The church is living a historical moment. What happened in the beginning of 2013 will make this one of the most important years in the church’s already long history. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—the first Latin American pope—will shape the church for many years to come. Believers and nonbelievers have been surprised and filled with expectations in the first days of Francis’ pontificate, a feeling typical of other times. As of this writing, no important statements have been issued regarding various items on the church’s agenda. However, there is no doubt that the way Francis conducts himself in the many forums he has attended, as well as his personal style and gestures, signal a new kind of pontificate.
Many aspects of Pope Francis have already been highlighted: his familiar style; that he is closer to pastoral work than to doctrine; his connection to religious life (a former Salesian student that became a Jesuit priest and took the name Francis in memory of St. Francis of Assisi); his Latin American origin (Argentinean, archbishop of Buenos Aires and former president of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina); his modesty and kindness, as well as his clear-headedness when dealing with the media.
Here I want to explore one particular aspect of Pope Francis’ biography: his relationship with the Fifth Latin American Episcopal Conference held in May 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil, and its possible consequences for this pontificate. At Aparecida, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected by his brother bishops to chair the important committee charged with drafting the final document. This was not an incidental fact but a token of his leadership in such events. One detail confirms his popularity: on the day he celebrated Mass in the Sanctuary of Aparecida, the people applauded at the end of his homily, the only time that something like that ever happened.
Aparecida was not just another event. Fifteen years after the last episcopal conference in Santo Domingo, the Latin American church was called upon to reflect once again about its role in the evangelizing of a continent that is changing significantly. Yet there was no clear intention to organize a new general conference; it was more like a continental synod, just like the one that wrote the post-synod article “Ecclesia in America” in 1999. Ultimately the Fifth Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) was an achievement of the group’s board, headed by the Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, who was also co-president of CELAM.
An important member of the conference’s drafting committee was the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga. It is not a coincidence that both Errázuriz and Rodríguez Maradiaga were appointed by Pope Francis to be part of the eight-member committee that will advise the pope on running the universal church. In their new assignment the cardinals will review the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus about the Roman Curia, the central government of the church. This committee will propose the necessary reforms of the Roman Curia, and Rodríguez Maradiaga will also be the coordinator of the new committee. Thus two of the most significant members of the Aparecida conference will make up this important advisory body. To these must be added the pontiff himself.
The election of Francis to the church’s highest ecclesiastical position should be placed in a larger context, namely, as a recognition of the maturation of the church in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council. Aparecida repeated a style and highlighted some issues that have been part of the church’s identity since the first CELAM meeting in Medellin in 1968. I will review three of these issues that are present in the messages of Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate:
“A Poor Church for the Poor”
We know the story told by the pope about his election: “During the election, I was sitting next to the archbishop emeritus of São Paulo and prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a good friend. When things started to move in a dangerous direction, he comforted me. And when the votes reached the two thirds, there was the usual applause, because I had been elected. And then he hugged and kissed me and told me: ‘Do not forget the poor.’ And that word made an impact on me: the poor, the poor. Immediately, I thought of Francis of Assisi in relation to the poor.”
We have all witnessed how Pope Francis is trying to apply this message to daily practice in his new position, as he did when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. His way of dressing, his desire to stay in his home at Santa Marta, his mode of transportation—these are signs of the humble and austere church he wishes to lead. This is not only a personal practice of austerity. It is comforting to know that in this key moment of his life, the pope is thinking of the poor. He also thinks of wars, of the men and women who suffer because of them. From his heart there has emerged a plan associated with Francis of Assisi: peace, care for creation and concern for the poor.
“Do not forget the poor.” Aparecida did not forget them. The conference used a typical expression of the theological and pastoral tradition of Latin America: “the preferential option for the poor and the marginalized.” Chapter 8 of Aparecida’s final document is precisely devoted to a reflection on the relationship between God’s kingdom and the dignity of human beings. The document says: “We pledge to work harder, so our Latin American and Caribbean Church may continue to accompany our poorest brothers on their journey, even to martyrdom. Today, we want to confirm and promote the option of preferential love for the poor which was expressed in previous conferences,” with a footnote reference to Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo. The document states that “being preferential implies that it should permeate all our structures and guide our pastoral priorities” (No. 396). There is no doubt about what “preferential” means: it is not only an option for the social outreach of the church; it should also imbue all our priorities and structures, including the government. That is why the pope says that he wants a poor church, starting with the pope, not only the local churches of the Third World or among the poor in the cities and rural areas. It is a “non-optional option” for the entire church. This paragraph ends stating: “the Latin American Church is called to be a sacrament of love, solidarity and justice in our countries.” There is no option for the poor without being concerned about better justice. The church is a sign and sacrament of that preference of Christ for the poor.
Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural speech at Aparecida was significant for the future of the conference. Pope Benedict summarizes in one phrase what has been a constant in Latin American theological reflection: “the preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us, to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8, 9).” The preferential option for a poor church for the poor is not only ethical or pastoral. It is theological: it has its first origin in God’s faith expressed in Jesus Christ, who became poor for the poor. The preferential option for the poor is only understood in the context of the following of Jesus. In his speech, Benedict confirmed the best expressions of the Latin American church, the martyrtdom suffered by many Christians, as a proof of love given “to the limit,” like Jesus.
Pope Francis arrives at his pontificate representing a church that wishes to be close to the poor and those whom society has excluded. He has kept them in mind and for them he has assumed this mission. The cardinals who chose him as pope must have been aware of his special concern for the poor. Latin America is not only the “continent of hope,” with the greatest number of Catholics. It is also the church that, with all its limitations, sometimes going forward and sometimes backward, has been remembering essential aspects of the message of Jesus. The preferential option for the poor is at the core of this tradition.
“Christ is the Center”
On several occasions Francis has referred to the main experience of Jesus for Christians. In his homily on April 17 focusing on the story of the Ascension, he said, “If we let Him guide us, we are sure to be in safe hands.” In his speech to the Biblical Committee (April 12), he reminded the exegetes that “our faith does not have at its center only a book, but a story of salvation surrounding a Person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.” Christianity is more than a religion contained in a book; it is an event that has as its center a person: Jesus.
In the meeting with reporters after his election, Francis told them: “Christ is the Shepherd of the church, but his presence in history is manifested in the freedom of men who choose one of them to serve as his vicar, the successor of the Apostle Peter; but Christ is the center, not the successor of Peter: Christ. Christ is the center.”
This affirmation is very important. Francis emphasizes an essential truth: that it is not him but Christ who is the center of attention. In his “catechism” to the reporters, he explained the way God behaves, through the Holy Spirit, in the church. Francis offered a hermeneutical perspective to the media professionals so that they could understand the peculiar nature of what had happened. He described himself as the successor of Peter in the mission commended by Christ. But, as he reminded us, “Christ is the center.”
Again, Aparecida’s spirit can be noticed in this affirmation. As is the custom in Latin American theological reflection, the document of the Fifth Conference begins by calling for the “missionary disciples’ outlook on reality.” In the sequence of see-judge-act, the conference returned to the tradition of “seeing,” that is, learning from the practice of the Christian communities. In this process of “looking” the assembly perceived that the continent is going through a considerable socio-cultural transformation that also includes “religious sensibility” (No. 37). This sensibility, expressed in the different cultural traditions, has begun to erode (No. 38). “Our cultural traditions are no longer transmitted from one generation to another with the same fluency as in the past. This affects even the deepest core of each culture, formed by religious experience” (No. 39).
In the light of this erosion of religious traditions, Aparecida calls for a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. “The very nature of Christianity consists, therefore, in recognizing the presence of Jesus Christ and following him” (No. 244). The Christ event will give birth “to this new man that appears in history and which we call a disciple” (No. 243). Restating the beginning of Benedict’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” Aparecida recognizes that “you do not begin to be a Christian as a result of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a person, that gives a new perspective to life and with that, a decisive orientation” (No. 1). Aparecida concludes: “Knowing Jesus Christ by faith is our joy, following Him is our grace and transmitting this treasure to others is a mission that the Lord, by choosing and calling us, has entrusted with us” (No. 18).
At a time when religious traditions have become diluted, Aparecida proposes a different experience: an encounter with Jesus that transforms a Christianity based on tradition to a Christianity based on conviction. The first pronouncements of Pope Francis are centered on this message: Jesus is the best news that could have happened to us. Let us follow Him. He is the center, not Peter’s successor.
