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    Brown Stone Wall

    Pedro Casaldáliga: Poet, Mystic, and Revolutionary

    A true exemplar of liberation theology, he never gave up hope for the poor and the planet.

    Juan José Tamayo

    September 17, 2020
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    At three o’clock on an August afternoon, Madrid time, my friend and colleague Márcio Fernandes, a Claretian theologian based in Brazil, told me of Dom Pedro Casaldáliga’s passing in the city of Batatais. I immediately passed on the news to our mutual friends; deep pain washed over us, but so did the subversive memory of his equally subversive life. As Casaldáliga observed in his poem “Song of the sickle and the sheaf”:

    They will call me “subversive.”
    And I will reply: I am.
    I live for my fighting people.
    With my marching people, I go.
    I possess a warrior’s faith
    and a love of revolution.
    And with gospel and with song
    I suffer and say what I will.

    Dom Pedro’s was a life dedicated to the liberation of oppressed people who were, in his humble words, “more important than life” to him.

    His homeland was in Catalonia, where he was born in Balsereny on February 16, 1928 and ordained a Claretian in 1952. There he had his roots, family and friends, and the organizations sympathetic to his humanitarian and environmental projects. But in 1968, his life took a radical turn: he left for Brazil and never returned, not even at the time of his mother’s death. That is what he had promised when he embarked for Latin America, and he remained faithful to this vow. But he carried Catalonia in his heart and mind. Brazil also became his homeland; he came as a missionary and worked as a “liberation bishop” for more than three decades in the diocese of Sâo Felix do Araguaia, Mato Grosso state.

    I maintained a lively correspondence with Casaldáliga over several decades. I read his writings and followed his personal and intellectual trajectories. I have listened to the testimonies of mutual friends and sent him my writing; in 2012, I dedicated my book Invitación a la utopía (Invitation to Utopia) to him with these words: “Pedro Casaldáliga, prophet of Utopia in action, whose gaze is fixed on Another Possible World.”

    In this article I offer ten snapshots of the most outstanding dimensions of his vibrant personality: the originality of his thought, the exemplary nature of his life, and the causes for which he fought, giving meaning to his long life.

    1. Poet. Dom Pedro cultivated his poetic talent from his youth. I consider him, along with Ernesto Cardenal, one of the best poets in Spanish. He was not a simple court versifier, nor an apologist for the system, nor a legitimizer of the status quo. He did not hide safely behind empty verbiage, but rather incited revolutions. He sang of the Latin American revolutionaries: Augusto César Sandino, Carlos Fonseca Amador, Che Guevara, Gaspar García Laviana; of the martyred bishops: Saint Óscar Romero of El Salvador, Enrique Angelelli of Argentina; and of the liberation theologians Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff.

    2. Internationalist. In the poem cited above, Casaldáliga exclaims:

    I believe in the International
    of upturned faces,
    of voices running from equal to equal
    and of clasped hands …
    and I call the current order evil
    and progress, a lie.

    No cause that was playing out on the local or international stage was strange to him, nor was any revolution. In Cuba, Nicaragua, Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador, he sympathized with popular uprisings, placing himself beside the people who were struggling for liberation.

    3. Intellectual and critic. Casaldáliga did not settle comfortably into the status quo, but asked how things should be and sought to transform the world through praxis. He offered alternative narratives to the official story, facilitated spaces of coexistence and dialogue instead of preparing battlefields, and promoted peace and justice, liberty and equality. He criticized many kinds of power: religious, ecclesiastic, political, and economic; intrigue in the Vatican; imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism; all discrimination, whether of gender, class, ethnicity, religion or culture. But he was not just an iconoclast: he proposed alternatives to all these wrongs.

    4. Environmentalist. Pedro fought for the rights of first peoples – who are true environmentalists – to their land. He demanded that the rights of Mother Earth, whom these peoples deem sacred and with whom they form an eco-human community, be recognized.

    5. Defender of the rights of indigenous and black people. Ever since his arrival in Brazil, Casaldáliga embraced both these causes and suffered persecution – including death threats – as a result. The best expression of his vision for indigenous and black communities are his two beautiful cantatas. In the Mass of the Earth Without Evil, he denounces the genocide, ethnocide, and biocide that colonialism, in its historical and contemporary forms, has caused. The Mass of the “Quilombos” celebrates African culture’s originality and community-promoting capacities, while denouncing slavery and oppression. He responded to colonialism by fighting to decolonize minds and feelings, beliefs and cultures, demanding that the knowledge and wisdom of these peoples be recognized.

    6. Prophet. Following in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel and Palestine, of Jesus of Nazareth and also Bartolomé de Las Casas, that Spanish defender of the indigenous, Casaldáliga awoke slumbering consciences, revolutionized complacent minds, denounced the injustices of the system and announced Another Possible World as a historical option.

    7. Mystic. Casaldáliga found God in the faces of the impoverished masses and spoke to him in meditative silence. He never paraded his religious experience before the world, living it out instead in his deepest heart. His spirituality, fount of his social and political commitments, gained historical significance from the deeds it inspired.

    8. Theologian. Casaldáliga considered faith a liberating force and lived it out with hope and solidarity, which he called “the tenderness of peoples.” He placed himself at the side of the liberation theologians who suffered for their writings and founded, together with Rubem Alves and Ernesto Cardenal, the school of “liberation theopoetry.”

    9. Coworker in the construction of Utopia. For Casaldáliga, hope was an inherent part of reality and a virtue of militant optimism on the path towards Utopia. In his acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate from the Universidade de Campinas (Brazil), he proclaimed his “passion for Utopia. A passion that has been scandalously defused, in this time of pragmatism, productivity, dominant mercantilism and chastened postmodernism,” and declared himself a worker in the construction of Utopia who would reflect on and learn from setbacks. He believed in Utopia as a place “where there is room for everyone,” echoing the cry of the Zapatistas. His message was that “we walk from hope to hope, awakening hope in our hearts.”

    10. Anti-imperial spirituality. Casaldáliga proposed the kingdom of God as an alternative to every empire, past, present, and future. “Speaking as a Christian,” he declared, “the assignment is very clear (and very demanding) and Jesus of Nazareth has given it to us. In the face of the oppressive politics of any empire, we must wield the liberating politics of the kingdom of the living God, who is God of the poor and of everyone who hungers and thirsts for justice. Against the agenda of empire, we wield the agenda of the kingdom.”

    With this spirituality, Pedro Casaldáliga, friend of God, visionary with eyes of the poor and advocate of the people, exposed the fact that empires, as powerful as they may seem (and believe themselves to be), have feet of clay.


    Originally published in Ameríndia. Used with permission. Translated from Spanish by Coretta Thomson.

    Contributed By

    Juan José Tamayo holds the Ignacio Ellacuria Chair of Theology and Religious Sciences in Madrid’s Universidad Carlos III and is author of Teologías del Sur: El giro descolonizador (Trotta, 2020, 2nd Ed.), in which he dedicates a chapter to Pedro Casaldáliga and his “liberation theopoetry.”

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