Below follows my translation of a 2013 article written by Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian Nobel laureate in literature, in the Spanish-language daily El País (original here). His piece on Padre Ugo di Censi is probably the best and most widely-read piece on the living Patron Saint of Ancash, and it articulates much of what I thought of the man’s missionary project when I visited Chacas in late 2011. Vargas Llosa wrote this piece after visiting Padre Ugo for his 90th birthday party, and word is that Ugo is still fighting fit; no doubt he is still rising early, eating his Spartan breakfast of bread and black coffee, writing his daily letters to friends – in high places and in low – all over the world, and working tirelessly in Lima and Chacas for the world’s most downtrodden; the broken-backed campesinos, the orphaned children, the poverty-stricken elderly, AIDS victims, the disabled, the widowed, the illiterate, the unskilled, all those unrecognised by governments, markets and the international community. The man is a living hero, however flawed, and his work can humble any atheists pride, will stir a socialist’s heart and can help educate all activists on what real organising looks like. He is deeply democratic – anarchistic even, as Vargas Llosa writes – although he does not quite fit the Latin American tradition of marxian Liberation Theology. The man practises a political, empowering Catholicism that Pope Francis would endorse, not a reactionary Catholicism that argues that camels can indeed fit through pin-holes. Chacas is an extraordinary place, a place of great pain but even greater humanity.
Chacas is closer to heaven than any other place on the planet. To get there you have to scale the peaks of the Andean Cordilleras, cross dizzying gulfs and heights that scrape above five thousand meters and then to go back down again, down steep slopes that the condors fly above, to the pass of Conchucos, in the province of Ancash. There, between ravines, streams, lakes, pastures and slopes where every shade of green is found, is the town of just one thousand five hundred people and the capital of a province that hosts over twenty thousand.
The extraordinary beauty of this place isn’t just physical, but also social and spiritual, thanks to Padre Ugo de Censi, an Italian priest who came to Chacas as a parson in 1976. Tall, eloquent, pleasant, well-built and agile in spite of his almost ninety years of age, he possesses a contagious energy and capacity to move mountains. In the thirty seven years spent here he has transformed this region, one of the poorest in Peru, into a world of peace and industry, of human solidarity and artistic creativity.
The ideas of Padre Ugo are unique to him and have many times made the superiors of his order – the Salesians – and the hierarchy of the Church, very nervous. And to the economists and sociologists, don’t even mention his name. He believes that money and smarts are of the devil, that the complex discourses and abstract theories of theology and philosophy do not bring you closer to god, but rather they push you further away from him, and nor does reason itself serve much for bringing you closer to the Supreme Being. Instead of trying to explain god, one must desire him, to have thirst for him, and, if one finds it, abandon yourself to wonder, to that exaltation of the heart that brings love. He detests greed and profit, bureaucratic red-tape, rent-seeking, insurance, retirement, and believes that if there is one criticism to be made of the Church it is that it has isolated itself from the poor and the marginalised, those from which it was born. He views private property with mistrust. The word that most often appears in his mouth, full of tenderness and poetic tone, is ‘charity’.
He believes, and has dedicated his life to testing it, that poverty must be combated from the same poverty, identifying with it, living it together with the poor, and that the way to attract the young to religion and to God, those who the whole world has set aside, is to propose to them to live spirituality as an adventure, delivering your time, muscles and thoughts, your life, to the struggle against human suffering and the great injustices to which so many millions of humans are victims.
The utopians and great social dreamers tend to be vain and self-referential, but Padre Ugo is the simplest person on earth and when, with that sense of humour that shines from those without rest, he says: “I would like to be a boy, but I believe that above all I’m a rascal and a stupido” (a word which, in Spanish, should be translated not as stupid, but silly), he says exactly what he thinks.
