Remembering Rev. Robert Pelton, CSC

By Peter Casarella, Associate Professor of Theology, Kellogg Faculty Fellow, Former Director of LANACC

¡Bueno, bueno! That’s my fondest memory of Fr. Bob Pelton. He never arrived or departed without a jovial greeting, usually en español. Throughout his whole life, he let his enthusiasm spread like wildfire. It will be sorely missed.

He came here as a scholar-athlete from the public schools in Evanston, Illinois. Swimming was his passion and remained so for many years. A coaching trophy from Notre Dame can be found in the showcases of the Joyce Center even today. Stanford’s swim coach was eager to mentor the CY.O. backstroke champion of Chicago from 1937, and the offer of an athletic scholarship seemed like a good academic choice as well. However, it was a conversation with the pastor of St. Athanasius Parish in Evanston that changed the course of his life.

So Robert Stuart Pelton entered the college of the University of Notre Dame in 1939 and graduated from the seminary as one of the Forty-Niners (seminary class of ’49). There were key Holy Cross priests who formed him like John O’Hara, Michael Mathis, and Louis J. Putz. Fr. Putz, a political refugee from Germany, introduced Fr. Bob and others to the concept of “see, judge, and act,” a method that Putz had learned in the circle of Cardinal Joseph Leo Cardijn in Belgium. As Rector of Moreau Seminary, Putz was ahead of his time on the promotion of the laity and the need to integrate social concerns into the center of the liturgical and pastoral life of the Church. It should not be forgotten that Pelton was both on the Glee Club and a cantor in the Moreau choir. At the time of his passing, he was the oldest living member of the Glee Club.

During the 1950s and early 60s, Fr. Bob studied in Rome and Paris. His doctoral dissertation dealt with “A Thomistic Conception of the Spirituality of the Catholic University Lay Student.” He studied with eminent figures like Réginald Garrigou-LaGrange, OP, and Yves Congar, OP, and met Pope Pius XII four times. Congar’s book Lay People in the Church (1953) remained a favorite resource of Fr. Bob until the end of his life and is cited in his last article.

The connection with Rome did not end with the doctorate. Shortly after being re assigned to Chile in 1964, Fr. Bob was temporarily called away from that assignment to act as a peritus, a personal adviser, for Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens during the final session of Vatican II. He attended preliminary discussions with Suenens as the Council unfolded. His best friend from Moreau seminary (and for most of the rest of his life) was Marcos McGrath, CSC, then a newly named bishop in Panama.

McGrath was one of the bishops giving speeches during the Council and writing documents of the Council. In other words, Fr. Bob had more than a front-row seat. He was at the very doorstep of the opening of the Church to the modern world. Accordingly, he absorbed at first hand many conciliar lessons about the need to address temporal concerns and the voice of the people of God more integrally into the spiritual order of the Church.

In Chile (1964-1972) he started as Rector of the elite high school run by the Congregation of Holy Cross, St. George’s. During this time, Fr. Bob also served directly in the Archdiocese of Santiago for five years as the Episcopal Vicar for Religious Institutes, at the invitation of Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez. These were actually the formative years in the development of Bob Pelton’s view of the Church. “If I have anything like a heart now,” Fr. Bob once said, “I think I got it in Chile.” He arrived there with more knowledge of French than Spanish. He left a Christian Socialist and liberation theologian.

Three points are worth noting. First, he learned a new theological orientation from his spiritual director, Manuel Larraín, Bishop of Talca, President of CELAM, and a courageous proponent of land reform. Second, while in Chile, he befriended Sr. Carol Piette, MM. Sr. “Carla” was a Maryknoll from Wisconsin who spent 15 years in Chile and later died in a flash flood while serving the poor in El Salvador. She was a model of service to “poor ole beat-up people.” Finally, a dramatic and illustrative incident took place at the airport of Santiago de Chile in January 1974. A sweaty priest with a guayabera shirt arrived at the post of an armed guard. The guard seemed to recognize the former Rector of St. George’s and waved him through without much fanfare. What a stroke of luck! When Fr. Bob and his companion arrived in the US, he handed the documentation of human rights abuses (from COPACHI in Chile) that he had hidden under his shirt over to officials who were investigating the abuses of the Pinochet regime. The penalty for smuggling out such documents would no doubt have been death.

