Friday, May 15, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame: The Voice of Reason

This is why we have so much respect for Fr. Theodore Hesburgh...

Fr. Hesburgh supports Notre Dame’s decision to invite Pres. Obama

Reporter: Maureen McFadden
WNDU.com
Posted: 5:26 PM May 14, 2009
Last Updated: 11:07 AM May 15, 2009


The man who acted as Notre Dame's president for 35 years regrets the controversy over Barack Obama's choice as commencement speaker, but he thinks the university made the right decision.

Maureen McFadden sat down with Father Hesburgh Thursday to discuss the matter. He says the Catholic Church, the majority of the student body, and faculty are against abortion.

But he says an institute of higher education has to be a lighthouse and crossroads so that their graduates are ready to go out into the world prepared.

“That's what universities are about,” says Father Hesburgh. “It's like a commonplace where people who disagree can get together, instead of throwing bricks at one another, they can discuss the problem and they can see different solutions to difficult problems and those solutions are going to come out of people from universities. They aren't going to come from people running around with signs.”

Father Hesburgh believes the president will get an enthusiastic welcome from the graduates and that the president himself will leave Notre Dame a better man.

During his presidency, Father Ted has invited presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Carter and Reagan to deliver commencement addresses.

He says our leaders aren't 100 percent correct on everything, but he believes having a U.S. president speak at graduation, our first African-American president, is a learning experience for both the students and president.

“We have invited a number of presidents here. None of them have agreed on all issues, but I think just coming here and seeing another point of view and mingling with people who look upon abortion as an abhorrent thing -- that will have an effect on them,” Father Ted says.

“We're not a place that hides out in the corner and says we believe this and that's that and we're not going to talk to anybody that doesn't agree with us. We know we disagree on things, let's get together and talk.”

Father Ted believes Obama will give one of his most powerful speeches yet and that many graduates will leave Notre Dame able to find better solutions for all social conditions -- including abortion.

Meanwhile Alan Keyes and 17 other anti-abortion protestors were arrested for trespassing on the Notre Dame campus. It was Keyes' 2nd arrest in 8 days. I wonder what it will take for the South Bend police to decide to hold Keyes as a repeat offender at least until after Commencement....

Women Immigrants: Stewards of the 21st Century

Nota: Esta noticia de New America Media está disponible en español.

The story of migration is no longer a man’s story. It is increasingly becoming a woman’s tale, according to “Women Immigrants: Stewards of the 21st Century,” a new poll by New America Media. Immigrant women are taking charge in keeping their families together. At a time when more than one-third of families in the United States are single-parent households, 90 percent of women immigrants interviewed report that their families are intact, according to NAM Executive Director Sandy Close.


The story of migration, as it has traditionally been told, has been a masculine epic. But in the latter part of the 20th century, as women began immigrating to America in ever-growing numbers, the migration story became increasing a woman’s tale as well. Women are now on the move, as much as men. But their narrative is different from that of their male predecessors -– they are migrating not as lone individuals but as members, even heads, of families, determined to keep family bonds intact even as they travel great distances and adapt to new cultures.

Until the last half of the 20th century, there was a great gender imbalance, with males predominating in the migrant stream. Today, this balance has shifted to the point that women actually comprise half or more of the immigrants entering this country. Equally dramatic, women now make up more than half of the migrant population worldwide.

What our poll finds is that women are an integral part of the epic global event of the 20th century, traveling alongside men in the great migration from village to city, from home country to America. This journey, in stages, has activated women. Uprooted from the village, resettled in the city, they were not about to let the male leave in the name of preserving family, only to fracture the family unit with his absence. In growing numbers, women decided to cross oceans and borders also, either to join the male once he had settled, or to move (and thereby preserve) the entire family as a unit.

The result has been a transformation in the nature of the migration narrative itself. Immigration, long viewed by Americans through the Horatio Alger lens of self-discovery and reinvention, as seen through the eyes of women immigrants is a communal endeavor, driven by an imperative to hold family structures together. When women come to America, they come as wives and as mothers.

Ma Joad may have said it best in the early chapters of “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s fictional account of the great domestic migration from the devastated Dust Bowl states to the promise of California, when she announced that if ailing Grandpa Joad wasn’t joining the family on the move to California, then no one was going. The family traveled together.

Today’s migration, we know, increasingly occurs from city to city. The story that has not been told is the story of the woman immigrant in that stream. This poll is an effort to capture her narrative, and what becomes clear in the responses -– many to questions that seemed on their face to have nothing to do with family per se -– is that the gold thread giving meaning to her life is family stewardship.

As the poll demonstrates, it’s a goal at which she has been remarkably successful. Some 90 percent of women immigrants interviewed (30 percent of whom are undocumented) report their family units are intact –- their husbands live with them, and their children were either born here or have joined them in this country. The accomplishment has required women immigrants to overcome formidable barriers -– the language barrier (more than 60 percent of Latin American, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese immigrant women still say they have not mastered the English language), anti-immigrant discrimination, lack of health care, and low-paying jobs well below the status of professional jobs many of them held in home countries.

In meeting these challenges as they settle into America, many of these women are also radically altering their roles in their private lives. While few may have fit the image of submissive women in their home countries to begin with, almost one-third report having assumed head-of-household responsibilities now that they are here, and share equally with their husbands in making decisions from household finances to more intimate concerns like family planning.

Almost all reported success in increasing their income levels (some dramatically more than others, reflecting differences in education levels), which suggests skillful navigation of the public life and labor market in America.

These shifts in household politics mark another break from the past, when it was often men who migrated from the village and sent money back from the city, or from a foreign job. Today, as women have “left” the village, they have also brought the village with them. In their new city, they are the ones who are keeping the family intact –- acting as the public voice and face of the family, ensuring the health and education of the children and their entrance into the new society.

The most telling indicator of their role as family stewards is the fact that women say they are the main drivers in their families when it comes to seeking citizenship. It is women who are changing the meaning of migration from economic to civic; women who are the key figures in determining whether or not the new immigrant populations will find themselves (both literally and figuratively) “at home” in the American city in a lasting way. Underscoring the centrality of family as the motivation for making a permanent home in a new country, women immigrants named “securing family stability” as the primary motivator in their pursuit of citizenship.

A second reason, some said, is to vote in elections. In the 21st century, the face of the immigrant is that of a mother. The women polled for this survey reveal that they came to the United States not in search of “streets paved with gold” -- making money was surprisingly low on the list of priorities throughout the survey -– but because they saw the United States as a place to build better futures for their children, and to make permanent homes for their families.

At a moment when more than one-third of families in the United States are single parent headed households, 90 percent of them are raising their children in intact marriages. At a time of unprecedented economic and social turmoil in the larger society –- when both familial and economic stability seem more elusive and more intertwined than ever -– women immigrants clearly have much to teach and much to offer the country where they seek to make a family home.

