Global Perspective

October 27, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 26

Ana Flora
Ana Flora, a professor of New Testament, has been teaching in Brazil for over 40 years and teaching seminarians for 33 years.



Teaching scripture all of a sudden became a dangerous occupation.

Forty years of theology in Latin America

By Ana Flora

Editor's Note: This is the third of a new series of articles on Global Perspective, Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories. Join us for the next three weeks as we hear women describe their experiences of doing theology in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

São Paulo, Brazil -- When I received the invitation to write about being a woman and a theologian in Latin America I had to ask myself: why are you a theologian? First of all I majored in history at St. John's University in New York City and then in linguistics as the basis of culture at the University of Michigan. I won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of São Paulo to do research in Brazilian history. So how did I end up being a theologian?

At St. John's even history majors had four years of theology based on neo-Thomism. I hated it and complained often to the dean of the university school, Fr. José Pando. He encouraged me to spend a year after graduation at Grailville Community College, at the time affiliated with the Catholic University of America. I did so and had the joy of meeting Jacques Maritain, Louis Bouyer and George Tavard among others. It was a wonderful year and I had the revelation that I could adore a personal God who was not simply first cause uncaused!

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I arrived in Brazil in 1959 when Catholic Action was at its height and all young Brazilian Christians, Catholic and Protestant, sincerely believed that they could transform the country into a paradise of fraternity, equality and total participation. Many Dominicans were priest-assistants to JUC, the movement of University students. The head of their theology department said that i was wasting my time with the history of Brazil, that it was obvious to all who knew me that I had a vocation for theology! He invited me to study at the Dominicans, to do graduate work and then to teach with them in Brasília, the country's capital. It was to be the only federal university in Latin America with a school of theology.

Before I could get lost again in a philosophic God, Fr. Gilberto Gorgulho returned from Jerusalem and Rome and started to teach scripture. He was a great believer in the fact that you learn more teaching than just studying. So every invitation that he received he sent me off to teach to all sorts of groups, lay and religious. At that time women could not study together with seminarians, so the Canonesses of St. Augustine started a school of theology called Mater Christi where I taught New Testament. There were also institutes in religious education and liturgy where scripture was very important. In the midst of all this we had a military take over, most of the active members of Catholic Action were jailed and tortured. Teaching scripture all of a sudden became a dangerous occupation.

One of the young Dominican students, Frei Betto, was jailed at that time. His father was a military judge and went to visit him in the prison in São Paulo. The official who ran the prison showed Betto's Bible to his father. Many passages were underlined. The official was furious and Betto's father thought that the man considered the underlined passages messages to the other prisoners. But, no. The official exclaimed: The whole damn book is subversive!

In the midst of all this, Cardinal Agnello Rossi asked Adveniat to give me a scholarship to study at the École Biblique in Jerusalem. I really didn't want to go because I was very happy teaching at the level I was working on at the time. But all these priest-theologians who saw more in me than I could see in myself, deepened my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, only spoke to me in French and practically pushed me onto the plane. I arrived in Jerusalem in time to participate in the Six Day War.

What a wonderful experience to study with Pères de Vaux, Benoit, Boismard, Tournay, Murphy-O'Connor. I will never be able to express my gratitude to them and to the 45 priests from all over the world who were studying there at the same time. My scholarship from Adveniat was intended to cover my expenses when Jerusalem was in Jordan. With the war, we passed over to the standard of living in Israel. I did not have enough money to finish the course. Père de Vaux had just come back from a tour in the United States where he received $500 for each talk [36 years ago!] He told the other Dominicans to give me $500 so that I could finish my studies. The prior, called me and said that this was for my studies but that if ever I needed warm clothes, etc. I should go to him and he would see to any need.

At the end of the course I received one of the most moving compliments of my life. Père Benoit stood up at the farewell dinner and said that it was customary at the École to have a marvelous group of researchers one year and a marvelous community spirit the next. Our year, he said, had an excellent spirit of research and of community. Fr. Murphy-O'Connor thanked me and said that I had thrown my heart into research and into friendship with the same intensity and that my priest-colleagues had followed my lead. This was very important to me because I have always felt that the spirit of competition among theologians (or other ministers) is one of the most harmful anti-witness situations in the Christian community.

