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March 12th, 2013:

Una Chiesa Povera e Fraterna – A Poor and Fraternal Church

In 1965, during the last days of the Second Vatican Council, forty council fathers before returning to their dioceses most of the in Latin American countries, concelebrated the Eucharist in the catacombs of Domitilla in Rome. They pledged to build a “poor and servant church” as Pope John XXIII had suggested: to live in poverty, to give up all the symbols or privileges of power and to put the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry. They signed a text, in Portuguese since most probably it was written by Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, after days of consultations with other members. The English version circulating on the web may not be perfect, but its the simplicity, clarity and concreteness remain extraordinary.

Reading it inevitably raises the question: why the bishops have failed to infect all the faithful and the other bishops with their dream of a poor and fraternal church? Have they been impeded to carry out their commitments? After them, were their dioceses governed by bishops appointed with the duties to restore the old ways? Why, after this vision almost fifty years old, we are still left with so many scandals related to the mismanagement of ecclesiastical power?

If the resignation of Pope Benedict give a human dimension to the figure of the pope, the commitment of those forty bishops wanted to re-insert with more evidence the whole church in the human history.

It is good today, while the cardinals enter the conclave, to read this text. It breathes gospel and hope. It reassures us. It confirms that the Church are not only those 115 voters. The love and service that the church gives to the world are not only in their hearts and in their hands. What we, simple and poor Christians, do every day is at least as important as what a cardinal does. In the church the true hierarchy is not that of power and honorific titles, but that of holiness.

There are so many people in every walk of life, who carry on with the dream of those bishops. Hopelessly deluded? No, prophets of a world still in the making.

Here is the text of what has been called “The Pact of the Catacombs”.

We, bishops assembled in the Second Vatican Council, are conscious of the deficiencies of our lifestyle in terms of evangelical poverty. Motivated by one another in an initiative in which each of us has tried avoid ambition and presumption, we unite with all our brothers in the episcopacy and rely above all on the grace and strength of Our Lord Jesus Christ and on the prayer of the faithful and the priests in our respective dioceses. Placing ourselves in thought and in prayer before the Trinity, the Church of Christ, and all the priests and faithful of our dioceses, with humility and awareness of our weakness, but also with all the determination and all the strength that God desires to grant us by his grace, we commit ourselves to the following:

1.We will try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters. See Matthew 5,3; 6,33ff; 8,20.

2.We renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing (rich vestments, loud colors) and symbols made of precious metals (these signs should certainly be evangelical). See Mark 6,9; Matthew 10,9-10; Acts 3.6 (Neither silver nor gold).

3.We will not possess in our own names any properties or other goods, nor will we have bank accounts or the like. If it is necessary to possess something, we will place everything in the name of the diocese or of social or charitable works. See Matthew 6,19-21; Luke 12,33-34.

4.As far as possible we will entrust the financial and material running of our diocese to a commission of competent lay persons who are aware of their apostolic role, so that we can be less administrators and more pastors and apostles. See Matthew 10,8; Acts 6,1-7.

5.We do not want to be addressed verbally or in writing with names and titles that express prominence and power (such as Eminence, Excellency, Lordship). We prefer to be called by the evangelical name of “Father.” See Matthew 20,25-28; 23,6-11; John 13,12-15).

6.In our communications and social relations we will avoid everything that may appear as a concession of privilege, prominence, or even preference to the wealthy and the powerful (for example, in religious services or by way of banquet invitations offered or accepted). See Luke 13,12-14; 1 Corinthians 9,14-19.

7.Likewise we will avoid favoring or fostering the vanity of anyone at the moment of seeking or acknowledging aid or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their donations as a normal way of participating in worship, in the apostolate, and in social action. See Matthew 6,2-4; Luke 15,9-13; 2 Corinthians 12,4.

8.We will give whatever is needed in terms of our time, our reflection, our heart, our means, etc., to the apostolic and pastoral service of workers and labor groups and to those who are economically weak and disadvantaged, without allowing that to detract from the welfare of other persons or groups of the diocese. We will support lay people, religious, deacons, and priests whom the Lord calls to evangelize the poor and the workers by sharing their lives and their labors. See Luke 4,18-19; Mark 6,4; Matthew 11,4-5; Acts 18,3-4; 20,33-35; 1 Corinthians 4,12; 9,1-27.

9.Conscious of the requirements of justice and charity and of their mutual relatedness, we will seek to transform our works of welfare into social works based on charity and justice, so that they take all persons into account, as a humble service to the responsible public agencies. See Matthew 25,31-46; Luke 13,12-14; 13,33-34.

10.We will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures, and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons, and thus for the advent of a new social order, worthy of the children of God. See Acts 2,44-45; 4;32-35; 5,4; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9; 1 Timothy 5,16.

11.Since the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery, we commit ourselves: a) to support as far as possible the most urgent projects of the episcopacies of the poor nations; and b) to request jointly, at the level of international organisms, the adoption of economic and cultural structures which, instead of producing poor nations in an ever richer world, make it possible for the poor majorities to free themselves from their wretchedness. We will do all this even as we bear witness to the gospel, after the example of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations.

12.We commit ourselves to sharing our lives in pastoral charity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, priests, religious, and laity, so that our ministry constitutes a true service. Accordingly, we will make an effort to “review our lives” with them; we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try be make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs. See Mark 8,34-35; Acts 6,1-7; 1 Timothy 3,8-10.

When we return to our dioceses, we will make these resolutions known to our diocesan priests and ask them to assist us with their comprehension, their collaboration, and their prayers.
May God help us to be faithful.

Dom Helder Camara.

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