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Austen IvereighDecember 10, 2021
Participants at the Asamblea Eclesial in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico (photo: María Langarica/Celam) Participants at the Asamblea Eclesial in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico (photo: María Langarica/Celam) 

It was no small irony that the Latin American church’s first continent-wide “ecclesial assembly” took place inside a silent, walled compound, far from any madding crowd. North of Mexico City in Cuautitlán Izcalli (n Náhuatl, “your house among the trees.”), for a week at the end of November, in the era of Covid-19 and Zoom, over 1,000 people—120 in-person assembly members, joined online by another 900 delegates—came together at the behest of Celam, the Council of Latin American Bishops’ Conferences, to discuss and discern.

The Asamblea Eclesial had been the pope’s suggestion, as was the location in Mexico, so that it could be under the “maternal protection of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of Las Américas.” The assembly began and ended with Mass at her basilica in Mexico City, but the gathering was in Casa Lago, named for the nearby Lake of Guadalupe, which belongs to the Mexican bishops’ conference. An unlikely Briton among the dozens of bishops, religious, clergy and lay people from more than 20 nations across Latin America, I had accepted Celam’s kind invitation to be an asambleísta presencial (an in-person assembly member) there.

It was no small irony that the Latin American church’s first continent-wide “ecclesial assembly” took place inside a silent, walled compound, far from any madding crowd.

The task? First, to attune our ear to the cry of the people, whose voices were captured in “a narrative synthesis,” a summary of a four-month listening exercise earlier in the year, to which some 70,000 people contributed, either as individuals or on behalf of their communities. Second, to hear from church leaders, theologians and prophetic witnesses across Latin America, who gave talks and testimonies live or in videos that were streamed throughout the week on YouTube. Third, to gather in around 50 small groups—a few of us in Casa Lago, linking up with the majority Zooming in—to hear how the spirit could be calling the church in Latin America at this time. The time is now 15 years on from the groundbreaking Celam conference at Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, and eight years into the reform by St. Peter’s first Latin-American successor, whose pontificate has been inspired by the remarkable discernment and insight that took place at that Brazilian shrine.

It was Pope Francis, too, who suggested that this was the moment for the continent to take stock and revive that vision—only this time in a synodal way, with the people of God as the protagonist. At the end of 2019, Celam’s new president, Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, of Trujillo, Peru, who had overseen a restructuring of the Bogotá-based council after a long period of crisis in its finances and governance, put to him the idea of a sixth general conference of bishops. The pope was adamant that the task was still to implement Aparecida, which many bishops had “put back on the shelf,” as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, of Managua, Nicaragua, told the assembly.

Taking Aparecida off the shelf

True, the church in the great metropolitan belts of greater Buenos Aires, or in Texcoco and Tlanepantla on the outskirts of Mexico City, was profoundly reshaped by Aparecida’s call for a pastoral and missionary conversion. Yet many dioceses had remained stuck in old ways of clericalism and moralism. In the face of this immobility, according to Jorge Lozano, archbishop of San Juan in Argentina and Celam’s secretary general, the question had moved over time. It was no longer about how to ensure the bishops took up Aparecida’s invitation, but instead, how to create space for the people of God to assume their calling as “missionary disciples.” The point, in other words, was not to sit around debating Aparecida, like academics, but to enable the very thing whose absence was the obstacle to its implementation: the agency of the people of God.

In January 2021—Covid-19 had put the assembly preparations back a year—Francis sent a video message making clear this was to be a very different beast from a general conference of bishops: “It is something else: a gathering of the people of God, of laywomen and men, of men and women religious, priests and bishops—the people of God walking together. Praying, talking, thinking, discussing, and seeking the will of God.” His point was that a missionary church—one that constantly goes out, alert to new situations and contexts, ready to abandon old ways and to take on new ones when needed—is by definition one that allows for the participation of the whole body, as in the Acts of the Apostles.

In January 2021, Francis sent a video message making clear this was to be a very different beast from a general conference of bishops.

For Rodrigo Guerra López, the Mexican philosopher who is now secretary of the Vatican’s Commission on Latin America, this is the key for Francis. “The great majority of the Catholic population were never consulted in the run-up to Aparecida, and certainly not in the synodal way we are now all talking about,” he told me outside the auditorium in Casa Lago. “It is always a challenge to take on what you have not experienced as your own.” Hence this “new synodal organism,” as Archbishop Cabrejos put it in his message on the assembly’s first day, which was to be a “school of synodality,” one that invited the people of God, with their pastors, to be the protagonists in the mission Aparecida called for.

