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Bolivia: “Evangelization is not only for the soul”
4/4/2013
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Interview with Bishop Julio María Elías Montoya, apostolic vicar of Beni

The Apostolic Vicariate of Beni, created by Pope Benedict XV in 1917, spans six of the eight provinces that make up the Amazonian department of Beni. Julio María Elías Montoya, a 67-year-old Spanish Franciscan who was ordained a priest in 1968, is its bishop. The following year, he arrived in Bolivia and in 1974 he moved from Lake Titicaca to Trinidad, the capital of Beni. In 1987 he was promoted to bishop. Paolo Moiola, a collaborator with Latinamerica Press, spoke with Bishop Elías Montoya in Trinidad about the situation of the indigenous peoples and the environment in that northeastern Bolivian region.

In Bolivia, around 60 percent of the population is indigenous, and at least 36 different ethnic groups are recognized. What is the situation in Beni?
The vicariate for which I am responsible is large in territory but has a low population density. That being said, most of the population [of Beni] is made up of mestizos [people of mixed European and American Indian ancestry]. The indigenous peoples are a minority that, I believe, does not reach 30 percent of the total. There are many communities, but they are all very small. The most numerous ethnic group is the Moxeños, called Moxo during the time of the Jesuit reductions.

In the neighboring department of Santa Cruz, the old “reductions,” or Jesuit missions that were developed among the Chiquitano people, are well-known, in addition to being a tourist attraction. What is the impact of the history of these missions in Beni?
You must have noticed that in Beni all the cities are named after saints. The reason for this is that in the 17th century the Jesuit missionaries arrived here. Almost all of the population clusters have emerged from these famous reductions. The first Jesuit mission was founded in 1682 under the name of Our Lady of Loreto. In 1696 Trinidad was founded, and then the other cities followed. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits [in 1767], the indigenous dispersed, but they have been the ones conserving the Catholic traditions. It’s enough to think of the celebrations during the religious holidays [Christmas, Easter Week, or patrons saints’ days], anticipated by all the inhabitants.

Getting to Trinidad and Beni is not easy, especially during the rainy season. What is the situation like in this department?
Beni is a bit isolated with respect to La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba, the main cities of the country. However, having lived in Trinidad since 1974, I can say that I have seen progress, although there is no lack of difficulties. Here there are no industries. Our only source of wealth is — at least until now — extensive ranching.

What do you consider are Bolivia’s main problems?
First of all, without a doubt, there is poverty. Let me explain: today in Bolivia there is no lack of food, but it continues to be a subsistence economy. And moreover, there are shortcomings in the health and education sectors. If one gets sick, it is not easy to heal. Likewise, we are lacking an adequate education system.

In 2014 there will be presidential elections. When President Evo Morales was elected for the first time in December 2004, there were many expectations. Traveling through the eastern plains, we noticed a lot of hostility towards the president. How do you explain that?
With the election of Evo Morales there was a lot of hope, which persists albeit mainly among the population of the highlands. Likewise, it is true that the citizens here have felt a bit colonized by the people originally from the western region of the country.

Do you think there is an element of racism in this dispute between the eastern departments (with a majority white and mestizo population because of migration) and the rest of the country (with an indigenous majority)?
No, I don’t think there is racism. For example, Beni has always been open to [newcomers]. Here there are people from the highlands and, personally, I don’t see racism towards them. On the other hand, it is likewise true that Eastern Bolivia is different, culturally different than the rest of the country.

The 2009 Bolivian Constitution talks about the “sacred Mother Earth.” Unfortunately, even in this country, as in the rest of the world, environmental problems are increasing at an impressive rate.
It is so true that, in March of 2012, the bishops of Bolivia presented a pastoral letter — titled “The Universe, Gift from God for Life” — precisely dedicated to the environmental issue, the consumerist model, and the ecological crisis. As a Franciscan, I remember that Saint Francis spoke not only of “Mother Earth,” but of “Sister Mother Earth.” At the root of the environmental problem is the fact that we cannot think only of ourselves, but we must think about those who will come after us.

Concerning the interventions of the Bolivian Church, do you think that people still listen to the Catholic institution?
We have a voice in the Bolivian society, and we are respected by the people, who feel close to us. Some politicians and governments think that bishops and priests must only be dedicated to the salvation of the soul. But this is not the case. Evangelization is not only for the soul, but for the entire reality of a person. As priests and bishops, we must not look out for money, power, or pleasure, but we must truly put ourselves at the service of our neighbor.


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Bishop Julio María Elías Montoya (Photo: Paolo Moiola)
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