This interview with then-presidential candidate Fernando Lugo,
took place during his visit to Havana, Cuba, in mid-July 2007.
As both a priest and a bishop, Lugo worked most of his life
from the Liberation Theology perspective of
commitment to the poor.
He’s 55 years old, and has the olive-colored complexion of Paraguay’s Guaraní people. He was born in San Solano, a tiny Paraguayan village in the San Pedro del Paraná district of the Department of Itapúa. Devoted to the land like his parents, he was familiar from childhood with his people’s financial difficulties, their pain and suffering—and also their hopes. Back then, he didn’t realize that his true vocation would be to serve others, like Jesus of Nazareth, embodying the Gospel through his witness of love and sacrifice. Intellectually curious and intensely conscious of the realities around him, he began teaching in a small rural school at 17. Perhaps that contact with his fellow human beings was what placed him definitively on the path to priesthood.
Paraguay is a Guaraní term meaning “water that comes from the sea.” Perhaps Fernando Lugo is touching the soul of the Paraguayan people as the water from the sea, water that is the drumbeat of faith and new hope, touches the land. The interview I asked for ends up being a friendly, intelligent and deep conversation. He tells me about his ordination as a missionary priest of the Society of the Divine Word in 1977 and about studying social sciences in Rome. Returning to Paraguay, he took up university teaching. “Just as I was beginning my doctorate,” he says, with the simplicity typical of an educated man who has lived humbly through the full range of human experience, “they named me the provincial of the Society of the Divine Word. Then from 1994 to 2005, I was Bishop of the Diocese of San Pedro del Ycuamandyyú, one of the country’s poorest and most forgotten places. That’s where I really learned to be a shepherd.”
IT: Did living and being a priest in San Pedro, sharing with the poor, suffering their pain, accompanying them in their struggles and their hopes, make you a better priest, a better human being?
FL: I lived through the whole range of human experience in San Pedro. Experiences of pain, death, the persecution of peasants, slander, threats… Also triumph, achievements and hope. All these things together lift us to the experience of Christ, who called us to live intensely the whole range of human situations: the historical Christ, the Christ of faith, who lived the situation of Nazareth and Jerusalem and who has always been a source of inspiration to men and women to become more human. A Christ who lifts us to the category of a being that is human and divine at the same time. It filled me with hope and has given me the opportunity to share people’s pain, to suffer persecution with them, to know what someone feels when they have no land, no roof, no health or education, no future—like society’s orphans. To feel their suffering and pain as my own has made me develop a special awareness of the other before us, who is the image of God. It has made me more Christian and also much more human.
IT: I see you—if you’ll excuse the presumption—as a heretic, in the sense that you have confronted the Catholic Church dogma. What consequences has that heresy brought to you?
FL: Your question reminds me of a book I recently introduced, called The Heresy of Following Jesus (by David Fernández, Iepala Internacional, 2007), which deals with the experience of Paraguay’s Christian Agricultural Leagues, an experience of life in community. Those peasants were accused of being communists by Alfredo Stroessner’s government. They were massacred, many killed; others had to go into exile; some suffered prison and torture. That is, they paid with their flesh for being “heretics,” for following the experience of Jesus of Nazareth in a radical way. The experience of following Jesus, the witness of commitment, means moving away from what the Catholic Church often emphasizes: mere doctrine. That book clearly demonstrates something I believe: that Jesus is above all a path to follow, a sign to build upon and especially a truth to discover. That’s why I have faced incomprehension, criticism—sometimes bitter criticism—from people close to the Church who don’t know that the Christian experience goes beyond doctrine, encompassing all human experience.
IT: Do you feel Liberation Theology on this continent is dead, defeated, that it no longer has anything to say in response to the new challenges of faith and reality and the new social subjects that have emerged?
FL: Liberation Theology is still alive. I always recall the letter written by John Paul II to the Brazilian bishops in which he told them that Liberation Theology is part of the heritage of the Catholic Church’s theological history. It’s been a source of inspiration in Latin America, and also in Asia, Africa and Europe. Even if we don’t see major theological publications today, groups of theologians have been renewing Liberation Theology over the years. At the same time, new theologies have been emerging in the region: the theology of woman, gender theology, black theology, ecological, ethnic, environmentalist theologies. Liberating theology is reincarnated in the theological issues that have emerged with such great force, continuing to illuminate the Christian experience in the Christian Base Communities.
IT: You’ve been involved in teaching from a very young age, especially in the Divine Word School. What has teaching, having contact with and being close to so many young people, given you?
FL: The Divine Word School has been giving a particular flourish to a whole set of teaching experiences. I taught in a school in the countryside when I was only 17. As a bishop in San Pedro, I always found time to devote to the university, continuing to teach sociology, sociology of education, introduction to political science and pedagogical anthropology in five departments in the Diocese of San Pedro. Teaching’s in my blood.
