PopeWatch: The Problem

Sandro Magister publishes a missionary priest who explains what has gone wrong in the missions:


Fr. Martín Lasarte Topolanski, the author of the text hosted on this page, a Uruguayan on mission in Angola, is the head of missionary outreach in Africa and Latin America for the Salesian congregation to which he belongs.

Pope Francis included him among the 33 churchmen he personally invited to take part in the synod on the Amazon.

The following text was written and published before this synod. But it is as if Fr. Lasarte had delivered it in the assembly just now, for the cutting clarity with which he addresses its crucial questions, starting with the widespread request – which he rejects – to ordain married men as priests.

The complete text of the contribution came out in Italian in “Settimana News” on August 12 2019. And “Asia News,” the agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, published an extensive excerpt of it in two parts, on October 10 and October 11.

This is an even more abbreviated  synopsis. But absolutely a must-read, if one wishes to get to the heart of this dramatic synod on the Amazon.



by Martín Lasarte

It is said that the priestly ordination of married laymen in distant communities is necessary, because of the difficulty encountered by ministrants in reaching them. In my view, the setting of the problem in these terms reveals  engrained clericalism. […] A Church has been created where the laity do not see themselves as protagonists and where there is little or no sense of belonging, a Church that, if there is no “priest”, does not work. This is an ecclesiological and pastoral aberration. Our faith, as Christians, is rooted in baptism, not in priestly ordination.

Sometimes I have the impression that we want to clericalize the laity. First of all we need a Church of baptized protagonists, disciples and missionaries. In various parts of our America, one has the impression that it has been sacramentalised but not evangelized. […] We need to broaden the horizon and look at the life and experience of the Church in its universal context.

The examples of Korea, Japan, Angola, Guatemala

The Church of Korea was born from the evangelization of the laity. The layman Yi Seung-hun, baptized in China, spread the Catholic Church throughout the country, baptizing himself. For 51 years from its foundation (1784-1835), the Korean Church was evangelized by the laity, with the occasional presence of a priest. That Catholic community flourished and spread far and wide, despite the terrible persecutions, thanks to the protagonism of the baptized.

The Church of Japan, founded by St. Francis Xavier (1549), blossomed vertiginously for three centuries ebven under persecution; the missionaries were expelled and the last priest was martyred in 1644. Only after more than 200 years could priests (French missionaries) return. And when they did they found a new Church formed by kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians). In Christian communities there were various ministries: a person in charge, catechists, baptizers, preachers. The criterion that the Christians guarded until the arrival of the new priests in the 19th century is interesting: the Church will return to Japan and you will know from these three signs: “the priests will be celibate, there will be a statue of Mary and they will obey the Pope sama of Rome”.

Allow me to move on to something more personal, to my 25-year missionary experience in Africa (Angola). Once the civil war ended in 2002, I was able to visit Christian communities that, for 30 years, had not had the Eucharist, nor seen a priest, but remained firm in the faith and were dynamic communities, led by the “catechist”, which is a fundamental ministry in Africa, and by other ministers: evangelizers, prayer leaders, the pastoral care of women, service to the poorest. A living and secular Church in the absence of a priest.

In Latin America there is no lack of positive examples, such as among the Quetchi of central Guatemala (Verapaz) where, despite the absence of priests in some communities, lay ministers have living communities, rich in ministries, liturgies, catechetical itineraries, missions, among the which the evangelical groups have been able to penetrate very little. Despite the scarcity of priests for all the communities, it is a local Church rich in indigenous priestly vocations, where even female and male religious congregations of totally local origin have been founded.

But in the Amazon the opposite is happening

Is the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the Amazon a pastoral challenge or is it rather the consequence of theological-pastoral options that have not given the expected results or only partial results? In my opinion, the proposal of the “viri probati” as a solution to evangelization is an illusory, almost magical proposal that goes nowhere near to addressing the real underlying problem.

