New Internationalist

Hunt The Bishop

Issue 174

new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987

Bishop Carlos Camus at a confirmation in a village chapel. The Chilean Church combines religious faith with social commitment.
Photo: Peter Stalker
Hunt the bishop
The Catholic Church has been one of the strongest
defenders of human rights in Chile. And Carlos Camus,
Bishop of Linares, has always placed himself in the front line.
But like all activists he can be a difficult man to catch up with.

The woman in the seat in front of me is young and attractive. And she keeps giving me curious glances. Eventually she turns round.

'Surely we've met. Aren't you one of Hector Carrera's sons?'

'I'm afraid not. Just a visitor.'

'Oh I'm sorry,' she laughs. Then after a couple of minutes' silence: 'How strange. Why are you on this bus?'

'Looking for the Bishop. They told me he had gone to Palmilla. I saw you were going that way so I jumped aboard.'

I caught the bus in Linares, a city some 500 kilometres south of Santiago. And I had gone there looking for the local bishop, Carlos Camus, one of Chile's most controversial clergymen and a fierce critic of the Government. I'd like to meet him but I have arrived unannounced and with only a day to spare; hence the frantic search.

'Yes, I think he's giving confirmations in Palmilla,' she says. Then after a moment's hesitation she adds: 'Do you mind if I sit next to you?'

'Not at all.'

I learn now that she lives in the village beyond Palmilla and has been visiting 'people who have no relatives'. She's an infant school teacher, looks about 30, is unmarried and lives in a house on her own.

'Who'd have thought that I'd be talking to someone from the other side of the world on the bus this morning?'

Who indeed? But we are getting close to Palmilla, so the welcome may be at an end. Or maybe not.

'Someone as handsome as you,' she says softly, 'must have a very beautiful name.'

'What? Er... well, yes, Peter, actually, And yours?'

'Gabriela. Do you like it?'

'Yes, very nice...'

There's a terrible moment of decision coming up as the bus reaches the centre of Palmilla. To get off or not. The Bishop or the schoolteacher, the sacred or the profane.

I make the wrong decision. Having climbed down from the bus to a long, lingering look from Gabriela I discover that the Bishop has already left Palmilla and is probably already back in Linares.

He's a hard man to track down and it is late afternoon when I do finally find him. He's just setting off for another confirmation ceremony in another village. This time, however, he invites me to come along. He tells the young carabineros on duty at his front door where we are going; then we are on our way.

I'm not sure what a radical bishop is supposed to look like. But this isn't it. Carlos Camus is a tall portly figure in a grey business suit. With his metallic briefcase and Opel Rekord saloon he has more of the air of a theatrical impresario or a newspaper magnate.

Until he opens his mouth, that is. In short, precise sentences he talks about the Church and the Government; about how the clergy acquired their oppositional role.

'Social justice has been one of the principal concerns of the Church in Chile. Some years ago, thanks to some visionary bishops and priests, we took the "option for the poor". The priests and the nuns went to the poorest areas and we moved the schools there too.'

After the coup the Church which had identified itself with the poor found itself firmly in the opposition camp.

'People who live close to the poor,' says Carlos Camus, 'have to defend them. And this has been difficult in a dictatorship - particularly with respect to human rights, for it is the poor that suffer most. The Church has had to become the voice of those who have no voice, the defender of the oppressed.'

That was certainly the case under Chile's previous Cardinal Raul Silva. But he retired in 1983 to be replaced by the more placatory figure of Juan Francisco Fresno. Since then the Chilean Church seems to be less combative, with the bishops now evenly divided between conservatives and progressives.

Having now reached our destination we are also due for a change of style - sartorial at least. His metal briefcase turns out to contain the full episcopal regalia, from white vestments right up to the pointed mitre, all of which he duly dons for the occasion.

Puente Alto, where the confirmations are to take place, is a village about 20 kilometres north of Linares. It has a small chapel which the priest only visits about once a month. Today the building, which still seems to be under construction, is packed.

