“If I had five sons and one of them was an idiot, he could become a priest.” This was the reaction of Blase Bonpane’s father to the news that he had decided to join Maryknoll and become a priest. But Blase persisted, was ordained a Maryknoll priest and eventually served in Guatemala for nearly two years—1966-67—turbulent years for Guatemala and for Maryknoll. The “Melville Incident,” told here from Blase Bonpane’s viewpoint as a participant, highlighted U.S. complicity in the Guatemalan government’s repression of dissent through arrests, torture, murder. And it led to his eventual expulsion from Guatemala and dismissal from the order (“At no time have I left the spirit of Maryknoll. I am simply no longer funded by Maryknoll”). These events culminated in his leaving the priesthood—at least officially: “There are no ex-priests,” according to Blase Bonpane. Embracing a traditional theology of the Catholic priesthood, he argues that one is a priest forever, ordained to serve and bring the healing compassion of Christ to a broken world. This vision, outlined in an early chapter, serves as an underlying theme throughout his life, a calling to embrace the work of peace and social justice, to stand with the poor and oppressed.
This fascinating autobiography takes the reader on a tour through the peace and justice struggles of the past sixty years: Central America, Cuba, Vietnam, Chiapas, Iraq, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, civil rights, nuclear weapons, the Sandinistas, liberation theology. All in one way or another have been central to this twentieth century life well-lived. Along the way Bonpane has earned a Ph.D. in Social Science, taught Latin American Studies at several California colleges and universities, been a candidate for Congress (two times), written six books, hosted a radio talk show, led human rights delegations, demonstrated for civil rights, been arrested numerous times, and so on. Colon cancer and kidney cancer slowed him down about a dozen years ago. But this autobiography is testament to the fact that he will not go gently into the good night.
The Maryknoll connection continued when he met Theresa Killeen, a former Maryknoll sister who had worked in Chile. They married on January 1, 1970, and together committed themselves to working for a just society. Theresa’s presence can be felt throughout this book, both as life-long companion and as fellow activist (“I love her more every day and wonder what life would have been like without her....I thank God for Theresa”). Together they began the Office of the Americas in 1983 with a $5000 donation from Martin Sheen. Its initial principal focus was Nicaragua and the struggle of the Sandinistas against the Contra forces financed by the U.S. government. (It continues today as an important center and voice for peace and justice action.) From 1979 to 1990 the Nicaraguan Revolution was also a major focus of their lives as they lobbied Congress, led regular delegations to Nicaragua, wrote articles and spoke out in many ways against the policies of the Reagan administration in Central America.
One significant action in this regard was the International March for Peace in Central America during December and January 1985-86. Blase Bonpane led the U.S. delegation of this peace march from Panama City to Mexico City as an effort to support the Contadora peace process seeking a negotiated peace to the wars in Central America—specifically Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The march involved over four hundred people from thirty different countries, representatives of the international peace community, traveling through a dangerous region rife with violence. Bonpane’s discussion of the experience holds a central place in this autobiography, as it certainly does in his own life story, narrating both the external conflicts with governments and militarized right-wing groups and the internal conflicts among the participants themselves over policies and procedures. It was a practice of accompaniment on a large scale. Did it make a difference? How much did it contribute to the eventual peace accords in Central America? Says Blase Bonpane: “We believe we made an impact for peace in Central America. Central America certainly made an impact on us. We will let history make the final evaluation.”
This review is being written during a primary political campaign filled with much talk about religion, religious liberty, church and state rhetoric. So it is sobering to reflect on Blase Bonpane’s challenge to “imagine no religion” (with an unspoken nod to John Lennon). It is a theme that he touches on again and again throughout the book—and perhaps most importantly tries to live out in everyday life. His concern centers on the divisiveness of religious language and religious practice, a divisiveness that has led to crusades, wars, persecutions. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer this religionless Christianity was the central challenge for the post-modern age. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge (July 18, 1944) he reflected, “It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.” Such is the example that Blase Bonpane offers us in this wonderful and interesting autobiography. “La lucha misma es la victoria / The struggle itself is the victory”.