Kaine's volunteer work with the Jesuits in Honduras has been portrayed as teaching carpentry and welding at the Instituto Tecnico Loyola, which gives vocational training to at-risk youth.
Father Mauricio Gaborit, S.J., whom America Magazine has called a long-distance mentor of Kaine and who met Kaine in 1974 while working in El Progreso, said that during Kaine's 1980-81 visit the young man would visit villages to recruit students for the technical institute, befriend them, and help them to sell the goods they made. Fr. Gaborit said Kaine also taught English and religion classes.
Father Jack Warner, S.J., an American who lived with Kaine in Honduras and who currently lives in El Progreso, told CNA that Kaine's work was mostly focused on the Instituto Tecnico Loyola, but that he also helped with the design of the carpentry of a small theater the priest founded.
Dr. Andrés León Araya, a professor of anthroplogy at the University of Costa Rica, has written that the work of the Jesuits in the Aguan valley of northern Honduras “was oriented mainly around organizing and supporting peasant cooperatives.”
“These were all priests influenced by Liberation Theology,” León wrote in his 2015 dissertation for the City University of New York. “They were particularly active in the area of political training, especially through their radio schools – teaching reading and writing as the basis for organization.”
He described the Jesuits as “in the thick of the struggle for land” between farmers and ranchers, but that they “also were usually the first to denounce injustices taking place within the cooperatives (corruption and violence above all).”
León noted the 1975 Horcones massacre as among the events that “shifted the ways in which the Jesuits approached their political work in the communities.”
In June 1975, the bodies of 14 people heading to a hunger march in the capital city Tegucigalpa were found on the Horcones ranch. Among them were two priests, Father Jerome Cypher and Father Iván Betancourt. León wrote that “Perpetrated by members of the Honduran army with the support of local cattle ranchers, the massacre was understood as an attempt by the military government … to stop the increasing militancy and radicalism of the peasant movement,” which was pushing for land reform.
According to León, in the aftermath of the massacre the Honduran bishops instructed parishes “to lay low and fire anyone affiliated with the left-oriented parties,” which “basically meant a retreat from any open political activity.”
This instruction was extremely distasteful to Father James Carney, S.J., an American-born priest who embraced liberation theology and revolution in the 1970s, and was exiled from Honduras in 1979 for his increasingly radical activities and promotion of Marxist ideology.
Father Carney wrote in his autobiography that after the Horcones massacre “the Catholic hierarchy, the majority of the priests and also the laymen in Honduras retreated from any social commitment and became nonpolitical and very anticommunist.”
Though he was not present in El Progreso while Kaine was there, Father Carney corresponded with the Jesuits in Honduras, encouraging them in their work. He later re-entered Honduras as a chaplain for a leftist guerrilla unit and was “disappeared”, and likely executed, by the Honduran military, in 1983.
After an interview with Kaine, Jason Horowitz wrote in the New York Times Sept. 2 that though Father Carney was exiled from Honduras during Kaine's stay, Kaine sought him out “during a short stay in Nicaragua.”
“Mr. Kaine hopped off a bus in northern Nicaragua, walked miles to Father Carney’s remote parish and spent a memorable evening listening to the priest describe 'both getting pushed around by the military and getting pushed around by the church,'” Horowitz said.
He added that Kaine “embraced” liberation theology, saying he told his pastor in Richmond, Va., “that his exposure to liberation theology had 'changed him, it deepened him.'”
According to León, the Jesuits' organization of peasant cooperatives was “thanks to the close relation that existed” between Father Carney and the National Association of Honduran Peasants.
Grandin wrote that the Jesuits were “on the front lines of Central America’s political upheaval. By no means were most Jesuits left wing, but many, perhaps the majority, were at least broadly committed to what was called the 'social gospel.'”
This was echoed by Horowitz, who said that “most of the American Jesuits Mr. Kaine worked with on a daily basis had a more pragmatic streak and rolled their eyes during philosophical debates about liberation theology.”