Julio, an enthusiastic young guitarist, strums away in the background to a service which is a mixture of the religious and the secular.

'Like the drops of water that make up the sea,' says the Bishop, 'so Christians come together. If you have faith you can conquer the world.' But he also has advice to offer on the construction of the building. 'It should be painted white,' he says, 'to reflect the summer heat. How are you going to raise money for decoration?'

'A raffle,' they reply, 'for a pig.' A young girl sells me a ticket on the spot, though I never did find out if I won.

After the service all the participants line up for pictures with the Bishop. Then we are all invited back to supper at the house of Atractiva de la Carmen, mother of one of the girls who has been confirmed. A long trestle table is supplied with an endless flow of empanadas washed down with a fruit punch. Attending hundreds of confirmations each year, I can see why the Bishop might have a weight problem.

He must, however, burn a lot of the empanadas off with the energy needed to fuel his wide range of extra-religious activities. The Church at Linares has become a development driving force for campesino farmers. Projects include everything from offering credit and hybrid seeds to training in cattle-rearing or bee-keeping.

'This,' he says, 'is an economic system which favours the wealthy. The rich have got richer and the poor poorer. Take the latest boom crop - apples. Richer farmers have been buying up land from poor people who can't make a living. Then they plant trees which take 10 to 15 years to grow. Only the people with capital can wait that long for the profit. Then you need the skill and the contacts to organize the exports.

'Fruit picking does offer labouring work. But only for about six months in the year. During the season young people are tempted to drop out of school to earn what they can. They have no stability and that's where a lot of the violence comes from - from those who have nothing to hope for.'

With all his development projects, many of them financed through Church agencies like CAFOD in the UK and Development and Peace in Canada, he is doing what he believes the Church has to do.

'If we don't unite faith with concrete works of justice,' he says, 'we are destroying the message of Christ.'

It's a clear starlit night and the empanadas and the punch are flowing freely. Julio the guitarist has been practising his English on me. He's good on the questions - 'Hello, how are you?' - but a bit puzzled by the answers: I know how he feels.

Eventually he decides that communication might be more direct if it were musical. His songs clearly take up many of the Bishop's own themes.

Children of the poblaciones, sleeping in the street

Begging coins from strangers, so maybe they can eat

Breathing in the glue fumes, to calm their shattered nerves

The words drift plaintively out into the cool evening air. It's a peaceful interlude - pleasant, melancholy, something of a respite from all the conflict and the tension. But these are never far away. Camus himself has recently been the subject of death threats. Driving back to Linares he explained his most recent problems.

'I gave an interview to El Mercurio in which I described this Government as "immensely immoral" - which upset a lot of people. But some of my other words were also twisted to make it seem that I had justified the attempt on the President's life last September.

'But I had clearly said that I was against violence. I said that I understood, but did not justify, the attitude of young people who find themselves hemmed in and who respond with violence. Their guilt seemed much less than that of the torturers who killed defenceless prisoners. But everything was twisted and exaggerated.'

'I received the kind of death threats you always get before an assassination. They said I would be "seeing St Peter very soon". We don't know whether they came from a group of fanatics or from higher up, from one of the security organizations that specializes in assassinations. Anyway, I asked for protection so now I have two carabineros permanently outside the front door. In fact we get on very well with the local carabineros - they are helpful and friendly, much more so than the military.'

He's certainly got enough protection when I see him the next day. He's on a platform in the main plaza in front of the cathedral, sitting alongside other local dignitaries, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the carabineros.

'It is happening right outside my front door, so I can hardly refuse,' he explains.

Apart from the military and the carabineros themselves the march-past includes everything from boy scouts to volunteer traffic wardens - all with due ceremony, trumpets blowing and flags waving. The Bishop would have been a lot easier to hunt down today than yesterday.

But the location isn't quite right; hardly his natural habitat. This seems like a good time to leave.

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