The Running Nun

Florida Catholics who are looking for a break from the Padre Alberto telenovela need look no further than the Keys where, this weekend, according to today's Miami Herald, Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd will be running the entire Florida Keys island chain -- 100 miles over 43 bridges -- in her calf-length black habit.

Sister Mary Beth, who just turned 60, will be paced by legendary ultra-marathoner Lisa Smith-Batchen, a supporter of Sister's work with AIDS orphans, who once finished the Sahara Desert's infamous 150-mile Marathon des Sables after being bitten by a scorpion.

Since 1967 the "running nun", a New Jersey native, has been a member of the Religious Teachers Filippini, a 300-year-old order that helps the poorest children and women in the United States and nine other countries. In 1995, she began a mission to help children who have become orphans because their parents died of AIDS. Last year she published AIDS Orphans Rising, a book chronicling the growing plight of millions of kids who watched their parents die of the devastating disease and then became heads of households with few resources but a huge responsibility to care for younger siblings.


Sister Mary Beth is participating in the marathon to raise money and awareness for AIDS Orphans Rising. Here is an interview with Sister Mary Beth about her AIDS work by Tyler Tichelaar:

Sister Mary Elizabeth Lloyd has been helping the orphans and the Child Headed Households of the missions of the Religious Teachers Filippini for the past 12 years. Her experiences in Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Eritrea and India have spurred her on to produce this work. Sister Mary Elizabeth holds a doctorate degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Columbia University.

Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Sister Mary Elizabeth. I'm excited to have you here today. The number of children who are orphans because of the AIDS epidemic isn't a topic many people have probably considered. To start, would you tell us just how serious this situation is?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: The U.N. predicts that there will be 25 million orphans from AIDS by 2010-Every 14 seconds a Child Headed Household is formed! You are right Tyler, very few are aware of the staggering statistics. When I say CHH-Child Headed Household-I mean little brothers and sisters usually 5 to 8 of them under 18 years of age trying to survive without a mother and father.

Tyler: Sister Mary Elizabeth, how did you become interested and concerned with the issue of orphans who were left parent less because of AIDS?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: My first encounter with these orphans was in 1995 at our mission in Adigrat, Ethiopia. At that time 50% were orphans from war and the other 50% from HIV/AIDS. We had to figure a system to help these children.

Tyler: What specifically led to your desire to bring this matter to the public eye by writing "AIDS Orphans Rising"?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: I fear for these children and the world. The numbers are staggering, when you walk through villages that were once filled with families you find only children, or just abandoned huts...More than 75% of the orphans are girls with no education and nowhere to go. Most have only prostitution to turn to.

Tyler: Where is this situation most prevalent? Is it where the AIDS epidemic is especially bad?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: India and China are the places to watch. This year alone it is estimated that there will be 3,700,00 orphans from AIDS in India. China has not come up with a number, but I am certain it beats India. 4 million children walking around without a mother, father, little food, poor shelter...picture if Al Qaeda befriends them before good people do!

Tyler: Why should readers in the United States be concerned about AIDS in foreign countries?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: We are all in this world together. When anyone on earth suffers we should all be concerned. No matter your belief I think the world is beginning to realize whether it is a Tsunami, hurricane, earthquake or assassination...we are all affected and we all have a responsibility to help each other. All countries are pulling together for global warming...let's pull together to help the children...they need love most of all, then food and education.

Tyler: What about AIDS overseas do people in the United States especially need to understand? How is the situation in foreign countries different from in the Western World?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: Access to good effective medicines is the key. We are so lucky in America. Remember when Pope John Paul II would kiss the ground when he would arrive at a destination. We should all kiss the ground of our great country. Just travel to a foreign country and get sick; you will quickly see the difference. And traveling to remote parts of Africa, India, Asia...the children do not stand a chance. There are just too many to treat. The International Community ignored the issue from 1991-1997 hoping they could stop the epidemic! It was too late.

Tyler: Sister Mary Elizabeth, these children whose parents die from AIDS are often left as child-headed households. Why is that? Don't most of these children get adopted or go to foster homes?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: At first that is exactly what happened. Most children went to extended family members. But the extended families are either maxed out, or died out. Many countries, like Guatemala, are halting international adoptions for political reasons. One grandmother I met in Ethiopia had ten children. They all grew up and got married and had children. All of her ten children have died, all of their spouses have died and she has more than 50 grandchildren to care of! She is not the only grandmother in this predicament. In the book there is a chapter on adoption and what's best for the children.

Tyler: Will you tell us more about the political reasons for why many of these children cannot be adopted?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: Many say the children should not leave their native land and that the adoptions are draining the country from its future leaders. Usually it is the brightest child who will get adopted. These kids are clever-they get all prepared when they know people are coming to the orphanage to look for a child. In the book "There is No Me Without You," the author Melissa Faye Green does a great job showing this side of the children.

Tyler: Are there possibilities to adopt these children? If so, what difficulties might an American adult face in adopting a child?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: It seems right now in Ethiopia you might have a good chance of adopting the child, but the window of opportunity is a narrow one. The book has several sites that would help you in obtaining a child. The trick I feel is to do all the paperwork, do your research, and pray. I have seen so many times that often an adoption will fall through, but the next one the couple applies for is just fine. Be patient, God knows what child you should receive. I heard a beautiful explanation of the difference between a real birth child and an adopted child...the adopted child is conceived in the heart!

Tyler: Sister Mary Elizabeth, are many of the orphans whose parents die of AIDS carrying the HIV virus themselves?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: There are many, but thousands more are disease free. Usually the youngest child will die either before the mother or shortly after and all the other children are healthy. That's why these children can succeed if good people like yourself will help them.

Tyler: How do child-headed households manage to survive? How does a child under eighteen manage to care for several younger siblings?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: These children are resilient. You have to see it in action. With the proper help and schooling these children can rise to greatness. At our mission the CHH that has an older child leading them live out in the city. We pay their rent, give them food and education until they can start providing for themselves. The book gives several of these stories but let me give an example. One CHH has 4 members, a 17 year old girl, a 15 year old girl, and two boys 13, and 11. The boys go to school all day. The girls attend elementary school in the morning and then our home-ec school in the afternoon. In the program, they work at our Pizza and Gelato Café. They make enough money that soon they will be able to support themselves. But for now we pay the rent, help feed them and provide all their education. These girls are on their way to one day owning their own café ! The boys will receive an elementary education and enter a local vo-tech high school where they will learn marketable skills.

Tyler: Sister, will you tell us a little bit about these children? What are their daily lives like?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: The children all want to go to school; they know it is important. They all want to learn a trade; they know this is vital. Each classroom has about 60-70 children and they sit perfectly still and do all their school work as they know if they misbehave a child who is listening at the window will jump in and take their place. You see the school has only so many desks so children who are not admitted into the school sit outside the windows hoping to hear some lessons and learn that way! These are not your street orphans! Yes, they exist and that is another whole book. But the CHH are fighting desperately to stay as a family, get educated and grow into normal adulthood.

