Jacob's Ladder
A Fraternal Circular Letter


In a book written in Italy about the answers given by children to questions about God, one of the children replied very convinced that "God lives in paradise, where he holds meetings with the bishops and the popes. He is on top, and the others are a little lower."

On November 11, 1979, one year before his martyrdom, (It will be 20 years in the year 2000), our Saint Romero of America proclaimed with hope: "And you shall see, dear poor ones, dear oppressed, dear marginalized, dear hungry ones, dear infirm, that the dawn of your resurrection is already shining. "

The "gorilla" Ismael, "professor who sought a student with a sincere desire to save the world" (according to the fable-novel of Daniel Quinn), in his classroom had a poster which said on one side: "With the end of Humanity, will there be hope for the gorilla?" and on the other side said: "With the end of the gorilla, will there be any hope for Humanity?"

In this circular letter I am not going to draw up an inventory of sorrowful data or hopeful events. Fortunately, the report of the United Nations Program for Development (UNPD) has come to be almost a manual of concientization. It is in the newspapers, the magazines, the other media. It is a lay prophet who helps us to open our eyes and to feel as one Humanity. As Karl Barth said in his time about the Bible and the newspaper, the UNPD and the Bible should always be in our hands and in our action.

In this year of 1999, eve of the famous 2000, we are living the end of a century and the end of a millennium that have spectacularly revolutionized humanity, for bad or for good, with their scientific and geographical discoveries, with their ethnic, religious and imperialistic combats, with their fundamentalisms, holocausts, gulags and massacres, with their "suspicions" and the "death of God" and "human disillusionment and alienation," with their capitalism and communism; also with their advances in liberty, in the sciences, in communications, and in solidarity.

This year closes a millennium of Christianity, with its crusades and its inquisition and its colonialisms and its centralizing power, but also with its legion of martyrs and men and women saints of the most varied conditions, with its Vatican Council II, with the new contextual theologies, with an always greater and irreversible presence of the laity in the Church, and more concretely of women. It closes asking for pardon, although very timidly, and without full recognition that the great ecclesiastical sins of this millennium were sins of the Church as an institution and not only of "some Christians not faithful to their baptism."

For Humanity and for the Church this end of the millennium could very well be a decisive facing up, with lucidity and humility and hope, to our respective histories, and to dare to undertake a structural change, an ecclesiastical reform that has never been finished, to truly make a commitment for the impoverished majorities and to dialogue with unquestionable sincerity, sacrificing privileges and facilitating the dignity and the participation of all persons and peoples. This is the task for Humanity if it wishes to be truly human; the task for the Church if it wishes to be truly evangelical.

Our lay prophet, the beneficent United Nations Program for Development (UNPD), in its latest report records that there still are --and the number keeps increasing horrendously-- 1,200 million persons on the margin of any type of being consumers: those who have to live on less than a dollar a day. In its report the UNPD categorizes this result as "gross inequality." It is an inequality that is homicide and even suicide. The report records that to cover the basic needs of all Humanity (education, health, potable water, nutrition...) only 30,000 million dollars would be needed annually. I say "only" because the Japanese spend 35,000 million a year on recreational games; the Europeans spend 50,000 million on tobacco and 105,000 million on alcoholic beverages; and 400,000 million is spent on drugs, 700,000 million on arms, 435,000 million on advertising.

So then, making a good examination of conscience with a proposal of amendment, one easily understands that the world cannot go on in this way. Speaking of his own people, a Yanomami Indian of north Brazil said: "If we keep going on in this way, we are all going to die." Among those "all" there will not be only the Yanomami, if we keep going in this way.

We keep speaking much about alternative projects, and we note that, thanks be to God and to the good portion of Humanity which still remains, alternative projects are proliferating on all levels of life and of human organization. But more and more one perceives with greater clarity and urgency not only the necessity of alternative projects, but the inescapable necessity of an alternative civilization, of a society that is "other": matrix, practice and fruit of many alternative projects, of the coming together of many good wills.

In the face of the temptation of fatalism and against the insensitive irresponsibility of consumerism, privilege and prepotency, there is an imposing need for the struggle and hope for that utopia of a fraternal world where all of us fit in with our own dignity and "otherness."

It is not possible that so many common dreams which more and more flourish in organizations, manifestations and concrete realizations should remain only dreams. There is now much Humanity that dreams wide awake, disposed to force the day of justice and peace.

