Haiti's Catholic Church renews push for change. Bishops increasingly impatient with pace of political reform

There is standing room only on Sundays at the Church of Saint Jean Bosco near one of the worst slums in the capital. Those who do not come early cram the doorways or climb up at the windows. Inside, a jazz band plays, the congregation sways, and several hundred joyful voices swell up, not in praise of the Lord, but in freedom songs.

The parish priest, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, reads, not from the Scriptures, but from a book of his own political verse, calling for people to overturn the system that has oppressed them for so long.

Although Haiti's Roman Catholic Church has kept a low political profile during the year since dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown, the church is gradually reasserting its authority over this turbulent island nation of 6 million Catholics.

Haiti's conservative bishops have added their powerful voices to the raising chorus of dissidents, like Fr. Aristide, calling for greater political change.

``For things to change, new men are needed,'' Haiti's bishops urged in a recent pastoral letter. But Gen. Henri Namphy's interim civilian-military government has so far resisted popular demands to purge Duvalier's former aides from office and to have alleged political criminals stand trial.

Radical priests teaching liberation theology were at the forefront of the uprising. News broadcasts from the Catholic radio station, Radio Soleil, fuelled the rebellion. (Liberation theology advocates the need for Catholics to become involved in movements for social justice.)

When General Namphy assumed command of the country Feb. 7, 1986, backed by officers who had been close to the dictator, the church officially adopted a ``wait and see'' attitude. Though radical clergymen advocated complete political change, their bishops preached patience and reconciliation. The church appeared to lose some of its influence as dozens of political parties sprang up, and more than 200 candidates declared plans to contest the presidency.

But even as the bishops vacillated, Haitians flocked to listen to the radical message of the liberationists, such as Fr. Aristide. The little priest stirred the passions of Haiti's faithful masses in the days succeeding Duvalier's fall with a nationally broadcast homily full of fire and brimstone.

``The gospel means revolution, a complete change,'' Aristide told reporters after a recent mass. ``If we just pray and wait for justice, it will be too late. We have to organize ourselves to make justice today.''

The nine bishops comprising Haiti's Episcopal conference advocate a slower pace of change, but in their pastoral letter, read on the anniversary of Duvalier's fall, they too appear to have lost patience with the military government. The letter narrows the gap between the church hierarchy and the radical clergy and suggests that even the most conservative sectors of society are losing faith in the provisional government.

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