It is not easy. Let me speak about something as simple as getting water. At one of our missions where there are hundreds of orphans trying to make it on their own, there was a terrible drought. The World Food Program came and left a huge canvas sack filled with water, and containers were given to the adults! So the kids had no way of getting the water. One of the children ran up and tried to drink from the spigot; he almost got killed by adults beating him away with sticks. Thank God we were able to dig a well solely for the children.

Tyler: "AIDS Orphans Rising" provides many resources for readers to use to help Orphans of AIDS. What are some of these resources?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: Some advice -Always help a group that will give 100% of your donation to the children. The Religious Teachers Filippini is the only group I have found that can give you that promise.

Frank McKinney's Caring House and Habitat for Humanity are great for providing housing for the children.

And I would recommend setting up your own family foundation-that way the money goes for the area you are most interested in. Jillian Coleman Wheeler has many resources and ideas for setting up your own foundation.

Another great way to help the children is to use the talents you have. If you love to run, run for the kids. Get sponsors; send them the money. Lisa Smith Batchen has raised thousands of dollars just for food for these children. Go to her site; she can help you get started: http://www.dreamchaserevents.com/

Marshall Ulrich climbed Mt. Everest and the seven highest mountains in the world for the children. Go to his site and see all the good he has accomplished for the children of this world: http://www.marshallulrich.com/

Tyler: How do you use the money raised for the orphans?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: Food, clothing and education. Most of the children eat one roll a day! We are working to provide a hot lunch program for them. Do you know what ended hunger in the USA? The school hot lunch program. This is a big priority for us but an expensive one. Many say why don't you get these big groups to help you? We have tried and their answer is always, "We only help the Government. You have to get the food from them." Many of these Governments have their own agendas as to what to do with the food. In Eritrea the World Food Program is forbidden to distribute its food.

Tyler: Sister, where do you personally find the courage to carry on your work, despite a situation that must at times seem overwhelming?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: These children are not giving up and they have been the ones facing incredible suffering. How could you not help them? God does provide. Sometimes He makes you wait, but He always comes through. Just look, you are interviewing me, not by chance, God sent you, and some good person will read this interview, then read the book and then take action to help these children. Faith gets you through all difficulties!

Tyler: What do you foresee for the future? Will the AIDS epidemic become worse, or are more people being educated about it?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: It seems to be getting worse but will peak. The medicines in the developed nation allow parents and children to live many productive years even though they have the illness. And the work of research scientists, I am praying, will soon pay off with a vaccine. Education is the clue. But just not about disease and how you can catch it. These children are in need of basic education and more. The government can teach you, but they don't love you and they are not going to start teaching morals. So it is up to NGOs and religious groups, and just good people to get out there to help educate these children. If you have never been loved, do you think you could love? Picture the world without love.

Tyler: Sister Mary Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining me today and allowing me to help spread your message. Before we go, will you please let our readers know about your website and what additional information can be found there?

Sr. Mary Elizabeth: Thank you so much Tyler.

The book "AIDS Orphans Rising" can be purchased at Amazon or your local bookstore.

Loving Healing Press also offers an ebook version of the book that allows you to access all of the sites mentioned in the book. I would recommend this to anyone doing formal research in this area.

Tyler: Thank you, Sister Mary Elizabeth, for joining me today. My best wishes are with you as you carry on your important work.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame: News Update - 5/14/2009

Three days away from the famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) commencement speech by President Barack Obama to Notre Dame's 2009 graduating class, here is the latest news:

1. Petition in Support of Obama at Notre Dame: If you want to sign a petition supporting Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins' decision to invite President Obama, go to http://www.wesupportnotredame.org/. The petition, which is being sponsored by Notre Dame Alums in Support of Fr. Jenkins, Faithful America, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Catholics United, has garnered 35,520 signatures to date.

2. In the opposing camp: We are now at 76 bishops on record opposing Obama's appearance. I'm not sure how many bishops we have in the U.S. but when I started to count from the list on the USCCB Web site, I reached 76 before leaving the letter "C". Draw your own conclusions.

Also today, the Cardinal Newman Society delivered the first 300,000 signatures on their anti-Obama petition to Rev. Jenkins.

3. Show me the money: WNDU reports that all this protest activity is costing beaucoups bucks:
...A spokesperson for the [Center for Bio-Ethical Reform] says the plane [that is flying those pro-life banners over the university] costs about $350/hour to fly-- and with about 19 days of flights, several times a day-- that's costing about $20,000.

And we're told it costs about $500/day to drive each of those billboard trucks for CBR. For security reasons, officials wouldn't disclose how many trucks they have.

...Activist Randall Terry says his group, Stop Obama Notre Dame, spent well over $50,000 and funds are now starting to run low.

...Terry says his biggest expense was $38,000 for mailing letters to alumni. He spent another $10,000 to rent an e-mail list for 1.4 million people. Terry also says thousands of dollars have been spent on press release mailings.

Imagine all the babies' lives that would have been saved had those dollars been given to a charity. Randall Terry's $50,000 alone could have vaccinated 190,200 children against measles -- one of the leading causes of infant and child deaths in Third World countries (based on UNICEF's calculation of $39.45/150 units of vaccine).

And speaking of money, the amount of donations being withheld from Notre Dame as part of the Replace Jenkins campaign now stands at $14 million.

4. Prayer Vigil: The student group Notre Dame Response has received permission from the university to hold a peaceful prayer vigil to coincide with Commencement for those students who want to boycott the graduation exercises to protest Obama's presence. Details are available at http://ndresponse.com/commencement.html

All Things Possible With Jesus

This is for my friend JuanMM so you will have a video you CAN click on! The fabulous Fábio de Melo (that would be Father Fábio de Melo) has a new CD/DVD out called "Eu e o Tempo" and one of the most impressive numbers is this duet he sings with the diva of Brazilian Christian music, Celina Borges -- "Tudo Posso".

Borges wrote this song which has become a signature tune for her. I have printed the lyrics in Portuguese below the video. She says that she can do everything "through Him who gives me strength" and asks for the grace to continue to seek and follow God's will for her life, even when it is painful, even when others do not understand.

Listen to this video. Fábio and Celina will make a believer out of you!



