Oct 19, 2021 Last Updated 7:03 AM, Oct 19, 2021

The World Social Forum and our Catholic faith

Categoria: Missione Oggi
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{mosimage}When Shelagh-Mary phoned me to speak on the WSF, I was hesitant, as I have never been to the WSF before, nor have I been following developments with surrounding this forum either? As Dominican friars in South Africa, we have never sent one of our brothers to this gathering. What I intend to share with you this morning is what we as Dominican friars in South Africa have been considering as to why we want to send some brothers to this next World Social Forum meeting in Nairobi next year. I apologise that this reflection is chauvinistically Dominican but I share our experience and I hope that this might correspond with some of your own reflections and experience too.
At our Annual Assembly that we Dominican friars held at La Verna in February earlier this year, we revisited our commitment to justice and peace, made back in 1983, in the hey-day of the anti-apartheid struggle. At this meeting we recognised the need to recommit ourselves to justice and peace.

In the Acts of our chapter we recognised that we had a profile in the 1980s of being involved in issues of social justice due to the commitment of some brothers. Even those who were not directly involved in justice and peace commissions were expected to promote justice and peace in the parishes, in their writings, in whatever ministry they found themselves. There was this all-pervading awareness of the critical importance of working for a better world, a more just world and a more loving world. At the time, I was just entering the Order many of us were attracted to the Order because we felt we were joining a religious community that could make a difference in the world.

Recognising now that our contributions are always limited and not as far-reaching as we may hope or anticipate, nevertheless, the drive and the motivation for being socially aware and conscientising others was in the forefront of most of our minds at the time.

 At our chapter in 2004 we identified that what we, Dominican friars in South Africa have lost, is this general social consciousness a sense of urgency for social justice issues. There are many reasons for this but I don't think this is the place to explore them. Just to say that this forms something of the backdrop as to why we are considering sending some of our brothers to the World Social Forum meeting in Nairobi next year. Extending Joan Chittester's image a little further, we can say that we are hoping to blow on the ashes of our commitment to justice and peace in order that the fire in the ashes that we can re-enkindle the fire for justice and peace among ourselves again. There is a need to re-establish the concern for social justice as a central element of our identity as Dominicans. This is a challenge for all Catholics.

At our last General Chapter in Cracow in 2004, our International Commission for Justice and Peace was commissioned to attend the World Social Forum but we in South Africa feel a need to be represented ourselves too.

What does the WSF have to say to us Catholics?

This brings me to the title of the talk "What can we Catholics learn from the WSF?" As Dominican friars we are sending our brothers firstly, to learn. Most of us have not really been keeping abreast with developments concerning the issues of globalisation, ecological sustainability, trafficking of women and children, neo-liberal economic policies, trade relations between nations, poverty and crime. Some brothers are running projects with abandoned children and Aids orphans where they have met with the challenges of poverty alleviation, unemployment, the lack of skills training and other related issues. Each one has attempted to respond in their own particular way but the benefit of the World Social Forum is that while it is a forum for sharing one's own experience it is also a place in which to learn from what others are doing and saying across the globe. In this sense, the World Social Forum broadens horizons.

One of our previous Masters of the Order, Timothy Radcliffe, always speaks about the importance of going where the debates are. This is what we hope to do. As Catholics we have a contribution to make and this is the focus of the second half of the title of today's talk but we go primarily I would say to learn what others are doing and saying.

At this point, let me say that I recognise too that not all of us can go to the WSF. This does not stop us from informing ourselves about the issues and debates. Hopefully, there will be a report back and a sharing of information from those who did attend the Forum.

Before Vatican II we as church thought that we had the answers to the world's problems. Catholic Action groups were established to ensure that people realised the truth of the Catholic answers to social issues. Catholic trade unions, Catholic political parties, Catholic employer associations and other Catholic organisations were established to present the Catholic solution. Since Vatican II we have realised that we don't have all the answers, we need to search together with other people.

This brings me to another aspect of what we can learn from WSF - the importance of searching together. In the days when Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister of the Conservative Party in Britain she used to advocate to the TINA principle that "there is no alternative" to neo-liberal economic policies. The collapse of communism in the world has strengthened the view in many people's minds that there is no alternative to what the dominant socio-economic and political doctrines of present capitalist world today. The World Social Forum emphasises that another world is possible. It is a place where people can share ideas about these alternatives. The World Social Forum includes many people and movements from across the world seeking a more just and peaceful world. As Catholics we need to express our solidarity with other like-minded people by affirming that we too believe that "another world is possible". We need to express our common resolve to search for alternatives. We don't stand alone but together.

As Church we need to attend the WSF to affirm that we too want a more just and peaceful world and we are willing to work and search together with other like-minded people.

What do we have to say to the WSF?

This brings to me to the other half of the talk - what do we have to say to the WSF? We need to speak from our own experience. As Catholics we have a long tradition of involvement in issues of justice and peace. Many of us are involved in work among the poor; those infected and affected with HIV/Aids, trafficking in women and children, refugees, orphans and innumerable other projects we have a lot of experience to share too.

Our experience is not only recent, we have a history of reflecting on social issues and challenges encapsulated in our social teaching. Integral to our Catholic perspective on social issues is to keep a balance between concern for the dignity of the human person, from cradle to the grave, and the common good. Poverty is both a social sin and an affront to personal dignity. Both perspectives are important, our personalist approach in which all human life is sacred and a gift from God means that we don't just opt for easy or convenient answers to the world's social problems - be this abortion, HIV/Aids or the death penalty. Life is sacred and needs to be safeguarded.

{mosimage} But we also have concern for the common good and not just personal freedoms. A human rights' culture that is prevalent in many liberal democracies can eventually erode the morals and values of a society. In the Catholic tradition, personal freedoms are always held in check by a healthy concern for the common good of all in society. In a global world it is becoming increasingly important to reflect on the global common good rather than just the individual interests of particular nation states or unions of states. There is a need for recognising our interdependence and the solidarity between nations and not just between individuals. Pope John Paul II often referred to this as the virtue of solidarity.

Prior to the WSF many groups will be meeting - as far as I know the Jesuits have been doing this for a number of years already, and we Dominicans will be meeting too. At the Dominican gathering they hope to deepen common reflection on burning issues like war and violence, globalisation, meeting with other Dominicans and sharing ideas and expectations on our Dominican participation at that WSF. This meeting is an opportunity to find our voice and to speak with a similar voice. I hesitate to say one voice because where you have three Dominicans together you have five opinions.

Another vital pre-WSF meeting is the World Forum on Theology and Liberation. This Forum on Theology and Liberation met before the last WSF in Porto Alegre and will meet again from 16 -19 January in Nairobi. At this meeting Christians committed to the cause of liberation will meet to also share experiences, evaluate theologies of liberation and promote dialogue with the proposals and debates of the WSF. The theme of this gathering will be "Spirituality for another possible World". Participants will debate spirituality as a search for meaning and openness to transcendence. It is important that we live the faith we profess by living a spirituality of justice and peace.

With the involvement of so many different Church voices at the WSF that people at the forum will recognise the Church and churches as a vital component in the search for a more just and loving world. John's Gospel (3:17) reminds us: "For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved". So we as Church need to involve ourselves in the debates and concerns for another possible world so that we are recognised as fellow companions on the journey and bearers of hope thus hopefully fulfilling our prophetic task alongside others in our world.

Fr Mark James, OP is the Provincial Superior of the Dominicans in South Africa


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