(14th September 2001)
The People"s Cardinal: so runs the name given to this courageous warrior in the fight for human rights, the outstanding prophet of the Church of the Poor, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the former Archbishop of Sao Paolo. His archdiocese numbered some 13 million people, which made it in its time the largest and the most populous diocese in the whole world. In 1989, it was split up. This painful step meant that the poor in the sprawling outer suburbs of the city lost their most important and influential advocate and friend. On September 14th this year Cardinal Arns reaches his eightieth year.
He was born in Forquilinha (Santa Catarina, Brazil) in 1921, the son of German immigrants originally from the Mosel region of Germany. As an 18-year-old, he entered the Franciscan Order in 1939. He was ordained in 1945 and continued his studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris. Later he was appointed Professor for PatricianStudies at the Franciscan Theological College in Petropolis (Brazil), where he also took on the responsibility for the spiritual direction of Franciscan students in formation. Even at this early stage his great love for the poor was a determining factor, bringing as it did a harmonisation between doctrine and life, since a true follower of St Francis of Assisi cannot expound theology with any credibility unless he loves the "favourite children of God", the poor and the humble of this world, with his whole heart and soul. In 1966 he became auxiliary bishop in Sao Paolo and was nominated Archbishop in 1970. In 1973 Pope Paul VI made him a member of the College of Cardinals. His period of office as Archbishop began with a thunderbolt. He sold the Episcopal Palace for a sum equivalent to six million D-Marks and with the proceeds of the sale built social centres in the slum areas of the city.
That was an unmistakable signal that Cardinal Arns was taking at face value the changed stance of the Church which the Latin-American bishops had adopted at the great Bishops" Conference at Medellín in 1968. It was a complete break with the traditional alliance of Church and State in the missionary engagement that had endured ever since the Conquest. What missionaries and prophetic voices in the 16th century had been clamouring for in vain was now a reality: the Church of today stood at the side of the poor, the Church as Advocate for those that have no voice; the Church as Prophet, incorruptible, eager to denounce injustice and to proclaim the way justice, peace and freedom are to be achieved. Cardinal Arns embodies this "new way in and of the Church" in the truest sense of the word. He has his place among the creators of the new orientation of the Church. And in his Archdiocese this was immediately put into effect through truly liberating pastoral commitment. The poor were able to feel that he was standing at their side. They had regained their rightful place in the Church as the Chosen People of God, the People for whom the liberating message of the Gospel was especially intended.
It is in this context that the statement, which he wrote in a contribution for the Mission Centre of the Franciscans in Bonn, can be understood. In Medellín and Puebla, he says, "the Church in Latin America has discovered her Franciscan soul". His intention was not to suggest that the Church was being taken over and occupied by the Franciscans, as if they had been granted a dominant role in this process. It is truer to say that, for him, the liberating message of the Gospel can not be convincingly brought to the poor unless the bringers of the Gospel are themselves friends of the poor, who form the vast majority of the people of Latin America. Francis is, as always, the model. He did not discover his true vocation within the Church until he took the irrevocable step of abandoning the centres of power in the city, there among the rich, to move to the outskirts where the destitute and the lepers were living. Only when one has thought through, long and deeply, the concrete experience of the poor can one live in and with such a faith, so Arns. From this he derives his unconditional commitment to a theology of liberation, which he does not perceive, in the first place, as theoretical doctrine but as an attitude of mind that is both personal and obligatory. For someone who claims to be a true Christian this is unavoidable: one must be a liberator, one must liberate!
This is the underlying conviction that shaped Cardinal Arns" pastoral work as bishop. Thus it was that he became a great defender of human rights, who was feared by those in power but loved and venerated by the voiceless and oppressed masses. The popular movements where people assert their rights and achieve them had in the person of the Cardinal their truest friend and supporter. Moreover, the same can also be said of the enlightened educated classes. He has always had a lifelong association with these and maintains a dialogue with them, encouraging them to use their talents and gifts to bring about a more humane world. As an author himself he has always been able to give them the feeling that he belongs to them: "he is one of us".
It can not be denied that as a consequence of his uncompromising understanding of his high office the Cardinal would not be able to escape harsh criticism, envy and threats from the rich and those in positions of power; even from within the Church itself there were campaigns of intrigue and deliberate misrepresentation. Above all, he was pilloried on account of his unshakeable support for the exponents of Liberation Theology, for his conviction that there was no other possible or workable alternative to a liberating evangelisation, faced with the overwhelming misery in which the Latin-American peoples found themselves. The mistrust of the Roman Curia has cut him to the quick. He was deeply hurt by the 1989 division of his Archdiocese into five separate dioceses, which was made without prior consultation or notice. A successful and unique model for pastoral care in a mega-metropolis was annihilated. He has never sought to conceal his disappointment and has criticised this decision of Rome as a great mistake.
But this was unable to shake his deeply rooted faith. "From Hope to Hope": this is his motto. The poor gave him the assurance that he was in the right. He is, in this respect, a true follower of his great model, Francis of Assisi. Like him he wants to proclaim the Gospel through his life rather than through his words. This makes him a figure of hope for so many people. He is admired and has been honoured throughout the world, not only by Christians but also by members of other religious faiths, not only by humanitarian organisations but also by institutes and foundations in the world of politics and the sciences. Cardinal Arns has received about 50 honours and awards from all over the world, from the United Nations, from the French Republic, from human rights organisations, from leading universities, all of whom want to acknowledge and recognise his efforts in his battle for Human Rights and for the sheer survival of the poor. This may have been some consolation for him in the face of so many humiliations and, incidentally, may well have embarrassed those over hasty critics as well.
Five years ago, Cardinal Arns resigned, as in duty bound, conscientiously. Yet Cardinal Arns has not relaxed his active commitment in his "retirement". As ever he is in much demand: he receives invitations to address meetings, participates in the current debate on society, and can be heard every day on the radio in his very own programme. Long may he continue!
We Franciscans, and especially those of us who work in the Mission Centre of the Franciscans, we who know and admire his love of and loyalty to the Church and to the poor, we rejoice and are proud to have him as a Brother, who has been such an honour to the Order. We hope and trust that he may long remain among us.