TUDO POSSO

Posso, tudo posso Naquele que me fortalece

Nada e ninguém no mundo vai me fazer desistir

Quero, tudo quero, sem medo entregar meus projetos

Deixar-me guiar nos caminhos que Deus desejou pra mim e ali estar

Vou perseguir tudo aquilo que Deus já escolheu pra mim

Vou persistir, e mesmo nas marcas daquela dor
Do que ficou, vou me lembrar

E realizar o sonho mais lindo que Deus sonhou

Em meu lugar estar na espera de um novo que vai chegar
Vou persistir, continuar a esperar e crer
E mesmo quando a visão se turva e o coração só chora

Mas na alma, há certeza da vitória
Posso, tudo posso Naquele que me fortalece

Nada e ninguém no mundo vai me fazer desistir

Vou perseguir tudo aquilo que Deus já escolheu pra mim

Vou persistir, e mesmo nas marcas daquela dor

Do que ficou, vou me lembrar

E realizar o sonho mais lindo que Deus sonhou

Em meu lugar estar na espera de um novo que vai chegar

Vou persistir, continuar a esperar e crer ...
Eu vou sofrendo, mas seguindo enquanto tantos não entendem

Vou cantando minha história, profetizando

Que eu posso, tudo posso... em Jesus!

Teaching Peace: In Memoriam Msgr. William Kerr

Today we receive the sad news of the untimely death from a stroke of educator, human rights and peace advocate, Msgr. William Kerr. At the time of his death, Msgr. Kerr was executive director of the Claude Pepper Center for Intercultural Dialogue at Florida State in Tallahassee.

What I found most interesting about his life story, however, was his founding of the Pacem in Terris Institute in 1993 when he was president of La Roche College. The program provides scholarships to students from conflict, post-conflict and developing regions of the world to study at La Roche. By providing these scholarships, the Pacem In Terris program brought together students from the United States and developing nations of the world, creating a microcosm of the global community that models what the world, at its best, could be – a world of respect and open dialogue in an educational setting – a world of peace. From its beginnings in the war-ravaged remains of Yugoslavia through its expansion to the Middle East and Africa, more than 450 students from 21 countries have benefited from this extraordinary initiative.

Here is the story of this program in Fr. Kerr's own words:


The Pacem in Terris Institute: educating college students from war-ravaged lands
by William A. Kerr
The Catholic World
November 1994

What happens in today's world when governments fail to solve conflicts? And, further, what happens when the conflicts at hand are violent ones which threaten the broader peace of a region or even a hemisphere? The news media have illustrated the answer for us every day over the last three years: in the former Yugoslavia war rages with all its concommitant horrors, including the latest euphemism for genocide known as "ethnic cleansing." Most Americans have asked themselves repeatedly whether, in the absence of other conflict resolution efforts, the church, or indeed any religious group or movement, should step into the fray and attempt to foster the peace. The Catholic response has been a practical one.

If Pope John Paul II's recent efforts to prod the conscience of the Western world over the Bosnian conflict mean anything at all, they certainly signal that it is the duty of the church in the modern world to protect the innocent and to assist peoples in the peaceful resolution of differences. But what practically can the church - or for that matter, any religious group - do in the face of guns, weapons and the intractably violent positions of warring parties? This dilemma raises a larger and very pressing issue for every Christian: What is the role of religion in protecting the common good when political authority fails to do so?

Public theology - usually understood as the contribution which religious values make to public policy and the pursuit of the common good - is a kind of "conscience" for most political policies. Frequently, religion is the inspiration of public theology. When the principles of democracy and Western civilization are not implemented to protect the common good and the rights of the human person, it is often religious values, as articulated by Christians, Jews and Muslims in our society, which can help to set the course for peace. In the agony of inaction which many American Christians have felt over war in the former Yugoslavia, a kind of "public theology" may be the only guiding principle to help bring about any kind of peace there. But how can world governments, both European and American, be influenced by public theologies appropriate to given circumstances?

There is a saying that nothing is accomplished unless it is done personally by a few dedicated individuals. Indeed, over the last two hundred years of American history, all of the great movements which have transformed our culture - including universal suffrage, civil rights and now the gradual reform of drunk driving behaviors - have been effective because of the personal dedication, at first, of a single individual or a small group of private citizens who have worked together to change the whole of society.

Outraged by the continuing slaughter, rape and destruction of people in the former Yugoslavia, a few determined individuals at a small Catholic college in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania decided that something should be done. Their compassion for war victims, inspired by God's word, is their dynamic force. With support from private donors, foundations, politicians, government agencies, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, a small institute was founded to rescue and educate college students from war-torn areas. This special effort, known as "The Pacem In Terris Institute," has made a significant impact on the lives of some of the victims of the war in Bosnia.

The Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Institute was established last year at the Divine Providence Sisters' La Roche College in Pittsburgh to provide for the safe transport, care and education of young people from war-ravaged areas of the world. At present, some thirty college-age students from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia live and study together as "Pacem In Terris" students at the college. The changes which they have experienced are matched only by the changes they have brought about in the lives of the faculty, administration and their fellow students. No one who has met these special young people is left unaffected by their story.

The Pacem In Terris Institute is inspired by the religious values found in Pope John XXIII's famous 1963 encyclical of the same name. Based on a commitment to the dignity of each individual, Pope John's exhortation to the community of nations is as timely today as it was thirty years ago:

Any human society, if it be well ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person; that is, their nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because they are persons, all have rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from their very nature. And, as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable, they cannot in any way be surrendered.

If we look upon the dignity of the human person in the light of divinely revealed truth, we cannot help but esteem it far more highly, for all are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and are, by grace, the children and friends of God and the heirs of eternal glory.

In our own day, we are encouraged likewise by Pope John Paul II, who reminds us that the newest crisis for the global community is "the rising tide of immigrants" forced to flee their homelands and to become refugees in foreign places. Too often, these displaced peoples are denied their most fundamental rights and the basic dignities of human living.

Taught by the lessons of the Holocaust and now of "ethnic cleansing," young people from war-torn areas must be educated to break the cycles of resentment and revenge which have fueled the major conflicts of the twentieth century. But an essential part of that effort will rest in a reorienting of their values, both through religion and effective governance, which can safeguard the ultimate dignity of every human person. Public theology is the indispensable soul of world peace.

When those of us who helped establish the Pacem In Terris Institute visited the internment camps of Bosnia and Croatia to meet the future La Roche students, we were astounded at what we saw.

At Gasinci, in eastern Croatia, there were rows and rows of huts, resembling a military encampment. At the outer edges were tents, filled with human beings huddling together for shelter and human companionship. There were families of six and eight living in one-room wooden shelters, resembling closets. For persons accustomed to comfortable homes within beautiful neighborhoods, the refugee camps are nightmares.

An 84-year-old Croatian woman who had lived in Sarajevo all her life, raising her family and tending her garden, now sat on a borrowed cot which served as both chair and bed holding her last earthly possession - a rosary. As she prayed, she cried, and when I spoke gently to her in English - a language she did not understand - her joyful embrace suggested genuine gratitude for the fact that someone had noticed her.

As we toured the common shower and latrine facilities, we realized that the occupants of the camp are indeed prisoners. People have no say in their lives and wonder each day if it will be any better than the last.