Read More
         Learn more about this new series starting on Global Perspective: Journeys in Theology: Women's Stories.
         Part One: Theologians issue call to 'to fulfill the vision of Jesus' and create 'a discipleship of equals.
         Part Two: Women theologians in India are reclaiming space.
         Part Three: Forty years of theology in Latin America.
         Part Four: Eventually everybody adjusted to who I was: My experience as a woman theologian in Africa.
         Part Five: From the option for the poor: A personal journey.
         Part six: Faith seeking empowering understanding.
When I came back to Brazil I had every intention of working with communities and parishes. My problem was how to survive because these groups couldn't pay me. Fr. Gorgulho went to Cardinal Rossi and asked him if he would nominate me to teach at the Major Seminary for the State of São Paulo, where I would at least receive a stipend.

This case requires me to go back in history. When Cardinal Rossi was Bishop Rossi of the Diocese of Barra do Piraí (1956-1962), he represented the bishops' conference in the field of religious education. There was to be a meeting of bishops from every country in the Americas to discuss religious education in New York. The bishop had never been to the United States, hardly spoke English, and wasn't well know enough for U.S. bishops to offer to pick him up at the airport. A priest friend phoned me and asked if my parents didn't live near to the airport [Idlewild at the time] and if they could pick him up and take him to the meeting. Of course they were delighted to do so and the bishop never forgot it.

Cardinal Rossi had always told me that I had studied too much and that if I kept on the people wouldn't understand me any more! But when Fr. Gorgulho asked him to nominate me he answered: Of course I will; she has the nicest parents! So, as far as I know, 35 years ago I was the first woman theologian to teach in a major seminary in Brazil. The sterling reason: the kindness and the hospitality of my folks!

I also had to be voted for by the other professors. Only one -- a Polish priest -- voted against me. He argued that women should stick to religious education.

Soon afterward, a Catholic publisher wanted to edit the Jerusalem Bible in Portuguese. Père Benoit said that the École would accept if Fr. Gorgulho and I were the editors because we had been his students. It took 10 years and was one of the most important projects that I ever worked on. Dr. William Farmer invited me to be part of the project of an international Catholic commentary from the University of Dallas. I have also collaborated on 20 books on Scripture together with Fr. Gorgulho.

When Cardinal Arns was auxiliary bishop in the northern part of São Paulo, he invited Fr. Gorgulho and me to help in the formation of the ministers of the word. Pope Paul VI had asked the bishops to go beyond eucharistic ministers and find other fields where lay people could contribute to the church. One of these fields was evangelization. We invented encounters where there was a snowball effect. We helped groups of lay people train others on the level of the archdiocese. Those trained on that level did the same on the level of the episcopal regions, then this group trained others in the sectors (groupings of five to 10 parishes), and this last group trained people on their own streets. This led to the beginning of hundreds of Basic Christian Communities. In 15 years of these training programs, we reached over 5,000 ministers of the word.

These ministers together with those of the Eucharist, health, justice and peace, and the sacraments met every two years in assemblies to choose the four priorities the archdiocese would concentrate on in the next two years. At that time, no other large archdiocese had so much direct participation in the concrete running of the church.

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Has everything been wonderful in my path as a woman-theologian? No. Envious priest-professors have called me sapatão (heavy shoe, or lesbian), in front of my students. Bishops, envious of the pastoral work we did with Cardinal Arns complained to Rome and did everything to have us expelled from the theological institute that replaced the major seminary. Cardinal Arns sent all our books and articles to be studied in Rome to see if there were any heresies. The congregation said there were not but he could expel us for our pastoral work. The cardinal said that since we worked with him on the pastoral level he would have to resign himself. In the end they gave him one more semester to expel us.

I was coordinator of the masters' program in scripture, and we weren't expelled from there, but priests who had been our students in the past cold-shouldered us out.

As I reflect, it doesn't seem to me that any of this has to do necessarily with being a woman-theologian. It has more to do with liberation theology and jealousy.

I would like to end with another story. The first meeting of liberation theologians was in Spain, because most of the participants felt that such a meeting could not be held in Latin America at that time. Fr. Comblin went and as he went through Rome he invited a young Dominican to go with him. This student, Domingos, wrote to us saying that the meeting was wonderful. "They didn't even act like theologians," he said. If one spoke of a project he was working on, all the others told him of material they had that he could use. We in Brazil were enchanted. Theologians who were sure enough of themselves and Christian enough not to have to diminish their colleagues.

Back in Brazil, these same theologians began to prepare a team to go to Puebla to help the bishops who were more involved in pastoral work. They did not want Comblin to go. He went by special invitation from Cardinal Arns. His gifts are so plentiful that few theologians can work beside him and not feel diminished. Instead of thanking the Holy Spirit that there is one in our midst who stands out, the majority pout.

Next week, Bertha Nwazi Nyirenda writes from Lusaka, Zambia, that when she worked on her degree, she was the only female student in the department and the only lay person.
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