Theologians gather at Boston College for Ibero-American Congress of Theology

CHESTNUT HILL -- There was spirited talk, laughter, and applause, but it wasn't a play that brought dozens of people to Boston College's Robsham Theater on Feb. 8. Instead, it was the highlight of BC's week long Ibero-American Conference of Theology: a public forum on the Theology of Liberation.

Over 40 theologians from Latin America, Spain, Canada, and the U.S. attended the historic Boston College-sponsored conference, which ran from Feb. 6 to Feb. 10. During the course of the conference, which was mostly held at the BC's Connors Retreat Center in Dover, the theologians discussed ways to better align the Catholic Church with Pope Francis' message to care for the poor.

In order to do that, and to better understand Pope Francis, theologians need to "go to his roots in the Latin American theology," the Theology of Liberation, co-organizer of the conference and visiting associate professor Rafael Luciani told The Pilot Feb. 8.

"This gathering wants us to help understand what his vision is for the Church -- in society in terms of economic exclusion, in terms of political rights and social movement, in terms of ecclesial reforms -- and how can the Church be more welcoming," he said.

Gaining traction in the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America, Liberation Theology is an interpretation of Christian theology that sees defending the rights of the poor and liberating the oppressed as critical and central aspects of the Church.

The movement calls on the Church to see its teachings through the perspective of the poor and to become more politically active, particularly in the realms of social justice and human rights, in an attempt to aid those in poverty. The term Liberation Theology stems from the influential 1971 book "A Theology of Liberation," written by one of the movement's founders, Peruvian priest Father Gustavo Gutierrez.

Father Gutierrez, now a professor at the University of Notre Dame, had been scheduled to appear on a panel of speakers at the Feb. 8 forum, but was unable to attend. Father Jon Sobrino of Spain, another influential figure in Liberation Theology, had also been originally scheduled to speak, but was not able to be present at the forum.

Instead, the panel was comprised of theologians Father Juan Carlos Scannone of Argentina, Olga Consuelo Velez Caro of Colombia, and Father Roberto Tomicha of Bolivia. Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, moderated the forum, while Hosffman Ospino, assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education, translated for the three theologians, who spoke in Spanish.

Groome asked the speakers two questions: How did you first get involved in Liberation Theology, and what is the implication of it on Pope Francis and the life of the Church?

For Father Scannone, his interest in Liberation Theology began when he attended a seminar on the subject in Argentina.

That gathering, which was organized by a number of scholars and theologians, acted as his "first contact with that particular way of doing theology, the theology of the people," he said.

He was introduced to the ideas of Father Gutierrez, and had "high-level" conversations with important figures in Liberation Theology, including the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel and the theologian Hugo Assmann, who is considered a pioneer of Liberation Theology in Brazil.

At the urging of his then-student Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would become Pope Francis, Father Scannone later attended another conference, this time in Spain.

The conference was designed to introduce the concepts of Liberation Theology to the Jesuit Comillas Pontifical University, and Father Scannone planned to go as just "one more participant." Instead, he was chosen to represent and discuss Liberation Theology of Argentina at the conference.

"That event changed my entire life," he said.

The biggest implication Liberation Theology has on the whole Church, said Father Scannone, is that it's "calling to a dialogue between the people of God and the peoples of the earth."

It is unity between cultures and nations, like the unity Pope Francis is pushing for, that Liberation Theology strives towards, he said.

"When Pope Francis talks about the relationship among the peoples, he doesn't use the image of a sphere," but instead uses an image of a polyhedron, he said.

"The sphere is uniform and everything depends from the center. The polyhedron has many sides. The unity of the polyhedron is actually sustained by the differences, by the different sides... In a sense, that reflects life in the United States of America," as well as life in Argentina, he said.

Consuelo, currently a professor of theology at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia, counted the work of Father Scannone and his colleagues as being critical to her formation.

During her time as a student, Colombia was in the midst of a violent armed conflict that "challenged not only the Church, but also the larger society to image and discuss the social and public implications of this," she said.

Within the Church at that time, there were a number of conversations about social justice issues, the causes of poverty in the country, and ways to form communities.

So, "the ground was fertile for this kind of conversation," said Consuelo.

"Out of my own experience, my own pastoral experience, I felt thrusted into this world of reflection and commitment towards a Church of the poor," she said.

"Today, Pope Francis speaks about a Church that is poor and for the poor, but that language 40 years ago was already the language we were hearing... it was an opportunity to witness Christ the liberator," he said.

Liberation Theology, she said, "gave life to many commitments and to many ways of doing theology in Colombia," especially at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, which was "completely committed to this particular approach."

"However, it was not easy," she said, noting the efforts that Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, an outspoken conservative, took to quell the rise of Liberation Theology.

His efforts "had later consequences in the way people were doing theology and how they brought the language of liberation into their communities and in the way they were reflecting theology."

The language of Liberation Theology began to fade, "but the dynamisms that emerged out of Liberation Theology remained," and now are "flourishing" under Pope Francis," Consuelo said.

A Bolivian-native and part of the indigenous group Chiquitano, Father Tomicha joined the Conventual Franciscan Order at the age of 19 in the hopes of leaving his country and traveling to Buenos Aires.

It was in Buenos Aires that he discovered Liberation Theology, including the works of Father Scannone. Coming from a "humble" family, the messages of the theology resonated with him.

"I realized that this vision Liberation Theology was presenting was the vision of a Church that presented a God was with the people, walked with the people, and I wanted to do something similar," he said.

One thing that stayed with him in particular was Father Scannone's idea of "the wisdom of the people, popular wisdom."

"In everything that the people do, their celebrations, their culture, their rituals, their literature, there is profound wisdom that is there," Father Tomicha said.

He returned to Bolivia after three years in Buenos Aires, and once home, he was able to "reencounter" himself and the cultures of the indigenous people. To see for himself if each culture has unique insight and wisdom, he started studying Kechuan, the language of the Quechan people.

"This commitment came inspired out of the theology and the work Father Scannone was doing," he said.

He traveled to Italy to continue his education, and there, due to the separation from his home and his people, he was able to deepen his insight in Latin America and Latin American culture. He began reading in earnest about Latin America, and became "better prepared to engage questions of who am I and how can I engage my particular people."

After reading a book by Father Gutierrez, he became inspired to reach out to the indigenous peoples with his understanding of Liberation Theology.

"And this is how a new stream within Liberation Theology emerges -- how to live, how to theologize out of the new poor, meaning those who are the culturally poor, those who are indigenous, and those who are in the margins," he said.

Luciani, speaking following the event, said the forum, as well as the entire conference, can be seen as a "sign and a symbol of union in these times of division."

"It's a huge symbol in the sense that it's a part of what Francis is doing. Instead of dividing us, we should be doing this, and getting together and talking from own languages and our own experiences as part of our building identities."

"This country was built on immigrants, so this is a symbol that as a gesture wants to give to the Bostonian community that it is possible in times of fear to unify and construct something different," he said.