(Source: Abel Gilbert, El Periódico; translation: Novena)
“At the end of the road they will say to me: Have you lived? Have you loved? And I, without saying anything, will open my heart full of names…”. Pedro Casaldàliga’s Twitter account on August 4th included his own assessment of what he had done in his 92 years. It came a few hours after the “bishop of the people”, as he was called by Brazilians, was hospitalised for respiratory problems in São Félix do Araguaia and then taken to a São Paulo hospital.
There, in the city he used to look at sideways and in a somewhat accusatory way, Casaldàliga closed his eyes for the last time, four days later. He died of a pulmonary embolism. The COVID-19 test was negative.
The associations related to his pastoral work announced the news “with great sadness, but as sure as he was of his arrival in the House of the Father”.
The reverberations were immediate.
“He was one of the most influential leaders of the Catholic Church in Brazil and Latin America in recent decades”, said the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.
The funeral Mass will be celebrated on August 9, in Batatais, about 350 kilometres north of Sao Paulo, and will be broadcast on the internet.
The son of peasants, Casaldàliga was born February 16, 1928 in Balsareny [Catalonia – ed.]. He endured the disaster of the [Spanish Civil] war. In 1952 he was ordained a priest at Montjuïc under the scholastic rigours of the Franco regime.
Don Pedro, as he would be called, joined the order of the Claretians at that time. His priestly life took him from Sabadell to Barbastro and later to Madrid. Casaldàliga trembled with the Second Vatican Council and its promises of renewal.
After 1962 he understood more clearly his desire to be part of a different Church, always on the side of the humiliated.
The hour of truth
“An hour of truth had come for me, too, personally… Che Guevara had just been killed, and his lay testimony was a new call from America”, Casaldàliga wrote in his autobiography, Yo creo en la justicia y en la esperanza (“I Believe in Justice and Hope”), in 1975.
The testimony gives an account of a time of utopian intensities that Casaldàliga accepted as his own because he thought that the horizon of redemption, with all it would cost, was within reach.
In that ’67 [when Che was killed – ed.] Casaldàliga even dedicated a poem to the memory of the Argentine-Cuban guerrilla killed in a Bolivian school.
“And, finally, your death also called me / from the dry light of Vallegrande / I, Che, still believe / in the violence of Love: you yourself / said that it is necessary to grow hard / without ever losing tenderness”.
First Casaldàliga thought of going to Bolivia, which “always missed out”, as he admitted. But he decided on Brazil. He went into the Amazon region of Araguaia, in the state of Mato Grosso, along with a Claretian mission. He never returned to Catalonia.
Casaldàliga found himself in a universe of human desperation, pre-modern, where the landowners still exerted their power through violence.
The peasants, he noted bewildered, endured suffering on the scale of the European concentration camps. The priest claimed to have participated in the burial of 1,000 labourers “often without a coffin and often without a name”.
He was appointed titular bishop of São Felix do Araguaia in 1971. He never had so much as a phone at hand.
On the day of his episcopal consecration, he secretly published a document that half a century later has come into its own in a moment in which Brazil is governed by the far-right.
In his report, he denounced those responsible for slave-like labour (“birth, death, basic rights”) and the voracious exploitation of natural resources.
“I felt that with the document I could also have signed my own death warrant”, he recalled. Soon they began to threaten him but also to love him.
For Casaldàliga, the Church in the Amazon was “fighting against serfdom and social marginalisation”. That’s why he stood by the peasants and native peoples during the four decades of his service as bishop.
He participated in the foundation of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) and the Pastoral Land Commission of the Brazilian Church (CPT).
John Paul II did not sympathise with the liberation theology that had one of its main currents in Brazil. He asked more than once that the Catalan bishop immersed in the Amazon jungle explain himself. John Paul even summoned Casaldàliga to the Vatican in 1988. The bishop resigned from his diocese at the age of 75 but did not shift an inch from the diocese or from his principles.
2013 saw the premiere of a mini-series about his life, entitled Descalzo sobre la tierra roja (“Barefoot on the red earth”).
“The Earth is the only path that can take us to Heaven”, he wrote in 1975 and repeated tirelessly.
Over the decades, he spoke and wrote a great deal on behalf of those who never have anything but misfortune: more than 50 works of prose and even poetry.
His word was also virtual.
“First let there be bread, then freedom / (Freedom with hunger is a flower on a corpse)”, he wrote. “Wherever there is bread, there is God”, he wrote on Twitter in one of his latest account updates.
Which is to say, at the end of the journey that began in Balsareny.
Selected Casaldàliga quotes
“The truth, Pilate, is to be on the side of the poor. The life of Jesus is that answer… the option for the poor. The poor define, with their forbidden life and their early death, the truth or the lie of a society, of a Church”
“The Kingdom / unites / The Church / divides / when it does not match up / to the Kingdom…”
“If we are faithful, if we are poor, if we live in contemplation, we will be able to make translucent the God who lives in us…”
“May the blood of the martyrs never leave us in peace…”
“The wine in his veins provokes us. / The bread they do not have summons us / to be with You the daily bread. / Called by the light of Your memory,
/ we march into the Kingdom making history, / fraternal and subversive Eucharist!”
“Every senseless or unjust death must shake us. Every dead person is a brother. Being killed, killing, killing each other… that God does not want. And we can’t want it either…”
“I’ve always been a left-winger… and the heart is on the left. Even though in the Creed we say that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. That might be the case in heaven, but here on earth it’s on the left”
“In the womb of Mary / the Word became man, / and in Joseph’s workshop / the Word became class…”
“The first unavoidable step of peace is life, life for all; enough basic goods for all of us to be able live as people. To live in peace means, first of all, to be able to live…”