Hesburgh: Latin American relationship a 'special passion'
By TIM LOGAN
The week before Christmas in 1954, University president emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh traveled to a small village in Mexico.
He was the first priest the villagers had seen in the nearly 40 years, since all Catholic clergy were killed in the Mexican Revolution. They asked him to say a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Hesburgh obliged, and wound up returning to the village to say Mass for the next 14 Christmases. This, the priest said Monday, was the beginning of his relationship with Latin America.
"Latin America, I think, has been kind of a special passion in my life," he said in a talk discussing his reflections on the region. Hesburgh detailed his travels through and experiences with South and Central America.
The need to focus on social justice was a major theme in his talk. The region has at times suffered through serious poverty and division of wealth.
Hesburgh challenged the audience, largely comprised of Latin American students, to take a role in its future.
"There's nothing you can do better than go back to your own country as a strong religious leader," he said. "You can do great things down there."
A lack of priests affects Catholics in Latin America, he said.
"I think the greatest thing Latin America needs is more priests and nuns," he said, recalling the enthusiasm with which he was met in Mexico. "The moment one showed up, they were right back where they were [before the Revolution]."
Hesburgh noted that for many years the majority of priests in most Latin American countries were foreign-born. Many came from Europe, Canada and the United States, and this hurt ministry to the poor and those living outside urban areas.
The number of priests from Latin America should improve, he said, as the Church devotes its resources more to the poor.
"Given that 90 percent of the people are Catholic, they should be able to produce priests," he said.
His talk coincides with a major conference at the University devoted to discussing the role of the Church throughout the Americas, and Hesburgh stressed the need for church leaders from Canada to Chile to work together.
"We need a church where we share our problems and share our resources," he said. Hesburgh noted the Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere forms the largest geographic group of members of the faith in the world.
"I think it has a great future," he said. "It can be a force for justice, a force for peace, a force for doing something for the poor."
Hesburgh encouraged the audience to appreciate those who have struggled to bring justice to Latin America.
He told the story of Jose Napoleon Guarte, a former student of his who ran for president of San Salvador, pledging to bring Christian Democracy to his country. After winning the election, Guarte nearly lost his life when the one of the generals he was running against nullified the election results and captured him.
Hesburgh and U.S. government officials intervened to prevent the execution of Guarte, who was instead exiled to Venezuela. Some time later, Guarte was elected president, and helped improve the quality of life in the country, Hesburgh said.
"We have to raise up these heroes who are willing to do the tough things," he said. "It's not easy in a country where things are really unjust and crooked and stand up against the tide and say `that's wrong.'"
Campus Ministry and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs sponsored the talk, which was held in Keenan-Stanford Chapel.
All News Stories for Tuesday, October 12, 1999