There is an obvious link between the assembly that took place in late November and the global synod on synodality that opened in Rome the month before. The premise of the new synod process—“the Church increasingly realizes that synodality is the path for the entire People of God,” as the synod handbook puts it—is the fruit of the same papal discernment that is behind the assembly, namely that the church must now convert its authority and structures to create space and formation opportunities for the people of God to participate, assemble and discern. By seeking to engage the whole people of God as a discerning subject, Latin America, not for the first time in this pontificate, is the “source church” of global Catholicism, providing concrete models and inspiration for the church elsewhere in the world.

Hence the presence, at the assembly, of the Synod of Bishops’ secretary general, Cardinal Mario Grech of Malta, as well as the Synod on Synodality’s “relator” or chairman, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., of Luxembourg. Cardinals Charles Bo of Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (the equivalent of Celam), and Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, also came, wondering if such an assembly could be a model for the Asian churches in the run-up to their October 2022 general conference in Bangkok. The visiting cardinals were in the front row of the auditorium, swaying their hips uncertainly each morning to the assembly theme set to a catchy tune by the Ecuadoran liturgical composer Juan Morales Montero: “We Are All Missionary Disciples Who Go Out.”

Kindling missionary conversion

We all had the same question: Could this ecclesial assembly of the people of God—not just bishops, but also religious, priests and lay people—prove to be a key factor in kindling a pastoral conversion? Do ordinary, baptized Catholics wake to their calling as missionary disciples when they are listened to and participate as subjects? Was this assembly a model for that, and could it work elsewhere—in Asia, Europe, the United States? If so, what implications might there be for the Synod on Synodality, to which the church was now being called?

In his address, Cardinal Grech was emphatic about the link between synodality and mission. He said the assembly had been called by a church that had nurtured better than all others the gift of the Second Vatican Council of the people of God walking together. It wasn’t just that the church is both missionary and synodal, Grech told us, but that the church was only missionary when synodal, and vice-versa, such that these two “constitutive dimensions” stood or fell together. What was needed, he said, was a humble, respectful listening to the other; the courage to forgive and ask for forgiveness; and to want unity, not at the price of truth, but without confusing Truth with “my truth.”

Mauricio López, a leader in the Ignatian lay movement Christian Life Community, was the organizer at the heart of the assembly’s discernment process. On the first day he invited us to move in our groups from the “I” (sharing) to the “you” (listening) to the “us,” where we hear God speaking. But getting to the “I” was not easy: well over half of the assembly failed to connect online to their groups, a problem that wasn’t solved until day two of the four-day process.

In his address, Cardinal Grech was emphatic about the link between synodality and mission.

The second problem ran deeper than the technical snags. The listening process prior to the assembly had generated huge numbers of responses, summarized and deliberated on in a “discernment document.” Yet hardly anyone in the groups made reference to them.

The listening itself had been limited by time, distance, Covid and inertia. A church that stretches from the Rio Grande to the south of Patagonia and embraces nearly half of the world’s Catholic population had managed only 70,000 responses to its four-month listening exercise—paltry in comparison to the half a million garnered in the (admittedly much lengthier) run-up to the “V Encuentro” in the United States. It was also less than was achieved in the Amazon Region alone prior to the synod of October 2019. Unlike that operation, carried out directly by a team led by the Amazonian church network Repam, the assembly organizers had to work through bishops’ conferences and dioceses.

One delegate told me that in her Central American country there was poor preparation, little communication and few priests who understood what was being asked of them. In Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country, the response was particularly poor: language differences, and an historic alienation from Spanish America reflected in the church’s weaker links with Celam, were obstacles in addition to geography and Covid. As Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, put it delicately in his speech at Casa Lago, “the different churches of the region could not prepare equally” for the assembly.

Many of the gaps were filled by religious orders and their networks. Sister Maria Ines Vieira Ribeiro, for example, president of Brazil’s Confederation of Religious (C.R.B.), organized seven large meetings online in which over time 3,000 people took part both through meetings in their congregations and their parishes. Like everyone else I spoke to in Casa Lago who had been involved in the pre-assembly listening, Sister Maria Ines said the broader lack of response reflected a lack of time to build relationships of trust and confidence.

Peru showed how transformative the listening could be when it was taken to the margins.

In the run-up to the Amazon synod there had been dozens of face-to-face meetings among native peoples, who were accustomed to using village gatherings to make decisions. These pre-synod “territorial assemblies” created a strong “affective hold” on the people of the Amazon, according to Cardinal Pedro Barreto of Huancayo, Peru, a key figure in the October 2019 synod as head of the Amazonian church network Repam. But because of Covid-19, most of the listening this time had to take place virtually. These mostly online gatherings were “rich in content” but often lacking that affective dimension, Cardinal Barreto told me.

