01-03-2013 - Traces, n. 3

inside america

Chavez, the Scapular, and True Liberation
The passing of Venezuela's leader was marked by a childlike plea for life, drawing our attention to the meaning of life itself. While his own political existence was defined by the struggles of Latin America, another advocate for the people has entered the public scene, one whose life witnesses the presence of Another.

by Lorenzo Albacete

Two Popes have personally addressed the United Nations General Assembly at its headquarters in New York City: Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. I saw them both on TV. To my knowledge, neither one began his speech with a reference to Jesus Christ. I have seen only one man do this. In fact, he began with a reference to the Most Blessed Trinity and made the sign of the Cross on his face, hoping this would scare away the Devil, who was still around there since the last speaker addressed the Assembly.
That man was Hugo Chavez, then-President of Venezuela. The speaker before him, "the Devil," had been U.S. President George W. Bush.
Chavez died this month.
His last words were reported to be a plea to be kept alive. A plea for life made to whom? To the doctors who had realistically given up?
To the Trinity? To Christ on the Cross? He showed a Univision reporter a scapular from his grandmother, which he wore always over his heart. (In Latin America, as in Eastern Europe, it is mostly the grandmothers that preserve and pass on to their grandchildren stories about the faith and objects of veneration by the Church–scapulars, medals, holy cards, etc.) Was Chavez wearing his scapular at the end, as he begged to be allowed to live longer?
Many (most?) will answer that all display of popular religiosity is a shrewd political move in order to appear to be more and more like the poor in Latin America who were not fully evangelized and whose religiosity borrows from the religions of their non-European ancestors. This is especially true in the Caribbean region (think of Haiti and Cuba, for example).
I think Chavez's scapular was a result of both a real popular religiosity and shrewd politics. Does that mean I think his introduction to the speech at the General Assembly had no real faith value that could have touched his heart at the time of death? Well, let me put this way: Many years ago, before I became a priest, I was in a self-directed retreat at a Trappist monastery in Virginia. The person in charge of preparing the meals in the retreat house was a very old monk. At night, he lived in the monastery; during the day, he lived in the retreat house. This allowed him to do something that the other monks were not allowed to do, namely, to read The Washington Post every day.
This was 1968 and the news was about war, assassinations, race riots, etc., which the monk read with great care. Seeing him like this, I could not resist asking him: "Who can be saved these days? Just monks like you?" And he looked at me with a most serene face, saying that he believed that whoever in his or her life as a child had said even just one Hail Mary with true devotion, would never be condemned.
I wondered how many times Chavez had prayed that way, moved as a child... And was now trying to pray this way at the time of death, remembering the scapular of his grandmother ?
Hugo Chavez was at the center of the struggle for liberation in Latin America. This struggle has involved a conflict with the Catholic Church, which opposed the faith/culture relation upon which it is theologically built.
Still, the Church has been sympathetic with its social justice goals. What is needed to respond to the challenge and legitimate charges is not more theology, but witness. And now we have been given another witness. Habemus Papam!