SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Leaders of Latin American and Caribbean Afro-American pastoral commissions acknowledge that the Church has been paying more attention to the African-descendant community in the past few decades, but they consider that there’s a long way to go for diversity in liturgy and for inclusion in the hierarchy.

During a meeting held in the Mexican city of Puerto Escondido from Feb. 17-21, bishops and executive secretaries of black pastoral commissions from several countries in the continent even discussed the possibility of suggesting to Pope Francis that he call a “World Afro Synod”.

It is estimated that over 200 million people in North and South America have some African heritage, with the majority of that number living in either Brazil or the United States, and the Caribbean region having the largest percentage of those having African heritage. This compares to just over 1.2 billion people living Africa today.

“Many participants of the encounter mentioned that although the Synod for the Pan-Amazon region promoted relevant discussions of several themes, Afro-descendants have, in some respects, stayed on the sidelines,” Bishop Florencio Colin of Puerto Escondido told Crux.

Colin explained that the “World Afro Synod” would comprise issues regarding all cultures, traditions, and ways of life originated in Africa – and, of course, present in the diaspora in the American continent.

“This is something to be carefully studied yet. It appeared during the debates as a concern of our Afro-descendant brothers,” he said.

The proposal of a “World Afro Synod” will probably be included in a letter to Pope Francis to be sent by Bishop Javier Gerardo Román of Limón in Costa Rica, who was also asked by the participants of the conference to write to the pope about the International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024) proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013.

“The UN resolution encompasses three main themes: Recognition, justice and the development of the Afro-descendant people. We’d like the Pope to address such subjects,” Father Flaviano Cisneros, a priest in the city of San José del Progreso and a long-time member of the Afro-Mexican pastoral commission, told Crux.

The past week conference was mostly a preparatory meeting for the next year’s 15th Afro-American and Caribbean Pastoral Encounter (known as EPA, in Spanish and Portuguese), which will also be hosted by the Diocese of Puerto Escondido, a region on Mexico’s Pacific coast with a significant Afro-American population.

Bishops and missionaries from different countries in the continent discussed the themes that shall be addressed in the 2021 event – a combination of ecclesiastical and social problems concerning the conditions of the lives of black people in the region.

The conference was also an opportunity for the participants to share their experiences working with Afro-American pastoral care in Latin America. (“African American” is a term generally used specifically for the black population in the United States, while “Afro-American” was used at the conference for the black population throughout the Americas.)

Most attendees reported that they have to deal with a broad set of issues involving the Afro-American people, including poverty, violence, insufficient access to health services and education, and the lack of opportunities.

According to a report published by the World Bank in 2018, about a quarter of Latin Americans claim to have African descent. Throughout the continent, Afro-descendants constitute the most vulnerable ethnic minority and face the worst living conditions. Their chances of living in chronic poverty are 2.5 times higher than whites’ or mestizos,’ those with mixed European and indigenous heritage. The access of Afro-Americans to education is significantly lower than whites and they’re the main victims of crime and violence.

In the Church, missionaries have often faced resistance from ecclesial authorities to enculturated African liturgies, as well as institutional prejudice and racism towards black Catholics.

“In reality, it’s not enough to celebrate a beautiful enculturated Mass – something that many times parishes and dioceses avoid doing. We have to continually struggle for the rights of Afro-American communities in society,” said Sister Ruperta Palacios, a member of Puerto Escondido’s Afro-Mexican pastoral commission.

The nun, a member of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters of St. Therese, said that the institutional structures at work in the Church often create obstacles to her work in Afro-American pastoral care.

“In our daily lives we have plenty of work to do and it’s usually difficult to prioritize the Afro-pastoral activities. For me, those would be a priority, but many times I just can’t put the necessary effort in them,” she said.

However, Cisneros said there has been some progress over the years.

“My diocese didn’t use to encourage the ‘Afro Mass’ in the past. But now we use drums, congas, and djembes in our celebrations. It’s a new path for us,” he told Crux.

The low proportion of black bishops in the Latin American hierarchy, pointed to by black Catholic activists as a major sign of institutional racism in the Church, is also gradually changing, Cisneros said.

“It’s expected that activists present their demands, but the institution progresses at its own rhythm. Such issues are figured out little by little. We already have launched a process of transformation,” the priest said.

The role of the meeting of the Afro-American pastoral leaders in Latin America, Cisneros said, is to continue giving visibility to black people in the region and in the Church.

“The issues concerning the Afro-descendant people have to involve the Church as a whole, not only our pastoral commissions,” the priest said.

Brazilian Archbishop Zanoni Demettino Castro of Feira de Santana – who attended the meeting in Puerto Escondido – said the complexity of the Afro-American reality in Latin America requires a World Afro Synod.

“The Amazon Synod showed us a way of hearing the people, their pains and sufferings, their joys and hopes. But the issue of blackness has to be emphasized,” he told Crux.

According to Castro, all the Church has to assume the question of those of African descent.

“We understand the Afro pastoral care in a cross-sectional perspective. A Synod of the Afro-descendants is surely indispensable,” the archbishop said.

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