Few people have served Notre Dame with same dedication and energy as Fr. Bob. His record of service sheds a lot of light on the genesis of almost all the ecclesial institutes we have around us today. Fr. Bob had already served as chair of the newly named Department of Theology from 1959 to 1963. At that time, he had also begun, at the request of the President, to shepherd the Latin American students at Notre Dame. Today, these alumni are spread throughout Latin America and speak fondly of the monthly “Latin Mass” celebrated on campus by Fr. Bob and Fr. Hesburgh. Fr. Bob also spent ten years in the 1970s directing the Institute for Clergy Education at Notre Dame (now called the Hesburgh Center and re-located at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago). In 1986 he inherited from Joseph Gremillion the Institute for Pastoral and Social Ministry (IPSM) and directed that entity for five years before taking a sabbatical at Stanford University. Part of IPSM’s work (The Center for Experiential Learning) had already been taken up by Don McNeill, CSC, who founded the Center for Social Concerns in 1983. Other aspects of IPSM are now under the administration of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

Encouraged by Gremillion and by the economist and fellow Holy Cross priest Fr. Ernest Bartell, Fr. Bob decided in 1985 to launch Latin American North American Church Concerns (LANACC). Typical of Fr. Bob, there was no large external gift to launch this effort, just a small inheritance from his mother as the only seed money. In 1992 Bartell helped Fr. Bob to get LANACC incorporated into the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, which had been founded in 1979. Fr. Bob, newly returned from Stanford, held appointments at that time in both the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

The experience of inequality and social injustice in Chile galvanized Fr. Bob’s approach to peace and justice in other regions of Latin America. Only seven years after the brutal assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980, Fr. Bob started the first annual Romero Days. The first one was not actually billed as a LANACC event. It was offered as part of IPSM’s “Shaheen Bishops’ Leadership Conference” and included an address by the president of the Catholic University, Managua, Nicaragua.

Dedication to Romero was Fr. Bob’s true passion. In 2011, his film “Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero” received numerous accolades, including an award from the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Audiences have viewed this film at numerous US universities, including the University of California, Berkeley; Santa Clara University; and Marquette University; as well as at Notre Dame. Additionally, it has been broadcast on television stations in Argentina, Canada, France, and El Salvador, and it was rebroadcast repeatedly in the days leading up to Archbishop Romero’s beatification.

What about Saint Romero? The canonization was blocked for decades by high-ranking members of the Curia, but thanks to the tireless efforts of Fr. Bob and Pope Francis, Romero’s legacy for the Church is now firmly in place. Since Fr. Bob paved the way for this canonization, it is very fitting that he was in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 14, 2018, for the joint canonization of Romero and Pope Paul VI. Sainthood was not nearly enough. Fr. Bob was in the last years also encouraging us to help pave the path for Romero as a Pastoral Doctor of the Church.

Since 1985, LANACC has been a center for research and solidarity with the Church of Latin America. What kind of theology does LANACC represent? Fr. Bob placed three methodological principles at the fore: 1 ) the preferential option for the poor, 2 ) accompanying base ecclesial communities and developing on that basis an inductive approach to matters of faith, and 3 ) reverse mission. Regarding the poor, Fr. Bob attended the CELAM general conference in Puebla in 1972 as a reporter. This was the setting in which the term “preferential option for the poor” was first used. This coinage confirmed what Fr. Bob had already learned among the campesinos from Bishop Larraín and others. His other great companion in this field from an early stage was Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, from Peru. Fr. Bob exalted Fr. Gustavo’s work at the very beginnings of liberation theology, and they later became colleagues at Notre Dame.

Inspired by the democratic resistance by the Catholic Church and others in Chile, the example of the slain priest Héctor Gallegos in Panamá (who was assassinated under McGrath’s watch), and the equally courageous witness of Rutilio Grande, SJ, in El Salvador, Fr. Bob became one of the main proponents in the United States of Base Ecclesial Communities. He saw them as a model for both North and South. Based upon an earlier experience in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Fr. Bob sponsored a conference at Notre Dame in 1991 that resulted in a major publication on the topic: Small Christian Communities Today. Fr. Bob wrote an essay in that volume about the casas de oración, or “house Churches,” in Cuba. On that island, with its own special circumstances, these are small Christian communities, Catholic and Protestant, that typically operate with lay leadership under the radar of the always vigilant Cuban government. Fr. Bob turned to them as a model of a spirituality of communion for the entire Church. For him they demonstrate, in action, the theology of the laity that he first read about in Congar and saw defended at the Council.

But Fr. Bob always understood the role of the CEBs to be theological. In the words of one of his main mentors, the Brazilian José Marins, the model of Catholic Action promulgated by Putz and others taught pastoral leaders to see, judge, and act. CEBs taught an inductive methodology for theology as a whole with two more steps: see–judge–act–celebrate–evaluate. Fr. Bob said that he had been taught in the classrooms of Notre Dame, Paris, and Rome to deduce theology from first principles. In line with the vision of Marins, he, however, favored a more inductive method based upon the sensus fidei (sense of faith) of the people of God. Vatican II had already acknowledged this point in Lumen Gentium 12, but Fr. Bob wanted to drive the message home.

