August 11, 1968, The “Young Church” and Its Takeover of the Cathedral (Christians for Socialism: Highlights from Chile’s Religious Revolution, 1973)

Santiago, Chile
August 11, 1968

We can say with certainty, and why not with a degree of pride, that the Chilean Church was the first in Latin America to set out on an experimental path in several ways. As early as 1940, for instance, it abandoned the idea that Chile was a Catholic country. From that moment on, it began to play a progressive role in society.

It was 4 a.m. on Sunday, August 11, 1968, when nine priests and three sisters accompanied by 200 lay persons, for the most part young laborers, high school and university students and other workers, took over the Cathedral in Santiago.

During the takeover, which lasted fourteen hours, the group held a press conference, spent time together reflecting on their situation and celebrated a Mass … Prayers were offered “for the people of Biafra … for those killed in the war in Vietnam … for the exploited working class of Latin America … that Christians might change these things … for political prisoners in Brazil … for those who died for the cause of liberation in South America … for the Uruguayan people in their struggle … ” Angel Parra ·and his sister, Isabel, sang an Oratory for the People [Oratorio para el pueblo]. There were a few encounters with the police who surrounded the Cathedral although the press conference clarified the reasons for the takeover.

The following are some documents which explain the action and the discussion that followed the takeover. This was an event of great significance for all of Latin America.

Editor’s note: Space does not allow us to reproduce more than selections from these documents.

Why We Are Protesting

… We denounce a structure of power, domination and wealth within which the Church often operates; we denounce those attitudes and organization that condition and weaken the hierarchy of the Church and its work…

On the Eucharistic Congress in Bogota

(Held immediately before the Medellin Conference in Bogota, Colombia, August, 1968)

… It is this structure that alters the positive witness which a Eucharistic Congress should have and the Pope fell into this trap … We don’t deny the sincerity of the gesture of the Holy Father (in coming to South America). Something quite different concerns us.

The real commitment of the Church to the process of liberation of the oppressed cannot be measured by the convocation to a celebration of the magnitude of a Eucharistic Congress. Christ does not need throngs of people singing through the streets and acclaiming his Vicar, nor thousands of lilies nor beautiful altars. Christ, present in the poor, needs the actions of those who believe in Him: a committed, courageous and noble kind. of action dedicated to changing the living conditions of the masses in Latin America … those multitudes who at times are exploited by these very Christians.

Reason For Our Urgency

Many will be scandalized by the means we have chosen, but we believe that the possibilities. for dialogue are ever fewer because a thorough understanding of these issues in the Church is very difficult …

Change Within the Church

But for such transformations to occur, the Church must change internally. It must renounce certain practices as well as an organizational structure that gives it the appearance of a sect. Obedience, discipline, conformity and prudence are regarded more highly than other more evangelical values. Stress on these “ecclesiastical” virtues necessarily converts the Church into a sect. Poverty, freedom, service, an open and courageous attitude, these are the values that should alter the face of the Church.

Conclusion

We denounce the institutional structure of the Church because it stands in the way of the Church’s real commitment to the people and their struggle.

We direct this criticism to the conscience of Christians and to the hierarchy of the Church, properly so because we regard ourselves as its children. Because we are members of the Church, we struggle so that its image and reality might change.

As we express our displeasure and denounce these distortions, we do not pretend to set ourselves up as a community of pure or perfect Christians. We have all been unfaithful to the Gospel. We are not presuming to judge. Our unity must be based on awareness of our weakness. We carry these limitations with us but we are inspired by faith in Him who overcame the world. Because we are a community of sinners, we need to proceed together, supporting each other in our search for the truth of Christ.

When we postulate a Church built upon the Gospel, we are conscious of the commitment this places upon us. It is a challenge since we know that it is not enough that the ecclesiastical institution or the organization of society change. If we do not experience a heartfelt conversion, the Gospel we preach will become a judgment against us.

The Church must dedicate itself to the people, following the example of Christ who shared the life of sinners and the ignorant who sat the table with publicans and who did not banish the prostitute from his presence. This commitment will require turning away from a bourgeois and merely formal morality. Christ was the first to break away from that bourgeois morality which is false religiosity. And that break led him to the Cross. ‘The servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

DECLARATION BY THE CARDINAL ARCHBISHOP OF SANTIAGO

Central Act of May 1, 1972 in which Cardinal Silva Henríquez appears seated with the main leaders of Unidad Popular/Popular Unity and tCUT. The Cardinal had marched with the Catholic Worker Youth/JOC. (Source: Salvador Allende Foundation). [Source, pg. 194]

[It should be recalled by the reader that in Chile, Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez was considered a progressive or at least a very open-minded and liberal cleric. For example, see the picture on the right.]

