Much of the Catholic world turns its attention this month to the Brazilian town of Aparecida, where the fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopates takes place from May 13 to 31. Pope Benedict XVI is making his first visit to the Americas as pope to open the conference, the first of the new millennium. The hopes of many ride on this meeting, hopes that it will be, in its own way, as important as the watershed conference in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia.
Aparecida is a small city located roughly halfway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil. Its enormous basilica, which accommodates several thousand, is where the image of Our Lady of Aparecida, patroness of Brazil, is venerated. In 1717 three poor fishermen pulled out of the waters of the Paraíba River a very small statue of the Blessed Mother. At first the people gave her the title “Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception,” but changed it later to the popular name “Aparecida.” In 1930 Pope Pius XI declared Our Lady of Aparecida to be Brazil’s queen and patroness.
In addition to the basilica, the huge plaza (inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome) outside it can accommodate more than a million people. Since the pope will celebrate the opening Mass of the conference, the space may prove ideal. Since Aparecida has no major airport, delegates and others must travel from the closest international airport near São Paulo. The few hotels available are small, made to accommodate the many pilgrims who flock to Aparecida for one-day visits.
Hoping to Reverse a Decline in Catholic Practice
It has been 15 years since the last general conference, which was held in Santo Domingo in 1992. Prior conferences took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1955; Medellín in 1968; and Puebla in 1979. This time everyone is aware of a crisis facing the Latin American church: many Catholics are abandoning their practice of Catholicism and are being absorbed into evangelical, often Pentecostal, groups. The decline of Catholicism in Latin America is especially acute in Brazil, which is perhaps one of the main reasons it was chosen as the conference site. Some hope the symbol of Our Lady of Aparecida will help to reverse the declining numbers. A grand continental mission will take place after the conference.
The bishops of Latin America are pleased that a conference, not a synod, is being held. They also applaud the pope’s decision to hold the event in Latin America, not in Rome. The title of the conference is: “Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ, So That Our People May Have Life in Him. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). The Holy Father had a hand in the wording. To the proposed title,“Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ, So That Our People May Have Life,” the pope added “in Him,” giving it a Christological emphasis. The two-pronged theme, discipleship and mission, has its source in the New Testament and is eminently pastoral. Mission is a strong ecclesiological concept in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which designate the church as being essentially missionary.
A Role for the U.S. and Canada
Some 260 delegates will represent the bishops’ conferences of every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. For the first time the presidents of the U.S. and Canadian conferences will attend, not as observers (as they have done in the past), but with both voice and vote. This follows the spirit of the Synod for America and John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, which recognizes a significant Hispanic presence in the United States. As a Mexican bishop noted during a CELAM-U.S.C.C.B. preparatory meeting, the United States is included partly (1) because there are so many Latin Americans in the United States, (2) because the United States exerts strong influence in Latin America and (3) because we seek to break down borders and barriers among us. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been asked to send three additional bishops who will not vote but will have voice at the meeting. Among those attending will be Bishop William Skylstad, of Spokane, president of the U.S.C.C.B.; Bishop Plácido Rodríguez, C.M.F., of Lubbock, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs; and Bishop Jaime Soto, of Orange, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Church in Latin America. I have been asked to be part of the delegation, since I have served as the U.S. representative on the preparatory commission.
Hopes and Expectations
Previous conferences sought to conceptualize their proceedings and conclusions in the light of the signs of the times. The title of the famous conference in Medellín—“The Church in the Present Day: Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council”—appears to have been the model. As at Medellín and subsequent conferences, Aparecida will also take into consideration the changing economic, political, social, cultural and religious dynamics in the hemisphere. Faced with enormous changes taking place in the world today and their local repercussions, the bishops see a need to discern in the light of the Gospel which changes promote the culture of life and which the culture of death. The challenge is to determine how the church can continue to be a key presence in a changing world.
A great deal of preparation, with wide participation throughout Latin America, has gone into the Fifth General Conference. Last year the Document of Participation was issued, together with discussion leaflets. Small group discussions, held throughout the hemisphere, sent their proceedings to each diocese, which, in turn, sent their compiled results to the Episcopal Council of Latin America (CELAM). (Among them, 50 dioceses in the United States sent responses.) At CELAM a task force of theologians and experts on pastoral care produced a “Synthesis” of responses to the Document of Participation, which has now been published and will serve as a resource for the bishops at Aparecida. Unlike the initial Documento de Consulta prepared for the Puebla meeting, which was thoroughly rejected by the participating bishops, the “Synthesis” is a faithful reflection of today’s lived reality in Latin America and the Caribbean. If it has any weaknesses from a North American perspective, it is its very limited acknowledgement of ecumenism, which is totally subsumed under the challenge of the “sects”—the term used in Latin America for proselytizing Christian groups.
Several consultative gatherings took place with Latin American theologians, representatives of lay apostolic movements, Mariologists, indigenous leaders, political and business leaders, cultural experts, priests, women and men religious and members of basic Christian communities. In March 2007, a consultation with missiologists was conducted to discuss the follow-up to the conference. More recently a dialogue took place between Amerindia, a group of moderate liberation theologians, and theologians connected with CELAM, something that was unheard of in the preparations for Puebla and Santo Domingo.
It is hoped that the 5th General Conference will repeat the success of the conference at Medellín in 1968. Called a “New Pentecost,” it gave impetus for promoting integral development and denouncing institutionalized violence within societies. It also urged solidarity with the marginalized as an expression of the church’s “fundamental option for the poor.” Out of Medellín came basic Christian communities. The church, as a result of Medellín, was mobilized to confront the repressive military regimes prevalent at the time. Some trace the origins of liberation theology to the theological reflections carried out in the Medellín process.
Not all share these hopes. Some criticize the Document of Participation and the Synthesis as being too abstract and as scarcely bringing up the biblical theme of the kingdom of God. Many believe that the conference at Santo Domingo was excessively controlled from Rome and that its results were not sufficiently productive or influential. This view of Santo Domingo is causing some resistance and lowered interest among people such as the members of Amerindia and other critics.
What do I expect from this conference? I expect a strong affirmation that the church in Latin America and the Caribbean has its own distinctive identity since Medellín over these last 40 years. My hope is that the conference will be a source of encouragement for basic Christian communities. My wish is that a new and creative expression of the Second Vatican Council will emerge and that the church will not lose its prophetic and self-critical ability. I hope that when the church speaks of the poor, it not only will see them as passive recipients of ecclesial action, but will inspire and motivate them to shape their own future. Finally, I expect the Hispanics in the United States to welcome any message of encouragement and call to fidelity to the Catholic traditions of social justice and peace.