Ecuador’s “Bishop of the Indians”
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
A shorter version of this article was published as “Memories of Bishop Proaño” in the March-April 2007 issue of The Catholic Worker (New York, NY).
Ecuadorian bishop Leonidas Proaño, the “bishop of the Indians,” is buried in the chapel of the Center for the Formation of Indigenous Women Missionaries in Pucahuaico, near his birthplace, San Antonio de Ibarra. In one glance visitors to the chapel can see his grave, an altar above it, and through a large window in the slanted roof the majestic peaks of Imbabura, where the indigenous perceive the presence of the Creator in a special way. They call the mountain “Taita (papá) Imbabura.”
Born in 1910, Proaño was ordained a priest in 1936 and became bishop of Riobamba in 1954, where he served until his retirement in 1985. He continued to serve the Church and especially the Indian population until his death in 1988.
The bishop is still very present not only in the missionary center in Pucahuaico, which he established in his will, but throughout Ecuador where he continues to be of inspiration especially to the indigenous people and to Church workers and others committed to justice and human rights.
But Proaño’s example and teaching are known far beyond the borders of his own country. In 1986 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who had received the award in 1980. And in 1988 Proaño was awarded one of the United Nations Prizes in the Field of Human Rights, along with Nelson Mandela and four others.
Police Raid on Bishop’s Meeting
The bishop and his diocese had gained international attention in 1976 when the Ecuadorian police raided a seminar to which he had invited 17 other bishops as well as a number of priests and lay leaders. All the participants, including their host Proaño, were arrested, their papers and other belongings were confiscated, and they were taken by bus on a four-hour journey from Riobamba north to Quito, the nation’s capital. The next day, August 13, some of the foreigners were deported while the others were released and ordered to leave the country on their own.
The reason for this repressive action given by the Ecuadorian government, a military regime which had seized power in 1972, was that Proaño’s meeting was “subversive” and that some of the input about the social problems of Ecuador which the foreigners had received during the two days before the seminar was interrupted was uncomplimentary and insulting to Ecuadorians. Some months later a government official claimed that the meeting was meant to foment a general strike which could have led to an attempt to overthrow the government!
In keeping with the Latin American church’s method of starting with an analysis of the socio-economic and political “reality” and then designing appropriate strategies for evangelization and pastoral planning, the Riobamba seminar provided participants with a hard look at the social injustices suffered by Ecuadorians, especially the indigenous. One of the working documents for the seminar described the unjust distribution of land: “In 1968, 1,348 land parcels had an average of 2,995 acres, while 538,874 parcels had an average of 5.4 acres each.”
With regard to industrialization, the document noted that this process is highly dependent on foreign technology and capital: “Nine of the fifteen largest companies operating in this country are subsidiaries of foreign corporations, almost all based in the U.S.” With the discovery of oil in Ecuador, vast concessions were granted to foreign oil companies, “with revenue from taxes and royalties benefitting not the people but the traditional political power groups and the new ones – technocrats and the military.”
After describing and analyzing other social problems, the document went on to describe the diocese’s pastoral planning in response to the needs of the people.
Regarding the question of politics, the diocese, in this working document, stated: “The Church does not seek to take political power. It cannot identify itself with any political party. Its action goes beyond the taking of political power, but all its actions, necessarily, have political repercussions.”
In his radio message within a week after the police raid, Bishop Proaño refuted the government’s allegations about the meeting. “We have a right to know the reality of our country.... At the Latin American bishops’ meeting in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, we made a diagnosis of the Latin American reality. Or do some think that the gospel and the faith have nothing to do with the concrete reality of human beings?”
He went on to describe the Kingdom of God as a “holistic” (in Spanish, integral) Christian liberation “which we have not yet reached but which has begun and which has a strong power of attraction on us.” A few weeks later he wrote: “The gospel, for us, is Christ himself. He is the good news of salvation for all people. He is the good news of salvation for the poor. He is the cry of liberation for the oppressed. To live the gospel is to commit oneself to the mission which Christ brought to earth.
