MEXICO CITY-The highly polite environment of the Church in Mexico was disrupted a few months ago when a popular priest addressed an open letter to Bishop Raul Vera López, coadjutor of the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas.
“Your appointment was received with great signs of satisfaction, creating the hope that you would balance the situation,” wrote the priest. “But … your actions have totally disappointed me and many other people.”
“For what were you appointed coadjutor?” continued the letter. “You speak words in favor of the poor, but with your actions you are shattering them.”
Who was this fearless cleric, asked Mexico's secular media, to take such a stance with a bishop?
While a mystery to many in the media, the priest was well known in Mexican Church circles and among many in the laity.
The answer: Father Flaviano Amatulli.
The stocky 60-year-old Father Amatulli is a colorful figure with a long beard and thick Italian accent. But make no mistake: This dogmatic theologian is founder of a fast-growing movement dedicated to strengthening Mexico's Catholic roots through an effort of evangelization and apologetics.
The movement, known as the Apostles of the Word, also doesn't hide one of its principal goals — to so educate Catholics in their faith and spiritual lives that they will not be susceptible to enticements from evangelical Protestant sects.
“Catholics have a very weak faith; they are emotionally Catholic but don't know the answers that faith provides for doubts and problems,” Father Amatulli told the Register. “And since so many sects are out there trying to corral them, it is urgent that we start by evangelizing those baptized who are not living their faith.”
Father Amatulli's movement is centered on knowledge of the Bible and on Church teaching as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In short, “the recovery of old apologetics in a renewed way,” said the priest.
‘Going Along’ Not an Option
Father Amatulli has been successful despite his sometimes aggressive style that is clearly at odds with the personable gentility that dominates Mexican society.
Father Amatulli's letter to Bishop Vera is an example of his approach: “Do you know that hundreds, even thousand of children are not baptized in your diocese because their parents don't want to make contact with your ‘liberationist’ priests and catechists?
“Has liberation theology become a dogma that has to be sustained by all means, even at the cost of seeing so many poor Catholics go away in search of peace in the numerous sects?”
“If that is the case,” Father Amatulli's letter continued, “we have nothing left but to pray God more than ever: ‘Oh Lord, liberate us from the liberators.’”
The Apostles of the Word are prohibited from working in the dioceses of Aguascalientes and Bishop Vera's Chiapas. Both Bishop Vera and the controversial ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, have formally accused Father Amatulli before the Mexican bishops' conference of joining forces with Mexico's dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by the Spanish acronym PRI, to do them harm.
Bishop Ruiz will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 later this year and it is assumed by most observers that he will not be replaced by Bishop Vera.
The idea that Father Amatulli would take up with the PRI — which he routinely and openly criticizes — has prompted most observers to dismiss the charge.
Mexican advocates of liberation theology, who tend to dwell on social problems more than evangelization, have depicted Father Amatulli as, in the words of one, “an ally of the imperialist forces with an ideological agenda.”
Nevertheless, the Apostles of the Word continues to grow.
Power of God's Word
The organization describes itself as “a group of men and women who have experienced the power of God's Word in their lives and feel a great need to communicate it to others without measuring the difficulties and sacrifices demanded by this mission.”
Their primary work consists of door-to-door evangelization, usually in remote regions of the country in order to reach Catholics who have not been well formed in their faith and who may not know how to defend their faith when it is ridiculed by the evangelicals.
Starting with the original group that gathered around the charismatic Father Amatulli, the Apostles of the Word have turned into a large organization with several branches.
The lay branch, which includes separate groups for men, women and married couples, is the oldest and largest section of the movement. Members participate in a week of Bible studies and catechesis every two months, and work full or part time in evangelization. The methodology is designed to counter Protestant critiques of Catholicism by training members to make extensive use of the Bible, which they must be able to quote in order to support doctrine.
The Apostles of the Word's mission also calls on members to build “true Christian communities that fully live the demands of the Gospel,” which also “reject vice and helps build a society founded on solidarity, justice and love.”
Leaders are identified and invited to undergo additional theological training before they are invited to take on lay ministries or even the permanent diaconate. It is through these leaders that the Apostles of the Word finds most of its new members.
The commitment of many young women led Father Amatulli several years ago to create a branch of consecrated women that he hopes will one day become a congregation of religious. After a year of formation, the sisters take private vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.
Because of their availability for full-time involvement, the consecrated women, including some former evangelicals, constitute the leading edge of Father Amatulli's movement.
Most recently, some male members have discerned vocations to the priesthood. Current plans call for the seminarians to become incardinated in individual dioceses while retaining close contact with the group's apostolic work, especially by providing sacramental and pastoral attention to their lay colleagues.
Father Amatulli said priest-apostles may soon become a clerical society of apostolic life, a means by which diocesan priests can ban together in the manner of a religious community for a common apostolic work.
Sister Juanita Rodríguez, who serves as the movement's secretary, told the Register that the organization has 399 full-time lay workers.
The sisters number 70, including nine who have made permanent vows.
The clerical branch includes three priests, nine seminarians and 15 students of philosophy.
“The [Apostles of the Word are] active in almost all Mexican dioceses, either as a movement or else as part of diocesan efforts to promote and defend the faith,” said Sister Juanita.
The group's presence has been extended to other Latin American countries and the United States, where they work in the South.
The group counts on the support of many of Mexico's bishops, including Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara, said Sister Juanita.
While the movement's literature does not identify the evangelical movement as its main concern, Father Amatulli does not conceal the fact that the growth of fundamentalist Protestantism and New Age groups prompted him to found the Apostles of the Word.
“Despite the sects' exaggeration of their numbers, it is true that in many regions they comprise as much as 30%” of the population,” said Father Amatulli.
Style Over Substance
Many agree with him, but still raise questions about the priest's confrontational style.
The Apostles of the Word are “a new and energetic group, committed to the poor,” said Father Daniel Gagnon, director of REDIMIR, an organization that is also dedicated to counteracting evangelical proselytism. But, he told the Register, “they are too aggressive, and some of their evaluations of the sects are superficial.”
Father Gagnon disagreed with what he called Father Amatulli's tendency to “mock and attack” the sects, which only hardens relations with Protestants. “Nobody takes a positive attitude when he is being attacked,” he added.
Others, including Chihuahua Archbishop José Fernandez Arteaga, said that Father Amatulli's style has created division within the Church.
Father Amatulli said that division and tension within the Church has not been created by him, but by “those who have promoted a pastoral theology distorted by a political and ideological approach, thus generating a sort of Balkanization of the Church.”
Advocates for the Apostles of the Word note that the Protestants have been successful precisely because they are aggressive and are not afraid to attack their opponents.
They point to a recent episode in the town of El Pueblito, Guadalajara, where the presence of the Apostles of the Word persuaded an active group of Seventh-day Adventists to leave town.
Father Amatulli said he is not interested in debating points of doctrine with non-Catholics. He wants to prevent Catholics from becoming Protestants, “rather than converting them back to the Catholic faith after they have become evangelicals.”
Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.