Address to the Knights of Columbus in 1963

Chicago, IL | February 24, 1963

It is easy to blame today's problems on what happened in the past. But time has now run out. We no longer can enjoy the luxury of debate on what happened in China or Cuba. Now we must act -- as a nation and as individuals to guarantee that the future will not be a dreary repetition of the past.


I am glad I came to Chicago to talk to the Knights of Columbus 2,000 strong here tonight. You have tremendous potential for good in Chicago -- but not only in Chicago.

The big "news" these days is Cuba, Castro, Communism and Latin America. One third of all the Catholics in the world live there.

What are the Knights of Columbus doing about Latin America? Cuba? about the 200 million Catholics who live there? Is there anything the Knights can do? Columbus -- Christopher Columbus -what language did he speak -- Spanish?

Do we reach out to communicate with the Spanish-speaking Catholics in Chicago? How many Puerto Rican, Spanish-speaking Americans are in this audience tonight? How many are members of the Knights of Columbus? 
 What about the, Latin Americans who are full-blooded Indians? Guatemala, for example, is populated by people, 80% of whom are full-blooded Indians. Would they meet any North American Indians the Knights of Columbus? Or, if they were here tonight, would they remember only how we Anglo-Saxons slaughtered the Indians of North America?

What about the millions of Catholic negroes in Latin America? in Brazil? in Panama? in Jamaica? in Venezuela?

While the journalists and politicians swarm and hover like vultures and jackals about the bloody and tragic carcass of Christian Cuba, vying with one another for credit or charging one another with blame, what are Catholic Americans like all of us here in the Knights of Columbus doing about Brazil -- one hundred times bigger and more important than Cuba? Are we helping Brazil?

Would a Brazilian Catholic negro be welcome here tonight?

The greatest burden carried by both Eisenhower and Kennedy in their dealings with Latin Americans is our failure as North Americans to respect the Spanish culture, the Indian heritage, the multi-racial background of most Latin peoples. These peoples, frankly, honestly, but politely, don’t believe we want them as friends and equals. In their eyes, North Americans, even their co-religionists, we North American Catholics, show very few signs of treating South Americans, American Indians, or Negroes, as equals.

Communism grows and spreads like cancer in this kind of psychological and spiritual atmosphere. 
 Are we actually nurturing Communism in Latin America by our actions and attitudes in North America?

These are hard questions -- perhaps impolite, rude questions. But these are the questions I have to answer all over South and Central America -- all over Africa -- all over Asia.

So far I have always answered "yes" -- I have said "yes" we North Americans do believe in the equality of all men -- we do believe that "all men are created equal" -- we do believe, and are willing to practice the principles of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution.

In Burma the Premier, U Nu, asked me: "Mr. Shriver, will the Peace Corps Volunteers believe in and practice democracy with the same zeal and faith that the Chinese Communists practice Communism? I said "yes." In Indonesia the Foreign Minister, Subandrio said to me: "Do the people of the United States -do the Peace Corps Volunteers really believe in the equality of all peoples? Are you sincerely ready to respect diverse, different races of men, different cultures, different languages, different methods of organizing society?" Again I said "yes."

Sure, these men and others like them all over Latin America, and Africa, and Asia, want our help -- financially. They want, and desperately need, dollars and factories and power plants. But they can take our money and hate us -- hate our culture, hate our superiority attitude, hate our hypocrisy, hate our power. And they will hate us -- if, by our actions at home and abroad, we convince them that we do not respect them as racial equals, cultural equals, political equals, as human beings, fully equal to us, fully entitled in God's sight to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In Latin America the Communist propaganda machine tells the world every day that we are not what we say we are.

They point to racial segregation. They point to the huge American industrial companies in Latin America and claim we are only interested in making money out of Venezuelan oil, or Chilean copper, or Bolivian tin.

They point to our military campaigns against Mexico, against Nicaragua, against Panama, against Haiti, against Puerto Rico.

This is the food on which Castro feeds.

