope’s visit to Peru is “United for Hope.” We hope that the pope’s message will be that of unity and hope. Unity for a country that is polarized politically but, above all, very fractured socially; that has been unable to recognize its rich historic, ecological and cultural diversity, which is one of the greatest gifts of God. A country of “every race and blood” (José María Arguedas) that has not finished building itself as a nation. Unity for all is required in order to place the common good before any benefits to an individual or a group.

Hope can be the impetus of unity we need. Peru is a country constantly re-creating itself, a “heroic creation, neither carbon nor copy” (José Carlos Mariátegui), that always looks to the future and to dreams that, once in a while, become reality. The pope can remind us of these very Peruvian ideals, which have inspired our country’s path.

Lastly, he can encourage the church in Peru to regain its prophetic voice, that which distinguished it in the post-Vatican II period.

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