A profile in yesterday’s New York Times reminded me why I chose a life in the church. It focused on Tim Kaine’s time as a lay missionary in Honduras in 1980, and how that experience has shaped his life and politics. Tim Kaine, in case you didn’t know, is the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States, and is currently a senator for Virginia.
From an Irish Catholic background, Kaine attended a Jesuit-run high school. After graduating from college with a degree in law, he decided to do voluntary missionary work with the Jesuits in Honduras before deciding what to do with his life.
Central America was a dangerous place in the late 1970s and 80s. Violence and civil war in El Salvador and Nicaragua had spread into neighboring countries. In Honduras, the American backed right-wing dictatorship was at war with Marxists and anyone else who opposed it. Many priests and religious who were considered sympathetic to the insurgents were also targeted by the regime. In 1980, the year Kaine arrived in Central America, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador and later that year three American nuns and a young American aid worker, Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by El Salvadoran military. To be a foreigner in those countries at that time was to put your life at risk.
Kaine recalls some of the Jesuits he met there and their commitment to the poor. He talks too about the influence on him of liberation theology and how he got to meet Jon Sobrino, one of the fathers of liberation theology. He describes a church for and of the poor, a church that placed social justice at the heart of its message.
Of course, liberation theology fell out of favour during the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict, who regarded it with suspicion, and who appointed bishops that would drive it underfoot. But the life and example of people like Jean Donovan was why I wanted to become a priest.
Tim Kaine’s story reminds me of that difficult yet glorious time, and of all Christians who have served the poor and paid the price throughout the world. Thank God, Pope Francis has placed a new emphasis on the church’s social teaching, a teaching that challenges all Catholics, no matter who and where we are.