Let's remember that this current struggle may well be solved without armed conflict or exchange of nuclear blows. Khrushchev is committed to this very proposition. He believes the Soviet Union can win without a shooting war. He sees the struggle as one where the weapons of subversion, propaganda, sabotage, assassination, economic warfare, espionage, bribery and even rigged elections may be decisive.

Never forget Cuba became a Communist state without the help of a single Russian or Chinese soldier.

It is easy to blame today problems on what happened in the past. But time has now run out. We no longer can enjoy the luxury of debate on what happened in China or Cuba. Now we must act -- as a nation and as individuals to guarantee that the future will not be a dreary repetition of the past.

Catholics have been asked to join the Papal Volunteers for service especially in Latin America. Protestants are being encouraged by their various denominations to go abroad as lay missionaries.

Businessmen are being asked by the Federal Government to invest more of their capital in private enterprise in Latin America.

At the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington we have been inspired by the response from all kinds of American citizens the rich and the poor, Republican and Democrat, Northerner and Southerner, Ph.D. and high school graduate.

Today there are 5,000 Peace Corps Volunteers at work in 45 countries. Only 24 months ago there were none. In the single months of January just past, 5,000 more Americans volunteered for the Peace Corps. Thirty-one thousand wrote letters of inquiry asking whether they could serve.

In 1963, as many as 50,000 Americans may volunteer for service in the Peace Corps, where the only prospects in store for them are hard work, long hours, little recognition and $75 a month $10 less than a private in the U.S. Army.

This flood of American volunteers must grow. Demands overseas far surpass the current supply. In Latin America alone the Peace Corps, by itself, could place 300 university teachers between now and Christmas, if men and women with the proper qualifications would step forward to serve.

We could utilize 500 farmers, 1,500 liberal arts graduates, 500 businessmen, and as many doctors, nurses, hospital technicians, automobile mechanics, veterinarians, math and science teachers, librarians, home economics, carpenters, plumbers, and electricians as thee nation can produce.

The Peace Corps has committed itself to send 4,000 Volunteers to Latin America alone between now and this time next year everyone of them is desperately needed now.

But the Peace Corps is only a part of the effort we must make. We must tap the energies of all, as the Peace Corps has tapped the energy of some. We must uncover the vitality, energy and strength necessary to shape this hemisphere’s destiny.

In this work -- especially in the nations of Latin America -the Knights of Columbus have an important role to play.

Scarcely a month before Castro imposed a red dictatorship on the Cuban people, Pope John told the National Catholic Congress in Cuba: "The face of the earth could change if true charity reigned; the charity of the Christian who shares the sorrow, the suffering of the unfortunate, who seeks their happiness, their salvation, as well as his own. The charity of the Christian, convinced that what he owns has a social function, and that to use what is superfluous to his need in favor of one who does not have the necessities, is not an optional generosity, but a duty. This also could change the face of the earth."

I have seen the Maryknoll priests from Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago working with the Indians high in the mountains of the Andes. I have seen them organizing credit unions and savings and loan associations in the slums of Santiago, Arequippa and Lima, Peru. The Franciscans are there, the Sisters of Mercy from Chicago are there, and the Sacred Heart nuns, too.

The Bishop of Panama is a Notre Dame graduate, 35 years old, 6’4", thin, black hair, regal bearing, resplendent in his full white cassock with a broad band of red around his waist -striding through downtown Panama City challenging the men of that country by his mere presence in the slums. But the magnitude of the challenge far surpasses the size of their response, or ours.

Almost 200 million people live to the south of us. The population is expanding faster than any other region in the world. The average income of these people is one-ninth that of a citizen of the United States.

While North Americans can expect to live to be 70, Latin Americans can look forward only to 46 years of life. In some countries life expectancy is in the 30’s. Infant mortality is triple our own; half the adults are illiterate. In some countries illiteracy is as high as 90 percent. And these are our fellow Catholics.'

Yet statistics are cold. They cannot describe the daily fight for life, the endless struggles to break those, ancient bonds of hunger, disease, ignorance and of endless poverty.