“For us, the faith is not simply a set of truths, nor simply a set of concepts and definitions. Nor is it simply the result of an ideological thought process. For us, faith is something lived out, a commitment, a daily practice, a constant struggle against evil, against lies, against injustice, against hatred – wherever such things are found, in us and in society, in the capitalist system or in the communist system....
“We seek to be Christians, followers of Christ, active members of a Church which is called to be the sacrament of salvation in the midst of this world cast into darkness and destroyed by sin.”
While many reject this notion of faith, “there are many who understand us – above all, the humble of heart, the peasants, the workers, the common people.”
Vatican II and Medellín had taken a hard look at the earthly reality which the Church is called to evangelize. Johann Baptist Metz described a “mysticism of open eyes” as an alternative to an otherworldly or interioristic spirituality: “In the end Jesus did not teach an ascending mysticism of closed eyes, but rather a God-mysticism with an increased readiness for perceiving, a mysticism of open eyes, which sees more and not less. It is a mysticism that especially makes visible all invisible and inconvenient suffering, and – convenient or not – pays attention to it and takes responsibility for it, for the sake of a God who is a friend to human beings” (A Passion for God: the Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity, trans. J. Matthew Ashley, New York, Paulist Press, 1998, p. 163).
In his autobiography, “Creo en el Hombre y en la Comunidad” (“I Believe in the Human Person and in the Community” – Quito, Corporación Editora Nacional, 2001), first published in 1977, Proaño described his personal understanding of the divine plan of salvation. “Through a gradual process of discovery, the Lord has brought me, through dreams, achievements, and failures, to a lived understanding of his plans: this communitarian vocation to which he calls all people; the destruction of God’s plan brought about by sin – selfishness, rivalry, ambition, hatred, envy, injustice, lies, deception, calumny; Christ’s mission oriented fundamentally toward the restoration of God’s plan in the world – the Kingdom of God as community life here on earth itself, later to be fulfilled completely in heaven; the mission of the Church, called to be, as continuance of the mission of Christ, sign and witness of community life in the midst of this divided world” (pp. 94-96).
Proaño gave repeated emphasis to this aspect of salvation: that Christ’s project, in which we are called to participate, is the restoration of this world as the Creator intended it to be. This obviously involves the radical change of social structures as well as the radical conversion of our sinful hearts. Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the rector of the Central American University in San Salvador who was assassinated along with five other Jesuits and two women on Nov. 16, 1989, had sounded a similar note in a lecture in Barcelona ten days before his death when he said that we “must try to reverse the course of history.” The gospel is truly good news in that it not only calls us to this task but assures us that the Spirit is with us and that the Kingdom has been initiated in the risen Christ. Another kind of world is indeed possible!
Fr. Pedro Arrupe, superior general of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1982, in a speech to the alumni of Jesuit schools from various parts of Europe in 1973, cited the “words of the utmost clarity” of the 1971 Synod of Bishops: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”
Arrupe, who had experienced oppression as a prisoner of the Japanese for 33 days during World War II and who had witnessed personally the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which he later described as a “horror” and “mass slaughter,” went on to say: “Interior conversion is not enough. God’s grace calls us not only to win back our whole selves for God, but to win back our whole world for God. We cannot separate personal conversion from structural social reform.”
Transformation of the whole world and turning history around were important themes which Proaño shared with many other prophets in the Church.
The Young Leonidas
Who was Ecuador’s “bishop of the Indians”? How did Leonidas Proaño develop into one of the prophetic bishops of Latin America?
In the first sentence of his autobiography he identifies himself as “the son of a poor family.” He notes that the family home had only three rooms, plus a small plot of land for growing some corn. As a boy he saw how the poor are “brothers and sisters to each other, practicing a generous and delicate mutual assistance among neighbors.... The poor feel, almost spontaneously, a solidarity with other poor people, with all who suffer. The rich become selfish.”
