The Theologian of Liberation
Catholic Times Friday October 18th2019
With the Synod of the Amazon in its final days, it would seem to be a good time to reflect again on the life and work of the Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff who will celebrate his 81st birthday this coming December.
Boff entered the Franciscan order in 1959 and was ordained in 1964. During the next six years he studied for his Doctorate in Theology at the University of Munich.
It was a period of time that was to lay the foundations of what came to be known as ‘Liberation Theology’. Along with the Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez and others in South America, they developed a theology that sought to articulate their indignation against a society that accepted the poor and marginalized. He came to be seen as one who was critical of the way in which authority was exercised in the Church. It was inevitable that he would subject to censure.
But then he was not alone in experiencing censure during the 20thC. Others were also challenged, among them the Europeans de Chardin, Schillibeeckx and Congar, only for the worth of their teaching to be recognized by the Church years later.
In Boff’s case he continued over the years to help people seek and find a vision that combined human spirituality with social justice. Many thousands of small ‘base communities’ came to be formed that sought to realize the links between our spirituality, the need for social justice and care for the environment.
In spite of the criticism he received, he continued to expound and live the theology of liberation, challenging both Church and State to think in a different way. In an interview given in August 2016 he explained that Liberation Theology ‘…does not seek to act for the poor via welfarism or paternalism. Instead it seeks to act with the poor to tap their wisdom in changing their life and livelihood’.
In a country where those with huge wealth, the minority, have dominated the majority, those stricken with poverty, Boff’s voice and presence has continued to speak with them and for them. He was accused of being a communist; he was not and is not. Remember the words of the great archbishop of Recife, in North East Brazil, Dom Helder Camara – “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Boff brought the Christ to the people whose Eucharistic life was impoverished through the lack of ordained priests. Even after his priesthood was restricted, he has celebrated the Eucharist whenever he met with those in need.
Now we have a Bishop in Rome whose cultural background is South American, a man who is willing to listen to the needs and tears of the poor, a man who is willing to respond to their voice.
That is why the Synod of the Amazon that has been meeting these past days in Rome is so important. It is important not only for the people it represents, but for the example it will set, the message it will offer the wider Church. In giving the encyclical ‘Laudate si’ to the Church, Francis has continued the story of liberation, recognizing the urgency of our times, the need to care for our home.
Boff further commented that ‘….the core of liberation theology is the empowerment of the poor to end poverty and achieve the freedom to live a good life.’ The recognition of Boff’s work by Francis was clear, when on his 80th birthday last year, he sent him a short letter, thanking him for his support and offering his best wishes. In this message published a few days later on Boff’s blog, the Pope greets him as a brother.
Leonardo Boff recognizes that just as he has experienced opposition in his attempts to live the Gospel alongside the South American poor, so too has Francis suffered great opposition from elements within the Roman Curia.
In a letter to Pope Francis, written in November 2015, Leonardo Boff reveals the hopes that the liberation theologian places in the Argentinian bishop of Rome
He writes “…. In Latin America, in Brazil, in the Caribbean Islands and in other parts of the world, many of us are worried about the closed-minded attitudes and attacks launched against you by conservative groups, which are in the minority but powerful, coming from inside and outside the Church.”
We are told that prophets are not recognized in their own country, but they continue the song of their prophecy in spite of hostility.
That Boff has most assuredly done. Through his many books he has taught us the Gospel, through his living alongside the poor he has shown us the consequences of our belief.