Editor’s Note: Rev. Robert Pelton, CSC, ’43, died this week at age 98. An expert on liberation theology and founder of Notre Dame’s Latin American/North American Church Concerns group, Pelton’s remarkable life story, including the smuggling of sensitive documents out of Chile, was featured in this 2017 profile. Pelton also wrote for this magazine about the Church in Latin America.
The only thing separating life from death for Bob Pelton, CSC, ’43 as he stood in the Santiago, Chile, airport in January 1974 was a nearly sheer guayabera shirt. Underneath the chemise, pressed flat against his stomach, were documents sought by the authoritarian Chilean military regime, which he intended to smuggle out of the country. Pelton stood just feet from his plane’s gate, but a guard with a gun had a few questions. Beads of sweat formed and threatened to give the priest away.
It’s difficult to picture the now 95-year old priest, reclined in an armchair, worn, leathery hands folded gently, as a smuggler. Even one commissioned by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. But once he clears his throat, as he oft does in his storytelling, he’s as sharp and fiery now as he was then about the atrocities happening in Chile and across Latin America.
Beginning in 1964, Pelton was given the unexpected assignment of becoming the religious superior and rector and president at Saint George’s College, an institution overseen by the Congregation of Holy Cross, in Santiago, Chile. He was in his 40s, spoke no Spanish and had spent his time in the priesthood in traditional studies in Rome or in academia. But he had taken a vow to serve where the Church had a need. The Vatican had declared a severe priest shortage in Latin America and had put out a call for 10 percent of U.S. religious to move there by 1970. Despite his inexperience as a missionary, his number was up.
Although Saint George’s was a school for the children of Chile’s wealthy, Pelton witnessed extraordinary poverty in Santiago, with slum neighborhoods packed full of people, many malnourished and lacking adequate medical care. He realized it was there, with the campesinos, the peasants, that he was called to serve. Guided by the rising popularity of liberation theology and Catholic social teaching, he knew he was not meant to come in and impose his beliefs on the people.
“You go to listen, to learn, then to act,” he says.
Pelton’s example of living and working with the poor and learning from them set the stage for the congregation’s ministry, which continues today, says Father Rick Wilkinson, CSC, ’78M.Div., who spent several years in Chile in the 1980s. “What they did in those years while Father Bob was in Chile I think set the tone for not only our men in Chile, but also our men in Peru. I would argue that Father Pelton laid the groundwork that gave us the strength, the direction and the language to do ministry with the Chilean people.”
During his assignment Pelton was temporarily called away to act as a peritus, a personal adviser, for Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens during the final session of Vatican II. In Rome, Pelton was as comfortable with the Church’s elite as he was among the impoverished Chilenos. He witnessed history as the group addressed issues such as the role of the laity, the vernacular Mass and the social responsibility of Catholics. The Church was changing, says Wilkinson, now assistant provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Vatican II had officially affirmed that the Church was not composed solely of a hierarchy in Rome but was instead in the hearts and homes of Catholics worldwide. Now the mission of the religious was to bring the Church to the global masses and localize it for their people. They were also to pay closer attention to the social teaching of the Bible and encourage participation in their parishes.
Pelton returned to Chile with a deepened devotion to the Gospel and a richer understanding of the role of the Church. In 1966, as he completed his three-year assignment at St. George’s, he was approached by Chilean Cardinal Raul Silva, who asked if Father Pelton would stay and become his Episcopal Vicar for Religious Institutes. Pelton would oversee thousands of religious working in the diocese and could implement the progressive Vatican II ideas he had witnessed. For priests in Chile that meant understanding the plight of the working poor. It meant the Church needed to advocate for empowerment, education and efforts to combat social injustice and economic inequality. So, too, would Pelton be asked to bolster social programs that would give better food, healthcare, employment, legal aid and education to the people of Chile.
It was in this role that Pelton’s commitment to Catholic action and social justice would flourish. The seeds had been planted many years prior while he was a seminarian at Notre Dame, and again during the Vatican II sessions, but it was in his interactions with the “grassroots folks” in Chile that they took root.
Pelton had found his niche. Enthusiastic about the progress the Latin American church was making, he hoped to stay in Chile for the duration of his career. But in 1971, after seven years in that country, Pelton was summoned back to Notre Dame to help the Sisters of the Holy Cross prepare for their general chapter. However, his time in Chile was not finished.