Soon we will be entering into the 21st century, into the third (Christian) millennium. You will recall the saying about .... "It will either be mystical or it will not be." Well, thinking about the great challenges with which reason, faith and hope confront us, I would reformulate that saying in this way:

• The 21st century will be mystical or it will not be human. Because mysticism is that profound sense of life, that opening to the horizon of God, that search for the ultimate response.

• The 21st Christian century will make an option for the excluded or it will not be Christian. In the measure in which the criminal inequality increases in the world, excluding human majorities from life and dignity, the option for the poor appears ever more as an essential constitutive element of the Church of Christ.

• The 21st Christian century will be ecumenical or it will not be ecclesial. It could be a multi-colored blooming of minicristianisms without evangelical consistency or a witnessing communion; but it will not be the Church of Jesus, witness of the Pasch, sent "so that the world may believe."

• The 21st century will be ecological or it simply will "not be." Not that I believe that we are coming to the end of the world in that ballyhooed year 2000, but according to the sciences and experiences which seem to indicate that we are all bent upon doing away with our air, our water, our forests, our life. Ecology is the great pending political issue, and it needs to be ever more: ethics, theology, spirituality.


This our new year, our new millennium which is at hand, has to open itself sincerely to dialogue with God, with the God of all names, with the God of all religions, with the God of all countenances, questions and hopes. It has to be open increasingly to fraternal dialogue with nature, life of our life, house of our hearth. It has to undertake a dialogue that is open, joyful, enriching, between men and women, between peoples and cultures, between the two or three or four worlds that tragically now exist, in order to construct another world, the globalization and solidarity of humanity beautifully plural and one.


My Augustinian friends, men and women, in a recent meeting from Latin America and the Caribbean, also dreamed about a "new" new millennium, and proposed these just alternatives to inhuman neoliberalism:

1. Social supremacy instead of market supremacy
2. Efficacious solidarity instead of corrosive individualism
3. Cultural affirmation instead of the idolatry of globalization
4. Economic and social inclusion instead of mass unemployment
5. Human rights instead of violence and impunity
6. A social and participatory state instead of a minimal and police state
7. Respectful ecumenism instead of fundamentalistic sectarianism

We have just finished celebrating the golden (and bloody) jubilee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this occasion human rights were revindicated in many places and with new force, even amplifying them to include areas usually passed over. The problem of the rights of peoples continues to be oppressive. The world still passively assists at genocides, embargoes, lightening and prepotent wars. The United Nations continues to be manipulated by the seven "greats"; and the total market has become a substitute for total law, justice and ethics.

From the most disparate sectors of Humanity, from Marxist politicians to Pope John Paul II, unanimous voices have been raised against the iniquity of the External Debt, and for its revision or reduction or cancellation. The problem is not always well situated, insofar as that Debt is not really a debt; because the supposed creditors are in fact the debtors; and because the victims of that debt have been paying it off for centuries with hunger, misery and death. Furthermore, because what is sometimes forgotten, as the Brazilian Social Week insistently observed, is that there is a diabolical connection between the External Debt and the social debts (of health, education, housing, work, equality... life), and that those need to be payed as debts of an injured Humanity.

In any case, the year 2000, which for Christians is also a jubilee year, has been transformed into a great world convocation against the External Debt and its evils. Our "Agenda Latinoamericano" for the year 2000 will also be dedicated to that theme: "A Great Fatherland Without Debts," without the External Debt and without social debts, be it understood.

In all the world, even in the first world, unemployment has come to be a true agony, personal, family and social. It is calculated that at this turn of this century about a billion people will live miserably, tossed about by that tide. In the present economy of the total market wherein the supreme value is given to technology in the service of profits, work ceases to be a right and cannot even be invoked as a duty. (Simply, "There is no work!") Liberal capital, against the grain it is true, had to deal with labor; neoliberal capital can "dispense with" labor. In Brazil, the Campaign of Fraternity for this year is dedicated precisely to this theme of unemployment. It asks, very opportunely: "Without work, Why?" One has to go to the causes. And those causes are totolitarianly structural. The excluded begin to be so by first being excluded from work

Brazil is also preparing, with a very contradictory preparation, for the 500th anniversary of its wrongly named discovery and of the ambiguous evangelization of this Land of the Holy Cross. It will be a new opportunity, and not only Brazilian, to review that history of 500 years and to evaluate the history of the thousands of preceding years and of one and another inheritance, as Society and Church. Here too, before all, we need to repeat with the singer: "Blessed are they who have made a reality of this resistence of 500 years."