Particularly affected are young people who want to be involved in life but are deprived of the freedom to use their talents in constructive ways. One of the most impressive features of the camps are the young volunteers who transcend despair and do for those in greatest need what these people cannot do for themselves. For instance, they volunteer to walk with the older members of the camps on regular exercise trips, or spend afternoons listening to elderly strangers tell their stories. Frequently teenagers commit themselves to becoming part of work crews for the camp's sanitation.

Parents have nothing with which to buy their children clothes, medicine or even candy. These otherwise willing and responsible persons are prevented from earning any kind of wages. As a result, they are totally dependent on visitors who care enough to tour the camps and bestow upon them tokens of charity. Apart from the obvious physical and social injuries which war routinely inflicts, it is clear that self-respect is a major casualty.

As we sat on the floor of a hut which served as home for one of our students, her mother served us Turkish coffee in what had once been beautiful china, but which was now cracked and chipped. It was a wonderful moment of human solidarity and, as we started to leave, this Muslim family presented us with a Christian New Testament. Holding hands in a farewell gesture, together we said, "God is good."

Throughout these humble camps it was clear that government programs had faltered, that patriotism had been confused, and that human suffering was immense. But it was also evident that religious faith still provided a sense of hope and meaning for those so savagely imprisoned and abused. The testimonies to the faith given by those abandoned in prison camps was an unforgettable experience for all of us. In the hearts of these many victims is a culture of religious belief which one day may form a new political structure, dedicated to the free exercise and support of a religiously diverse society.

While concerned governments on both sides of the Atlantic stand by, fretfully puzzling over their next political maneuver in Bosnia, the Pacem In Terris Institute attempts to express God's love by reaching out to college-age students. Not only are they offered an exit from the camps but they are challenged to become persons of peace who dedicate their lives-in whatever careers they pursue - to changing attitudes and structures that diminish the dignity of others because of ethnic, racial or religious differences.

As the students bound for Pittsburgh rode the Red Cross vans out of the prison camps, other detainees lined the roads to applaud their good fortune and wish them well. Those who remained behind knew that these young women and men are the future of their people.

The Pacem In Terris Institute, with its emphasis on the dignity of the person, exists to help its students fulfill the expectation of those who look to them with hope. They will return educated and, the Institute hopes, influenced not only by their academic specializations but also by courses in ethics and conflict resolution. Strengthened through their experiences in a caring, supportive community, hopefully they will help to bring peace to the many lands of war.

As his ticket was given him and he was directed toward the concourse for the flight to America, Meho Grdanovic, a young Bosnian recently freed from a camp in eastern Croatia, waved his boarding pass and said, "Today is my second birthday!"

To give birth anew to the goodness that God places in all of us and to motivate young victims of war to turn swords into ploughshares is the aim of La Roche College's Pacem In Terris Institute.

Sidebar:

In the summer of 1993 Msgr. William A. Kerr witnessed the beleaguered faces of the people living in a Croatian refugee camp. "There were young children, teenagers, some without families. There were elderly people lying on cots, just waiting," he recalls. "I was asked to walk around the camp so they could see me, because just to see that someone would come to them from America gave them hope."

Kerr was in Croatia on a mission of hope: to bring a number of students from the camp back to America, where they would begin their freshman year at La Roche College.

Since he became La Roche's president in late 1992, Kerr has succeeded in making the small Roman Catholic college in McCandless, PA a model of global awareness. Under a program he initiated, 31 international students - predominantly from Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia - are now enrolled at La Roche, their tuition paid by a fund established by Tatjana Grgich, a Croatian-American. Along with other private donations, Grgich's funding helped found Pacem in Terris, an institution at La Roche that "will continue to reach out to other refugees and other young people all over the world," Kerr says.

The students spend their first year at La Roche studying the usual freshman curriculum, along with improving their English skills. While the students will stay here to complete their degrees, most are anxious to return home after graduation to help rebuild their communities. Many choose their majors based on what will most benefit the people back home, Kerr says.

Prior to becoming president of La Roche, Msgr. Kerr spent eight years as vice-president of university relations at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Before that, he served as a campus chaplain and instructor at Florida State University. At La Roche, he keeps a hand in classroom life by teaching American History.

In the fall of 1993, 1,800-student La Roche College celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding as a liberal-arts college by the Sisters of Divine Providence.

Photo: At a forum last year, Monsignor Kerr encouraged students to "be open to God's call". “I think sometimes when we go through our lives and we make decisions, we must always be open to what it is that God is calling us to,” Fr. Kerr said.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Una Iglesia sin tacones

I "borrowed" this 5/2/2009 post from the Todo Era Bueno blog because it absolutely sums up my vision of the Iglesia Descalza. I don't know who writes that blog but "Gracias, hermano/a!" I could not have said it better myself (English translation below).

Una Iglesia sin tacones, que no necesite estirarse mucho ni cardarse el pelo.

Quizá, incluso, una Iglesia con sandalias. O mejor: descalza.

Sí, mejor descalza. Nos han hecho tanto daño algunos zapatos…

Una Iglesia descalza, con los pies descalzos y sucios de caminar descalza por el barro, bajo esos puentes donde se refugian los pobres sin zapatos ni tejas.

Una Iglesia descalza, para que si da un pisotón sin querer no haga daño a nadie.

Una Iglesia descalza, sí, y sin miedo de pisar los charcos.

Una Iglesia descalza y sin alfombras que anestesien el dolor del camino.

¡Se paga un precio tan alto por las alfombras y los zapatos…!

A Church Without High Heels

A Church without high heels, that doesn't need to stretch out much or backcomb its hair.

Perhaps even a Church in sandals. Or better yet: barefoot.

Yes, better barefoot. Some shoes have done us so much harm ...

A barefoot Church, with feet bare and dirty from walking barefoot through the mud, under those bridges where the poor with no shoes or roof take refuge.

A barefoot Church, so that if it unwillingly missteps, it will hurt no one.

A barefoot Church, yes, but one unafraid to walk through puddles.

A barefoot Church, without rugs that dull the pain of the road.

Such a high price is paid for rugs and shoes!

Standing with the people in the Peruvian Amazon

As I have said, I like to highlight instances when members of the Catholic Church hierarchy are in step with the faithful, when they act in solidarity with us. So I was pleased to receive from my friends at Jesuitas Peru - Pastoral Social a statement that several Peruvian bishops have signed in solidarity with the indigenous people who are fighting for their rights in the Amazon region.



For those who are not familiar with this struggle, Indian Country Today has a pretty good summary article in English which they are updating on a regular basis. I'll reprint some of it here. Those who speak Spanish can click on the AIDESEP link and get regular information there.

Peru Amazon Natives fight for their land
By Renzo Pipoli, Today correspondent
Story Published: May 9, 2009
Story Updated: May 11, 2009

The remaining Amazon Native nations in Peru – some 350,000 people who depend on fishing and hunting in mostly clean rainforest areas they held for centuries – appeared set May 7 for more uneven confrontations after the Peru Navy rammed and destroyed the river barricades they had set up April 9 to protest laws that Natives say threaten their survival.