Pope Francis writes in Evangelii gaudium 107: ” Many places are experiencing a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. This is often due to a lack of contagious apostolic fervour in communities which results in a cooling of enthusiasm and attractiveness. Wherever there is life, fervour and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise”. […]

The Pope touches on the key to the problem. It is not the lack of vocations, but the lack of proposal, the lack of apostolic fervor, the lack of fraternity and prayer; the lack of serious and profound evangelization processes. […]

Two more examples, from India and the Congo

In north-eastern India, evangelization has progressed decisively since 1923, thanks to a small Catholic community that did not reach 1,000 Christians. According to data from 2018, this region today consists of 1,647,765 Catholics, with 3,756 religious and 1,621 priests (half of them belonging to local ethnic minorities and the rest missionaries from other parts of India). There are 15 dioceses rooted in ethnic minorities with about 220 local languages (Naga, Khasi, Wancho, Nocte, Jaintia, Apatani, Goro, Ahom, War, Bodo …). These populations, like the Amazon ones, have remained isolated for centuries from Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, taking refuge in the mountains and forests of the Himalayas, living their ancestral practices. An impressive change took place over 90 years. The ratio between Catholics and Catholic priests today is 1 to 1,000, which is excellent. Many Christians of these “tribal” minorities have occupied significant positions in India’s local and national politics.

The other “biome” is the Congo River, with the surrounding countries: over 500 populations and languages. Christianity has gone through various difficulties, the same as in other contexts, with the added challenge of being considered the religion of colonialism during the period of decolonization (1960s and 1970s). Despite everything, the flowering of the African Churches is evident and promising. In that “biome,” priestly vocations have grown by 32% in the last 10 years and the trend seems to continue.

We could bring other examples from Vietnam, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country in the world), East Timor, Oceania … but certainly not from our secularized Europe. In all geographical regions there are challenges and difficulties in Christian communities; but we see that where there is a work of serious, authentic and continuous evangelization, vocations to the priesthood are not lacking.

Why is the Amazon so sterile?

The inevitable question that arises is: how is it possible that peoples with so many anthropological-cultural riches and similarities with the Amazonian peoples, in their rituals, myths, a strong sense of community, communion with the cosmos, with profound religious openness … have vibrant Christian communities and flourishing priestly vocations while in some parts of the Amazon, after 200, 400 years, there is ecclesial and vocational sterility? There are dioceses and congregations present for over a century and which do not have a single local indigenous vocation. Is there an extra gene or one missing, or is the problem something else? […]

I think that in various parts of Latin America, and in particular Amazonia, one of the pastoral problems is the insistence on “old paths”. There is great conservatism in different Churches and ecclesial structures. I am not referring only to pre-conciliar traditionalists, but to pastoral lines, a mentality that took root in 1968 and the 1970s and 1980s. […]

In my opinion, there are three types of pastoral Alzheimer’s that affect the evangelizing sterility of the Amazon.

1. Cultural anthropologism

In 1971, a group of 12 anthropologists wrote the famous Declaration of Barbados, which stated that the Good News of Jesus was bad news for indigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, this provocation gave rise to a fruitful dialogue between anthropologists and missionaries developed in various parts, which served to provide mutual enrichment. But in other places it became self-censorship, it resulted in a loss of the “joy of evangelizing” (“Evangelii Gaudium” 1-13). I remember cases of nuns who decided not to announce Jesus Christ, nor to do catechesis, “out of respect for indigenous culture”. They would limited themselves to witness and service. […]

Sometimes the insistence on witness is such as to demand it replace proclamation. In this regard, Paul VI, in the fundamental document on evangelization “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (22) tells us: ” Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”[52] – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.

2. Social Moralism

In more than one place I have heard expressions of this kind from pastoral workers: “When people need services, they come to us (the Catholic Church), but when they look for meaning in their lives, they go to others (evangelicals etc.)”. It is startlingly clear and evident that the Church, in an attempt to be “a Samaritan Church”, has forgotten that it is a “Magdalene Church”: it is a Church that provides services but does not announce the joy of the Lord’s resurrection.

The Church’s social commitment, in the evangelical option for the poorest, […] has undoubtedly been and continues to be a constitutive aspect of the process of evangelization, which expresses the diaconal dimension of the Church. Such a commitment has been a great source of wealth not only for the Latin American Church, but for the universal Church.

