From Many, One Voice for Justice: Group Pools Congregations' Activist Efforts. (Religious Life: Special Section)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

From Many, One Voice for Justice: Group Pools Congregations' Activist Efforts. (Religious Life: Special Section)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Say "Rome" to most Catholics, and they automatically think "Vatican." But outside the 109-acre confines of the Vatican city-state, there are many other slices of ecclesiastical life in the Eternal City. They are often less visible, less ballyhooed, but no less impressive.

An exemplary case in point is the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Promoters Group, a loose network of some 120 men and women religious with responsibility for raising awareness of social justice issues in their congregations. The group pools resources, plans activities, and networks with the tens of thousands of priests, sisters and brothers they represent around the globe.

Their aim is nothing less than mobilizing the vast resources of Catholic religious communities, their parishes and schools and missionary outposts, to construct a more just world. In that sense, the promoters, many of whom come from missionary backgrounds with personal experience of living amidst poor and oppressed peoples, offer testimony to the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on Catholic religious life.

The promoters played a key role, for example, in spurring religious communities to support debt cancellation. They put together letter and e-mail campaigns, organized demonstrations in concert with other religious and secular groups, and generally raised a fuss. Granted, there is much debt still to cancel, but the organizing is more than sound and fury signifying nothing. Consider this statement from U.S. Representative Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., ranking member on the House committee that controls the foreign aid budget:

"The debt relief issue is now a speeding train. We've got the pope and every missionary in the world involved in this thing, and they persuaded just about everyone here that this is the noble thing to do." Callahan's beleaguered surrender was The New York Times' "quote of the day" for Oct. 18, 2000, and is worn like a badge of honor by the promoters.

A quiet witness

One week after the tragedies of Sept. 11, the promoters staged a quiet witness outside the U.S. embassy on Rome's chic Via Veneto to call for peaceful solutions to terrorism. It was small-scale and respectful, but it made its point.

At the moment, working groups of the promoters are putting together booklets on two other social justice issues, trafficking of women and climate change. The idea is to provide religious communities with information and theological perspective to ground their own responses.

It should be said, however, that the life of a promoter is not all high-minded idealism. They have also been known to head out for pizza and wine after a long day's work tilting at windmills, sometimes laughing and talking together well into the wee hours. (Occasionally the odd journalist is allowed to tag along, provided that tape recorders are locked firmly in the "off" position).

This is, perhaps, one key to their success. The promoters are not grim, finger-wagging prophets of doom. In a word, they know how to have fun.

Vatican II in action

They see their activism as an outgrowth of the council. "It's Vatican II, it's Gaudium et Spes ["Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World"] in action," said Fr. Willy Ollevier, a Scheut missionary from Belgium and a member of the leadership team for the promoters, called the "core group." It consists, by design, of two women and two men.

"In the late 1970s and 1980s, religious congregations were trying to read the signs of the times, seeing the great injustices and the great growing inequalities in the world. We were asking ourselves, how will we respond?" said School Sister of Notre Dame Cathy Arata, another core group member.

"In Rome, we are people from those different congregations internationally. We try to be one voice," said Arata, an American. The promoters meet regularly to share information and to pool ideas for how to energize their communities around social justice concerns. …

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