|| By Victor Maqque
The stories of the Bible seemed like mysterious tales that were disconnected from the reality of Macusani, the village in Puno, Peru, where I grew up. That is, until Catholics here heard about liberation theology, which sees life in light of the Gospel. It has given new meaning to our faith. Dominican Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian who inspired liberation theology, has given us a role model for living our faith.
Life for us campesinos in the Southern Andes of Peru, better known as the Surandino, seemed destined for suffering and poverty. Most of us are Aymara and Quechua speakers who live in a geographical zone 9,000 to 15,000 feet above sea level on the edge of the Amazon Basin. Not only is the terrain rough and arable land scarce, but the weather is severe, with recurring droughts, hailstorms and flooding.
My first conscious contact with the Church of the Surandino came through a dynamic seminarian who taught religion in my high school. I started going to the parish library and joined the Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth, an international youth movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Those were the years when a violent group called Shining Path unleashed an armed confrontation against the Peruvian government on behalf of working-class people. The response of the government’s armed forces was equally violent. During the two decades of this military confrontation nearly 70,000 people lost their lives; three out of every four victims were indigenous. The 2003 final report of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated abuses during the conflict said that in the Surandino region, collaboration among campesino organizations, churches, human rights institutions and political parties helped prevent the violence from decimating the region.
After high school, I went to the University in Puno to study sociology. I joined the National Union of Catholic Students, known by its Spanish acronym UNEC, to extend my Christian formation. I became a representative of my community at regional and national meetings.
That’s where I met Father Gustavo, UNEC’s national adviser. During one meeting he invited a group of us young Catholics to visit his parish in Lima. We spent several hours listening to his insights and asking questions about the Peruvian reality, the political violence. Our main concern was how we as Christians could apply the Gospel and social teachings of the Catholic Church within this context. The liberation theology method of see, judge, act was key to the process.
“People are not destined to be poor,” Father Gustavo said. “Poverty is the result of an unjust social structure that keeps them in this situation.” I learned from him that the stories from Jesus’ time are similar to those of the people in the Surandino. I understood Christ died on the cross not only as a martyr for the sins of our world, but also because he denounced the injustice and abuse of power that kept people enslaved and poor.
During my last college years, I learned about a diocesan plan to begin campus ministry in Puno. The bishop asked Maryknoll Father Stephen Judd to organize the ministry. I volunteered to help. We fixed a space on the campus and started the ministry by mid-1997.
Maryknoll Father James Madden was also part of the Surandino. Father Madden, who recently died, was an American with an andino heart, who dedicated his life to the indigenous Aymara people. He and Father Judd have been compañeros de fe, companions in faith.
Father Madden helped us start the Peruvian Maryknoll Affiliates where we support each other to carry on Maryknoll’s mission spirit.
I was invited to make a presentation on the social reality and the Church in Peru at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where I learned I could continue my studies. Now I am about to finish a doctorate in history.
It was a blessing to find Father Gustavo Gutiérrez at Notre Dame, where he teaches theology. He comes to our place to share Peruvian food and continue our conversations. My three daughters love him and call him Uncle Gustavo. He plays with them as if he were another child.
Father Gustavo went to Rome last September for the launching of the Italian version of the book On the Side of the Poor: Liberation Theology, Theology of the Church, which he co-authored with Cardinal Gerhard Müller. During his visit to Rome, he told me, he was invited to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis. “Nothing official,” he said humbly, but he had a chance to chat with the pope. On his return, Father Gustavo was animated by the dialogue with Pope Francis.
Father Gustavo feels Pope Francis is leading the Church closer to the people, particularly the poor and suffering, and needs our prayers and action. The election of Pope Francis, his style and calls for humility and mercy in the Church appear to be strong signs of a new spring for the People of God.
My family and faith community try to follow Jesus’ teachings and the example of Father Gustavo.
[Featured Image: Breathtaking view belies harsh realities of life in the Andes. (CNS/G. Tarczynski/Peru)]