Photo by J.W.T
For I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; Naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison and you came unto me.” Matthew 25: 35-36
Exactly as in politics and the city at large, the Catholic Church contains a broad spectrum of thought, ranging from conservative to progressive. During Francisco Franco’s rule, the Church was one of the principal pillars of the dictatorship with far-reaching influence on the running of the country, and the conservative wing was in full ecclesiastical control. But even before Franco died, a progressive wing of the Church was emerging. In March 1966, more than a hundred priests and monks marched to police headquarters on Via Laietana, protesting the mistreatment of an arrested university student; as a result of their demonstration, they were charged by the police and beaten.
When Franco died, the Church’s grip on power was lost, as was the absolute internal control of the Church by its conservative wing. In the early post-Franco years, many young Spaniards joined ‘base groups’ of believers who lived together in communal arrangements, and tried to serve others. Among the priesthood were curas obreros (worker priests), ordained men who declined to base their lives in a church, but instead went out and held normal jobs, while also following their vocation.
Other priests chose to go to the poorest, more marginalised neighbourhoods. They were ‘curas de la calle’ (literally street priests) who saw their work as being on the streets rather than waiting in church for people to seek them out. One of Barcelona’s most famous curas de la calle is Manel Pousa, better known as Pare Manel. He is a motorcycle-riding parish priest in Trinitat Vella, and has frequently appeared in the Catalan media. Every June, some of Catalunya’s best-known entertainers, such as the comedy trio Tricicle and musician Joan Manuel Serrat, stage a benefit evening for the Fundació Pare Manel, which works with poor children and prisoners from the Nou Barris neighbourhood, trying to increase their opportunities for successful lives.
In March this year, however, Pare Manel’s name was in all the media for a very different reason. Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, archbishop of Barcelona, announced on March 16th that he had opened an investigation into the fact that Pare Manel had paid for two abortions, saying that the process could lead to the priest’s excommunication. In fact, canonical law calls for automatic excommunication for anyone who collaborates in an abortion. While the incident happened five years ago, it was revisited this year with the publication of a biography of the priest, Pare Manel. Més a prop de la terra que del cel (Pare Manel. Closer to Earth than to Heaven).
“We paid for two girls to have abortions who were ready to have amateur abortions at someone’s home,” Pare Manel readily admitted to Metropolitan. The two girls, 13 and 15 years old, were regulars at the day centre run by the Fundació Pare Manel for children and youth in the Roquetes neighbourhood, and Pare Manel had known them for years.
However, Pare Manel holds no rancour against the archbishop. “You have to understand why this was done. It was because of the fundamentalist sectors in the Catholic Church, and because, whenever they can, they attack our archbishop. They denounced me to the Vatican and asked how a priest in the archbishop’s diocese could do this. To defend himself, he [the archbishop] began the process of investigating if what I had done deserved excommunication.”
A month later, the archbishop announced that it did not. “It was decided not to excommunicate me. What we did was to avoid a greater harm, by stopping these girls going to a person and having an abortion in that person’s house. Their pregnancies were secrets from the little family they had. There’s a time limit when you can get a legal abortion and we didn’t have much time. They didn’t have any money so we paid for them to go to a clinic.
“They’re girls we’ve known for a long time at the Fundació, and we still have an educator working with them. We do a lot of work with adolescents.”
In addition to its work with young people, the Fundació concentrates much of its efforts on prisoners. First, it works with youngsters to try and keep them out of crime, and if that doesn’t work, they try to prepare them in prison for changing their lives when they are released. Pare Manel does his priestly liturgical and sacramental work—such as holding mass, hearing confession and conducting funerals—but he is particularly dedicated, he said, to his social action work.
“I try to connect with the people in this neighbourhood, where there are certain marginal aspects. People in a world where they are not only poor, but where they commit crimes to survive. Robberies, drug trafficking, selling stolen goods, all kinds of crime. In this world, we try to first invest time in children and youngsters to avoid them winding up in jail. This is prevention. For youngsters growing up in marginal neighbourhoods in high-risk situations due to the economic crisis...it’s relatively easy to fall into crime in order to live in our consumer society, or to feed a drug habit. We try to be there for these kids and youngsters.
“The other part of our work is inside prison. We try to collaborate with jails and prisons so that a stay in prison is not only punishment but also has an educational part. Since Franco’s time there has been a large improvement in the conditions of incarceration here. The thing that worries us now is what happens when someone is released. Many people have lost their families or don’t have one, and leave prison without anything or anyone. This is where I think we have to dedicate more effort.”
Working with people in and out of prison has only served to deepen Pare Manel’s conviction that all people and all faiths are equally deserving of respect. “There is a lot of fear in the Catholic church about opening up to other faiths, and many in the Church feel their God is the only God. But the whole world doesn’t have to be Christian: all religions and all spiritual beliefs can bring someone to this transcendence, whether we call it God or not.
“Christians will be very much a minority in Barcelona in the future. I believe that we have to participate in the life of the neighbourhood, working to improve life as the neighbourhood associations, NGOs and sports clubs do. The Christian community doesn’t have a unique mission in the community. Its religious life is one part of our life, but for us faith is a road to liberty and maturity. Having faith cannot be allowed to isolate you from the responsibility of being a good citizen.”
MORE INFO: EXCOMMUNICATION
This is a punishment utilised by religions to exclude members from the community for a variety of offences. Although it is most commonly associated with Catholicism, the concept does exist in Judaism (herem or cherem) and Buddhist monks can be subject to similar penalties, while some other branches of Christianity have the facility to excommunicate members.
In Catholicism, excommunication (which comes from the Latin ex meaning out and communis, meaning common to all) is a ‘medicinal penalty’, which means that anyone subjected to it is encouraged to repent, correct the error committed and return to the fold. When someone has been excommunicated in the Catholic church, they can’t receive the Eucharist and other sacraments (such as the last rites). They do, however, remain a Catholic; so, they are still obliged to attend mass but can’t take an active part in it, for example by doing readings.
There are two types of excommunication in Catholicism: automatic or latae sententiae (which Pere Manel was threatened with), which is determined by canon law and is applied as soon as the offence is committed; and ferendae sententiae, which is passed down by a senior member of the church or an ecclesiastical court. Well-known people who have been subject to ferendae sententiae in the past include Fidel Castro, Juan Perón and Napoleon Bonaparte.
In terms of abortion, any Catholic who “obstinately denies that abortion is always gravely immoral”, thereby commits the sin of heresy (obstinate denial of any truth of the Catholic faith) and incurs an automatic sentence of excommunication. Canon law also dictates that anyone who procures an abortion (an act that is deemed a mortal sin) incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.