Yet Peru showed how transformative the listening could be when it was taken to the margins. Archbishop Cabrejos had tapped Edinson Edgardo Farfán, O.S.A., a young Augustinian bishop who heads the prelature of Chuquibambilla in Peru’s poorest region, Apurimac, to create a nationwide commission to support the listening exercise. Representatives from half of Peru’s dioceses attended its launch in June to ask for training from a network of trained coordinators. They were thus able to reach the peripheries in a mix of Zoom meetings and visits to remote communities. What made Bishop Farfán happiest was “to hear about a religious sister at 12,000 feet altitude, in her village square, with people gathered round, no internet or electricity, just a battery microphone and recorder, taking people’s testimonies.”

‘To hear those voices was very special’

People spoke of their sufferings—loss of jobs, pollution of their land by chemical companies, abusive employers—and time and again said they needed the church to stand with them and listen to them. “To hear those voices, directly, was very special,” Bishop Farfán told me. “They made us realize just how the people look to us, and what they expect of us. We asked: ‘What kind of church do we want?’ And the answers came back: ‘A church that welcomes, that is joyful, that listens to people, that announces the Good News. Above all, a church that reconciles.’ That’s what people particularly emphasize: they need the church to mediate and negotiate on their behalf with powerful people and organizations.”

Bishop Farfán is a convert to the synodal method. “People have really woken up” in the course of the listening process, he said, because it provokes contact, visits, meetings. I asked him to explain, and he enacted an exchange. “Ah, I am a lay person, and being a lay person, you say I have a vocation? Yes, yes, you have a vocation—and a ministry. We say ‘look, it’s not about lay people doing what the priests do, or that priests become lay people, but rather that all of us, from our vocation, can contribute to this church of communion, participation and mission.’ How can I contribute? How do I do that?

The listening process was most successful, unsurprisingly, in those dioceses where people are used to taking part in listening sessions.

One result is that priests often complain of heavier workloads as people start to make demands for formation, involvement and meetings. This is precisely, Bishop Farfán says, what Aparecida called for: the permanent formation of lay people as missionary disciples who go out so that others may have life in Christ. The historically low levels of ecclesial commitment in Latin America, he says, are not because people are closed off to the church but because the church has not created the spaces to participate.

The listening process was most successful, unsurprisingly, in those dioceses where people are used to taking part in listening sessions. In Argentina, where more than half of the dioceses have had or are having synods, the pre-Mexico assembly listening was widely promoted, for example over community radios in poor areas, which discussed the questions on air and collected answers by WhatsApp.

Did people tire of being consulted? Father Pedro Brassesco, from the northern Argentine diocese of Gualeguaychú, said in his experience the opposite was true. “Because people feel listened to, and their concerns are reflected in pastoral plans and priorities that have been implemented, they become more engaged, not less.” He recalled how, in Gualeguaychú, a listening process surfaced concern about growing levels of addiction, which led the diocese to encourage treatment programs, campaigns in homilies and catechesis for bans on casinos and parish-based efforts to combat addictions at their root. “The process of listening and participation awakens the sense of the faithful as subjects of mission and evangelization, not just objects,” Father Brassesco says. “People realize they are members of the People of God, of this church, which means proclaiming Christ in their own community context.”

“People realize they are members of the People of God, of this church, which means proclaiming Christ in their own community context.”

This awakening is key. Aparecida described “a change of era,” an epochal shift, one brought on by the social impact of technology and the globalized marketplace. People found it harder to belong to God, to creation and to each other; institutions no longer bound people and communities; faith was no longer transmitted, therefore, primarily through law, culture and custom, but as it was in the early church, directly, by witness, through the encounter with Christ and the testimony that followed. The people of God “evangelizes itself,” as Pope Francis put it in “The Joy of the Gospel.” Hence Aparecida’s call for a radical reset of the church’s culture, to enable a church of “missionary disciples,” geared to facilitating the encounter with Christ, which Aparecida called “the founding encounter,” because from it all else follows and without it—in post-Christendom—the Gospel makes little sense.

This move from “a pastoral strategy focused on preservation to one that is firmly missionary,” as Aparecida put it, is, of course, the main challenge facing the church not just in Latin America but also—as “The Joy of the Gospel” makes clear—global Catholicism. The key factor in that “pastoral and missionary conversion” is the awakening of the people of God to its agency.

So the question had to be asked, at the end of the assembly, whether it had succeeded in that goal.

