Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

A front-page Los Angeles Times headline this week reminded me of that old “Seinfeld” catchphrase.

Here’s the headline that the Times ran with a Column One feature:

Argentina’s ‘slum priests’ focus on helping over converting

The subhead:

They hear confessions from drug dealers and hit men and spend more time on problems practical than spiritual. The movement shunned by the church decades ago now gets support from Pope Francis.

So immediately, the idea seems to be that (1) these priests are doing something unique by helping instead of proselytizing and (2) this is a much better way to go because it actually benefits people as opposed to, say, religion itself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

Speaking of the priests “hearing confessions,” is that not a spiritual exercise? But I digress.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the head and subhead. Please tell me, kind GetReligion readers, if I’m being overly critical. Or if I’m missing something obvious — wouldn’t be the first time.

Here’s the top of the story:

BUENOS AIRES —  They call the slums villas miserias, or little cities of misery. Instead of names, most have been assigned numbers by the Argentine government. Father Carlos Olivero lives in a small concrete church in the middle of Villa 21-24.

On a recent gray afternoon, he sat sipping yerba mate in a cold meeting room at the drug rehabilitation center he runs nearby. He was in a contemplative mood. A young addict he knew had died the day before.

“He was 24 years old,” Olivero said. “We all loved him. Things like this happen all the time here

Olivero is part of a line of “slum priests” who have worked for decades in the sprawling shantytowns worlds away from the tango salons and Parisian cafe culture of the other Buenos Aires.

He has scuffed work boots and dirty nails and hears confession from dealers and hit men. When residents spot his trashed 4×4 bumping down dirt roads, they call out his nickname: “Charly!”

He spends most of his time addressing practical rather than spiritual problems. That means navigating governmental bureaucracy, helping immigrants obtain state identification cards and finding beds to get addicts off the street.

“If we don’t get people a home, it’s insane to think about other kinds of lives for them,” Olivero said.

So the priest addresses “practical rather than spiritual problems.” Great. But did the Times give any consideration to the possibility that practical solutions might help address spiritual problems? Or am I wrong that this story seems to give a big ole brushoff to organized religion? Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

Later in the story, there’s a mention of the priest shunning “theology from books” and focusing on “a more direct experience with his faith.”

A bit later, there’s this fascinating section:

Olivero says Di Paola taught him that priests must take an activist path.

“The parish is not a building; it’s the neighborhood, it’s the community,” Olivero said.

He said his first focus is on helping people, not converting them. But he believes faith is contagious.

“The best confessions I hear, I hear in the rehab center from kids who were hit men or dealers,” he said. “Kids who have been hurt a great deal, who have suffered a lot, and who have also made others suffer a lot, are baptized, take their first Communion, get married, get their own children baptized. It is really, really beautiful.”

So folks are being baptized and taking Communion? That sounds like conversions, right? Is there a possibility that this notion of preaching with actions rather than words really isn’t such a unique approach? Did Jesus himself ever address the issue of dealing with people’s physical needs first?

Unfortunately, the Times story seems to rely on a lot of assumptions — misassumptions? — without much in the way of context or actual theological insight or reflection. The reporting comes across as pretty shallow, actually.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that …


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  • http://stonescryout.org/ Doug Payton

    The Salvation Army’s founder William Booth used the phrase “Soup, Soap, and Salvation” to show in what order that the various needs to be met need to be done in. Someone won’t hear your sermon over the sound of their stomach growling.

    That was the late 19th century. Nothing new about this. But yeah, for the media, it’s some radical departure from…something.

  • Julia B

    I think it’s a great article, but neither the writer or you seem to have ever heard of “Liberation Theology”. That’s huge in Latin America – some the most prominent in that movement are JESUITS. Pope Francis is a JESUIT. However, Francis took a lot of grief over the years for wanting to get the Marxist tendencies out of it. As for doing practical things, I guess you know that Catholics invented hospitals and monasteries took in orphans. These are all the “works” of mercy for which Catholics are often castigated.

    The article does say in a number of places that these slum priests have been doing this for decades. She doesn’t claim it’s new. It’s just that the press is currently besoted with Francis and thinks the slum priests are interesting. [and the LATimes spent a lot of money to send her there for WYD so she had to write some stuff to justify that expense]

    In the early years of Liberation Theology the bishops and archbishops were very much against it – there had been a history of the Latin American heirarchy coming from the aristocratic class and aligning itself with that class and thinking we’ll always have poor people. Those days are mostly over because education is now available to all kinds of people, much like the US, and priests are from all kinds of families now.

    The writer does get a few things wrong. She says the bishops are allowing new priests to do their studies outside of classrooms, or something like that. I’m sure that’s not true. If anything, the academic requirements for priests have risen in Latin America, as they continue to do in other parts of the world. Probably, somebody told her that seminarians are now required to spend some time in the slums on top of their studies. I’m sure that’s more like it.

    Additionally, the author is speaking of converting in a protestant manner. Catholics speak of conversion all the time, but as in turning away from sin and changing the way you live. If the priest is hearing confessions, those folks are already Catholic. It also sounds like many of these slum people grew up in families that didn’t practice any religion. It’s not like they are converting from another religion.

    Bottom line: good story by a writer who doesn’t know the history of Liberation Theology.

  • Ross Harrell

    There does seem to be a predisposition in the story toward the notion that priests are only concerned with ‘converting people’ and that it is novel to act charitably. I assume this is a bias that someone from the secular part of the US might adopt. But that is an assumption.

  • Julia B

    If anybody is still reading this thread. It just so happens that Francis sent a message to the Argentinian Catholics about this very topic the other day: helping the poor. http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2013/08/when-you-meet-needy-your-heart-grows.html

    On the subject of what Americans would call converting people, he specifically says: “We ask only one thing: that you reach out! And that you go and seek out and encounter the most needy! . . . Does this mean going to convince someone to become Catholic? No, no, no! You are just reaching out to meet him, he is your brother! That is enough. You reach out to help them, the rest is done by Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.”

    http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2013/08/when-you-meet-needy-your-heart-grows.html