As Church and for the Church, during this last year I also have dreamt much, with many brothers and sisters, about the great Church of Jesus. And from different places I have been asked precisely to make explicit those dreams. Here I am sharing with you some of them, already well known dreams of my vigils:

-In our faith, theology and spirituality look again at the God whom we adore and about whom we dogmatize and preach, because perhaps that does not always correspond to the true God, to the God of Jesus, in plain language.

-To live ecumenism, but in reality, passing very concretely from an ecumenism of intentions, meetings and generalities to a mutual recognition of the Churches as being the Church of Jesus. Why not? What would the Church lose, what would the Gospel lose, what would God lose with a real ecumenism lived in the Spirit? Certainly we would have to relativize many things and review what is faith, what is culture, what is history, what is prejudice, and passionately adhere to the testimony of the Lord Jesus: "That they may be one, Father!" Konrad Reiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, dreams, as many of us dream, for a "genuinely universal Council." And he feels that four elements are essential and sufficient to define communion with the Body of Christ, his Church:
a common faith in the Trinity and in Christ as our Savior;
Baptism, one for all;
the Eucharist, one for all;
the mutual recognition of ministries.

-Acknowledge the option for the poor --today the majority of excluded humanity-- as an essential commitment of the Gospel and as such also essential to the Church of Jesus, a true "mark" of its identity.

-For the Church to decentralize itself "catholicly," inculturating itself in every people and empowering the identity and the otherness of the local Churches and of the episcopal conferences; consequently revising the way of exercising the ministry of Peter and all the ministry of the Church, and making possible the adult and corresponsible participation of lay men and women. Fr. Haring, who has recently passed to the full liberty of the Reign, used to say that "the Church needs Christian women and men of adult maturity, the vanguard of true liberty and responsibility, pioneers in the world of social justice and of the politics of peace."

-To draw nearer, in the manner of the Samaritan, to all the anxieties, troubles, sufferings and hopes of Humanity, and to bring to it the light and oil of the Good News of the love of God. The patriarch Georges Hourdin in his last book, "The Old Man and the Church" (paraphrasing Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea") dreams that the Church might more and more have "the capacity of the Gospel, taken up by men and women alike, to turn to the future world with thoughts of humanity and happiness." So Hourdin is in tune, from his faith and his culture, with the desperate faith and misery of the campesino in the song: "What does 'blessed' mean? I surely know what 'poor' means!"


For our Latinamerican Church, I would ask that it returns, as with a first love, to the intuitions and commitments of Medellin, the Latinmerican "reception" of Vatican II: the awareness and the will of being a Church which is "ours" --in harmony with the cultures, sorrows and hopes of our peoples, setting out prophetically toward a truly new evangelization that is inculturated, committed, liberating. We have just celebrated the 30th anniversary of Medellin, and Medellin ought to continue being a decisive historical benchmark for the Latinamerican Church, our native Pentecost, the greatest event of the whole history of the Church in Latin America, as I understand it, for what it proclaimed and unleashed.


In our Church of Sao Felix do Araguaia we keep going, amidst failures and efforts. For the following four-year period we have as priorities: formation, autonomy in personnel and in finances, and social-political pastoral activities. Quite slowly, of course. Autonomy especially still is really at the stage of a dream. And finances continue to tend to be like walking on a tightrope, although Providence and the providences of solidarity have always extended a hand at the tense hour of truth.

During this year of 1999, we will have popular missions in the whole Prelature. Almost exclusively, the communities of our Church will conduct their own mission.

In our last spiritual retreat, which we made on the banks of the Araguaia, on that familiar Santa Terezinha hill, we pointed out what are or should be family characteristics of our Church:

a) an option for the poor, which is a commitment to the people, which is a commitment for justice and liberation. From that also flows the challenge of inculturation and the living of evangelical poverty and solidarity, personal and community.

b) conviviality and fraternal togetherness, through our life and action as a team, through the hospitality of our open houses and hearts, and through our full understanding and sensitivity for the people and their affairs

c) Being Latinamerican in our spirituality, theology and pastoral practice of liberation, through our memory and celebration of the Martyrs of the Caminhada (Journey, Way); through the Bible in the hands of the people; in basic Christian communities, empowering the participation of the laity and more explicitely of women; taking up our "Latinamerican Councils" and the specific pastoral letters which keep arising within the Church of the Continent; making ours the causes of the "Patria Grande" (Great Fatherland), such as Pacha Mama, as Amerindia, as Afroamerica.