According to the Peru ombudsman’s office in Lima, on May 4 a Peruvian Navy ship “broke the barrier that kichuas and arabelas had set up in past weeks as part of a Native protest.” Natives wanted to prevent river traffic as part of efforts to halt activities in the Amazon to protest new Peruvian laws that allegedly ease the exploitation of oil, lumber and gold available.

On May 4, a Navy ship broke ropes and crushed canoes that had been tied there in past weeks to prevent transit. AIDESEP, the Native organization coordinating the protests reported that, as a result, three retained ships used by oil company Perenco were able to continue on their way. Perenco officials declined comment.

AIDESEP said that in retaliation, Natives are preparing as many as four new barricades in the same waterway.

A Peru Navy official denied any violence in the opening of the barricade, claiming it wanted to open the waterway for transit. A later report assures that the Peruvian Navy will be on patrol to prevent more barricades in the area....

Click here to read the full story...

And here is the bishops' statement. It concludes: "With the Bishops of Latin America, we reaffirm the need to "pursue an alternative development model, one that is comprehensive and communal, based on an ethics that includes responsibility for an authentic natural and human ecology, which is based on the gospel of justice, solidarity, and the universal destination of goods..." (Aparecida 474c)":

Pronunciamiento de los Obispos de la Amazonía ante el Paro de los Pueblos Amazónicos

AIDESEP, 11 de mayo de 2009. Ante la arremetida de los diferentes sectores del gobierno y la negativa a la apertura del diálogo para la solución de los pueblos amazónicos que reclaman respeto a sus territorios, los Pastores de las comunidades católicas en la Amazonía queremos dirigirnos a la opinión pública para expresar nuestra posición ante el paro de los pueblos amazónicos.

1. La región amazónica es rica en culturas milenarias y en biodiversidad. Ella es fuente de vida y esperanza para la humanidad. Por eso la consideramos uno de los mejores regalos de Dios porque el Perú es uno de los ocho países mega-diversos del planeta. La Amazonía tiene 31 de las 114 zonas de vida o ecosistemas mundiales, 95 % de los bosques del País y un importante potencial de recurso hídrico e hidroenergéticos. Este hecho nos exige a todos los peruanos y peruanas la responsabilidad de “cultivar la tierra y cuidarla” (Gen. 2) para bien nuestro y de las generaciones futuras.

2. Por eso como anunciadores “de la vida, queremos insistir que, en las intervenciones sobre los recursos naturales, no predominen los intereses de grupos que arrasan irracionalmente las fuentes de la vida, en perjuicio de naciones enteras y de la propia humanidad” (Documento Aparecida 471).

3. Desde esta perspectiva constatamos cómo, en nombre de un sesgado concepto de desarrollo, el Estado permite la deforestación de grandes extensiones de bosques primarios a favor de empresas nacionales y transnacionales para la inversión en plantaciones aceiteras, caña de azúcar y otros.

4. Para nadie es desconocida la contaminación de los ríos con el plomo y otros metales pesados y sustancias tóxicas como efecto de una actividad minera (formal e informal) y la extracción de petróleo, de manera irresponsable. Somos testigos, además, de la tala indiscriminada de la madera sin ningún tipo de control.

5. Podemos afirmar que no se atiende el clamor de las poblaciones indígenas y ribereñas que desean un desarrollo integral, desconociendo el Estado el uso y ocupación de esas tierras por generaciones. En la práctica no se ha tomado en cuenta el derecho de los pueblos amazónicos a ser escuchados, como lo indica la Constitución Política del Estado y los Tratados Internacionales sobre Derechos Humanos entre los que se encuentran el Convenio 169 de la OIT y la Declaración de las Naciones Unidas sobre los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas. En el Informe de la Comisión de Expertos de Aplicación de Convenios de la OIT, publicado en febrero del 2009 se insta al Gobierno Peruano a avanzar de inmediato en el diseño de mecanismos apropiados de participación de los pueblos indígenas y lo exhorta a consultarles antes de la adopción de medidas que los afecten directa o indirectamente.

6. Debemos expresar que “la Iglesia… valora especialmente a los indígenas por su respeto a la naturaleza y el amor a la madre tierra como fuente de alimento, casa común y altar del compartir humano” (Documento Aparecida 472).

7. Acontecimientos como el que estamos viviendo actualmente en la Amazonía nos expresan la pretensión de disponer, de manera inhumana y cruel, de las posesiones de las poblaciones ribereñas y amazónicas por no tener, en su propio País, el amparo legal necesario para defender sus justos reclamos. De esta manera se les condena al desarraigo de sus tierras y a ser asalariados en la siembra de la caña de azúcar, la palma aceitera y en las explotaciones mineras y de hidrocarburos.

8. Las normas legales que el Estado ha promulgado en el 2008 (especialmente dos Leyes y siete Decretos Legislativos) no aportan al desarrollo integral de la población amazónica. Por el contrario surgen serias amenazas de mayor pobreza en la región.

9. No queremos violencia, por eso instamos al Gobierno y al Congreso muestren intenciones de dialogar y buscar soluciones justas y pacificas a la problemática que vienen enfrentando los pueblos amazónicos para no llevarlos a la desesperación que pueda incrementar los conflictos sociales.

10. Invocamos a los medios de comunicación social a que cumplan con su rol de brindar información veraz a la opinión pública, contribuyendo al derecho que tienen los ciudadanos de estar informados de los sucesos en la Amazonía Peruana.

11. Ante este delicado panorama invocamos al Señor Presidente Constitucional y al Congreso de la República la derogatoria de dichos dispositivos legales y contribuya a la formulación de nuevas normas con la participación de las poblaciones indígenas. Así mismo invocamos a estas poblaciones amazónicas y a sus líderes a unirse para buscar juntos el Bien Común. Consideramos necesaria una Mesa de auténtico Diálogo conformada por todos los actores sociales para la solución pacífica y armoniosa del conflicto creado.

A manera de conclusión, reafirmamos con los Obispos de América Latina, la necesidad de “buscar un modelo de desarrollo alternativo, integral y solidario, basado en una ética que incluya la responsabilidad por una auténtica ecología humana y natural, que se fundamente en el Evangelio de la justicia, la solidaridad y en el destino universal de los bienes…” (Documento de Aparecida 474c).


