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New documentary chronicles a grass roots Catholic ‘magisterium’

Coal miners exit an elevator after a shift at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company near Richmond, Va. in April 1974. Photo by Jack Corn/Creative Commons

(RNS) — “Magisterium” is one of those incense-perfumed Catholic words, reeking of pomp and power. The Vatican says as much on its website, explaining that “ecclesiastical magisterium” means that teaching about what Jesus meant “is proper to the College of Bishops or to individual bishops linked in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

Magisterium is a top-down deal, with the pope and the bishops conveying the message of Jesus from the Throne of St. Peter to the faithful far below in the piazza and beyond.

The new documentary “Magisterium of the People” turns the term on its head. The film opens with Sister Beth Davies, an elderly nun who lives in St. Charles, Va., deep in the heart of Appalachia, talking about her work with coal miners.

“When you’re ministering to people and listening to people,” she says to the camera, “I can’t tell you the number of coal miners who say, ‘I don’t want to do this. I love these mountains, but I have to feed my children.’ They’re going in every day torn, absolutely conflicted.”

Image courtesy of Salt and Light

That conflict is at the heart of this unexpected and powerful film which debuts on Christmas Day on the Canadian network Salt & Light TV. It goes online the following day.

“Magisterium of the People,” the latest documentary from Sebastian Gomes, was inspired by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA),— nuns, priests, laypeople – who go into Appalachia to listen to the stories of the region’s residents and report their findings in the form of a “People’s Pastoral, playing on the church’s name for an open letter from a bishop to his clergy and flock.

The group’s most recent pastoral appeared in 2015, following two previous documents, in 1975 and 1995, which have been published as a book. The letters are, as the original People’s Pastoral put it, a “telling of the story of ‘the least among us’ including Earth, our listening of that story, and the Church’s response to it.”

Gomes first encountered CCA when he read its 2015 pastoral while doing research for a follow-up to his 2014 film, “The Francis Effect,” about the change Pope Francis has brought to Catholicism.

“I was really looking for stories where the impact [of Francis] could be felt by ordinary people,” Gomes told Religion News Service. “Then I came across the story of The People’s Pastoral and I thought this was a great story of the Francis impact.”

Gomes title, he says, “is derivative of the term the Magisterium of the Poor, which was originally a concept that came out of Liberation theology. The poor have an inherent authority because Jesus recognized that authority in them.”

In the film, a priest named John Rauch leads CCA members to eastern Kentucky to witness what Rauch calls a “mineral colony” where coal mining has enriched many but has also caused misery and destruction.

Elaine Tanner and Jimmy Hall surrounded by signage at their Kentucky home in the documentary “Magesterium of the People.” Photo courtesy of Salt and Light

A local couple, Elaine Tanner and Jimmy Hall, gives the filmmakers a tour of their ravaged property.

“Here’s where we watched the top of the mountain drop,” says Tanner, pointing to a map where the coal company lopped off 500 feet of earth in search of coal seams. “We stood there helplessly as that mountain fell and the inspector says to Jimmy, ‘You don’t own that property — my maps say the coal company owns it.’”

The land, said Hall, has been in his family for more than six generations. For proof he walks the filmmakers through the family cemetery, pointing out headstones of the clan going back decades. Hall points to those etched with the branch of the U.S. military in which the dead once served.

“I’m as American as you can get,” Hall says. “My family all supported whatever the United States said. ‘You go to war,’ then you go to war. And the ones that are up in that cemetery, [this land] is what they fought for. I have the letters that were sent home. They couldn’t wait to get back here. Nowadays, there’s a lot of people who can’t wait to get out of here. There’s nothing left. The coal company took it and hauled it away.”

It becomes clear that Hall is hardly the stereotyped hillbilly or “Make America Great Again” booster. The film lands its punches by doing the very thing the People’s Pastoral set out to do: giving voice to people who have not been heard.

“You can’t argue with his patriotism,” said Gomes. “Yet he’s saying, ‘The coal companies screwed us and now our water is poisoned and our mountain is destroyed and there’s nothing we can do.’ His voice is very powerful.”

Filmmaker Sebastian Gomes works on his new documentary “Magesterium of the People.” Photo courtesy of Salt and Light

As CCA was preparing its 2015 People’s Pastoral, it got wind of another document coming from Rome, issued by Pope Francis in June 2015 called Laudato Sì, which is subtitled “On care for our common home.”

In Laudato Sì, Francis calls on the world to take “swift and unified global action” against climate change, environmental vandalism and rampant consumerism. The CCA delayed publication of its letter to coincide with Francis’ encyclical but, Gomes noted, “they were doing what Francis was doing before there was Francis.”

