by Joanna Bogle
At a recent meeting of Britain’s National Board of Catholic Women, we had a talk from a representative for CAFOD, an agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The initials of CAFOD stand for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. The lady spoke about gold mining and the jewelry trade, citing in particular two places -- Honduras and the Congo -- where she said gold mining companies were damaging the local environment, and exploiting local resources without due regard for the needs and concerns of the people who lived there.
She seemed to me to be making a good case. But I am always rather wary of groups that denounce profits and “big business” and “international finance” -- there is a danger that they build up caricature images of Shylock-type figures amassing greedy profits at the expense of the poor, and thus engage the audience in a sense of indignation, without actually fostering any dimension of practical Christian concern but merely fostering a vague sense of distrust and grievance.
However, there are assuredly some things we can all do to help people in the gold-mining areas of the world to have a better life, and my interest was stirred. When I looked at the mining companies’ web sites, it seemed to me that they were at least aware of an obligation to help those whose labor they were using: schools and various welfare projects seem to be part of the deal in some areas, and the wages earned by the miners must presumably be crucial to the local economy.
I was frankly less confident about CAFOD’s campaign. We were all invited to write a message on a strip of gold paper and these were gathered together to form a chain that was placed under the table for Mass. Will this really do anything to help people in Congo? We were also asked to challenge local jewelry shops about where they got their gold. Is this the best way forward?
CAFOD has produced a “Campaign Service”. It begins with some formal words by a “leader”: “In this service we bring before God our concern for those adversely affected by unjust mining practices….”
The service then goes on to follow the general format for the first part of a Mass: hymn, act of penitence, reading, Creed. There is, however, only one passing mention of Jesus Christ. There is no Sign of the Cross at the start of proceedings. The Creed is said to be “Adapted from Affirmation of Faith of the Pacific Women’s consultation on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation”, and runs thus:
We believe that creation
Is a gift of God,
An expression of our creator’s goodness.
We believe that we are a part
Of this creation,
Called to be good stewards
Of God’s earth.
We believe that the resources of our land…
… and a lot more in the same vein.
Is any young Catholic, forced to listen to this, going to take the Church seriously or hear the voice of Christ? And the hymn is even sillier -- claiming to be “from Nicaraguan oral tradition” it seems to say -- in so far as it says anything at all -- that God and His angels aren’t of much use and that our real task is purely one of practical political action: “The angels cannot change/a world of hurt and pain/into a world of love/of justice and of peace./The task is mine to do/to set it really free. Oh, help me to obey; help me to do your will.”
The “Campaign Prayer”, with which the thing closes, asks God to “Save us from the desire to control what is not ours, and the impulse to possess what is there to share.”
And this is precisely the point. The liturgy of the Church is not ours. To twist it to our own purposes is wrong. It’s not clear whether CAFOD wants this “Campaign Service” to be used as a format for Mass, but that is the style in which it has been designed. The team that produced it is very clearly trying to possess what is really given to be shared -- the liturgy of the Church and the act of common worship. The idea here seems to be to turn it into a series of political slogans.
If we think about people working in the harsh and difficult work of gold mining, in heat and dirt and facing real physical danger because of the nature of the task, we naturally want to express some sense of solidarity and sympathy. But the Catholic tradition is to understand that the light of Christ, and the beauty of the Church’s moral and social teachings, can be brought to bear everywhere -- so that all sorts of grim situations can be improved.
We can think of Father Damien among the lepers of Molokai and Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta. There is plenty of work to be done among the miners of grimly impoverished Congo. But it seems most unlikely that much will be achieved by singing songs from Nicaragua that merely distance us all from authentic Catholic tradition, and inventing a new version of the Creed that omits Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.