Mons. José Luis Astigarraga, C.P.
Obispo del Vicariato de Yurimaguas

Mons. Alberto Campos, O.F.M.
Obispo del Vicariato de San José de Amazonas

Mons. Santiago García de la Rasilla, S.J.
Obispo del Vicariato de Jaén

Mons. Gerardo Zerdin, O.F.M.
Obispo del Vicariato de San Ramón

Mons. Gaetano Galbusera, S.D.B.
Obispo del Vicariato de Pucallpa

Mons. Francisco González, O.P.
Obispo del Vicariato de Puerto Maldonado

Mons. Julián García, O.S.A.
Obispo del Vicariato de Iquitos

Mons. Juan Tomás Oliver, O.F.M.
Obispo del Vicariato de Requena

Mons. Rafael Escudero López-Brea
Obispo Prelado de Moyobamba

Photos courtesy of AIDESEP

En el Aniversario de Postville, Un Grito: "No Mas Redadas!"

Today marks the the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest immigration raids on an employer in U.S. history. On this date in 2008, ICE agents entered Agriprocessors Inc., a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa and rounding up over 700 undocumented workers, 389 of whom were ultimately arrested.

The raid made a minimal dent in the number of undocumented immigrants but, according to the Los Angeles Times, virtually destroyed the town of Postville. "Since federal helicopters raced over cornfields on May 12, 2008, en route to arresting 389 illegal workers at a sprawling kosher meatpacking plant, what was a center of commerce in northeastern Iowa teeters toward collapse as the plant sputters in bankruptcy, its managers face prison time and the town fights to stay solvent.


"Since the landmark raid, an economic squeeze has destroyed several businesses. Postville's population has shrunk by nearly half, to about 1,800 residents, and townsfolk say the resulting anxiety -- felt from the deli to the schoolyard -- has been relentless."

On the anniversary of Postville, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement calling once again for immigration reform:

Statement of Most Reverend John C. Wester, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Migration, on the first anniversary of the Postville, Iowa, Work Site Enforcement Action, May 12, 2009

May 12, 2009 marks the one-year anniversary of what was, at the time, the largest work site immigration enforcement action in history. Since that raid in Postville, Iowa, larger raids have occurred, but the precedent set at Postville and the accompanying compassionate response by that small Iowa community and its people of faith underscore the humanitarian costs of workplace immigration raids as well as the need for reform of our nation’s immigration policies.

As religious leaders, my brother Catholic bishops and I understand and support the right and responsibility of the government to enforce the law. We strongly believe, however, that worksite enforcement raids do not solve the challenge of illegal immigration. Instead, they lead to the separation of U.S. families and the destruction of immigrant communities. The result of the Postville raid was family separation, immense suffering, denial of due process rights and community division.

Our religious and social response to such harm to our God-given human dignity is based on Scriptures, which call believers to welcome the newcomers among us, to treat the alien with respect and charity, and to provide pastoral and humanitarian assistance to individuals and their families.

The Postville action of a year ago is a disturbing reminder of the need to repair the nation’s broken immigration policies.

I ask all Catholics, the greater faith community, and persons of good will to commemorate the Postville raid of May 12, 2008, by remembering in their prayers those hurt by the raid and to work for comprehensive immigration reform so that others will not face similar pain and cruelty in the future.

Declaración de Monseñor John C. Wester, con motivo del Primer Aniversario de las Redadas Migratorias en un Centro Laboral en Postville, Iowa, 12 de mayo de 2009

El día 12 de mayo de 2009 señala el primer aniversario de la que, en aquel entonces, fuera la redada migratoria en un centro laboral más grande de la historia. Desde que esta acción ocurriera, otras redadas de mayor magnitud han sucedido, pero el precedente sentado en Postville y la respuesta compasiva de esta pequeña comunidad en Iowa y de las comunidades de fe subrayan el costo humanitario de las redadas de inmigrantes en los centros de trabajo así como la necesidad de una reforma de las leyes inmigratorias de nuestro país.

Como líderes religiosos, mis hermanos obispos católicos y yo entendemos y apoyamos el derecho y la responsabilidad que tiene el gobierno de hacer cumplir las leyes. Sin embargo, creemos firmemente que las redadas en los lugares de trabajo no resuelven el desafío de la inmigración ilegal. Por el contrario, éstas llevan a la separación de familias estadounidenses y a la destrucción de las comunidades inmigrantes. La redada en Iowa dejó como resultado la separación familiar, un gran sufrimiento, la denegación del derecho a un proceso legal debido y la división de la comunidad.

Nuestra respuesta, religiosa y social, ante tal daño a la dignidad dada por Dios está basada en las Escrituras, las cuales hacen un llamado a los creyentes a dar la bienvenida al recién llegado en nuestro medio, a tratar al extranjero con respeto y caridad, y a proporcionar asistencia humanitaria y pastoral a las personas y a sus familias.

La acción del año pasado en Postville es un recuerdo perturbador de la necesidad de reparar las deficientes políticas inmigratorias en el país.

Pido a todos los católicos, a otras comunidades de fe y a las personas de buena voluntad que oren por todos aquellos que fueron afectados por la redada del 12 de mayo de 2008 en Postville y que trabajen por una reforma integral de las leyes inmigratorias, para que otros no tengan que enfrentarse al mismo dolor y crueldad en el futuro.

Photos: The 2008 raid at Agriprocessors; today many residents of Postville rely on the local food bank as the economy has crumbled.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Resurrected Church: a barefoot or radical Church

By Rev. José Eugenio Hoyos
(English translation by Rebel Girl)

Today we talk about a renewed Church, a spiritual Church with a gospel that helps bring hope back to the poorest and one where Christians, through faith, can meet the living Christ.

What does the future of the Church depend on? Its organizational efficiency, its institutional power, or a renewed and radicalized spirituality?

We should go back to the source to retrieve the authentic meaning of Jesus. Are we the Church born of Easter and Pentecost that is committed to the work of love that Jesus initiated? After the Resurrection, nothing is as it was – a radical new event has interrupted history and completely transformed it.

I recall an incident in the life of John XXIII, a great prophet of our time. In 1903, he confessed that as a young man he was used to new things, new books, new systems and new people.

That is the fruit and consequence of faith in the Resurrected One, in Easter – the faith from which a young and dynamic Church is born – a true brotherhood and sisterhood of apostles, nurtured through contemplation of the Word, through the Eucharist, who live in communion, who go on a mission along the paths of the world to lead men and women to join in the good news of Jesus.

Christ’s Church should be an inclusive community that evangelizes from the option for and with the poor. We should proceed from an integral plan that embraces all the dimensions of the person who is hungry, who needs education, health and hygiene, and God. May the liberating force of Jesus and His Gospel be felt in our Church, inculturated in all who have faith.

We should be the voice of the voiceless and help to break the chains of the slavery of racism and discrimination and thus we Catholics will put on the sandals of the Lord and follow His steps on the road to liberty and justice.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pentecostal Political Power in Latin America

This article by the Chilean journalist Dr. Antonio Castillo, now a professor at the University of Sydney in Australia, is fascinating to me because of its implication that by repressing liberation theology which responded to the needs of the poor in Latin America, the Catholic Church created the necessary vacuum for the rise of the Pentecostal and other Protestant cults to political and religious power in the region.

