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  • The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989: Transnational Faith and Transformation by Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens
  • Edward T. Brett
The Maryknoll Catholic Mission in Peru, 1943-1989: Transnational Faith and Transformation. By Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 328. Acknowledgments. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $38.00 paper.

In 1911 the Vatican approved the creation of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, popularly known as Maryknoll, thereby transforming the United States from a missionary-receiving to a missionary-sending nation. It is no exaggeration to state that from its inception Maryknoll set the standard for the entire U.S. Catholic missionary movement. Prior to World War II, Maryknoll's mission activities were limited to Asia. However, when the war began to hinder its efforts there, the society expanded to Latin America; in 1943 it opened its first Peruvian mission in Puno, where it ministered to impoverished Indians. By the early 1950s it had expanded its operations to Lima and Arequipa, where it served a mostly middle-class population.

When Maryknoll first entered Latin America, its superior general, James Walsh, noted that its missionaries had no intention of exporting "any so-called North American civilization." Nonetheless, until the 1960s, as Fitzpatrick-Behrens demonstrates, the society's work was permeated by a sense of U.S. religious and cultural superiority: Maryknoll saw its mission as "saving" Latin America by establishing doctrinally correct, U.S.-style Catholicism. Going a step further, spreading the Gospel went hand-in-hand with undermining communism. Yet, from the beginning its missionaries had a strong sense of democratic values and economic justice that in indigenous areas like Puno conflicted with the system supported by the local sociopolitical hierarchy. Thus, even before the mission society's transformation in the 1960s, it had done much to break down the oppressive structures of Puno and ameliorate the material condition of the poor.

Despite its heavy expenditures on Catholic schools and countless developmental projects, Maryknollers were unable to penetrate the culture of the indigenous people. As Fitzpatrick-Behrens convincingly shows, the missionaries were tolerated, even welcomed, because they brought material benefits, but in their early decades in Peru they were always seen as outsiders who had no understanding of Indian ways. As a result of the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on social awareness, Maryknoll began to rethink its role. In its 1966 general chapter, a new mission rationale was developed, placing more emphasis on enculturation and on accompanying the poor in their struggles. Consequently, the society became an early proponent of liberation theology and [End Page 427] the Church's preferential option for the poor. Maryknollers, who had long supported U.S. foreign policy in Peru and the rest of Latin America, now saw U.S. political interference and commercial conduct in the region as negatives. Since Maryknoll had such a large number of missionaries in Peru, it contributed greatly to the creation of a progressive Catholic church there.

Combining archival research, interviews, and personal observation, Fitzpatrick-Behrens does an excellent job of meticulous narration in her account of the history of Maryknoll's transformation as it pertains to Peru. But it is her skillful analysis that is most impressive. Although an admirer of Maryknoll and progressive Catholicism, she can be critical, pointing out for instance that not a single Indian female religious or layperson ever played a major role in the public face of Maryknoll or the Peruvian church: "[T]he church became a voice of the poor," she notes, "but the poor remained silent and hidden" (p. 15).

Particularly impressive is Fitzpatrick-Behrens's treatment of the Maryknoll Sisters. She convincingly demonstrates how and why they were eventually able to build personal relationships with the indigenous people when so many of their clerical counterparts were unable to do so. One shortcoming of the book, however, is the absence of any discussion of the important contributions made by Maryknoll's lay missionaries in the post-Vatican II period. In a sobering epilogue, Fitzpatrick-Behrens brings the Maryknoll saga up to date by showing how the recent conservative turn of the global Catholic Church under the leadership of Popes John Paul...


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