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Statement on the Persecution of the Church

 

Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin
July 6, 1977

 

 It is now nine years since the bishops of Latin America ratified the Church's evangelical commitment to the poor and oppressed of their continent in the historic meeting of Medellin. The life of the Church in Latin America since that time has illustrated, more dramatically than any documents could, the meaning of this commitment in the daily struggle of the Christian people. Each year has witnessed new chapters in the fidelity of the Church in Latin America to the gospel's imperative of love, service, and liberation.

The Medellin conference was hardly over and its proposals had barely begun to be implemented, when one of the smallest of the hemisphere's republics, El Salvador, engaged in a tragic war with its neighbor, Honduras. The root causes of that conflict--landlessness, high unemployment, and the failure of national plans to redress these great inequities -- persist to this day in both countries.

Just two years ago, peasant groups in Honduras and the Church's pastoral agents working with them attempted to petition their government to implement the already passed land reform act. Their nonviolent demonstrations were met with massive repression, resulting in the deaths of several people, including an American priest, Father Casimir Cypher, O.F.M. Conv. In the name of our bishops' conference I addressed that issue in a statement on human rights in Honduras in September, 1975.

In El Salvador today the situation is even more dramatic. The lines have been drawn sharply between, on the one hand, the landless peasants and the ministers of the Church at every level--from bishops to local lay catechists (Delegates of the Word of God)--and, on the other, the national security forces and the landed oligarchy.

The past year has been a time of intense conflict, reaching peaks of bloody violence in February of this year after the national elections and again in May.

Throughout this entire period another form of violence and repression, less bloody but no less vicious, has been carried on through the press in the form of a campaign of slander and calumny against the Church, and through government agencies in the form of arrests, expulsions, or exiling of Salvadorean and foreign priests.

The position of the Church has been eminently clear. In numerous statements from the episcopal conference and from the Archbishop of San Salvador, in meetings with the governmental authorities, in public services in the cathedral and elsewhere, the Church has sought tirelessly to foster a climate of peace and reconciliation in which violence and hatred could be overcome.

But at the same time the Church has remained absolutely steadfast in its collective determination to preach the gospel in all its integrity to all the people. The Church's essential and inescapable mission, that of evangelization, involves "the duty of proclaiming the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children--the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete." (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 30)

None of this, as Pope Paul has insisted, is foreign to the mission of the Church. "Evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and man's concrete life, both personal and social. This is why evangelization involves an explicit message, adapted to the different situations constantly being realized, about the rights and duties of every human being, about family life without which personal growth and development is hardly possible, about life in society, about international life, peace, justice and development--a message especially energetic today about liberation." (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 29)

In few other countries today has the Church's pastoral ministry been met with such intense and organized opposition as in El Salvador. The tiny majority of rich and powerful, zealous guardians of a sterile and unjust status quo, have not hesitated to employ every means at their disposal to obstruct the preaching of the gospel. Fifteen foreign priests, three of them from the United States, have been expelled; several Salvadorean priests and catechists have been arrested, two have been forced into exile, and others are prohibited from returning to their parishes. And two Salvadorean priests, Father Rutilio Grande, S.J., and Father Alfonso Navarro, have been brutally assassinated.

I am confident that the sufferings of the Salvadorean Church will hasten the coming of the kingdom of justice and peace that has been promised by the Lord. I send this expression of fraternal solidarity to our brother bishops of El Salvador, to all the clergy and religious, especially the members of the Society of Jesus who have been singled out for special persecution, and to the whole People of God in El Salvador who struggle and suffer for justice, reconciliation, and peace.

 



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