Hillsong Power In Latin America

By Antonio Castillo
NewMatilda.com
5 May, 2009

Latin Americans are flocking in their millions to energetic Evangelical churches - and now they're starting to flex their political muscle, writes Antonio Castillo

The Catholic Church is in trouble in Latin America. There is a major trend underway in the region, threatening to end Catholic supremacy. Protestant churches — especially the Pentecostal ones — are growing quickly and becoming politically influential, from Mexico down to Chile.

Nothing reflects this trend better than the Chilean Government's proclamation of 31 October as a Protestant and Pentecostal church public holiday. Announced at the end of 2008, the decision was described by The Economist as a "cultural milestone".

And while socio-theological prophecy is not its specialty, the magazine was onto something when it speculated that "Protestantism by Latin America's socially aspirational poor looks like an inexorable trend". What The Economist didn't mention is that Latin American Protestants — especially Pentecostals — are seeking and exercising increasing political influence all over the region.

The fact that around 14 to 15 per cent of Chile's population of 20 million are Protestants is not lost on Chile's President Michelle Bachelet, an agnostic and socialist who was briefly exiled in Sydney in the 1970s. Her declaring the public holiday "was a decision taken in the context of the next December 11 election, and the Government is courting the growing Protestant vote, especially the Pentecostal," Rubén Orellana, a leading Methodist pastor, told newmatilda.com.

The growing political power of Pentecostals — the fastest growing branch of Protestantism in the world — marks a shift for the movement, previously regarded as "apolitical", and more concerned with individual conversions.

There are around 30 political parties in Latin America that could be branded as Pentecostal (or Evangelical). A few of them are already well established. One example is the right-wing Nicaraguan party "Camino Cristiano Nicaraguense" (Nicaraguan Christian Path). At the 1996 elections the party became the third-largest political force in Nicaragua.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez — whose relationship with the Catholic Church has soured since he came to power in 1998 — has attracted the support of Pentecostals for his programs of social assistance for the poor. Bolivian president Evo Morales has developed a similar proximity towards these churches. His friendly relationship with Protestants has been in sharp contrast to his confrontations with the hierarchy of the Bolivian Catholic Church. In 2006 Morales rewarded Protestant Churches' support for his government by appointing Casimira Rodríguez, an indigenous Methodist, as Justice Minister.

Brazil has the largest community of Pentecostals in the world. Since 2002 the left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been actively courting them. In 2006 President Lula's Workers Party forged a powerful political coalition with the Brazilian Republican Party (BRP), established by the large Pentecostal group the Church of the Kingdom of God. The Brazilian Vice-President José Alencar and 62 members of the Brazilian Congress are Pentecostals. While there is no evidence of a "bloc vote", the political slogan "A brother votes for a brother" voiced in the latest Brazilian elections speaks of a trend of Pentecostal faithfuls voting for Pentecostal candidates.

In Mexico — a historical stronghold of Latin American Catholicism — Pentecostals have become a powerful presence in grassroots movements. In Chiapas — the birthplace of the radical indigenous Zapatista movement — over 30 per cent of the community is Protestant. A former local governor, Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the Nazarene.

The impact of the Latin American Protestant movement is not only political. It is also changing the religious landscape of the region dominated for centuries by the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago 90 per cent of the 560 million Latin Americans were Catholics, today it's 70 per cent and still declining.

And this is happening while Protestant and Evangelical churches keep on growing. Today 20 per cent of the Latin American population is Protestant. With 75 million adherents, Pentecostals are the overwhelming majority among these, according to the 2005 figures from the World Christian Database.

Guatemala is the Latin American country with the largest percentage of Protestants, with Pentecostals making up the majority of these. The Protestantism movement in Guatemala emerged in the mid-1800s, and has enjoyed rapid growth since the 1960s. Today 30 per cent of its 13 million population belongs to a Protestant Church.

Some predict Brazil will follow Guatemala's path and in the next two decades Pentecostals will be a majority of Protestants. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, nearly 40 out of 188 million Brazilians today are Protestants. Three large Pentecostal churches are the dominant forces in this group: the fast-growing Pentecostal Universal Church, the Assembly of God (with 10 million followers), and the Kingdom of God Pentecostal Church. The latter has developed an unparalleled media apparatus, controlling newspapers, magazines, television networks and radio stations.

The rank and file of the Protestant movement come mainly from the poorer classes, many of whom live in Latin America's sprawling shanty towns. What's concerning the hierarchy in the Vatican is that they're not coming primarily from population growth, migration or indigenous religions — they're coming directly in disenchanted droves from the Catholic Church.

According to the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), 10,000 people a day leave the Catholic Church and around 8000 each day convert to Protestantism. "The largest number of converted evangelicals come from the Catholic Church", Bernardo Barranco, a sociologist and religious expert, said.

"Pentecostalism is an attractive option to the poor of the region", Dr Manuel Ossa, a theologian at the respected Diego de Medellín Ecumenical Centre in Chile, told newmatilda.com. "Pentecostalism relies on the so-called 'theology of prosperity' to attract followers", he said. "This claims that material wealth is a divine blessing achieved by an active and frequent participation in the religious services."

In marked contrast to the weekend's empty pews in Catholic masses, the Pentecostal churches popping up all over Latin America — typically no more than humble, undecorated wooden houses — are thriving, noisy and crowded places of worship.

Respected Belgian Catholic theologian and priest José Comblin told magazine Punto Final that Pentecostals were filling the vacuum left by the Catholic Church in the impoverished slums of Latin American. "The Catholic Church has abandoned the popular masses," he said. "In one of the Brazilian shanty towns where I live — with around 10,000 people — there are 84 Pentecostal chapels and three Catholic."

The loss of Catholic followers to the Protestant movement was one of the major points of discussion at the 2007 Latin American Episcopal Conference held in Brazil. The final document said the expansion of Protestantism "constitutes a serious concern due to the fact that the majority migrating into these groups are Catholics."

The late Pope John Paul II described the growth of Pentecostal Churches as an invasion of sects, and rapacious wolves who were robbing Latin America of its Catholic culture and destroying social cohesion. However, according to many observers, that Pope was himself one of the culprits behind the vacuum left by the Catholic Church among the poor.

The role claimed for itself by the Catholic Church as the "preferential option for the poor", was not part of John Paul's narrative. Closer to spiritual conservative centre and right-wing upper-class movements such as Opus Dei and Legionaries for Christ, Pope John Paul II destroyed Liberation Theology, a movement that was seen as a real option for the poor and a sort of antidote to the Pentecostal tide. Followers of Liberation Theology — Catholic priests and lay members working with the poor, marginalised and ethnic minorities — were unendorsed by the Vatican and persecuted by right-wing governments.

This is a big part of the hearts-and-minds battle for the region's poor that the Pentecostals are winning. Expect to see these groups wielding a lot more political power in the near future.