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Jump to navigation. Renowned theologian and advocate of the poor, Joseph Comblin, died March 27 in Salvador, Brazil of natural causes. He was Born in Brussels, Belgium, in , Comblin was ordained in and moved to Brazil in He later worked in Chile, teaching at or leading seminaries in both countries.
The Belgian-born theologian leaves a legacy of a vast body of work in several genres, along with a distinctive model of how to live the theological priestly vocation. While there he was informed that the Brazilian military dictatorship was not going to allow him to re-enter the country. The matter was resolved in a few weeks through discussion between bishops and the military and he returned. Meanwhile, I often heard him clacking away on a manual typewriter in his room.
To see Comblin up close -- slow of speech, mild-mannered, even shy, steeped in scripture, history, and theology -- made it all the more surprising that he should be considered dangerous. Comblin was born in Brussels in , entered the seminary after high school, and studied theology at Louvain in the s. He received a doctorate with a dissertation on Christ in the book of Revelation and served in a parish for a number of years.
In at the Theological Institute of Recife, Comblin spearheaded a new way of training for priesthood. Rather than living in a seminary and taking the usual courses, the young men, themselves from rural families, lived in a community, farming in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and doing pastoral activity in the evening.
Other topics considered in the initial year included land, labor, male-female relations. Underlying this project was a conviction that the issue in Latin America was not so much clerical celibacy or a priest shortage, but the model of ministry. Priests were often foreign, and even when they were natives, years of seminary education and clerical culture had alienated them from the ordinary people. The candidates were trained to delve into their culture and to apply scripture to it; they did not study the usual seminary courses in systematic theology, which are largely the result of controversies from centuries past.
Some priests were ordained from the program, and a similar program was started in Chile, but the entire approach was closed down under pressure from the Vatican. Several hundred attended his eightieth birthday celebration in In Comblin was finally prevented from reentering Brazil. At that point he moved to Talca in Chile, then under the Allende socialist government. He kept a low profile and did not have to flee after the September coup. It was perhaps these writings that prompted the Pinochet regime to likewise deny him reentry in He was then able to return to Brazil, where he worked for another three decades.
Comblin's first book, on the resurrection, appeared in , and he published approximately sixty-five books and well over three hundred articles, spanning several genres, primarily in Portuguese, Spanish, and French.
His scripture studies include commentaries on several New Testament epistles and on the book of Acts, as well as many topical studies. He wrote a number of accessibly written biblical meditations on faith, the Gospel, and Christian freedom.
Many of his articles and books address pastoral matters directly: popular religion, education, models of ministry, secularization. Some works addressed theological issues, for example, the theology of mission or of Christian universality. What he did not write were treatises typical of systematic theology: Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, sacraments. In , when Latin America was believed to have an extreme priest shortage, he wrote that Brazil had a vocation to send missionaries to other lands.
In when theologians were writing glowingly about base communities, he raised a number of serious questions about what was happening in pastoral practice, e. Reflecting his Louvain training, Comblin often ranged widely over church history, examining how the church had responded to the challenges of different eras.
A persistent theme is that of freedom, the freedom brought by Jesus and Paul, and yet its frequent stifling, even within the church. Although his articles appeared in Concilium and other theological journals, Comblin is not particularly known in the theological guild. He tends to be classified among the Latin American liberation theologians, and he was certainly involved in their collective work from early meetings with Gustavo Gutierrez and others starting around However, I suspect that the main reason that he is not more widely known and studied is that many of his writings do not fit neatly into the usual categories of theological work.
What they have in common is that they were grounded in scripture, and did not confine themselves to narrow disciplinary specializations. Both wrote driven by particular questions as they arose, with little concern for systematization. In that sense, he has been like Harvey Cox and Rosemary Ruether, who have engaged theologically with their culture and are not concerned with where they fit in the theological canon. For close to a half century Comblin lived in rural towns traveling by bus he did not drive , far from research libraries and so was dependent on books he gathered over the years.
He saw that the generation of bishops with whom he had worked, men with strong personalities able to take initiatives, were replaced by Vatican loyalists when they retired or died.
In a talk at the Jesuit University in San Salvador last October he made a distinction between the Gospel and religion. Religion comes from human need and is a human creation. When Jesus became an object of worship. With Constantine the clergy became a class set apart and there was great insistence on the difference between the sacred and the profane.
Christian history itself is the story of the contradiction between those who are devoted to the Gospel and those who are devoted to religion. Religion seeks secular power; the gospel refuses power. These are certainly not original ideas, but Comblin was stating them with a simplicity and radical thrust. He advised people in the audience to realize that church history is subject to periods of institutional retrenchment, pointing to the s when he was young and Pius XII had just condemned various schools of theology -- which then became the basis for Vatican II.
Comblin was buried near the grave of Padre Ibiapina, a nineteenth-century priest who did missionary work in northeast Brazil spreading the faith but also helping peasants improve their agriculture. Tributes poured in from his fellow theologians, bishops, priests, and religious and lay people in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. I believe he has left a body of work that deserves to be more widely known, and an example of how to live a theological life.
In , he returned from Guatemala to the United States and now lives in Philadelphia. Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here. Join now. Renowned theologian, advocate of poor, dies in Brazil Apr 2, Join the Conversation Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor.
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Renowned theologian, advocate of poor, dies in Brazil
Jump to navigation. Renowned theologian and advocate of the poor, Joseph Comblin, died March 27 in Salvador, Brazil of natural causes. He was Born in Brussels, Belgium, in , Comblin was ordained in and moved to Brazil in He later worked in Chile, teaching at or leading seminaries in both countries. The Belgian-born theologian leaves a legacy of a vast body of work in several genres, along with a distinctive model of how to live the theological priestly vocation.
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