A Christmas Letter from Fr. Gillgannon

ditor’s Note:  Many of you know or are friends of Fr. Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who has served in Bolivia for more than 35 years.  At the time Fr. Gillgannon was mission there, La Paz was a mission of the Diocese.  The following  letter provides not only his greetings but his insightful assessment of and reflection on life and politics in Bolivia

DECEMBER 20, 2010

May the Blessings of the Lord Jesus be yours in these Nativity days and throughout the New Year of 2011.

This is my Christmas Letter to all of you, my friends and prayerful supporters of our mission work in Bolivia. It is also a thank-you letter for all of you who have been such generous donors to our work this year, and through the years.  Your generosity has given us the means of doing many basic programs which have some wonderful results.

The Campus Ministry program continues to grow and to have an even greater impact in the dialogue of faith-science-society in the newly changing intercultural and pluri-national country of Bolivia. And our new parish project with poor Aymara rural immigrants to La Paz, as we described to you before, has made some progress though it is slow work to gather the people in community. The two young women doing the pastoral tasks have been very committed doing catechetical formation and developing a plan for youth ministry. One is the only lay woman in a degree program of Catholic theology in La Paz. The other is studying psychology in the State University. Your support provides them with scholarships and catechetical materials.

Meanwhile, Bolivia continues its forward march to an uncertain future while building an inclusive democracy for all of its varied “nations” (36 Native peoples) and cultures. The new Constitutional structures (of 2009) are far from being in place and the Congress works daily to make the regulatory laws necessary to detail the changes. These changes, to “de-colonize” the culture and past colonial mentalities, will take time and are strongly opposed by many groups hoping to preserve their power and minority interests. All of this is very interesting and exciting to be a part of, and to see so much of our missionary work bearing fruit in the many young people we helped to educate. They are concerned. Well informed and studious. And they participate as active citizens.

Once again, we missioners, living with the people, lament the lack of understanding of these changes by the American Government and the American Communications media. Neither seems to do their homework, or to have on-sight observers to know what is really happening here. And why.  The foreign policy of Bolivia, and the majority of Latin American countries now, is to end all vestiges of the Monroe Doctrine and all economic and political dependencies on the United States. They look for partners in a new continental identity with new structures (a new bank and new currency as the dollar weakens) promoting the unity of Latin American countries.

For instance, they reach out across the Pacific to Asian countries for such exchanges as natural resources and technology transfers. They do not rule out private national or transnational investment. But they have learned from bitter experience to make new laws to protect themselves and their natural and human resources. They also force a new vocabulary on the governments, the media, and the intellectuals, of the developed countries. They will not accept the interpretations of the loaded words of “capitalism” or “socialism” as inherited verities of “explanation” for what they are about. And “democracy”, what does it now mean after 500 years of colonial powers excluding them (or controlling their elections), while hypocritically tutoring them?  They are quite skeptical of such models as the money-managed scandal called “democracy” in the 2010 elections in the United States.

Bolivia has a law of obligatory voting. Over 80% of the people voted in the 2009 elections, and 64% of those voted for the party of the president and his congress. Such democratic participation does not take place in the United States. Moreover, all elections occur on Sunday, not on a work day, so everybody can go to their neighborhood polling place to vote. Only official cars are allowed to drive. Election Day is a civic and community holiday of play and interchange with everybody in the streets.

Still other facts continue to cause confusion. The continuing brutal repression of workers and reporters in Honduras by the “democratically”  elected  government  there, recognized by the United States despite a military coup and a rigged election, only gives further reason for the majority of Latin American countries to doubt what “democracy” may now mean to the United States. Likewise, the attempted military coup in Ecuador in September which was encouraged by transnational business interests and the local opposition to the legitimate government of President Correa.

Bolivia’s new Constitution includes the separation of the Church and State. It is quite interesting to watch as the leadership of neither the Church nor the State has the experience to know what that might mean in practice, and in law. Education is looming as a big battle in 2011 as the previous agreements of 500 years meant that the State effectively paid for large parts of Catholic education, both for teachers and infrastructure. Many Bishops think defending Catholic Education means opposing the present government and all its programs. The result is that both the Church and Bolivian society are badly divided about various government policies, particularly the role of the State in education. But more challenging is the new responsibility coming for Bolivian Catholics to pay for their own projects and programs while experiencing ever decreasing support from wealthier foreign Churches. Sadly, the Bolivian Church has no plan, national or diocesan, to include faithful Catholics in the faithful financial support of their own Church and its many good works.

And the irony of this time of change is that Bolivia, and the rest of Latin America, have never had so much money in their governments, or in their pockets. Latin American poverty is still a terrible reality in every country. But Bolivia has ten billion dollars in reserves, five times what it had ten years ago. International prices of raw materials like gas and oil are part of the development but governments like Bolivia and Brazil are making historical changes in the distribution of wealth in their countries. They do this because they know their countries also have the greatest chasm of wealth between the 2% of the wealthiest and the 40% of the poorest, the majority of their populations.

We missioners who have had the good fortune to live through and accompany these changes from military dictators to inclusive democracies see Latin Catholic culture at a crossroads. It could become defensive of the institutional privileges of its colonial history and oppose the forces of historical change. Many of which forces are the fruit of Catholic values. Or it could make a magnificent contribution to the full human development of half-a-billion people who share the common Catholic and human values of Jesus. We work so the latter outcome will prevail as we celebrate these days of the Nativity. Please do include our work in your Christmas prayers and Masses.


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