I have been scanning the Religion News Service online, when I came across this article by David Gibson, about the Pact of the Catacombs. It tells the story of what happened, when on November 16th, 1965, close to the conclusion of the Second Vatican, around forty bishops gathered in a chapel located in the Catacombs of Domitilla. At the end of the liturgy, each of the bishops affixed their signatures to a document that came to be known as the Pact of the Catacombs. In signing it they “pledged … 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 ideals outlined in that ecclesial manifesto were adopted by many of the South American prelates, Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, of Brazil, a leading advocate for the poor, was one of the original signatories. About 500 Latin American bishops would eventually sign the Pact; among them the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. These bishops strived to be shepherds of a church of, and for the poor. Many found guidance in liberation theology, which placed them at odds with conservative clergy, their countries’ dictators, and eventually the Vatican.
The original signed document of the Pact has been lost, though its contents have been widely disseminated. Only one of the original signers is still with us. But its spirit is very much alive in the person of Pope Francis. He has called on the Church’s bishops to adopt a simpler lifestyle, to be true shepherds, to have the “smell of the sheep.” And he seeks to make real the desire of St. Pope John XXIII, and the other bishops to have a Church of the poor.
The Catholic Church is going to have some rough days ahead; this weekend, the movie, “Spotlight” will open in American theaters. It will tell the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the extant of clergy abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston. It was that reporting that opened the floodgates, and revealed a scandal that continues affect the Church. Also, two books will be published and released in Italy, which will “reveal” continuing financial scandals in Vatican City.
In the days ahead, we are going to need to examples of the lives of those bishops, who truly committed themselves to living the Gospel, to be servants of all. And we are going to accept the challenge of the Gospel ourselves, to be servants for each other, and the world. To seek to replace hatred with love, and war with peace, if we can do that, try to do this, perhaps we can show the world the true face of the Church.