Fifty years ago, the politics of Latin America barely registered in the minds of most people in United States, but in January 1959, the Castro-led Cuban revolution changed all that. Later that same year, a group of Catholic bishops from the Americas formed a movement that helped propel the church to an extraordinary engagement with Latin America. This is that story.
Before Castro led his rosary-wearing, bearded revolutionaries into Havana, the Vatican had expressed concern about the state of the church in Latin America. While most countries there were largely, if nominally, Catholic, that did not change the fact that the church was beset by many problems and not a few enemies. Protestant missionaries from the United States were regarded as poachers and no more inclined toward ecumenism than were the Catholics. Communism, Freemasonry, anticlericalism, laws restrictive of the rights of clergy and the woeful ignorance of the masses were seen as the evils of the time.
At the Vatican, Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini asked Archbishop Antonio Samoré to take charge of Latin America. Archbishop Samoré had orchestrated the 1955 eucharistic congress in Rio de Janeiro, from which had come a regional secretariat for all the episcopal conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Celam). Archbishop Samoré in turn asked the National Catholic Welfare Confer-ence what the U.S. church was prepared to do for its brothers and sisters to the south. In November 1959, 18 bishops met at Georgetown University—six each from Canada, the United States and Latin America—to formulate a response.
Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who became a cardinal in 1958, had just founded the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle, a group of diocesan clergy prepared to offer pastoral assistance to Latin America. He was a natural choice to chair the Georgetown meeting. Two Latin American bishops—Dom Helder Câmara of Brazil and Bishop Manuel Larraín of Chile—were the undisputed leaders of a new vision of inter-American relations. Toward the end of the meeting, Dom Helder spoke of the church’s duty to do all it can “to put an end to the scandal of the 20th century: two-thirds of humanity remains in a state of want and hunger.” Even if the threat of Communism did not exist, he told the bishops, “we would still have the evangelical duty of fighting to narrow the gap between human beings.... It should be made clear that the task ahead of us is not to mobilize alms.” The statement may have caught some of the North American bishops a bit off guard. “Our object,” he said, “is to lead public opinion to understand that raising the underdeveloped world is a much more serious and urgent problem than the East-West conflict itself.”
As a result of the meeting, a new office was created at the National Catholic Welfare Conference to work explicitly with Latin America. For many years it was the only office in the conference that dealt with a specific geographical region. Cardinal Cushing saw to it that whatever Dom Helder’s views about the relative importance of mobilizing alms, funds would be provided.
Two weeks after the Georgetown meeting, the N.C.W.C. administrative board voted to create the Latin America Bureau and chose John Considine, a Maryknoll priest, as its first director. It readily developed an annual “million dollar fund,” raised by direct appeals and existing collections and consigned initially to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America for distribution as the Roman office saw fit. The Pontifical Commission had been created the year before, some say as a check on the more progressive tendencies of the young and feisty Celam.
Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program
As the Georgetown meeting ushered in the present era, hemispheric gatherings came to play a key role. One of the most successful and controversial initiatives of the Latin America Bureau was a 10-year series of inter-American meetings (1964-73) known as Cicop, the Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program. At first a wide-ranging popular education program with study materials for schools and an annual observance called Latin America Cooperation Week, Cicop gradually became identified with its huge meetings.
The first meeting in Chicago attracted more than 1,500 participants, including then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey and several members of Congress. At the second, which drew some 2,000, Archbishop Samoré presented Cardinal Cushing with an apostolic letter from the pope praising the U.S. church’s efforts to serve their confreres in Latin America. The letter noted that the number of “ecclesiastical, religious and lay personnel from the United States” then working in Latin America was 4,091—almost double the number recorded for 1960. The 1967 meeting in Boston, punctuated by Ivan Illich’s blistering article “The Seamy Side of Charity” (Am., 1/21/67), drew some 3,000 participants. The article drew the ire of Cardinal Cushing.
By its 10th meeting, Cicop had become a very “hot” and, some felt, overly politicized ecumenical gathering of social activists and academics. These were the largest, most diverse inter-American meetings being held anywhere. They provided a platform for many of Latin America’s intellectual, religious and political leaders: future presidents like Rafael Caldera of Venezuela and Ricardo Arías Calderón of Panama came, and key bishops like Helder Câmara, Manuel Larraín, Juan Landazuri, Marcos McGrath, Samuel Ruiz, Jorge Mejía and Affonso Gregory. Most of the well-known theologians of the continent, Catholic and Protestant—Gustavo Gutiérrez and Juan Luis Segundo, José Míguez Bonino and Rubem Alves—found their first U.S. audiences at Cicop.