As it happens, I am involved with another major international Catholic charity -- not CAFOD -- through which vitally necessary educational materials are provided to, among other places, Congo. Books in Swahili, Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba and French (the official language) are now being provided, thanks to the generosity of Catholics in richer nations who simply responded to appeals in their churches and schools. The books, which teach the Faith as well as being a literacy resource, are being distributed by the Divine Word Missionaries and will, for many of the children they reach, be a most cherished and valued possession, treated with care and respect in a way unimaginable by youngsters in our well-stocked European classrooms.
Africa’s problems are huge -- poor government, corruption, and war are added to the everyday practical problems of drought, heat, and distance. Missionaries brought the Faith to sub-Saharan Africa in the 19th century and with it education, medical skills, and provision for the poor and suffering -- it is the Church’s task to build on this, and it is something in which every Catholic can share. There are no real short-cuts, and although political and social action has its place, it is unfair to pretend that the problems of Congo, or any other African territory, are to be overcome by lobbying and social awareness.
Back at the meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women, a photographer was all ready to take a publicity picture of the gold mining campaign. On the golden paper I was given by the CAFOD speaker, I wrote “Cut African corruption” and was later confirmed in my stance when I read on CAFOD’s website that “much of the wealth from the mines is smuggled out of the country” and the rest tends to go to “army, militia, and other elites”. I do want to be part of the campaign to change this.
CAFOD says we should ask that Anglo-Gold Ashanti Ltd. shares information with local people, reveals its financial dealings, and develops a “sustainable program for working with artisanal miners”. But this does not commit any of us to helping the miners ourselves. If young Catholics in Britain are being urged to campaign at their local jewelers’ shops, will life for most Congolese actually get better?
And, assuming that schools, hospitals, and care for the poor will still be needed and that Christ’s call to serve the poor will still apply -- will the dreary liturgy I have just described, with its complete absence of any reference to Jesus Christ as the center of all human history, dying for us all on the Cross, feeding our souls with His Sacraments, calling us to a life of grace, inspire people here in Britain to help?
The Church is -- or should be -- something utterly inspiring, thrilling in its call, confident in its transforming power, God’s love in action. It really won’t work to reduce it to a series of platitudes set out in vaguely political language.
Campaigning about mining -- or any other harsh and difficult work where workers need support and help -- is not without value, and the Church’s social teaching is as important in Africa as anywhere else. But spreading the Gospel is at the core of our Faith, and if we want to obey Christ’s command and take His message to the nations, care for one another, live generously, and deserve a final reward with Him, we have to offer Him something a lot better than a “Campaign Service” by way of worship, and lift our own hearts with something a lot more godly than a slogan-style Creed which says “there is a rhythm to god’s creation/when we ignore the beat/we damage the earth”. And, for goodness’ sake, liturgy must mean more than placing “a gold paper link on the altar to form a chain -- a symbol of oppression” and lighting a candle as “a symbol of hope”.
Although the collapse of Communism meant the death of a certain type of Liberation Theology, its dreary slogans live on -- and undermine efforts for social justice that could be inspired by a larger and more thrilling vision, which might then actually result in some practical good. Real corruption and injustice in Africa demands real and spiritually inspired action. Our Faith is capable of bringing about great changes, of being the breaking-point of the great waves of history. Africa needs just this in its most desperate places. It probably doesn’t need paper chains with slogans, and it most certainly doesn’t need smug bogus liturgies designed to reduce prayer to clichés.
I hope very much that at some future meeting of the National Board of Catholic Women, we could have a speaker who tells us about some good work actually being done in the Congo among the poor, work that we can actually support with our sacrifices and funds, with our prayers, and with a sense of solidarity. The miners of Honduras and Congo -- yes and their employers too -- are our concern, because their welfare is not something we can sideline into a politicized quasi-liturgy, but is a real human need that requires a whole-hearted Christian response.
The message of Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est is of profound importance there: what is needed, by the poor and also by the rich too, is love. Translated into practical action, this love has the capacity to change things that seem unchangeable, and to make present in the lives of the suffering the love of Christ Himself.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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