If my income were less than $90 a year, and I could not read, and if my wife were dressed in rags and my children were hungry, I'd be eager to try anything. If he told me that democracy was responsible for my poverty, and promised that Communism would bring me food, money, and a home, I would be tempted. And, so would you. It almost happened here in 1930. It is happening in Latin America now.

Fifteen months ago I visited a slum outside of Lima, Peru called "The Mountain." More than 20,000 people lived on this mountain. When I got there, I found out that The Mountain was a mountain of garbage. Yet, the people living there were not corrupt or depraved. The men were not loafers, or the women sluts. By and large they were decent, respectable people feverishly seeking work, willing to do anything to improve their lot.

Outside of Rio de Janerio in Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela have stood in the slums on the mountainsides at night and looked down upon sights as fabulous as anything in the Arabian Nights ---- glamorous neon signs, 4-lane highways, soaring skyscrapers, beautiful homes, cabarets, fine restaurants. But where I stood, in the slums, lived three-fourths of all the people and three-fourths of all the people had neither electricity, nor clean water, nor sewers, nor telephone, nor schools, nor hospitals, nor hope for the future.

After one such evening I said to myself: "If I were a Communist agitator and could not start a revolution in one of those slums in eight months, I'd quit my job."

It’s so easy.

The big electric signs at night -- the tall skyscrapers the fancy automobiles -- all have English words written on them ---- Firestone, Sears Roebuck, Esso, Frigidaire, Coca Cola.

The signs of wealth are always in English, while the signs of poverty are written in Spanish or Portuguese. It's so easy to explain that contrast in terms of exploitation by the Gringos from the North.

It’s so easy when those Gringos isolate themselves. It's so easy when thousands of those Gringos profited financially for years, and still "can't" speak the local language or eat the local food.

It's so easy when Radio Havana nightly explains the difference between the haves and the have nots in the gross simplicities, but forceful sentences of Marxism and Communism.

Today a pitifully small band of priests and Catholic organizations are struggling against these elements, struggling to bring about a better life for the people. But let’s face facts. The Church has not always been on the side of the people. Far too often, it has been identified with the status quo. . . . the rich and the powerful . . . . and those who opposed social reforms and political democracy.

The situation is changing, but is it coming too late?

In every country of Latin America there are Catholic priests and laymen fighting lonely battles to educate the ignorant, feed the hungry and house the poor. They are in the forefront of the struggle. But these are not just Catholics, fighting a religious war. They are free men helping other men to gain freedom -- freedom from human tyranny as well as freedom from poverty, disease and illiteracy.

One proof that these men and women are not just Catholics fighting a religious war is the overwhelmingly hospitable welcome they have accorded to the Peace Corps Volunteers -- Protestant, jew, agnostic, atheist -- as well as Catholic -- who have come to Latin America to work for the betterment of the people.

In Chile, in Peru and in Honduras, priests have frequently provided lodgings and food until the Peace Corps Volunteers could get a place to live. And in one place, a Jewish Peace Corps Volunteer has refused to move from the home of the priest where he had been living from the beginning, because, as he said, everyone in the village had begun to call him "Padre" and he is getting a 25 percent discount at all the stores.

This cooperation, however, has never violated the constitutional principle whereby the Church and State are separate in their respective spheres.

But it has produced stirring testimonials.

In Colombia there is a famous "Radio Priest" who operates a chain of stations and outlets throughout the rural mountain countryside. He is the most famous priest in the country. He knows everything that is going on everywhere. His name is Monsignor J. J. Salcedo.

Monsignor Salcedo recently wrote these words to a group of interested North American laymen -- not connected with the Peace Corps in any way whatsoever: "The history of humanity will record the young people of the Peace Corps as heroes. The worth of their actions is not in the roads, houses or bridges they are building but in the heroic lesson they are giving of true friendship. These young people are conquering the hearts of people by means of their example, their work, their true love for the people."

Father Henle, Vice President of St. Louis University, after he returned from visiting the Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras, said: "The Peace Corps is giving Latin Americans a new view of the United States. They see love, instead of power."

