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LATIN AMERICA
“Affection, acceptance and closeness are what those who migrate to other Christian denominations are seeking”
Paolo Moiola
3/12/2017
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Interview with Jorge García Castillo, Comboni priest and journalist

Mexican priest Jorge Garcia Castillo, has been a Comboni missionary for 33 years. He studied journalism between 1984 and 1988 in the Carlos Septién García School in Mexico City. After six years working for the Comboni magazine Esquila Misional and having graduated in journalism with a thesis on Mafalda — the cartoon character created by Argentinean comic strip artist Joaquin Lavado “Quino” —, he moved to the province of Peru of the Comboni Missionaries Congregation, where he had a pastoral experience in the parish of the Twelve Apostles located in Chorrillos, south of Lima. He then worked for almost eight years as Director of  Misión sin Fronteras (Mission without Borders) magazine, leaving in September 2000 due to problems with the archdiocese of Lima, particularly with Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, and the regime of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).

At his return to Mexico in 2001, he was put in charge of an indigenous parish in Metlatonoc, Guerrero, in the Sierra Mixteca, the second poorest municipality in the country. Between 2008 and 2016, he worked in the General Curia of Rome, in the General Secretariat for Mission Animation. In January of this year he returned to his country to work as director of the Esquila Misional and Aguiluchos magazines

Paolo Moiola, collaborator of Latinamerica Press, talked with Father García Castillo regarding the growth experienced by the Evangelical Churches in Latin America.

You have worked in Peru and Mexico. You have had the opportunity to observe the growth of the new Evangelical Churches in those countries, especially of those churches known as neo-Pentecostal.
Indeed. I remember that this problem was already being insinuated during the first pastoral visit of John Paul II to Mexico [January 1979] and for the inauguration of the Puebla Assembly [III General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate]. The Pope himself referred to it with a sort of joke, saying that 90 percent of Mexicans are Catholic and 100 percent Guadalupan. The truth of the matter is that the number of non-Catholic Christians exceeded 10 percent by then and in that percentage figured the historic Christian churches, Evangelical and neo-Pentecostal groups. The majority of these groups in an open opposition to paying cult to the Virgin of Guadalupe, but not just that. Both historic churches and “evangelism” were gaining ground and the intent was to counter their effect by using not quite the best methods and, worse yet, circumventing self-criticism coming from the Catholic Church and a more serious commitment in the evangelization and a closeness to the world of the poor and of those suffering.

The situation was very similar in Peru, but over there, due to the harsh economic, social and political crisis, and the terrorism of Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path] and of the State, common people looked to move closer to the Evangelical Churches of Brazilian origin like “Pare de Sufrir” or Stop Suffering Church [linked to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God of Edir Macedo], among others.

It was not uncommon to see new evangelical groups congregate in very simple structures, and other larger and better structured groups to meet in buildings that used to be cinemas, theatres or event venues at one time. This happened mainly in the poorer neighborhoods in Lima, or in those called shanty towns [where families live in poverty or extreme poverty].

Both historic Protestant Churches (Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Adventist) as well as Evangelical Churches have the Bible as the absolute point of reference. Is this a true statement?
Yes, it is; they all have the Bible as their absolute foundation. The difference lays in the way they read and interpret the Holy Book. My perception is that in the historic Protestant Churches there is an effort to do a scientific, historical and contextualized reading, and in not only a few cases with a liberating projection, the result of a popular and militant reading of the Word. This is a situation similar to that of ecclesial grassroots communities, the theologians and exegetes of the so called Liberation Theology.

On the other hand, in many “neo-Pentecostal” leaning churches, the focus was spiritual and literal “sola scriptura” or Scripture Alone [the Bible is the only authoritative source for faith and practice] and, in the worst case, fundamentalist. I am thinking of extreme cases such as the “electronic preachers” that very successfully tapped into an audience by using radio and television, reaching wide sectors of the urban and Andean population.

It is not possible to generalize and it could not be said that one approach to the Sacred Scriptures was good and the other one bad. On the other hand, a fundamentalist reading was also made in the historic Churches, including the Catholic Church.

It is said that, at least in their beginning, the Evangelical Churches arrived in Latin America out of a strategic program of the United States that clearly was meant to weaken the Catholic Church, which was seen as an enemy of its domination in those countries considered as their “backyard”. The main fear was the Theology of Liberation, the option preferred by the poor, the demand for greater economic justice. Is all this true, or is it just a political hypothesis?
It is true in large part. Two very important moments are the Rockefeller Report on the Americas of 1969, after the tour of the then Republican governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, through Latin America, to determine the foreign policy of the former president Richard Nixon (1969-74). The hypothesis of the report was that the [Catholic] Church was no longer an unconditional ally of the United States and the revolution that was being developed in its interior would have to be opposed with the implanting of other churches or evangelical denominations.

Allies were also looked for in the high military ranking file that were formed in the School of the Americas [now the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation] that trained soldiers and officers to combat left-leaning groups of catholic allegiance. A large number of catechists, delegates of the Word, religious people, priests and bishops were killed in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, etc.