Going to the Periphery
Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, revealed to the public the words of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio during his participation in the general congregation before the conclave. During that brief participation, Cardinal Bergoglio expressed what, in his opinion, the church’s mission should be: “The Church is called upon to go out of itself and go to the periphery, which is not only geographical, but also existential: where there is sin, pain, injustice, ignorance, and religious indifference, where there is human misery.”
What happens when the church becomes self-referential? “When the Church does not go out of itself to evangelize it becomes self-referential and then gets sick. Throughout time, the harm that happens in the ecclesiastical institutions has its roots in being self-referential, a type of theological narcissism. When the Church without realizing becomes self-referential and believes that it has its own light, it is no longer the mysterium lunae and gives way to spiritual worldliness. It lives to give glory to one another. Summarizing, there are two images of the church: the evangelizing one that goes out of itself—Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans—or the worldly one that lives in itself, from itself and for itself. This should enlighten us as to the possible changes and reforms that should be done to save souls.”
Cardinal Bergoglio’s reflection concludes with a description that foreshadowed the next pope’s profile: “a man who, moved by his contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, can help the Church get out of itself to the existential peripheries, and help her to be the fruitful mother that lives from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”
On other occasions similar expressions have been repeated by Pope Francis. We have a shepherd pope, who wants shepherds who “smell like sheep,” he said to 1,600 priests, among them several cardinals and bishops, at the Chrism mass celebrated at the Basilica of St. Peter’s. He asked the priests to wear their chasubles humbly, to “go out of themselves,” to become “fishers of men” and to serve the “poor,” the “captives” and the “oppressed.”
In the same homily, the pope continued: “Our people are thankful when the Gospel is preached with unction; they are thankful when the Gospel which is preached touches their daily lives, when it comes down like the oil of gladness of Aaron touching the very edges of reality, when it enlightens border situations, the ‘peripheries’ where the faithful are more exposed to the intrusions of those who want to undermine their faith. They are thankful because they feel that we are in prayful union with the things of their daily lives, with their sorrows and joys, with their worries and hopes.” It is impossible here not to hear the echo of “Gaudium et Spes.”
Pope Francis is calling all Christians to go to the existential peripheries: “We have to go out to experience the oil of gladness, and its power and salvific efficacy in the ‘peripheries’ where there is suffering, bloodshed and blindness that wants to see, where there are captives of dehumanizing cultural standards.” Aparecida mentions some of the captives of these "dehumanizing cultural standards” in the “suffering faces that bring us sorrow”: the people that live in the streets of the big cities, migrants, sick people, dependent addicts, prisoners in jails (see Aparecida 8.6).
The whole Aparecida document is a proclamation of the “joy of being missionary disciples called to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ,” as mentioned in the title of Chapter 3. According to Aparecida, this mission calls us to announce the good news of human dignity, of life, of the family, of human activity, of scientific and technological progress, the good news that proclaims the universal character of all goods and ecological concern. In essence, everything that has to do with a person’s life. “The mission is not limited to a program or project,” even though programs are necessary for serious and responsible pastoral planning. The mission is much more: “it consists in sharing the experience of encountering Christ, in testifying to Him and announcing Him from person to person, from community to community, and from the church to the ends of the Earth” (No. 145).
Therefore, the document ends with a compromise: “We have to begin a new stage of our pastoral journey by declaring that we are in permanent mission” (italics in the original). This task is for all Christians: “no one can stand on the sidelines! Being a missionary consists in announcing Jesus Christ with creativity and audacity in all places where the Gospel has not been announced sufficiently or received, especially in difficult and forgotten environments, beyond our borders. Let us be missionaries of the Gospel not only in our words but also with our own lives, giving ourselves over to service, even to martyrdom” (Final Message, No. 4).
The poor, Christ and the church are the main themes in these first days of Pope Francis’ pontificate and they were central ideas in Aparecida. It is time to review that document and re-read it in the light of these new ecclesial events. Some experts from the Vatican are rummaging around in the documents written by Jorge Mario Bergoglio to try to find in them “Francis’ thinking,” in order to detect the guidelines of the program of his pontificate. By doing so they lose sight of the fact that behind the testimony and the words of the new pope, there is not only an undeniable personal style but also an ecclesial tradition. Aparecida can offer us a better path.