Hope inspired by the Cuban revolution led to the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America
An Irish man recalls its impact on his priestly life in Peru
Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution of 1959 spread a wave of hope among the poor across South America. Photograph: Getty Images
We are used to hearing how missionaries successfully brought faith and progress to the poor in foreign lands. One might think that they all had a clear idea about what they had to do. But the reality was very different.
I had joined a missionary organisation, was ordained a priest and sent to Peru in 1962. It was a time of unprecedented change in society and the church all over Latin America. The Cuban revolution had taken place in 1959. It spread a wave of hope among the poor across the continent: most lived in inhuman conditions on landed estates. In Peru, the massive emigration of the poor from the highlands of the Andes Mountains to the coastal cities, especially Lima, had begun.
The government had no plan to help them settle in, no will to make one. So the poor had to take over wasteland on the outskirts and build their makeshift homes. It was in one of those shantytowns that I found myself.
I knew what I was supposed to do: get the people to Mass, teach them catechism, and have them receive the sacraments. But as I walked among the endless rows of bamboo huts, and talked to my parishioners, I began to realise that they had different priorities.
They were not interested in messages about “destiny” or the life hereafter.
Questions crowded my mind. Who are these people? Why are they in this situation? For the first time I began to think for myself. Quickly I became aware that my parishioners were the inheritors of a proud Inca culture.
They had dignity and rights that were denied by an unjust socio-economic and political system. It made no sense whatsoever to try to patch up and alleviate their wretched living conditions with some handouts or other “help”.
With other reform-minded clergy, and following the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), I concentrated all my efforts on promoting awareness of their dignity and rights among the poor. However, the majority of the clergy were determined to continue to follow the traditional approach. Bitter division broke out within missionary organisations and among the native clergy also.
Superiors were frightened of change and tried to clamp down on the activities of those in the reformist camp. But the latter were already members of a growing movement.
Some Latin American theologians had been meeting to discuss how the church should give witness to the message of Jesus. So had a number of reform-minded bishops. In 1968 the organisation of Latin American bishops met and proclaimed a “Preferential Option for the Poor” as the centre of its work. Liberation Theology was born.
The historic event had broken with the church’s tradition of giving priority to its own internal interests and concentrated its reflections on the glaring poverty of the poor and on the unjust and “sinful” structures that held them in virtual slavery.
Soon this new movement came under the radar of the Vatican curia and successive popes. It was combated also by US governments, which backed cruel military dictatorships opposed to any change.
Over two decades, tens of thousands of mostly young men and women were to lose their lives: their only crime was that they were suspected of being involved in the struggles of the poor for a better life.
After almost a decade, I had come to see my work among the poor as a lifetime commitment. I knew that their journey would take time, and felt the need of a female companion with whom to share my life.
I gave myself permission to get married. Shortly afterwards I met Carmen, a dedicated social worker. We fell in love and got married. For another two decades we continued our journey of commitment alongside the poor, while raising our own family.
Here our emigrant family began the process of growing in our new homeland. We are forever inseparably tied to two countries.
Luke Waldron is author of A Dawn Unforeseen