His parents made and repaired straw hats, and young Leonidas early learned the trade, while also helping with the work on the small farm. He later recalled how “the hardness and monotony of the work were relieved by conversation and song. Dialogue and singing have a deep communitarian sense. The former is the best vehicle of personal intercommunication; the latter, singing, is an invaluable vehicle for harmonizing not only voices but feelings. And it is a way to create joy and enthusiasm.”
From the words and example of his parents he learned to love and help the poor. On Saturdays, when beggars would come to the door, he was in charge of giving them something to eat or a bit of money. His parents expressed their great esteem for the indigenous people by pointing out to Leonidas how bad it was that they were often ridiculed, treated unjustly, and exploited. He learned that the indigenous were also sons and daughters of God and thus his brothers and sisters.
He later recognized how “that love and respect for the poor, especially for the indigenous, came to be part of my very existence. This is why I have said later that I have never wanted to be a traitor to the poor, since I was born in a poor home and there learned to love the poor.” He considered the friendship of the poor a precious gift, citing the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31 ff): “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink....”
As a boy Leonidas also learned to respect the property of others and to tell the truth always and at whatever cost or inconvenience. Later he recognized how this passion for the plain truth influenced his way of teaching and preaching as a priest and bishop. With the best of good will, friends would counsel him to be “diplomatic” in facing conflicts, but he found this to be impossible. “I think that the truth makes itself felt sooner or later. I think that other people have a full right to the full truth and that this is the only way we can understand one another and forge bonds of authentic unity.”
Freedom and courage were also traits he developed in his early youth. He was especially grateful for his parents’ respect for his personal decision regarding his vocation to the priesthood. They made sacrifices to pay for his seminary education but never pressured him to be ordained.
His courage in facing risks and opposition was the fruit of his search for and loyalty to the truth, as he reflected in his autobiography. As a boy he was moved by his parents’ accounts of their own courage shown in some situations and of the courage and strength of famous Ecuadorians in history. Thus he learned to “conquer fear” and to develop a “spirit of struggle.”
Regarding the means of struggle, he noted: “The same process has also brought me to the conviction that the struggle for the greatest human values, while it should be active and untiring, should by preference be nonviolent, without bloodshed and without attacking the dignity of the human person, even though the struggle is with those who inflict injustice and oppression. The Christian’s ideal should be to attain the attitude of Christ.” Here Proaño cites Mt.26: 51-54, the passage in which one of Jesus’ disciples took out his sword and wounded the high priest’s servant. Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels....?”
As for religious practice, he describes his parents as ordinary, good Christians with whom he went to Mass on Sundays. In one of his earliest memories of his mother, he recalls how she once took him in her arms on a clear night to show him the moon and the stars, stating that they had been created by God. “God was very present in our family life.” His parents gave Leonidas some religious education at home and also saw to his catechetical instruction in preparation for first communion. Just after the boy received the sacrament, the priest said to him: “when you are older, we will be waiting for you in the seminary.” At the time he didn’t know what a seminary was, “but the invitation stayed in my memory.”
Later he took delight in reading about the heroes and events of the bible, experiencing “a great love for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When Leonidas was about to graduate from grade school, the parish priest visited the family and ordered them to send the boy to minor seminary! They all agreed to obey, but his father assured him that he would make his own decision about becoming a priest.
Nearing the end of his high-school seminary studies, Leonidas experienced serious doubts about whether to continue on the path to ordination – due to the bad example of a priest who “had a voracious appetite for money, a strong attachment to drink, and a very strong inclination to women.” The young man discussed his crisis with an understanding seminary professor, who received him with great kindness and suggested that he could enter the major seminary to continue his studies and his discernment about his vocation.
The crisis was soon resolved. “I can state with certainty that in those days I discovered the Lord in a clear, interior, experiential way, especially in the bible and in the blessed sacrament.”