The problem arises when this kind of activity absorbs all of the life and dynamism of the Church, casting a shadow over or even silencing the other dimensions: kerigmatic, catechetical, liturgical, koinonia. We are in an unresolved tension between Martha and Mary. […]

Thank God, when academic pastoral planning omits that “spirituality embodied in the culture of the simple”, the Virgin herself intercedes taking care of her children and touching the popular heart, not with great reflections, but with simple popular piety: rich, simple, direct, full of affection, profoundly interiorised by the “little ones”. Here we can point to the great Amazonian devotion to the Virgin of Nazareth, when in October, in Belém de Pará, about two million pilgrims accompany the procession of the “Cirio de Nazaret” (image of the Virgin of Nazareth).

In the Latin American Church, the enormous hemorrhage of Catholics towards the constellation of the Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal Churches is undoubtedly due to various factors, so one cannot be simplistic, but certainly the lack of an overtly “more religious” and “less sociologized” ministry has greatly influenced an emigration towards the Evangelical Churches and new religious movements, where in the Word, in a fraternal and warm welcome, in a constant presence, in a strong sense of belonging, they find a “meaning” and a company for their life. […]

I visited a diocese, where 95% of the population were Catholics in the early 1980s; today they are 20%. I remember the comment of one of the European missionaries who systematically “dis-evangelized” the region: “We do not favour superstition, but human dignity”. That says it all.

The Church in some places has turned into a great services manager (health, education, promotional, advocacy …), but little in the mother of faith. […]

Go here to read the rest.  Catholicism works every time it is tried, and what has been preached too often over the past half century has nothing to do with Catholicism.

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  1. There are superior cultures that produce great and noble things. The Jewish culture produced a set of moral prescriptions superior to all the surrounding middle east cultures in which it germinated. The Greek culture produced a set of philosophies and scientific inquiry possessed by no other culture contemporary to it. The Roman culture produced a set of laws and jurisprudence and political stability not seen elsewhere. Even the Chinese, Japanese and (perhaps lesser so) Asian Indian cultures produced philosophies and political systems that endured for centuries. Each of these cultures – Jewish, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Japanese and Asian Indian – produced a lasting legacy that endures even to this post-modern time.

    But what did the indigenous South and Central American cultures produce that has lasted as long? Decaying temples where the beating hearts of sacrifice victims were ripped out of persons while alive and awake to feel the pain and horror of such torture? For all their manifold faults, the Spanish Conquistadors stopped such murderous practices and spread the Catholic Christian Faith far and wide

    Indeed, this isn’t a matter of racial prejudice. St. Paul says there is no Jew nor Greek with God. Likewise there is no American Indian nor Asian Indian, no European nor African, no Chinese nor Japanese with God. He holds us all to the same rules, the same moral prescriptions, the same laws without distinction, prejudice, bias or preference for cultural norms or national origin. And yes, cultures based on human sacrifice as the indigenous ones in South and Central America were are not just inferior, but heinous, barbaric and demonic.

    Why are Pentecostals, Baptists and other Evangelicals succeeding where the Catholic Church, acting as a social justice NGO, has failed? John the Baptist tells us why in Matthew 3:7-9:

    “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

    And John the Baptist tells us in Matthew 3:10-12 what God will do with these reprobate clerics who sanctify demonic pagan practices even in the Vatican no less:

    “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

    The culture of Sodom and Gomorrah was inferior. What God did to purify the situation in Genesis 19:12-29 was worse than what happened to Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

  2. Well written explanation by Martin Lasarte. It seems obvious he’s walked the walk and can tell the tale of life as a missionary. I’ve traveled to Korea and know the story of the how Catholicism spread through that country by lay people – marvelous, faithful, steadfast living out of the Christian message, all without any priests. Why can’t that be the case in the Amazon? Lasarte’s article ought to be read by every attendee at the Synod – but the skeptic in me doubts that it will be…we don’t need married priests, we don’t need women priests; instead, we need the Gospel proclaimed and the Holy Spirit invoked…

  3. Fr Lasarte’s comments on evangelization could be applied to some areas of the US. Will the USCCB take note?
    Thank you for posting his remarks.

  4. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
    Any person ascending the altar of God must have a calling from God, a vocation to ascend the altar of God.
    To forfeit one’s destiny for the power and glory of man’s conceit is the devil’s delight.
    All men are baptized into the lay priesthood as priest, prophet and sovereign king.
    From the lay priesthood God calls men to the ordained priesthood.
    Those who ascend the altar without a vocation can help no one into heaven.
    “The blind leading the blind both shall fall into the pit.”

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