Upon my return from a pastoral visit to a rural area on the coast, I have been informed by all my vicars of the painful details concerning the takeover of our cathedral church. I am deeply hurt by this action which I am at a loss to categorize, but I believe it is my duty to direct some words to the Catholics of Santiago.

This action of a few over-emotional priests, forgetting their mission of peace and love, has led a group of lay persons, mostly young ones, to accomplish one of the saddest actions in the ecclesiastical history of Chile.

Our cathedral church has been desecrated. They have profaned some beautiful traditions of our country.

The Church of Santiago does not deserve such treatment. Its generous commitment to the service of the poor, which has been proven not only by words but also with deeds, its balanced and open attitude to all the innovations of the Vatican Council, and its infinite patience in an uninterrupted dialogue with all representatives of all points of view, seem to us to have made the Church deserving of everyone’s respect.

On our part, we have always been open to dialogue and we have spoken with each priest involved in this sad affair.

We did everything we deemed necessary to avoid it, but failed. Emotionalism triumphed over evangelical ideals.

We want our faithful to know that we condemn these actions whole-heartedly and that the priest involved in them have (thereby) separated themselves from communion with their bishop. (Ed. note: This means that the priests were suspended by episcopal authority, not that they withdrew from the Church).

Humiliated by the irritating events we have witnessed, we consider it our duty to state to our children (in God) that no extreme action such as this will cause us to modify our attitude of understanding, of openness and of respect for every person and all ideas.

We ask the forgiveness of the Church of Santiago for this offense against it and we ask all Catholics to reprove these actions by word and deed and to make those who initiated them feel the gravity thereof and realize the damage they have caused to the good name of our Church and of our country.

We thank the Lord for the pain He has inflicted on us. We believe we should not be shielded from that which others suffer in these days of misunderstanding, violence and injustice throughout the world. We likewise pray that our noble people not let themselves be misled by persons who would lead them a long the twisted paths of violence.

With all our heart we forgive those who have offended us. We invite all the faithful to join us this coming August 15 in the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Holy Virgin, Patron of our Cathedral Church, in offering the Holy Sacrifice (of the Mass) to God in all our churches, to make up for yesterday’s regrettable events.

(Signed)
Raúl Silva Henríquez
Cardinal Archbishop

A LETTER TO CARDINAL RAÚL SILVA HENRÍQUEZ

  1. Our solidarity with the laity who occupied the Cathedral has led to much misunderstanding and assumptions of evil intent. The purpose of our action was to dramatize the need to open those new paths for the Church set down by Vatican Council II. Any other interpretation is absolutely false and sensationalist, which we profoundly regret, since our only motive was sincere love for a servant Church.
  2. It has distressed us to learn that our action has been interpreted as intending to offend our Pastor, Cardinal Raúl Silva. No such intention was even in our thoughts, as our initial declaration expressed quite clearly.
  3. Our suspension a divinis fills us with pain and we wish, dear Cardinal, to beg your pardon for the pain which the occupation of the cathedral has caused.
  4. We hereby request that you retract our suspension in order to share in a sincere and enthusiastic service of the people of God united in His Church and to continue the dialogue which will allow Christ to be really present in today’s world among us Christians.
  5. We ask to be permitted to continue exercizing our apostolic ministry with these lay persons who so sincerely wish to be followers of the Gospel of Jesus. We sincerely ask forgiveness if we have offended the Church of Santiago.

(Signed)
The suspended priests

DECLARATION OF LAY PERSONS AND PRIESTS FROM VALPARAISO

The Chilean Church is in ferment. Those who believe in Christ are looking for a radical change in the structures of the Church and of society. They hope to set down the outline of this new approach.

Nor is it only the Chilean Church that is being shaken to its foundations. Camilo Torres has already appeared in Colombia; the Maryknoll priests have raised .. their protest in Guatemala; Bishop Podesta in Argentina has been removed from his see because of his deep commitment to his people; Dom Helder Camara guides and inspires us from his trouble-ridden diocese in Recife. Witness to a different attitude is the profoundly Christian rebellion which occurred this past August 11 in·Santiago.

