Brazilians fight for people centered development
The Jesuit missionary, Fr. Peter Henriot, has said, "According to the message of Catholic social teaching, the question to ask in relation to any development planning, implementation or evaluation is: ‘What is happening to the people?’ not ‘What is happening to the economy?’" This critical distinction is important everywhere in these times.
In 1969, when the first MMM Sisters arrived in Brazil, the country was in the grip of a military dictatorship. In 1968 the Bishops of the whole continent of Latin America had met at Medellin in Colombia for a conference that became famous for its social consciousness. A few years earlier, these same bishops had endeavoured to influence the Second Vatican Council to adopt a more socially-aware approach to the work of the Church. In 1979 this would mature further at the Latin American Bishops’ Conference at Puebla in Mexico.
When Sisters Brigid McDonagh and Sheila Lenehan arrived in Brazil, they quickly realised that the oppression of the military regime could not deter the commitment of the Church to serve the people at the most basic level of society. The principles of Populorum Progressio had fallen on fertile soil, and the praxis of the church in Brazil at that time gave a clear orientation to how the MMM mission of healing would be expressed in our lives and our work among the poor.
In line with the pastoral options of the Church, as MMMs in Brazil we chose to avoid establishing institutions, but rather to immerse ourselves within local communities, helping the people to improve their health and social well-being and to struggle for their rights. This choice meant the outcomes would not be as visible nor as measurable as the clinical work of hospitals or health centres. Progress would be measured by that ever-present question and challenge: "What is happening to the people?"
What is happening to the people is closely linked to what is happening to the land and the rivers and the seas. Brazil’s mighty São Francisco river, stretching over 1,975 miles, is shrinking before our eyes. Now only small canoes can pass stretches where large vessels once proudly sailed. People walk on mudflats that replace the gushing waters now gone. This highlights the value and cost of water and the politics of who gets priority in the distribution of this precious resource.
Franciscan Bishop Luíz Cappio, pictured here with Sister Siobhán, is bishop of the Diocese of Barra, in the State of Bahia, one of five States along the watershed of the Rio São Francisco. He has walked the entire length of the river, in solidarity with each community that lives along the bank. He has twice embarked on a period of fasting and prayer, taking only water from the river for his sustenance for up to 24 days – calling on the Government to develop the river for the use of the poor rather than redirect its course for a huge commercial irrigation project. Supporting him, the Conference of Bishops declared a national day of fasting. Dom Luíz was awarded the 2008 Pax Christi International Peace Award, which also honoured the members of the Brazilian community who worked with him. But the commercial interests who want the river diverted are very powerful.