From its inception, Fr. Bob dedicated LANACC to “reverse mission.” He believed that gringos, such as himself, had more to learn from Latin America than Latin Americans were going to learn from him. Moreover, Marcos McGrath and Bob Pelton were part of a generation of priests that heeded the call to have ten percent of religious in the United States serve in Latin America. In particular, Fr. Bob had worked with John Considine, MM, in memory of whom LANACC gives an annual undergraduate service award. Fr. Considine later became the first director of the US Catholic Bishops’ Latin American Bureau. Considine suggested to the Vatican that US, Canadian, and European religious could help alleviate the severe shortage of religious in Latin America. This idea was adopted by the Vatican and in 1961, speaking in the name of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Mons. Agostino Casaroli chose Notre Dame to announce his appeal for ten percent of US religious to accept assignments throughout Latin America by the decade’s end. Mons. Casaroli’s invitation sparked commitments to serve in Latin America from large numbers of priests, brothers, and sisters, including many of “the best and the most qualified vocations,” that Casaroli had specifically requested. The goal of sending ten percent of priests and religious was never reached, but the project of bringing back the fruits of missionary work to plant a new seed in U.S. soil did gain momentum. McGrath frequently returned to Notre Dame and other centers of the Church in the United States to lecture on developments in Latin American theology. After he returned from Chile, Fr. Bob never separated renewal in the Church in Latin America from the need for renewal in the US. Let me just recall one example. From 1984 to 1989, part of which time he served as the second Director of the Institute for Church Life (today McGrath Institute), Fr. Bob worked with Prof. David Leege to edit 15 bi-monthly reports based upon The Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin later praised this work of renewal. The CELAM agreement signed by Fr. John Jenkins of Notre Dame in 2014 with the President of CELAM continues this tradition of building bonds with the South in order to bring back those fruits to the North.

In 2007, Fr. Bob went with press credentials facilitated by Notre Dame Magazine to the General Conference of CELAM at Aparecida and later published a fine collection of essays evaluating the legacy of Aparecida. What is interesting about this engagement is his strong affinity with Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Nothing animated Fr. Bob in the last few years as much as the “bridge theology” of Pope Francis. Cardinal Bergoglio served as chair of the drafting committee of the final document of Aparecida, and many have noted the commonality between Aparecida and the main themes of his pontificate. In fact, many of the themes underscored in Aparecida: Quo Vadis? are developed more fully in Pope Francis’s charter for the Church, Evangelii Gaudium (2013).

To take one example, Fr. Bob highlighted the “pedagogy of encounter and communion” at Aparecida. This is the same as the cultura de encuentro, “the culture of encounter,” that Pope Francis now places at the center of missionary discipleship. The accompaniment of the poor, the consultation with the laity, the theology of the people, and the need to reform the Church in the light of the Gospel, but especially with the acute awareness of the presence of structural sin in the Church and the world, are all themes that Fr. Bob worked to disseminate his entire life. When he talked about an emerging “bridge theology” in Pope Francis, he referred to the affirmation by Francis of the bridge between North and South, of the need for a bridge between local Church and the Bishop of Rome, and especially to the way that these calls for reform are now at the front and center of the work of the global Church. The sexual abuse and accountability crisis that implicated both the Bishops of Chile and those of the United States was absolutely devastating for Fr. Bob since these were the two poles of his own ecclesial existence.

The Greek term parresia, or unfettered boldness in speech, is used 31 times in the New Testament, especially in St. Paul and in Luke (cf. 2 Cor. 3:12). Parresia describes Fr. Bob’s approach to the Church. He demonstrated pastoral fortitude in many different fields of academic and Church life. For example, in the same year (1985) that Fr. Hesburgh gave an honorary doctorate to alumnus and former student José Napoleon Duarte, former President of El Salvador, Fr. Bob was visiting a local congressman to protest Duarte’s complicity in the oppression of people in that country. Fr. Bob logged long hours for “the company," surviving multiple attempts to put him to pasture as an emeritus (an act that did not take place until 2015, when he was 95). But he was never just a “company man.”

Like “the ecclesiastical marine” that he fashioned himself to be, he was always eager to get to his next assignment. I first got to know him in his nineties, and this was his most characteristic feature in every single encounter. The trip to Rome for the canonization of San Romero at the age of 97 was a perfect example. He was not going to miss it. In the last years at Fatima and then Holy Cross House, he was a sociable but frenetic member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and also, co-teaching a class on Cuba with me in the fall of 2016. In our private meetings, he always came prepared with a list. Remarkably, there are, to my knowledge, no heavenly meetings in which the orders of angels take down bullet points from the yellow pads of the newly entered souls.

On the phone, Fr. Bob typically ended conversations with “Over and out.” So we’ll say as a final farewell in the midst of our grief: “Over and out, Fr. Bob.” We will dearly miss your company, pastoral leadership, upbeat toasts and timely table blessings, good cheer, and contagious energy. “¡Al attaque!” May we all take to heart your inimitable witness as you move on to sing in communion with the angelic hosts and rejoin Marcos, San Romero, and Sr. Carla. It’s hard to imagine you resting in peace. But we can strain our ears to listen for the new vigor and loud voice you are currently lending to the heavenly choirs.