RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And it was half a century ago that bishops from around the world gathered in an ancient church in Rome. They signed a pledge to forsake worldly goods and live like the neediest among their flock. They were in Rome for the second Vatican Council, the deliberations that opened the Catholic Church to the modern world. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports the bishops' all-but-forgotten pledge, known as The Pact of the Catacombs has gained new resonance with Pope Francis' vision of a poor church for the poor.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Under the vaulted ceiling of the basilica, a mass is being celebrated to commemorate the pact signed here in 1965. We are just above the Catacombs of Domitilla, many miles of tunnels lined with the tombs of early Christians. One of the celebrants of the mass is the only surviving bishop of the original 40 who signed the pact, 92-year-old Monsignor Luigi Bettazzi.
LUIGI BETTAZZI: (Through interpreter) A group of bishops organized the meeting at the Catacombs of Domitilla. Most of us learned about it by word of mouth.
POGGIOLI: By signing The Pact of the Catacombs, the bishops pledged to...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport. We renounce forever the appearance and the substance of wealth, especially in clothing and symbols made of precious metals.
POGGIOLI: Within a few months, some 500 bishops had signed the pact. But it was soon forgotten, with hardly a mention in the history books about the Second Vatican Council. One reason, suggests Monsignor Bettazzi...
BETTAZZI: (Through interpreter) Pope Paul the VI was afraid that too much emphasis on the church of the poor would spill into politics. It was the peak of the Cold War. It could appear the church was leaning towards one side.
POGGIOLI: The communist side. Church historian Alberto Melloni says the pact is probably one of the Catholic Church's best-kept secrets.
ALBERTO MELLONI: The Pact of Catacombs is the outcome of a long effort in the Vatican to put poverty at the core of the council, and this effort failed.
POGGIOLI: But in one part of the world, the pact did not disappear. Many of the original signers were from Latin America. Erwin Krautler has been a bishop of a Brazilian diocese in the Amazon for 34 years. An advocate for the rights of landless peasants and indigenous peoples, he upholds the principles of The Pact of the Catacombs.
ERWIN KRAUTLER: This pact is an expression of what we call these days theology of liberation.
POGGIOLI: Liberation theology is a Catholic grassroots movement that spread throughout Latin America in the '70s but was scored by Popes John Paul II and Benedict the XVI, who said it was inspired by Marxism. And the Vatican disciplined many of its proponents. Church historian Melloni says The Pact of the Catacombs that inspired liberation theology undermines centuries of tradition that had put the Vatican at the center of church power.
MELLONI: It was saying that the center of Catholicism is not Rome, not even the Pope, but the real poor. And this was a challenge, the real challenge of this papacy today.
POGGIOLI: Francis has never specifically mentioned The Pact of the Catacombs. But his lifestyle - shunning the apostolic palace for a room in a Vatican guesthouse and his vision of the church as what he calls a field hospital to heal the wounded - are reviving interest in the 50-year-old document. Monsignor Bettazzi says he and his fellow bishops planted a seed that is now giving fruit.
BETTAZZI: (Through interpreter) The Pact of the Catacombs today is Pope Francis.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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