As Pelton was leaving Chile, the political climate was becoming tumultuous. In the 1960s, Christian Democrats were at the helm, but the 1970 election was quickly approaching. In the United States, President Nixon and other officials were concerned about the Latin American socialist candidates, specifically the Chilean Salvador Allende, because they feared the spread of communist influence across Latin America. According to a CIA report declassified in 2000, in Chile the CIA threw financial support to groups and candidates who were most aligned with U.S. interests. The agency also carried out “spoiling operations” to prevent the election of the leftist Allende. Those and other actions were for naught — the democratically elected Allende took his seat as president in 1970.
According to Pelton, Allende’s reign was less like the Marxism feared by the United States and more like a Christian socialist government. While the Church expected operations to be disrupted by a socialist government, it instead found cooperation and little meddling in its social programs or preaching.
Efforts to overthrow the socialist government continued, however, and in 1973 the Chilean military replaced Allende with General Augusto Pinochet. If the goal was to bring stability to the nation, it failed. Under Pinochet’s dictatorship, a severe suppression of leftists, communists and political enemies began, with the kidnapping, torture, banishment or disappearance of anyone who seemed at odds with the state. According to Pelton, many of the restrictions the United States had feared under Allende actually came to fruition under Pinochet.
The penalty for being caught was death. Should their plan be discovered, the duo would end up on the very list of desaparecidos they were transporting.
“What they said would happen under Allende did not, but it did happen under Pinochet,” says Pelton. “Our sermons were monitored. People were picked up, even our own Holy Cross religious.”
Wilkinson says many of the priests in South America were answering the call to be “prophetic,” to speak on behalf of their parishioners. In so doing, they were challenging political and church hierarchies to listen to the poor — actions that caused conflict with the Pinochet regime. “We were perhaps a little more political in our preaching than we should have been, but on the other hand, that was the only place you could put voice to the frustration and oppression people were feeling.”
By acknowledging the injustices faced by the working poor and the field laborers, however, many in the Church were labeled Marxist and targeted by Pinochet. In the Congregation of Holy Cross alone, several priests fled for Peru, others returned to the United States. One priest was tortured. Another, Mauro Pando, who has since left the congregation, was chased from his parish by military police for encouraging dialogue among his diverse parishioners. “The dialogue is over. From now on it’s just bullets,” he remembers the police telling him.
As more innocent people were arrested, tortured or disappeared, Cardinal Silva supported the creation of the Committee of Cooperation for Peace (COPACHI), a multifaith coalition with representatives from Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, Methodist and Pentecostal congregations. As a network of lay and religious activists, COPACHI could provide legal and financial support to victims, in addition to such social services as medical clinics, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The group also worked with human rights organizations to hide or evacuate those being hunted by the government. Most threatening to the government, however, was COPACHI’s careful documentation of every person who was tortured, kidnapped or disappeared at the hands of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Members of the regime were furious about COPACHI’s activities and, according to Pelton, soldiers threatened Silva at gunpoint and burgled his office in search of the files. COPACHI leaders knew they needed to get the documents out of the country and into the right hands.
Working with the American bishops, COPACHI arranged that Pelton and Father Frederick McGuire, C.M., then director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Mission Secretariat, would go to Santiago and retrieve all the records of the disappeared to transport to the United States for safekeeping and distribution. Though it had only been a few months since the regime takeover, Pelton says, thousands of names were already on the list, many of them his friends and acquaintances.
The penalty for being caught was death. Should their plan be discovered, the duo would end up on the very list of desaparecidos they were transporting. Even knowing the risk, Father Bob never hesitated. “I was angry at the revolution,” he explains.
And so, in January 1974, Pelton found himself face-to-face with a Chilean junta guard in the middle of Santiago’s airport. He and McGuire had already made it through security, but just as they were about to board the plane they were stopped once more.
“When it was happening, I thought, ‘I guess this is it.’”
The soldier, whose son had been a student at Saint George’s when Pelton was in charge, recognized the priest and asked why he was back in Chile. Pelton casually responded, “Visiting friends.” Thankfully, that was enough to appease the guard.
“I think I was just lucky because one statement and that was it. He could have easily talked to us more about this, and security people would have really gone into it.”