Facing all this rejuvenating effort stands a hierarchy which talks about change but does not practice it, and so in fact impedes the participation of the People of God in the creation of their pastoral plan. The hierarchy propounds ideas which can in no way serve humanity and the world of today, while it drastically punishes those who dare to demand a Church consonant with our needs instead of one still linked to the powerful and to the vested interests which stand in the way of the liberation of our people.

Moreover, the Church gives the impression of seeking our participation, perhaps in order to boast about its nonexistent commitment to the Vatican Council II. Such participation as the Council recommended cannot take place in synods which are not taken seriously.

Therefore, we, a group of Christians from Valparaiso, have decided to act. In our diocese we do not want sermons criticizing bathing suits, violence or active student movements. Instead, we want to speak about participation, justice and a commitment to the poor in Chile.

We do not want any more deaf leaders; we seek a Church in creative dialogue. For this reason we affirm our solidarity with those who are committed courageously in the countryside, in the mountains and in the suburbs of our Latin America. We stand with our brothers in Santiago who bear the misunderstanding of those who do not yet know the world within which we struggle. And we stand with our priests in Valparaiso who, standing with us, have given ongoing witness to the life of Christ …

LETTER TO THE PRESS

  1. Some newspapers have attempted to create the impression that our interview with Cardinal Silva Henríquez and his subsequent lifting of the ban of suspension involved an act of repentance for the happenings of last Sunday. Moreover, they suggest a retraction of our declaration with all the consequences which that would entail.
  2. We want to make it clear that the purpose of our interview with the Cardinal was to express to him three points:
    • That we had no intention of profaning the Cathedral, nor did this occur.
    • That it was never our intention to offend either the Cardinal himself or the Church in Santiago.
    • That we requested to be reinstated in our priestly office and our work with the laity.
  3. The occupation of the Cathedral and our Basic Declaration are integrally related and we take full responsibility for both because we were following our conscience. We did not repudiate our actions nor did the Cardinal ask us to do so, as the document which he released to the press clearly states.

(Signed)
The Priests Who Occupied the Cathedral

FINAL DECLARATION OF THE FIRST NATIONAL MEETING OF THE YOUNG CHURCH

Meeting under the sign of Christ, Camilo Torres and Che, we Christian revolutionaries of Chile have come together for the First National Meeting of the Young Church. For two days, we have analyzed in the light of the Gospel, the mission that falls to us in this historic moment. At this meeting, as a result of the reflection and experience of these past two years of struggle, we have come to the following fundamental conclusions:

  1. We reiterate the legitimacy of our existence as an organization in view of the fact that the institutional Church in its commitments and hierarchy continues to be tied to the rich and powerful; and the Chilean society maintains the division between oppressors and oppressed, that is, a capitalist system. The Young Church Movement will cease when the whole Church is committed to the people and when the proletariat is fully in power in Chile.
  2. We ratify our complete support of the Government of Popular Unity to the degree that it fulfills with integrity the program that the people supported on September 4, 1970. Our commitment is to the poorest sectors of the people: to the workers, the slum dwellers and the farm laborers who, when in power, are the only guarantee that socialism will be established in Chile.
  3. For us, a socialist society is, simultaneously, worker and farm laborer power in government, in the economy and in the area of culture. But it is also the creation of a New Man, who thinks critically, has brotherly concern for others and. is willing to suffer.
  4. We repudiate the attitude assumed by bourgeois sectors of the Christian Democratic Party who, having been rejected by the people, have laid down conditions that they did not carry out when they were in power. They cannot call themselves Christian, who when in power, repressed, tortured, imprisoned and killed workers, farm laborers, slum dwellers, and students who fought for their rights ….
  5. We offer our solidarity and our total identification with our Christian brothers and sisters and also with those non-believers who fought in the mountains of Bolivia, Colombia, Central America and in the cities of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina …
  6. We call upon all Christians, whereevery [sic] they may be … to prepare actively to defend the triumph of the people, threatened by armed sedition of the right and supported financially and technologically by North American imperialism. We believe it necessary to alert and mobilize the people and to prepare them for the class struggle that necessarily will come. We call on them to participate from their existing local bases in the building up of socialism which is the first step in the creation of a society without oppressors or oppressed.

Today more than ever, we must live out the call and the witness of Camilo Torres and of Che, true examples of the New Man, people who have made a difference for the revolution.

The Duty of Every Christian is to Engage in the Revolution

Santiago, Chile
October 18, 1970