The bishops decided, however, that the decade-long experiment should observe at least a year’s moratorium and, if it were to be revived, future meetings would be keyed to the theme of that year’s meeting of the Inter-American Bishops. The final Cicop in Dallas in February 1973 closed a dynamic chapter in the North-South relationship. The meeting gave special attention to the ongoing, turbulent situation in Chile; a few months later a coup there would affect the church in the region for years to come. Cicop was never revived.
The Inter-American Bishops’ Meetings
Another set of hemispheric gatherings, however, would survive. Far smaller than Cicop, completely private and, as the name Inter-American Bishops suggests, restricted to bishops and their executive staff, these gatherings have continued with only slight interruptions since 1967. They were inspired in part by the success of the early Cicops and for several years were coordinated by the Latin American Bureau.
The fourth Inter-American Bishops gathering met in Caracas when Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, was due to be there. For over a year he and his team conducted a fact-finding tour for then-President Richard Nixon that ultimately produced the famous Rockefeller report “Quality of Life in the Americas.” But student unrest and opposition to the governor’s visit had boiled over into public demonstrations, forcing him to cancel his visit and leaving the U.S. journalists who had come to Caracas without a story. When they learned that bishops from around the hemisphere were in town, they swarmed to the meeting site. They were rebuffed. Cardinal John Dearden, president of the U.S. Catholic Conference, let it be known that the bishops had not come to Venezuela to give interviews.
The Latin America Bureau director, the Rev. Mike Colonnese, strode forth to hold court with the press, criticized his own bosses for not meeting with the journalists and commented very critically on a policy issue that the U.S. bishops had never even considered. It concerned the International Petroleum Corporation in Peru, which had been seized the previous year by the Peruvian military. The military was demanding $1 billion from IPC’s parent corporation, the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil. Back in Detroit, a fuming Cardinal Dearden determined that henceforth the meetings of the Inter-American Bishops would no longer be organized by the Latin America Bureau but by the general secretariat.
The Canadian bishops, observers at first, became full members in 1969. Early meetings focused largely on ways the North American churches could assist the churches to the south. The bishops discussed, sometimes acrimoniously, financial issues, the role of donors in determining the use of funds, the disparity of support for the missioners in contrast to the spartan conditions of the national clergy and questions like the relative autonomy of the foreign personnel. Over time the agenda has broadened. The bishops have exchanged views on free trade agreements, migration issues, drug trafficking, aggressive proselytizing by some evangelical groups and other broad thematic topics. The meetings pass no formal resolutions but offer opportunities for bishops to get to know one another and share experiences and views on issues of mutual concern.
In 1960, a year before President John F. Kennedy’s administration would launch the Peace Corps, the Pontifical Commission endorsed a world organization called the Papal Volunteers for Apostolic Collaboration in Latin America, which opened for business in 1961. Initially designed to be a grouping of independent diocesan programs loosely coordinated by the L.A.B., Pavla became fully national in 1964 with funding, placement and training centralized in a national office. The first office was in Chicago, but after consolidation of the Latin America Bureau’s three offices in 1968, it moved to Washington. The third L.A.B. office was in Davenport, Iowa, where Father Colonnese served as Father Considine’s administrative director, sparkplug and lightning rod. Father Colonnese would go on to head the church’s Latin America office from 1968 until he was dismissed in 1971, the stormiest and possibly the most dynamic years of this story.
By 1971 disagreements about the function and mode of operation of the Papal Volunteers (the name never stopped being problematic) resulted in the closing of the national office. A few dioceses continued their own programs. The lay volunteer movement itself went into hibernation during the politicized Vietnam years, only to come back stronger than ever a couple of decades later.
A Tithe of Labor and Aid
At the 1959 Georgetown meeting, Archbishop Samoré had floated the idea of a 10-year plan whereby teaching orders of religious would be encouraged to open schools in Latin America, five a year for a decade. That specific suggestion did not prosper, but Father Considine picked up the 10-year framework (he may have suggested it in the first place), which emerged at the 1961 meeting of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men held at the University of Notre Dame.
There, Msgr. Agostino Casaroli (later cardinal secretary of state) suggested a 10-year plan of aid, including a tithe of religious personnel by the end of the decade. The call for 10 percent of all religious congregations to serve for a time in Latin America was repeated to the Canadian Conference of Religious five days later and then again in Europe. Endorsed by Pope John XXIII and widely known as “the pope’s proposal,” the tithe was, like so much else, the brainchild of Father Considine.
The proposal was greeted with both elation and alarm. Many religious and eventually diocesan clergy and lay volunteers felt a direct call from “Good Pope John” to spend at least a few years serving the church in Latin America. Others, especially in the South, were nonplussed at the prospect of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of well-meaning but inadequately prepared co-workers descending on them. The deluge, however, never took place. Instead, the careful work of Maryknoll, the Missionary Society of St. James and many international congregations enabled a hardy group of U.S. and Canadian missioners to write a memorable chapter in the history of both missiology and inter-American relations.