Did the assembly succeed?

Another limitation of the gathering was the narrow range of its composition, both in-person and online. Almost without exception, the delegates—made up of bishops (20 percent), members of the clergy (20 percent), religious (20 percent) and laypeople (40 percent)—were “ecclesial” people: heads of diocesan organizations or delegates of continent-wide church bodies, in general devoted to Pope Francis and the vision of Aparecida, indignant about clericalism, strong on justice, concerned to include minorities and for women to be ministers and leaders. In my small group, for example, were two bishops (from Paraguay and Brazil), a Colombian representative of Pax Christi, a Nicaraguan youth and family diocesan worker, a Franciscan sister who works with the native people in the Amazon, and a Venezuelan who represented lay people at the bishops’ conference. They were uniformly interesting and impressive, and I felt completely at home among them, as I did among everyone at Casa Lago. But it was hard not to recall Francis’ warning against new forms of lay elitism in his January 2021 message, to be the a sign of a “church without exclusion.”

The uniformity of “type” worried Guerra López too. “I would have liked to see people from the worlds of social and political engagement, trade unionists, business people, human rights advocates, pro-life and pro-family movements and so on,” he said, adding that the pope “wants everyone invited so we learn to listen to each other and walk together.”

Yet would such a disparate cross-section have worked so easily together on the mission entrusted to the small groups that week? Over four mornings, the 50 groups were asked to name urgent, continent-wide pastoral challenges and suggest means of meeting them. This was no small task, even without the technical problems. Yet skillfully managed with great warmth and charm, as a process it just about worked: The 236 sentences uploaded onto the site following two days of discussion were synthesized by the assembly organizers into 41, which—after further discussion and individual votes—ended up as 12.

In the time of Covid-19, to mobilize the church of an entire continent was an extraordinary feat.

Five of the “pastoral challenges” called for a more synodal, nonclericalist church emphasizing the participation of women, young people and lay people, while the remainder of the “challenges” prioritized victims of violence and injustice, the defense of life, care for the earth and minorities, reforms to seminary training and the importance of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It was a good list, but unsurprising. The pope had asked us, in his message at the start of the assembly, to listen carefully to each other and the poor, and to be open to the “overflow,” the creative power of the Spirit that opens new paths. Yet the groups were mostly unaware of what the poor had said in the pre-assembly listening process, which was too squeezed to allow much space and time for surprises of the spirit. There were complaints that it felt rushed, too geared towards producing a result, and this was reflected in the absence of surprises in the final list.

And yet the fact that it happened at all was astonishing. In the time of Covid-19, to mobilize the church of an entire continent was an extraordinary feat. And for those taking part, it was transformative: people commented on the spirit of freedom and trust in the assembly. The torrent of ecstatic comments at the end of the small group conversations showed that assembly members were thrilled to have been given the space to help create a new future for the church. It also seemed to be the answer, at least indirectly, to the challenge of implementing Aparecida. “With great gratitude and joy,” said the final message issued on behalf of the assembly, “we reaffirm that the way to live out the pastoral conversion discerned in Aparecida is synodality.”

How was it a discernment? Before we left for the basilica and onto the airport, I asked Mauricio López this question over breakfast. He said it had not helped that, contrary to what had been asked of the bishops’ conferences, the delegates they sent had mostly not been those taking part in the listening. “They did not come prepared in the sense of being affected by the listening process,” he said. “We have to learn from this.” The methodology followed was that of an apostolic discernment in common, in the Ignatian sense, but was this what happened? No, agreed López, although it could turn out to be part of one over time: the fruit of the process was not only the 12 pastoral priorities, but the thick dossier of responses to the four-month listening and the discernment document reflecting on those voices. All these would go forward now, to be pondered in regional assemblies over the next year.

The real question, said López, was whether, at this time when the whole church as the people of God was called to be a discerning subject in the Ignatian sense, the assembly enabled this for the Latin-American church. “So if you ask me: Did this contribute to creating the discerning subject for the synod on synodality? Yes, I’m sure it did.”

What mattered was that the people of God had been asked to take part in shaping the future of the church. And that—within its many limits—was what the assembly had enabled. A new agency—yet old, because synodality was normal in the church’s early life—had been created. “There is no going back,” Archbishop Cabrejos said at the concluding press conference.

Later, in the basilica, he led the bishops and cardinals in consecrating the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had been skeptical. Were they not already consecrated? But when it was done, I felt differently. The people of God had assembled, the spirit had been evoked, things would no longer be the same. A new, synodal future beckoned, and it was right to ask for La Morenita’s blessing for the journey.

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