On the evening of Nov. 16, 1965, quietly alerted to the event by word-of-mouth, some 40 Roman Catholic bishops made their way to celebrate Mass in an ancient, underground basilica in the Catacombs of Domitilla on the outskirts of the Eternal City.
Both the place, and the timing, of the liturgy had a profound resonance: The church marked the spot where tradition said two Roman soldiers were executed for converting to Christianity. And beneath the feet of the bishops, and extending through more than 10 miles of tunnels, were the tombs of more than 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.
In addition, the Mass was celebrated shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council, the historic gathering of all the world’s bishops that over three years set the church on the path of reform and an unprecedented engagement with the modern world — launching dialogue with other Christians and other religions, endorsing religious freedom and moving the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, among other things.
But another concern among many of the 2,200 churchmen at Vatican II was to truly make Catholicism a “church of the poor,” as Pope John XXIII put it shortly before convening the council. The bishops who gathered for Mass at the catacombs that November evening were devoted to seeing that commitment become a reality.Now, the text of the "Pact" is OK, as far as it goes. But, as with much of the Vatican II era, the anthropocentric focus pulses up from the pages. It is what it does not say that is most telling. Salvation--preaching Christ crucified--doesn't enter into it.
So as the liturgy concluded in the dim light of the vaulted fourth-century chamber, each of the prelates came up to the altar and affixed his name to a brief but passionate manifesto that pledged them all to “try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.”
The signatories vowed to renounce personal possessions, fancy vestments and “names and titles that express prominence and power,” and they said they would make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry.
In all this, they said, “we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try to make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.”
The document would become known as the Pact of the Catacombs, and the signers hoped it would mark a turning point in church history.
Instead, the Pact of the Catacombs disappeared, for all intents and purposes.
It is barely mentioned the extensive histories of Vatican II, and while copies of the text are in circulation, no one knows what happened to the original document. In addition, the exact number and names of the original signers is in dispute, though it is believed that only one still survives: Luigi Bettazzi, nearly 92 years old now, bishop emeritus of the Italian diocese of Ivrea.
But perhaps nothing has revived and legitimated the Pact of the Catacombs as much as the surprise election, in March 2013, of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Pope Francis.
While never citing the Catacombs Pact specifically, Francis has evoked its language and principles, telling journalists within days of his election that he wished for a “poor church, for the poor,” and from the start shunning the finery and perks of his office, preferring to live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace. He stressed that all bishops should also live simply and humbly, and the pontiff has continually exhorted pastors to “have the smell of the sheep,” staying close to those most in need and being welcoming and inclusive at every turn.
“His program is to a high degree what the Catacomb Pact was,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who is close to the pope, said in an interview earlier this year at his apartment next to the Vatican.
* * *“With Pope Francis, you cannot ignore the Catacomb Pact,” agreed Massimo Faggioli, a professor of church history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s a key to understanding him, so it’s no mystery that it has come back to us today.”
But why did the Pact of the Catacombs disappear in the first place?
In reality it didn’t, at least for the church in Latin America.
As the author points out, the message at its heart is economic, material. It focuses on new economic and social structures, legislative work and addressing poverty. Good work--necessary, even. But not remotely sufficient. Oh, and they want to dump the vestments, too. Presumably, that will help them in persuading others to adopt the rest of their social program. And a social program it is. Hence the problem.
Finally, if it took root most firmly in Latin America...then how's that working out for the Church?
Erm, uhhhh... .
While there is much talk about their political meddling and impact, most Evangelicals appear to succeed because they usually preach a purely spiritual message. Henrique Mafra Caldeira de Andrada, head of the Protestant program at Rio's Institute of Religious Studies, thinks Catholic advocates of the social gospel failed to realize that "these people were hungry for more than just food. The Evangelicals met the peoples' emotional and spiritual needs better." Or, as Brazil's top Baptist, the Rev. Nilson Fanini, puts the paradox, "The Catholic Church opted for the poor, but the poor opted for the Evangelicals.Not all that promising, so far. Even the expert John Allen quotes here admits the problem, at least in part, noting that the Latin poor were not all that impressed.
Some Catholics say liberation theology "politicized" the church and drove the middle and upper classes into Protestantism.
There may be some truth in that, but it has to be qualified. [In the 1950s], the Catholic Church recognized that it was losing both to Protestantism and to Communism. The working class and the young both seemed more attracted to Marxism than to the church. The bishops asked for help from abroad. In Peru, they went to the United States and asked for missionary priests as a kind of "tithe." The idea was to save people from Communism. Foreign missionaries were sent to work with the poorest of the poor, and they discovered that the problem was not Communism but rather that the church was part of oppressive structures in society. The bishops realigned themselves with the poor. In some forms, this choice became highly politicized, and they forgot about the spiritual dimension -- that is, people need a spiritual experience from the church, not just political guidance. This produced the popular saying that the Catholic Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals!But, who knows? Maybe this time it will work.