That same year a Franciscan friar, John Stowe, was appointed bishop of Lexington, Ky. When the People’s Pastoral was published, he sent it to his fellow bishops across the United States, an endorsement the CCA never expected.

“It’s always been hard for the institutional church to be prophetic,” Stowe says in the film, “but I think because Francis speaks with such a prophetic voice it allows the other groups within the church who have been prophetic in their vision of things, and their way of listening to people the way CCA has done, they find a validation and an encouragement in that.”

Moments like this are the closest “Magisterium of the People” gets to a fist-pumping moment. The film pulls you in with its deceptively gentle movement. It doesn’t yell at the viewer, like so much of what passes for cultural commentary these days.

Gomes realizes not everyone is going to be a fellow traveler, but that’s fine.

“When you invoke the term ‘magisterium’ and use it for anything other than episcopal or papal authority, there are serious questions that will be raised,” he says, “but here you have a group of laypeople who said, ‘We understand what the gospel is about — we’ve been doing this for a long time — and the poorest, weakest, marginalized people have authority and we’re not going to wait around for the bishops to recognize it with us.’”

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Michael McKinley

53 Comments

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  • “The Magisterium of the Poor” – what is that?!

    Somebody, please translate this in plain, uncomplicated & hogwash-free English:

    “The poor have an inherent authority because Jesus recognized that authority in them. … The poorest, weakest, marginalized people have authority and we’re not going to wait around for the [Catholic Church] bishops to recognize it with us.”
    – Sebastian Gomes.

    And I wouldn’t mind a couple of chapter-and-verse or more TO GO with that, actually.

  • ” In Laudato Sì, Francis calls on the world to take “swift and unified global action” against climate change, environmental vandalism
    and rampant consumerism. ”

    How about “swift and unified global action” against the conspiratorial criminality of the RCC for the last 1700 yrs….

  • “Gomes title, he says, ‘is derivative of the term the Magisterium of the Poor, which was originally a concept that came out of Liberation theology.’”

    In short a heresy. There is nothing new under the sun:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharism

    In this case it is a political movement that has put on trappings of religion, much the same as “Nuns on a Bus” and similarly comprised of fading flower children of the ‘60s and early ‘70s:

    https://ccappal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Copy-2-of-CCA-Annual-Meeting-2010-590-1024×221.jpg

    The so-called “Magisterium” can be found at:

    https://ccappal.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/PeoplesPastoral_final_forweb.pdf

    To gain some sense of how it speaks for the people in Appalachia and how “Catholic” it is, start reading at page 23 “THE VOICES OF GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE” in which it rejects outright the Catholic Church’s teaching on same sex physical congress and the beliefs of the people of Applachia.

    No, this is no “Magisterium of the Poor”.

    This is the same warmed-over feel-good nonsense of the fading superannuated left wing of religious orders that are in the process of going out of business.

  • I was interested to read of the mineral colony mentioned in the article. But don’t forget that the pope has also spoken to the press about their idealogical colonization:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_of_the_World

    This idealogical colonization would have us believe that Laudato Si only addresses certain issues. They neglect the criticisms the Pope has made in articles 170-172 on among other things carbon credits.

    The Catholic Church has never forgotten the poor, since the Leader of the Magisterium was a Fisherman by trade.

  • Actually, I think they have confused this with the “sense of the faithful (Catechism of the Catholic Church #92). But it is not valid, because some of the Catholics here are hold-outs! Seriously, though. These people have troubles, and the Church is not what is holding them down. It is our descent from the principles held by our founders. We need to reform our society, here in the good old USA.

  • That’s right. And I’ve read what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about The Poor. But none exists as The Catechism on “The Magisterium of the Poor”. So what in the (Catholic) world is this guy, Sebastian Gomes, talking about? Tried he might have, his concept doesn’t even come close to the Liberation Theologians’ call for The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He must only be one frustrated Catholic, is how I look (down) at Gomes.

  • Interesting & mentally iron-sharpening, these Catholic Prophecies – thanks!

    (1) “The coming of a world state is longed for, by all the worst and most distorted elements. This state, based on the principles of absolute equality of men and a community of possessions, would banish all national loyalties. In it no acknowledgement would be made of the authority of a father over his children, or of God over human society. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard-of terror.”
    – Pope Benedict XV, 1920.

    (2) “[U. S. President George H. W. Bush’s ‘New World Order’ is] a … unified civilization [with] power to destroy the spirit. The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a … new world order.”
    – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 1992.

    (3) “The spirit of the world … lead[ing] to apostasy … [is] prophecy.”
    – Pope Francis, 2013.