The autobiography is not without recognition of the author’s “negative aspects” – for instance, an inordinate competitiveness. “I always struggled to be first, in sports and in studies. This sense of competition ... is a serious obstacle to community life, in which the goal should be that all move ahead together.”
Related to this was a certain “stubbornness” in his decisions and a hardness toward others, along with an incommunicative nature. The latter he sees as the reverse side of his reflective and contemplative temperament. He did seek and welcome friendship – not facile but profound ones – and had many good friends. He also had to control his anger.
As he advanced through minor seminary, Proaño discovered in himself a growing “desire to organize groups.” This desire and commitment would characterize his later work as priest and bishop. He and some fellow seminarians organized themselves into a small group of writers. During his years in the major seminary in Quito, he devoted his vacation periods in his home town to organizing young people with whom he initiated a cultural center where he would give talks every Sunday on social and cultural issues.
His first experience of taking a position regarding a concrete social problem came when the youngsters asked him about a large piece of land part of which, according to tradition, had been communal land of the people. They wanted to know whether Church doctrine would support their desire to expropriate part of the land. The seminarian researched the issue for a week Based on the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII, “I prepared a talk emphasizing the possibility of expropriation of the land.” A large crowd, hearing this with enthusiasm, went to talk to the landlord, who in turn paid a visit to the local bishop. The prelate later told the seminarian that it was “not appropriate to involve himself in such issues, adding that the people’s demand was a threat to private property.” (The large hacienda was divided up some years later.)
Years later, as bishop of Riobamba, Proaño did not hesitate to initiate his own land reform, transferring large church landholdings to the indigenous communities.
The seminarian/organizer next became part of a book discussion group whose members soon began to publish a controversial magazine, Excelsior.
Shortly after ordination, Father Proaño and three others who had been in the same class in the minor seminary in Ibarra began to meet once a week to strengthen their friendship, to pray together, and to reflect on their ministry. Later they began to have a monthly retreat day and to help each other in their work.
One of Proaño’s priest friends had returned from studies in Europe with a great enthusiasm for the Young Christian Workers movement. The two priests brought this to Ibarra and began to visit young workers in their places of employment, talking with them and inviting them to come to some meetings.
Proaño considered his work with the YCW movement “another important experience of working with groups. There I learned to respect the thoughts of others.” And he learned the importance of seeing and analyzing “reality.”
“I learned their method: See, Judge, Act. This method took flesh in me. To see reality, and to see it in depth. To discover the causes of things. Later, to judge it, that is, to make a comparison between what is and what should be, between that reality and God’s Plan.
“Finally, to act, to resolve to change that reality in accord with the divine plan.
“When, in the last few years, I have been calumniated as communist and marxist, I reflect back on those long-ago teachings of the YCW method. And I think that my detractors were not correct in accusing me in that way; they did not know of my custom, from many years before, of knowing reality and analyzing it in order to arrive, through a process of reflection, at true commitments for change. Later, Pope John XXIII in a certain way canonized this method.”
Bishop of Riobamba
As bishop of Riobamba, Proaño encouraged the formation of Christian Assemblies – small groups meeting in people’s homes to listen to the bishop’s radio program in which he would read and reflect on scripture. Each group, with a coordinator and note-taker, would then discuss the questions the bishop had proposed and would “assimilate the message of the gospel.” Two hundred and fifty such groups were formed, evidencing the people’s “hunger for the gospel,” with some meetings lasting well into the night.
The people also experienced the Church as community. “One of the results of the Assemblies was, as the people themselves commented, that neighbors got to know and appreciate one another.” In their words: “Before, even though we were neighbors, we did not know each other and hardly greeted each other. Now we know each other better, we are friends, and we want to help each other.” One example of such concrete help, as Proaño recalled, was that the people would take up a collection to help the sick.
