Life in the Barrios

A radical priest’s career among the poor of Haiti and Latin America.

Quebec missionary and cleric Claude Lacaille shoots from the hip: “Wojtyla and Ratzinger had left us naked and exposed to the savage repression of our tyrants and had delivered the shepherdless sheep to the wolves. The Church’s history will record that these men were a formidable obstacle to the evangelization of the continent.”

This stark and severe judgement of the two pontificates that preceded the current papacy of Francis—that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI respectively—is without nuance, historical balance or measured scholarly assessment. But it is precisely what Lacaille believes and is a consistent thread that winds itself through the searing disclosures and oracular proclamations that define Rebel Priest in the Time of the Tyrants: Mission to Haiti, Ecuador and Chile. And the author has his reasons.

Part memoir, part testimonial, part screed and part homily, Rebel Priest in the Time of the Tyrants is at its best when recounting the experiences of a missionary priest identifying with, and emulating the courage of, the persecuted peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America. Lacaille is not without courage, deep empathy and solid conviction as he struggles with the underclass against the tyrannies of Papa Doc François Duvalier of Haiti, presidents José Maria Velasco Ibarra and Guillermo Rodríguez Lara of Ecuador, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

These dictators were pitiless in their suppression of any creed or person they considered socialist or crypto-communist; they were the successful architects of the national security state; and they were the trusted allies of an increasingly fearful United States. After all it was the Cold War era. The caudillos owed their power to the military and private militias that ensured their protection. And they owed their ruthless control of the levers of governance to an acquiescent upper middle class, an intimidated opposition and an all too frequently compliant Roman Catholic Church.

Lacaille, a diocesan priest and member of the Quebec Foreign Mission Society, provides a choppy narrative outlining his desire to serve in the politically turbulent world of Latin American strongmen and in the crazed universe of Duvalier’s Haiti. Nothing in English novelist Graham Greene’s evocation of 1960s Haiti in The Comedians, with its morally seedy politics, ubiquitous and menacing Tonton Macoutes and general hopelessness of the populace is gainsaid by Lacaille. He tasted the terror directly.

It is, however, this very choppiness, with scant attention paid to chronology and encumbered by non sequitur argumentation and reflexive sloganeering, that combined get in the way of the reader’s appreciation of the author’s passionate struggle for justice.

Ordained a priest in 1962, the year of the opening of the transformative Second Vatican Council, from the outset Lacaille was inspired by the revolutionary charisma of Pope John XXIII, eager to accept his summons to bring Christ to the developing world and edified by the work of such missionary orders as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Society of Jesus. The Quebec church was on the cusp of the Quiet Revolution but still commanded daunting influence in every aspect of life in the province, had more vocations to the priestly and religious life than any other jurisdiction save Ireland and Poland, and sent scores of its clergy and committed laity to serve in far and distant lands.

The Catholic missionaries motivated by the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, however, were unlike most of their Protestant, specifically Evangelical, contemporaries in that they saw their role increasingly defined by priorities quite different from those of a traditional missiology.

The schools of liberation theology that mushroomed in the last quarter of the 20th century can be traced back to the ferment following the Second Vatican Council, in particular the graduate faculty of social sciences at Belgium’s Louvain University, a much favoured Catholic institution that disgorged a multitude of bright clerical doctoral students who brought back to their native lands freshly honed analytical skills that when applied would quickly turn Catholic social ethics on its head.

Liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gut­iérrez, Juan-Luis Segundo, Ernesto Cardenal, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino wrote prolifically and influentially, small Christian communities called communidades de base developed exponentially, parish priests and lay leaders were radicalized, and a few bishops supported an emerging regime of theological thinking that established a preferential option for the poor, the prioritization of justice over traditional privilege, and a new social and political awareness, a conscientization, that was nothing short of revolutionary.

The elites—political, economic, military, and ecclesiastical—smelled the stench of Marxism. Although the continental Catholic hierarchies or regional episcopates of Latin America would approve the call for justice and equity at their major conferences held both in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 and in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, the actual application of the new thinking proved threatening to them, if for no other reason because the Rome of John Paul II had no sympathy for any critique of society that employed Marxist categories of analysis and discourse.

John Paul’s premier theologian in the Vatican, the formidable Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would issue two highly critical documents of liberationist methodology, seeing the potential of liberation theology in dark terms as undermining magisterial authority, generating political unrest, shifting Catholic thought from its conventional and time-honoured focus on doctrine to a social science application of dubious genesis, and sowing doubt in the corridors of Catholic ecclesiastical certitude.

Although the harsh and wholesale condemnation of liberation theology by the Roman magisterium would soften throughout the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict XVI—one of the reasons why Lacaille’s blistering denunciation of the two popes is too categorical—the hounding of the exponents of liberation theology, academic and activist, pastoral and devotional, had devastating consequences for its most fervent followers.

Lacaille chronicles the various ways in which his own work was hampered if not terminated by distrustful bishops and religious superiors, prompting him at one point to declare: “My deepest emotional ties, my comrades in the struggle during these years of solidarity, my participation in the biblical movement and liberation theology, I had been cruelly cut off from all of it.”

Recalled to Quebec, a religio-political world that is markedly different from the one in which he was trained, Lacaille reconceives himself as a priest carrying on the liberationist principles that defined his ministry in the land of the tyrants save that now, rather than scurrying through the barrios avoiding the police, triaging the wounded, instilling hope in the deflated revolutionaries, he is comforting the sick, counselling the dying, and learning from the mentally and emotionally challenged what it is to be human.

A fitting way for a “rebel priest” to spend his twilight years.