by Claude Lacaille
translated by Casey Roberts
Baraka Books, 2015
“The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were primarily committed to undoing Vatican II, to closing the windows that John XXIII had opened to let fresh air in.”
To readers knowing little about the Catholic Church other than that Francis is their favourite pope, Rebel Priest in the Time of Tyrants might seem a little daunting, not their cup of tea, too much like inside baseball. But the secret lies in the metaphor, the lovely “closing the windows that John XXIII had opened to let fresh air in.” Because the entire book is beautifully written, and admirably translated by Casey Roberts, making its thoughtful points throughout in wonderful, poetic language.
“The bishop, it seemed, would never stop murmuring this rosary of the horrors experienced by his people,” we read, for instance, as Claude Lacaille begins eloquently and goes on to make a fascinating, anecdote-filled account of past missions, all while making a compelling case for liberation theology. The fact that Catholic policy has tangible—dangerous—effects on men and women on the ground makes for genuine excitement and occasional despair along the way.
“Fidelity to Vatican II and Medellin led many to risk their lives,” writes Nicaragua’s Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, former president of the United Nations General Assembly, in the introduction. “They were, in fact, murdered for their obedience to what popes and bishops had taught us.”
“In the name of their faith in a liberating gospel,” Lacaille continues, “thousands of peasants, intellectuals, professionals, nuns, and priests shed their blood to defend the victims of the war, to oppose murderous policies and a predatory economy, to comfort the afflicted, to breathe courage into a people gasping for air.” It is stirring stuff.
This mix of faith and politics defines liberation theology, “a way of living the Gospel in proximity and solidarity with the excluded and impoverished.” What could the Vatican possibly have against this point of view, the reader wonders. In an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, Lacaille explains that during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile he “organized community kitchens and craft cooperatives to enable former political prisoners to regain their place in society. [He] retrieved murdered bodies from the morgue and gave them a proper human burial. […] And we sang together and prayed together for the end of this ignominy. We dreamed of freedom together.”
“What would you have done in my place?” he asks. “For which of these sins do you condemn me, my brother Benedict? What is it about these practices that so troubles you? Is it so far from what Jesus would have done in similar circumstances?”
But condemned he was. Condemned for “an erroneous involvement of the Church in politics.” Condemned as a Marxist. Condemned for his naïveté, in the eyes of the Church.
Lacaille’s journey begins in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, in the late 1950s.
“Nationalism, social conservatism leaning towards fascism, authoritarianism, and corruption were the salient characteristics of a Quebec whose people lived in a state of submission blessed with holy water.”
His education at the classical colleges proved largely unsatisfying, focused as it was on controlling these young men’s sexuality, passing over in silence “the option of Jesus for the poor.” But Lacaille taught himself Spanish and later left for a “baptism of fire” as a missionary in Haiti, a dictatorship in which more than half of the national budget was earmarked for the president’s security.
As Lacaille recounts these colourful missions, the book really does come to life. There is a potted political history of South America. There are masses in Creole, touching anecdotes, and crises of faith (“People are starving to death and I’m singing masses!”). There are visits to Quebec’s Inuit and the potato fields of New Brunswick. And, most strikingly, there is wrenching poverty, political prisoners, terror, repression, activism, and resistance in Chile.
The young priest is shocked at the compromises made by the “scheming and cowardly” Church hierarchy. He does not pull punches or mince words: “the Catholic hierarchy had sold their souls to the devil,” he writes. Frustrated, indignant, and powerless, he wonders what he can do. What can he do in the world of the Quichua, among the poorest of the poor, in Ecuador? What can he do against “the alliance of the powerful and rich with the clergy”? What can he do isolated as he is from reality, without a solid grasp of the everyday world, with a “castrated” emotional life?
His solution is to dive “into the subversive message of Jesus of Nazareth,” promising himself “that until [his] last breath, [his] covenant would be sealed with the oppressed, the marginalized, the impoverished of the world.”
At the end of this fascinating, inspiring read, Lacaille recalls crying with joy at a speech made by Lula, then the newly elected president of Brazil. “He spoke to us about hunger, poverty, and social justice,” he writes. “He made us dream.” Lacaille does all this and more, in powerful language. More power to him, and to others like him.