The curious thing of this believer-cum-anarchist -dreamer is that at the same time he is a man of action, a man who, without asking for a cent from the state and putting his pilgrims’ ideas into action, has carried out in Chacas and its surrounds a true economic and social revolution. He has constructed two central electric stations and channels and deposits that give light and water to the people, a clinic of 60 beds equipped with the most modern clinical instruments, a nursing school, workshops of sculpture and carpentry and furniture design, agricultural plots where they use the most modern techniques while respecting ecological imperatives, classes for mountain guides and stonecutters and art restorers, glass-works, spinning mills, cheese-mills, mountain refuges, hospices for disabled children and the elderly, agricultural and artisanal cooperatives, churches, irrigation channels, and, this year in August a university for mature education will open.
This incomplete and cold listing doesn’t say much: you have to see it up close and touch these projects and others to amaze and move yourself. How has it been possible? Thanks to the charity that Padre Ugo talks so much of and from over almost four decades of bringing to these altitudes countless volunteers – doctors, engineers, teachers, artisans, workers, artists, students – to work for free, living with the poor and working shoulder to shoulder with them in order to put an end to the misery and to push poverty into retreat. But above all, he has done this by returning to the campesinos – the peasants – the dignity and humanity that exploitation, abandonment and the cruel whims of life have taken from them. The volunteers and their families pay for their own passage, they receive accommodation and food but no salary, and nor do they receive medical insurance or a pension, so that to form part of this project means to put its future and their own into total uncertainty.
But yet there they are, vaccinating children and hoeing away to damn rivers, building houses on miserable communal share-farms in San Luis, designing furniture and glass and statues and mosaics that go to San Diego and Calabria, giving food or therapy to the terminally sick in Santa Teresita, building a new electric station, cooking 600 daily meals that they distribute freely, and training the artisans, teachers and farmers who will secure the future of the young in the region. One of the young volunteers was called Giulio Rocca and he worked in Jangos; he was killed there by a Shining Path commando, who explained to him before he killed him that what they were doing there was intolerable to the Maoist revolution. Years later, another member of the project, Padre Daniele Badiali, was also killed because he refused to pay his ransom to a handful of thieves.
Currently there are 50 volunteers in Chacas, and some 30 more in the whole region. They live extremely modestly – the single ones in communal living, the couples in homes with their children – mixing with the poor and, I repeat, receiving no salary. The works they build, hardly finished, are sold to the State on leases: according to the philosophy of Padre Ugo the Matto Grosso project shouldn’t have its own private goods; all that they create they administer only temporarily and only according to need, ceding the projects to others as soon as they are operative. The finance for the works comes from – on top of the export of furniture – donations from institutions, companies or individuals from many places around the world, but principally from Italy.
The volunteers come for six months, one, two, three, ten years, and many stay or leave; they bring their children or have them there in that modern clinic where you pay only what you can or nothing if you can’t afford. It’s funny to see that cloud of boys and girls of clear eyes and blonde hair, in the same Sunday mass, among the local boys and girls singing Quechua, Italian, Spanish and even Latin. I asked many volunteers if they were sometimes stressed to think of the future, theirs and their children’s, against which they haven’t taken the least precaution nor saved a cent for. Because only in Chacas do the poor have a sure plate of food, a bed to sleep in and a doctor to attend to them in case of sickness. In the rest of the world, where those values that Padre Ugo call diabolical reign, the poor die of hunger and the people look the other way. They would shrug their shoulders, make jokes, and always have a friend in some place to give them a hand; Madonna will provide. Confidence and happiness are like the pure air that they breathe in Chacas.
But I am convinced that, in spite of the moral grandness of Padre Ugo and his disciples and the fantastic labour that has come to the four countries in which they have missions – Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brasil – this is not the method thanks to which global poverty will cease to be. I believe this because my scepticism tells me that there simply isn’t in this vast planet a large enough dose of idealism, selflessness and charity that could produce transformations like those in Chacas. But how stimulating it is to live, even if only for a handful of days, the experience of Chacas, and to discover that still today on this egotistic world there are men and women working to help others, to make that which we call good, and who find in this devotion and this sacrifice the justification of their existence. Ah, if only there were as many stupidi in the world as there are in Chacas, dear old Padre Ugo!