In these Assemblies and later in the Christian Base Communities which he encouraged, the bishop saw the importance of the active role for the laity which Vatican II had proposed. “I came to understand that the Church must experience a radical transformation, that we bishops must strive greatly to change a Church with a pyramidal image into one with a communitarian image.” He considered teams and councils of priests and laity as expressions of the deep community nature of the Church. “I began to see that we priests had monopolized all the charisms in the Church, that instead of being servants we had become dominators of the people, and that lay people were called to play a major role.”
Inspired by the 1968 assembly of Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia, Proaño encouraged the formation of Christian Base Communities. These, in the words of the Medellín documents, are “local communities whose size facilitates a personal relationship of brotherhood and sisterhood among members.” As a community of faith, hope, and love, the CBC is “the primary and basic Church nucleus which should take responsibility at its local level” for evangelization, worship, and “human promotion and development.”
Proaño’s commitment to justice went far beyond his native Ecuador. In 1978, just one year before the Sandinista-led revolution overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, he convoked a meeting of Christian communities which led to the formation of the Committee of Solidarity with Nicaragua, with the bishop as president.
This involvement taught him that “solidarity is today’s way of expressing love for our suffering brothers and sisters, even though they may be far away geographically. Any kind of suffering can awaken compassion in humanitarian hearts.... An important step is to feel solidarity with persons and peoples who suffer because of violations of the fundamental rights which God has given them. And from here another step can be taken: coming to a clear and critical awareness that we live in a system which not only violates human rights occasionally but tramples upon them constantly by institutionalizing structures of injustice.”
Proaño identified some of those structures as imperialistic and urged: “The best form of solidarity is the anti-imperialist struggle.” His identification with the indigenous people of Ecuador stirred up in him a deep indignation at the successive empires they had suffered: the Incan (from Peru) in the fifteenth century, the Spanish conquest, and the neo-colonialist system dominated by the U.S.
What does Christian faith offer to the practice of solidarity, he asked. “It reveals to us a God in solidarity with the poor, with the oppressed.” Here he cites Ex. 3:7-8 – God saw the suffering of his people in Egypt and “came down” to free them from oppression.
Moreover, “the prophetic books are full of God’s complaints against the oppressors and in favor of the oppressed.” As an example he presents Isaiah 10:1-2: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!”
But the “event of events, through which Christian faith shows us a God in solidarity, is the incarnation of his Son. To save us, the Son of God becomes human. To become man is to become mysteriously and tremendously identified in solidarity with people. To save people, the Son of God becomes poor, mixes in with the poor, chooses the poor to be his friends and co-workers, and proclaims the good news of salvation and liberation to the poor and oppressed.
“Whenever a person or organization expresses solidarity with the people in any part of the world, that person or organization is making God present – this God who is characterized by solidarity with the oppressed. Christian faith strengthens solidarity at all levels: from the humble gesture of one who helps an elderly person to cross the street to the deed of risking and giving one’s life for the people who suffer. Thus we become like Christ who gave his life for his friends.”
What solidarity feels like on the receiving end was described in a symposium in Quito in 2003 in which women from ten Latin American countries shared their experiences: “It means knowing that someone is concerned about what may happen to me, knowing that I can count on eyes which even from a long distance protect me and are on the watch as to what may befall me. This can be a deterrent to repression and impunity.”
Divide and Conquer
In 1982 a group of indigenous people expressed their concern to Proaño about the growing divisions in the community. The bishop joined them in organizing a meeting of seventy indigenous leaders, both men and women, to analyze the problem. As usual, the process began with a hard look at “the reality.”
People and organizations both within Ecuador and from abroad, including religions, “have come to divide us,” they said, as reported by Proaño. “The exploiters, the businesspeople, the landlords, and the political parties divide us. They deceive us, making promises which they never keep.
“Even the gospel is used to divide us. When a community demands the application of the Agrarian Reform, the landowners call the leaders aside to win them over by offering them land or money. Evangelical missionaries tell the peasants that only they are saved, that they are the spiritual ones, that the Catholics are communists because we demand justice, and that we will go to hell.” Some evangelical institutions “give out money which divides communities while stirring up ambition in some and envy in others. To get this money the peasants must sign up for the evangelical religions....