Pelton and McGuire boarded the plane and soon had the documents, written proof of early abuses of the Pinochet regime, safely stored in the United States. But it wasn’t Pelton’s last run-in with Pinochet’s regime. Though he was no longer needed as a smuggler, he returned often to meet with the team he had established while vicar and to continue his work and education with the Chilean people.
“I kept going back. . . . I got close to being picked up a few times when I was there.” One night, he says, “I was jogging while the curfew was still on, and I thought ‘I’m okay,’ and I ran right into a young soldier, a kid probably about 17. He could have easily killed me right there.”
Pelton survived encounters with the violent regime; the Committee of Cooperation for Peace did not. After a stream of death threats and constant pressure, Cardinal Silva dissolved the group in December 1975, but under a pontifical order by Pope Paul VI, he immediately introduced the Vicariate for Solidarity. Its role was nearly identical to COPACHI, but the agency fell completely under Catholic Church jurisdiction. The daring move angered the regime, but the Vicariate for Solidarity remained in operation until 1992.
Not all religious in Latin America were as lucky as Silva. After Pelton’s return to Notre Dame, he became fascinated with Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom he had encountered in Latin America during a 1979 visit. From across a crowded room, a friend who was worried about escalating tensions in the region pointed at Romero and said, “One year from now, he’s going to be murdered.” And while saying Mass in March 1980, the now Blessed Romero was assassinated by an unknown sniper for speaking out about poverty, social injustice and human rights violations.
“What led me to study Oscar Romero was I saw history repeating itself,” Pelton says.
So much of the situation in El Salvador was reminiscent of Chile — the political jockeying, the suppression of the poor, the influence of North America. But a vital element was missing: “There was a strong resistance from the bishops in Chile, whereas in El Salvador there was not the same strength of leadership at the level of the bishops.”
Pelton published several books and articles on Romero, and in 1987 began hosting an annual Romero lecture series that features scholars, human rights activists and civil leaders discussing the life and lasting impact of the Salvadoran archbishop. The series is one of the jewels of Notre Dame’s Latin American/North American Church Concerns (LANACC), a group founded by Pelton that focuses on strengthening the pastoral bonds between the North American and Latin American churches.
Another proud accomplishment is LANACC’s production of a documentary on Romero, which has been shown internationally. Released in 2011, Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero uses footage of Romero’s homilies and testimonies from those who knew him to chronicle the young archbishop’s quest to be the voice of the poor in a divided and violent country.
Pelton remained the sole employee of LANACC until 2015, when he was 94 years old. His successor, Peter Casarella, a Notre Dame associate professor of theology, is awestruck by all Pelton accomplished on a shoestring budget for so many years, even before many saw the value in relations between Latin America and North America.
Although the elderly priest has given over the reins, he is still as committed to the relationship between the American churches as ever. In the fall he and Casarella taught a theology class about Cuba, The Church and the Dynasty, which culminated in an immersion trip to Cuba for the students. Pelton says he hoped it opened the eyes of his students to see beyond their own lives and perhaps to make changes in their attitudes and actions.
“The concept that encapsulates his life and the mission of LANACC is reverse mission,” Casarella says. “The reverse mission [is] where you see the United States as a mission field.”
Pelton also wants his students, a generation already motivated by social justice issues, to realize their faith isn’t icing on top of service. Their faith demands service of them, so the two should be more closely intertwined.
“I think it’s taking seriously the social teaching of the Bible and the Catholic Church,” he says. He continually reiterates that faith is not meant to be comfortable; it should always push Catholics to speak and to act on behalf of those who cannot.
For all Pelton has done in almost a century, his name is seldom heard. He’s not one for self-promotion, and friends and colleagues say he’s modest about his own accomplishments. He says he was once considered for a position as a bishop, but maintains he ended up where he was meant to, working alongside the poor.
“He didn’t feel bad he didn’t become a bishop, or a provost or a president, because he had so much work to do just being with the people, accompanying the people of God and then letting other people know how they could do that,” Casarella says.
A November ceremony celebrated the donation of 275 of Pelton’s acquired books on the Latin American Church to Moreau Seminary. What seems like a simple gift is not — it’s a passing of the torch. “He’s always thinking about the next move. He’s very shrewd in that regard,” says Casarella. “It’s not about what people think about Bob Pelton, it’s about handing on what he did so someone can do it in the future.”
Tara Hunt McMullen, a former associate editor of this magazine, is a freelance writer in North Carolina.