"In due time we will invite the men and women who are friends in solidarity with us to assist at the great Pilgrimage of the Martyrs of the Caminhada, which we will celebrate in June of 2001, twenty-fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of our Father Joao Bosco and birthdate of our Shrine of the Latinamerican Martyrs. And, indeed, we are preparing for those friends the project of a "Hermandad (Brotherhood/Sisterhood) of the Martyrs of the Caminhada," to keep alive their memory and to celebrate their commemorative dates, so as to continue taking up the causes which led them to give "the proof of greater love."


Once again our dear Central America has been struck, this time by the violence of Hurricane Mitch. An excess of nature, but also of human injustice, because once again it has been above all the poor who have lost housing, crops, lives. There as in other parts of the world, neither the respective national nor international politics prevented, as in great part it would be possible today, the major effects of that cataclysm. Once again, fortunately, Central America, which taught solidarity as "tenderness of the peoples," has received true avalanches of solidarity in reference to the damages of the hurricane.

Many of you may have followed the celebrations of Riobamba, Equator, last August, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Pasch of the patriarch Leonides Proano. There was a beautiful confluence of friendships, commitments and hopes, in the line of "the great causes which forged the soul and action of Bishop Proano": the commitment to the poor, the indigenous peoples, community, solidarity. "The Cry of Riobamba" which was promulgated on August 30 on those white heights of Chimborazo, alertly expresses what we thought and proposed there in this hour of the People and of the Church of Latin America. I think it is opportune to bring to your attention here the warning-commitment which the manifesto makes in regard to the celebration of the Jubilee: "We wish that this (taking up the Great Causes) would be the way to live and help to live in our respective Churches and countries the true permanent Jubilee that Jesus of Nazaret established. Made concrete in those terms, more than any type of occasional and triumphalistic commemoration, what the Biblical Jubilee should signify in our social and religious contexts is a personal and structural conversion of our Churches and Societies, through the living of our faith with coherence and in an inculturated way, in the fraternal togetherness of peace with justice and dignity, and in vindication of the major causes of our time: land, health, housing, education, communication and work."

At this point you will be asking yourselves how Jacob's Ladder came to be the title of this circular letter, so quickly put together.

Good old Jacob fleeing, like a ship adrift, pursued by a radical vocation, fought with himself, with his family and with God, without knowing, in the night and in strange lands, where life was leading him. Christian tradition has seen in this struggle of Jacob with God, along the rushing Yaboc stream, an image of the spiritual struggle of Humanity in confrontation with the mystery of God, Lord of the World and of History. All of us feel a little like Jacob today, at the hour of evaluating the course of a century, of a millennium, so threatening and so hopeful. The data of the UNPD, the structural uneasiness, the cosmic cataclysms, the violence --structured or spontaneous-- bursting from every corner of society, easily situate us on an unknown path, also like adrift at sea. We are all a little like Jacob seeking the Day. In the midst of this night of dreams and of fears, asleep perhaps upon a rock of a reality more than hard, we are not lacking angels of light, solidarity and hope, who descend and ascend from God to us, and from us to God.

And in ending, along with a big farewell hug, let's turn to Professor Gorilla, to the child theologian, and to Saint Romero who were presented at the beginning of this circular letter. Professor Ismael -that's his name- has more than enough reason for his questions. If we do away with plants, with animals, with nature, evidently we will also end up doing away with ourselves. I hope that the child theologian is not right and that by our witness he will go on learning a very different vision of God and of the Church, in heaven and on the earth. And we ought to strive, with all our human passion and with all the power of the Gospel, so that the hopeful promise of Romero may become true indeed: "And you will see, my dear poor ... how in spite of everything there arises the dawn of the Resurrection."


Pedro Casaldáliga
São Félix do Araguaia, MT, Brazil
-for this 1999-

Translated into English by:
Ted Cirone, CMF
Casa Mons. Romero
4600 S. Honore
Chicago, IL 60609

Address for the circular letter in other languages:
Personal page: http://www.uca.edu.ni/koinonia/pedro
Page of the Prelature: http://www.alternex.com.br/~prelazia/