The co-educational Divine Word School, where 1,500 young men and women study, has given me the dream of discovering that youthful rebellion, that desire for change, that spiritual strength they have for building a new and better world. At the same time, I’ve seen their strong critique of an educational system that is neither effective nor humanistic; that centers instead on the technological; that doesn’t awaken social awareness, an awareness of humanity. Those young men and women have taught me to seize what is human in all its complexity. I’ve learned from their mistakes, their problems, the crises they face in growing up, their relationships with family and friends... Being a teacher has shown me the importance of education as a human and pedagogical experience. I’ve completed a phase, and now I’m going to turn to something else.
IT: What does it mean to be Christian and ecumenical today?
FL: I always see being Christian in very simple terms. For me, it means being able to emulate Christ, follow in his footsteps, in the context, environment, culture and society where one lives. Anyone, anywhere in the world, who speaks, acts and lives as Christ lived will have the same fate: he’ll be slandered, captured, tortured and killed outside the city limits. I think that’s a sign of faith. Persecution is a sign of faith, as Saint Augustine said. And as we say in Paraguay, “without wanting the role” I’ve felt that misunderstanding, that slander, those threats in some way. But for those of us who put our faith in Christ, all that makes us stronger and impels us to overcome life’s difficulties. Nobody has a monopoly on Jesus of Nazareth, nobody has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, on God. That’s why I believe that what we need most today is a healthy ecumenism, with all the churches that follow Christ and also those religions that don’t, so that, like Jesus, we can seek the cosmic God who unites and supports us all. And, in the name of God, build a more fraternal humanity.
IT: Do you think the Catholic Church is going through a “dark night”? And if so, why?
FL: All of us who do theology, who follow Christ, live in a dark night. But the darker the night, the closer the dawn, as Paraguay’s indigenous people say. It’s a sign of the search, isn’t it? There’s a great expression in my country, which you hear a lot in the countryside. It goes: “The fire never goes out, it’s eternal, and in the morning you see the traces of the wood burned the night before.” The thing is that you have to stoke that fire. That’s how I see it. Every day you have to stoke it, give it air and renew it. I think the dark night comes to all of us—including to the Catholic Church, because no one has a monopoly on the light. Jesus has the light. For our Christian world, the light is Jesus, through his Spirit. Some of us have bright nights, nights of clarity, when we can see the horizon clearly. It’s all part of sincere searching, the search for responsibility, to follow and above all to give witness to the life of Jesus in our lives.
IT: Toward the end of 2006 you said: “From today on, my cathedral will be a whole country.” Do you think the cathedral and the country you’re dreaming of can be achieved?
FL: It sounds a bit ambitious, doesn’t it? To try to make a whole country into a cathedral. What I was trying to say, metaphorically, was: From now on, I’m dedicating myself to the country. Up to now, I was in a cathedral, teaching, sharing, suffering, building. Now I’m putting myself at the disposal of the citizens, of all the citizens of Paraguay, in order to build the more just and fraternal nation all Paraguayans deserve using political means.
We want to build a more socially equitable, harmonious country, where justice isn’t just a luxury for a few powerful people, where it’s for everyone and the same for everyone. The cathedral has that image of welcoming everyone: the poor, the rich, those on the Left, those on the Right, everyone can go inside. To build that cathedral we have to start by seeing all Paraguayans as equals.
IT: The raison d’etre of a church, a community of faith, is to celebrate life, to celebrate God, and also to nourish the spirit. You’ve been “separated” from your post and your community by the decision of the Catholic hierarchy. If you no longer have a community, as in your case, where and how do you nourish that spirituality?
FL: I do have a community. I live with some people in a house. It’s a close community. I have some friends that I share political ideas and plans with on a daily basis. Maybe I don’t pray formally anymore the way I did in religious life, but just as Liberation Theology is a spirituality based in reality, today more than ever I see in that well of reality the seeds of the Word scattered throughout society and across cultures. And every day, with each dawn, with everything that happens, how can we fail to see God’s hand? How can we fail to see and nourish our own spirituality in the generous work of building a country that’s more just for others? Pius XI said that politics is the most sublime expression of charity. I think that today we need to salvage the positive dimension of politics and work on building a politics that leads us toward holiness.
IT: Where do you see the opportunity for building a new power today? In heaven, at the global level, at the community level? Or somewhere else?
FL: Politicians often usurp or cling to power. I sincerely believe that power is a process of construction. As Liberation Theology teaches us, we have chosen the method of building that power. That is, to build it based on a reality that’s bloody, defiant, linked to poverty and misery, the exclusion our people live in. That power is built from below. True, authentic, genuine change comes from below, from within, not from outside and above. Power is constructed starting with the simplest people who unite to defend their rights and promote their great hopes and political ideals.
Idiana Trujillo is a journalist with the Martin Luther KingCenter in Havana and a contributor to the Latin American News Agency (ALAI).