    (4) “[Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, writing Lord of the World in 1907] had seen this drama of ideological colonization and wrote that book”.
    – Pope Francis, 2015.

  • ” The Honorable Keeper of the Papal Chamberpot ”

    Mark Connely – aka Bob Arnzen – aka – Bob Carioca,

  • And we look in the Papal Chamberpot and we see … the face of patrick aka Jack Chick aka Maria Monk.

  • I think words that are used speak volumes. Particularly the use of the words “the least amongst us”!

    I realize that comes from the Bible. BUT it also indicates a mindset of clericalism–something the Pope has been talking about recently. Clericalism is the belief that there are some in the church that are better than others! The “least amongst us” reinforces that position.

  • “BUT it also indicates a mindset of clericalism …”.

    The phrase in the article appears in this context:

    “The letters are, as the original People’s Pastoral put it, a ‘telling of the story of ‘the least among us’ including Earth, our listening of that story, and the Church’s response to it.’”

    which apparently includes the Earth among “the least among us”.

    That is hardly clericalism.

    What it actually represents is an attempt by the authors of the People’s Pastoral, primarily superannuated sisters belong to dying religious orders, to spin a porridge of left-wing nonsense into something vaguely religious.

  • FYI, no one – including me – cares that you don’t click on links in these messages.

    Most of us are equipped with anti-malware and virus software.

    It is no surprise you are not.

  • I don’t click on them because I don’t care. If you didn’t care, then stop spamming me with the links.

  • He isn’t the only one who doesn’t follow links. sandinwindsor doesn’t click links because her husband doesn’t permit her to click them.

    I guess that they don’t have anti-malware & virus software either.

  • Apparently you do not know the definition of “spam”.

    It is a wonder that you found your way here to post.

  • Closet case.

    Apparently you are so insecure in your own intelligence, that you find it necessary to belittle others’.You have problems.

  • I came out publicly on the steps of a Catholic cathedral many years ago, so you got the wrong guy, closet case. Thanks for so often taking the time to care and share.

  • What is done is a “USE of the poor.” This is very skewed, and is a type of slavery mentality. It is similar to a political ploy to use parents’ concern for their children. Vote for this! But the result actually increases control over the poor. However, I have known many who do not see through this ploy, on the part of the Wealthy and Powerful. I think many sincere people are hoodwinked by this. Right now the Catholic Hierarchy is taking a beating.

  • You do nothing BUT belittle others, including calling anyone who dares to point that out “closet case”.

  • No, I am very specific about who its a closet case. There are but two or three of you here. If you don’t like it, then don’t read what I have to say, and don’t respond. I won’t miss anything.

  • The True Catholic™ kind of “Hierarch[ical]” Service, however, is hard to beat! No presstitute can beat that, ever!

  • No, you don’t believe I am a closet case.

    You believe alleging that people are closet cases will upset and derail them so that they don’t point out the total lack of evidence in your posts.

  • No, I quickly counted a half dozen allegations of “closet case” in reviewing your posts.

    I have never insulted or belittled LGBT people.

    I have pointed out that the LGBT lobby is nothing more than a propaganda machine based on half-truths and nonsense, and that many of its proponents – like yourself – make the LGBT lobby look coherent in comparison.

  • My posts are not available. From where did you “review” them???

    “…the LGBT lobby is nothing more than a propaganda machine based on half-truths and nonsense”

    …and by some miracle you think this assessment is not insulting or belittling? That speaks to your complete lack of social intelligence, piled on top of all the many insults you’ve hurled at Ben of Oakland in your various personas, as well as myself and others.

  • You responded with stereotypical references to gay sex, yet you’re somehow not a closet case? Your response clearly indicates where your mind is. And it’s damned funny on top of it.

  • Yes, you’ve marked “private”.

    No, they’re still capable of being accessed via Google if you know what you’re doing/

    That “…the LGBT lobby is nothing more than a propaganda machine based on half-truths and nonsense” is “not insulting or belittling”.

    It is a fact that can be supported with verifiable data.

    Ben of Oakland hs never been ridiculed for BEING a homosexual.

    He has come a cropper because his arguments are poorly organized, supported, and because of his non-stop attacks on religion and adherents of religion.

  • You’re really getting bent as the number of LGBT propaganda trolls, anti-Catholic trolls, and other friends of yours diminish.

  • Except maybe for a short time before the very end…! Francis is a TrueCatholic, and the w. of Babylon will pass away!

  • I’m not annoyed.

    I consider it my duty to take your silly nonsense apart and point out why it is both silly and nonsense.

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