Father Henle knew what he was talking about. His University trained the Peace Corps Volunteers for British Honduras before they went abroad, and he personally visited them after they were at work in Central America. Other Catholic institutions have assisted us in preparing Volunteers for service overseas, including Georgetown and Notre Dame. And within the next few days, on March 4, a new training program will commence at Boston College to train Peace Corps Volunteers for assignments in Peru.

Yet, of the 3,400 Peace Corps Volunteers who attended colleges, only 430 attended Catholic institutions.

But, to assist in this struggle, you don't have to serve in the Peace Corps, or become a Papal Volunteer.

Not long ago Cardinal Cushing proposed one way in which the Knights of Columbus could help: by contributing to the establishment of FLAME, INC. a new monetary fund designed to provide low interest loans to worthy groups in Latin America for the establishment of schools, or housing projects, or farms for the landless.

I was shocked to hear that the Knights of Columbus rejected Cardinal Cushing’s plea.

Tremendous good could come from this project. It is aimed at the very heart of the problem facing the Bishops or parish priest in Latin America. Whether it is a village school, a health center or a small homestead development program, the first step invariably involves the expenditure of money. And in the economy of Latin America, money is scarce, frightfully scarce. Thousands of plans for the simplest human necessities fail for the want of pennies, not dollars. Flame, Inc. would make available to Latin American Bishops small sums for launching these worthwhile projects. This is a vital endeavor. I share his Eminences hope and expectation that the Knights of Columbus will reconsider this appeal.

But this alone is not enough. More than money is needed. In the historic document "Mater et Magistra," the Holy Father told us that "We all share responsibility for the fact that populations are undernourished . . .it is necessary to arouse a sense of responsibility in individuals especially among those more blessed with this world's goods." . . . It is proper that the duty of helping the poor and unfortunate should especially stir Catholics, since they are members of the Mystical Body of Christ."

It is to us that these words are directed -- and the mandate is clear. We, Catholic citizens of the richest nations in the history of the world, are responsible -- directly and personally responsible -- for helping the millions in Latin America.

This is not a responsibility which can be comfortably left it the hands of the government in Washington while we pursue our daily Lives and comforts. It is not a responsibility which can be delegated to others -- whether a Cardinal or a Congressman. It is not a responsibility which can be avoided by criticizing Foreign aid or applauding the Peace Corps. 
 Rather as individuals and organizations, we must personally give your own resources and, what is even more difficult, of our own time.

And in no part of the world is there greater need or greater opportunity than in the vast continent to the South -Latin America.

Therefore, I propose that every diocesan chapter of the Knights of Columbus adopt a diocese in Latin America -- that you make the work of that diocese an object of your own personal concern and charity.

In this way you can give material assistance to the efforts of individual priests and laymen.

You might provide Latin Americans an opportunity for education --- either in their own country or here in the United States.

Individual Catholic families might establish direct relationship with Latin American families -- writing to them, demonstrating sincere concern and interest -- as well as helping occasionally with food or clothing.

Your experience and knowledge might be of direct help to those in your adopted diocese who are trying to organize a union, start a business, or launch an agricultural cooperative.

These are only examples. You will find, I am sure, many other ways to be of assistance in this historic fight against human want and on the behalf of human freedom.

You will not only help Latin America, you will help yourself. You and your children will have an opportunity to broaden your horizons through learning in a direct and immediate way -- of the problems and life of people in other lands.

You also will benefit through contact with the flourishing culture, the deep spiritual values, and the firmly rooted tradition of individual human dignity in Latin America. For we have much to learn in the way of the mind and spirit from our brothers in Latin America who have kept alive their deep beliefs despite an adversity which is almost beyond our capacity to imagine.

With this program which we could call Project Brotherhood --- we can carry out our responsibilities as citizens of the United States, our duties as Catholics and our obligations as individual men and women in a brotherhood of man. We can capture that spirit of individual sacrifice and meaningful effort which, by bringing us closer to other men, brings us closer to God.