“Why is it that the gringos and the Ecuadorian businesspeople get together to divide us? We peasants now are more aware than before and so we are demanding our rights. The gringos and the rich people of our country want to make us shut up by giving us a little gift... They want to tranquilize us in order to keep exploiting us easily.”
While the Ecuadorians rob the indigenous of their labor power, “the foreigners rob our natural resources. In order to keep us quiet, the gringo religions instill fear in the people, telling us that if we make demands we will go to hell. They divide us with money and they make us fight among ourselves, in order to make off easily with our oil, our bananas, and the tuna which belongs to us because it is in our territorial waters.”
For one session of the meeting the indigenous participants had asked the bishop to coordinate a biblical reflection. When he couldn’t help arriving a bit late, he was happy to see that the people had already chosen a text and started the reflection. “This proved that my participation was not necessary and I was pleased to follow their reflections in silence.”
The group had chosen 1 Cor 12:12-31, Paul’s comparison of the Church with the human body. But it was noted that the “religions of the gringos tear apart the Church and the peasant organizations. God does not want the body to be torn apart. So all of us must organize ourselves and walk together in order to progress toward liberation.
“The Church of Riobamba is forging this path from its base in the poor. We peasants are poor and we are many. And in the cities and towns there are also many poor people. This is the starting point from which the Church of Riobamba is opening a path. It leads to liberation, which is necessary so that there may be justice, unity, love, and respect.”
Proaño saw that this was how they understood the Kingdom of God. In their words: “We the poor people are being illuminated and awakened by the Word of God, which is opening our eyes and ears, untying our tongue, and making us walk. We were like the crippled. We ourselves, as the Church, must be good example, showing the Kingdom of God among us. And we must work so that the cooperatives and all the peasant organizations also manifest the Kingdom of God. We work with these two hands – the Christian community and the peasant organization -- toward the same goal.... We ourselves must organize and figure out how to free ourselves from poverty.”
In his thirty-one years as a bishop in Latin America (1954-1985), Proaño witnessed the flowering of the Church’s social commitment in the Medellín meeting of the continent’s bishops and the consequent persecution of the Church as bishops, priests, and lay leaders put into practice the “option for the poor” and for liberation. Proaño’s meeting of Church leaders in August 1976 was raided by the police and the participants arrested, as we have seen. The persecution soon escalated.
On October 12, 1976 Fr. Joao Bosco Burnier, S.J., died after being shot by a policeman when he and Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga visited a jail in Brazil to investigate evidence that two peasant women were being tortured there.
In 1977 Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J., was assassinated along with two peasants because the priest’s pastoral commitment to his people had led him to support their right to organize. This crime contributed to Archbishop Romero’s conversion to the poor and to justice, which resulted in his martyrdom in 1980. That decade would see innumerable atrocities committed against priests, religious, and lay leaders, especially in Central America.
Fr. James (Guadalupe) Carney “disappeared” in 1983 when he accompanied a revolutionary column into Honduras as chaplain.
These prophetic elements had received the inspiration and strength to avoid three sins which Proaño considered fatal to true evangelization: “explicit or implicit alliances with the powers of this world, attachment to Church privileges or to a mistaken notion of tranquility, and silence on those occasions when justice is trampled upon. Since such silence constitutes complicity with the established system, with the sinful situation, it is a betrayal of the Church’s mission and of the gospel.”
The author, a Jesuit from Detroit, works with Christian Base Communities in Nicaragua, with Jesuit Volunteers International, and with the Global Call for Nonviolent Civil Resistance to End the Military Occupation of Iraq – www.globalcalliraq.blogspot.com .He is the author of The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution (Sheed & Ward, 1991) and The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador–Celebrating the Anniversaries (Fortkamp, 1994).
His writings also appear at www.jailjournal.blogspot.com