The complicity of bishops, cardinals and nuncios was pathetic and scandalous in this field. One of the better known cases was that of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, now the dean of the College of Cardinals, a personal friend of Chilean coup-leader and criminal Augusto Pinochet [1973-90].

Another crucial moment was during the government of US President Ronald Reagan [1981-89] who created The Institute on Religion and Democracy in 1981 to integrate the Evangelical Churches and finance their preaching in the continent and to counter the liberating and consciousness raising action by other churches.

The percentage of Catholics in Latin American countries went from 80 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in el 2013 according to the Latinobarómetro Corporation. Also, the Pew Research Center states that many Catholics joined the Evangelical denominations, which in 2014 had in their ranks 19 percent of the people with a religious affiliation. How do you explain this departure? What are these Christians seeking?
The phenomenon is very complex. The causes are many and some of them are structural. If I understand it correctly, one of the main causes is the lack of evangelization and education of Catholics. Most of us pastors are satisfied with a sacramental ministry with little delving in faith. On this subject Sergio Méndez Arceo, Bishop of Cuernavaca, Morelos, and one of the most controversial and courageous pastors in Mexico, after the II Vatican Council [1962-65] talked about “cristianos remojados” or “anagráficos” (“dampened Christians” or “registered Christians” to mean barely into the faith), heirs of a tradition more than an experience of faith.

Affection, acceptance and closeness is what those who migrate to other Christian denominations are seeking; a church that is less pyramidal and more ministerial, one where all members have a say, all as a result of an appropriation of baptism and the common priesthood of the faithful. Added to this is a leading role of women who in the case of the Catholic Church are relegated to practical services and are excluded from positions of responsibility; the opposite of which takes place in other historic churches and more open denominations.

To answer the second part of the question, “what are they seeking”, they are seeking answers and solutions to everyday life. There are people who survive in conditions of poverty, insecurity, violence, lack of work, poor health, and homelessness. They are seeking effective and affective closeness; communities that are more ministerial and less pyramidal. They want worship that is less rigid, freer and spontaneous, where they are the protagonists and not the consumers of something that is provided in a premade package.

There have been many pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church in Latin American countries. To what extreme have these scandals contributed to the loss of the faithful?
Statistically I do not think that there are many Christians who have abandoned the church for this reason. Despite their sins and contradictions — in certain cases crimes would be a more appropriate word than sins —, the Catholic Church remains as one of the most credible institutions, without leaving out that its moral and spiritual heritage is affected by the scandal of cases such as those you mentioned.

Fortunately, many people have their faith and trust placed in God and Jesus, and this allows them to remain in the church in spite of these events. For the common people, less educated maybe, it is not difficult to forgive the scandalous conduct of priests and clergy. Among the more notorious cases are the Legionaries of Christ, a religious congregation founded by [Mexican priest] Marcial Maciel, and the laypersons belonging to Regnum Christi who continue receiving the support and sympathy from many people who have always shown their support.
Despite all this, the Catholic Church has the duty to provide reparation and accompany the victims, be close to them and to rightly repair the damage caused. Everything has a limit, so does the patience of the people. Urgent action is needed before it is too late and a massive exodus takes place.

What are the attraction tools of the new Evangelical Churches? I remember some: the theology of prosperity, the promise of miracle cures, the ability to convince people with the most modern marketing tools…
Most of the answer lies in the question itself. In my opinion, the problem lies in the intention behind these “theologies”, which is the interest of unscrupulous pastors. One of the better known cases is that of pastor Cash Luna [Guatemala], who became incredibly rich by exploiting the faith and, in not just a few occasions, the ignorance and the good faith of his followers.

The promises of prosperity, of miracle cures, and many others are very profitable. Those people who do not have access to a health system, be it public or private, put their last hope in miracle workers of all types who perform their rituals along with elements that touch on the sensitivity and susceptibility of the people. But this is not just in the evangelical sector. I myself have been witness of what takes place in the famous healing masses, when a market of the sacred is set up with the sale of holy water and oil, books, CDs, videos of the miracle worker of the moment and a countless number of objects of devotion.

In Latin America the poor, the neediest, have been attracted more by the theology of prosperity than by the Theology of Liberation.
I believe that the poor, not all of course, have been attracted more by the theology of prosperity than by the Theology of Liberation because of their situation of poverty, pain and secular exploitation. The promises of prosperity are more tempting by their immediate benefit than the hope proposed by the Theology of Liberation; a slow, gradual process, conflictive and with suffering, in which one many times ends up paying with  the own life.

It is easier to wait for an answer from above [from God] than to partner with Him to bring down the obstacles and create new structures where peace, justice and fairness reign.

To enter into the dynamic of true faith — proposed by the Liberation Theology —has a high price that not all are willing to pay. Many times the testimony of the martyrs and the prophets, instead of encouraging and stimulating, promote fear. They do not want to end up like them. —Latinamerica Press.


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Comboni priest Jorge García Castillo/ Paolo Moiola
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