According to Grandin, when Kaine stayed in Honduras, the Jesuit mission at El Progreso “was focusing its work on labor issues and the welfare of plantations laborers and their families.”
Grandin interviewed Dr. Jefferson Boyer, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Appalacian State University, about the Jesuits in Honduras. Boyer spent six years in Honduras, earning a doctorate with his 1982 dissertation “Agrarian Capitalism and Peasant Praxis in Southern Honduras” after studying economy and peasant movements in the country.
Grandin relates that Boyer remembered a “split” among the “North Coast Jesuits” of Honduras, along the lines of liberation theology and the election of St. John Paul II as Bishop of Rome.
He wrote that Boyer said “the US Jesuits in Honduras tended to be more conservative, while younger Latin American and European Jesuits 'consistently held democratic socialist positions,'” though Father Carney was the exception to this rule.
Kaine's mentor in El Progreso was Father Jarrell “Patricio” Wade, S.J., according to Grandin, who describes the priest as having ethics “more pastoral than political.” He says Boyer called Father Wade a “traditional Jesuit”, and that Father Carney said Father Wade “blamed his political work with peasants for provoking the growing repression against priests.”
Kaine and his wife Anne celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in November 2004 by visiting El Progreso, where they spent a couple a couple days with Father Wade, according to the Washington Post.
One of the stories Kaine tells about his time with Father Wade – who remained in Honduras until his death in 2014 – is that they visited an impoverished family around Christmas, and the father gave the priest a bag of food as a Christmas gift.
“Kaine said he was shocked and angry that the priest had accepted food from a man whose own children clearly were not getting enough to eat,” Timothy Dwyer wrote in the Washington Post. “For five minutes or more they walked in silence, until the priest turned to Kaine and said: 'Tim, you know you really have to be humble to accept a gift of food from a family that poor.'”
Kaine told the Post: “That one sentence that Patricio said to me is the thing that I have come back to most often in the last 25 years as I try to figure out what to do and what I ought to be doing.”
In his 2010 interview with CNN, Kaine mentioned, alongside Father Wade, Jim O'Leary, a Jesuit brother, and Father Ramon Peis as “people who at a young – at an early time in my life really put me on a path I still feel like I'm on to try to, you know, be of service to others.”
Father Gaborit told America that Kaine, in reflecting on the situation of the poor, “went the route of optimism. He saw himself … helping people.”
Grandin writes that “According to his own account,” Kaine “provided politically neutral technical training, helping with a program that taught carpentry and welding.”
But he quotes Boyer as saying that “if Tim Kaine was working as a Jesuit volunteer in 1980, he could not have avoided become immersed in these socio-religious, political currents and cross-currents. He would have been exposed to both conservative and generally more left and activist work of his hosts and mentors.”
This view was echoed by Father Warner, who told CNA that Kaine would certainly have had contact with the troubled situation in the region at the time.
“At that time (the violence), the force, affected everyone, because the reality of the situation at that time one simply could not escape, there was no way to look in another direction,” he said.
Father Warner spoke to the New York Times about liberation theology, saying that “the gospel is an extremely communist document” and that St. John Paul II's crackdown on liberation theology was “one of the reasons we didn't make too much noise about it.”
And sympathy for Father Carney’s radicalized vision of liberation theology continues today through the work of Father Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., director of Radio Progreso, who also worked with Kaine during his time in Honduras.
During a September 2015 commemoration of Father Carney's disappearance, Father Moreno called on those in attendance “to follow his [Father Carney's] footsteps and memory of struggling to continue to build a more just and equitable society."
Over the years Father Moreno and Kaine have met both in Washington, D.C. and in El Progreso.
In his most recent visit to Honduras, in 2015, Kaine gave an interview to Radio Progreso, saying, “During my time here I learned many lessons from you, students and their families, Jesuit priests and the Progreso people. The Jesuits inspired me to help people in my life. They are models of values, missionaries who think of others before themselves.”