Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 11, 2007
L. American Church 'back on its feet'
Bishops' Brazilian meeting represents 'rebirth' of Church on the continent
By BARBARA FRASER
Catholic News Service
Whether people believe the recent meeting of Latin American and Caribbean bishops was prophetic or so general that it was "all things to all people" depends largely on what they expected beforehand.
At the closing session of the meeting May 31 in Aparecida, Brazil, Father Victor Fernandez, a member of the Argentine delegation, said publicly what several bishops had indicated privately during the 19-day conference.
In the months before the meeting, he said, "there were fears, because of what had happened at Santo Domingo," when the bishops last held a general conference to set directions for the Church.
"Because of that history, which was painful for many people, there were fears that what would come out of (Aparecida) would not be truly encouraging or positive," Fernandez said.
But the outcome "makes me very happy," he said. "People are going to feel that the Latin American Church was reborn and is back on its feet."
The meeting in Aparecida was the fifth in a series of general conferences that have shaped church principles and practice in Latin America, beginning in Rio de Janeiro in 1955 and followed by meetings in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, and Puebla, Mexico, in 1979.
In the early meetings, Church leaders defined their preferential option for the poor and adopted the "see-judge-act" methodology for reflection, which begins with an analysis of current events in order to decide what action the Church should take.
They encouraged the formation of "base Christian communities," where people study the Bible, pray, worship and put their faith into action.
The fourth conference, held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1992, was seen by many as an effort to bring the Latin American and Caribbean Church under strong Vatican control.
Because of the meeting's conclusions and the way it was organized, "there was a feeling that people had put the brakes on certain issues," said Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri, who heads the Guatemalan bishops' conference.
Aparecida was different, he said. Decisions were made by consensus. And unlike Santo Domingo, bishops were allowed to have outside advisers. Several dozen sought the assistance of a group of theologians, educators, sociologists and anthropologists known as Amerindia.
"We now feel a breath of fresh air that says we are going to return to matters that could not be taken up at Santo Domingo," Ramazzini told Catholic News Service the night before the meeting ended.
Some contentious issues did arise, however. Participants did not break into committees to begin drafting the final document until midway through the second week of the 19-day meeting, leading some bishops to complain that there was little time for the most important part of their work.
On May 28, procedures were changed. Instead of discussing changes to the document in the 16 committees, the bishops agreed to submit suggestions directly to the committee drafting the document. They would then vote as a group on each section of the modified text.
While some saw this as the only way to ensure that the document could go through three more drafts in the four days left before the meeting ended May 31, others said it gave the drafting committee too much power.
By the last week it also had become clear that there was not enough time to discuss the "great continental mission" that had been touted as one of the conference's major outcomes.
Permanent state of mission
The final draft of the document contains only a general reference to the mission, and bishops speaking at press conferences during the final days of the meeting had different ideas about the form it would take.
Ramazzini said the Latin American and Caribbean Church must be in "a permanent state of mission" in a broad sense, "not just in the sense of making sure that people who haven't been receiving the sacraments often do receive them."
Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, said a main goal is to encourage nonpractising Catholics to return to the Church.
But Father Pablo Richard, a Chilean theologian and Scripture scholar who was part of the Amerindia group, said that unless the Church makes more profound structural changes, it will be difficult to draw people back.
Various bishops acknowledged that idea during press conferences, but the final document provides little detail.
Expecting Catholics who have switched to evangelical churches to return "is unrealistic," said Richard. He said he believes that focusing on that trend ignores Catholics who have drifted away because "the Church is saying nothing to them."
People who were attracted by the emphasis on social justice at Medellin and Puebla, but who have since distanced themselves from the Church, "still have a spirituality and a Christian identity," he said.
Less vertical Church
If the Church were less vertical and clerical and provided more opportunities for lay participation and leadership, especially for women and indigenous people, "those people would return," Richard said.
Those issues were discussed at Aparecida, but the conclusions offer suggestions rather than specific guidelines. Ramazzini said the final document, with its vision of the parish as "a community of communities" and its emphasis on lifelong catechesis, was not meant as a recipe.
"Each diocese will now have to see how it will implement" the vision to make liturgies more lively, be sensitive to indigenous cultures, allow more lay participation and "maintain an attitude of listening and being close to people," he said.
Father Jeffrey Klaiber, a historian at the Pontifical Catholic University in Lima, said "a lot of ground was lost" between Santo Domingo and Aparecida.
While that may be true "in human terms," Ramazzini said, "God can make good things come even from the negative things we do."
With the Aparecida final document's discussion of ecology, economic globalization and the rise of "large foreign multinational companies that have come to strip our resources," the bishops are speaking about serious structural problems, he said.
"The traditional options of the Church in Latin America - the preferential and evangelical option for the poor, the fight for justice and human rights, base Christian communities - are there" in the document, Ramazzini said. "Now it is up to us, in our dioceses."