There is a whiff of history hanging over the gathering of the 22 bishops’ conferences of Latin America this week in San Salvador, more than a hint that this is a “favorable time” for the Church of that continent.
True, this is only an “ordinary” assembly of CELAM, the Latin-American bishops’ council, of the sort that happens every four years. This means that unlike its five great continental “general conferences” since 1955 that issue historic documents, this gathering is mostly concerned with internal reports and discussions.
But this is a special moment — the first such assembly under the first Latin-American pope on the tenth anniversary of the general conference of Aparecida, Brazil. Francis steered and led the concluding document of that general conference, which forms the backdrop to the “pastoral revolution” of his papacy. If nothing else, this week will recommit the Latin-American Church to that so-called “continental mission” — outgoing, pastoral, focused on the periphery — as both program and attitude.
The May 9-15 assembly is happening in El Salvador, because it’s the centenary Thursday of the birth of Oscar Romero, Latin America’s most famous modern martyr, and icon of the “Church of the poor.”
The former Archbishop of San Salvador, shot dead while celebrating Mass in March 1980 after speaking out against the bloody repression of the poor, was finally beatified two years ago, after Francis unblocked his cause, long stalled in Rome at the insistence of Salvador’s nuncio and ruling class. Francis is expected to declare Romero a saint later this year.
This week is also the 50th anniversary of the 1968 CELAM assembly at Medellín that launched the Latin-American Church in its modern form, committing it to a historic task of liberation. Although the concept led to fierce disagreements in the wake of the Cuban revolution, the Latin-American bishops’ pledge to stand with their poor majority against all the threats to their wellbeing is now, arguably, firmer than ever.
Bishop Juan Espinoza, the Council’s Mexican secretary-general, says the fact that this week’s meeting takes place in El Salvador under Romero’s shadow gives a special reason to recover that commitment.
“This year, we are putting special emphasis in all our work in CELAM on promoting a poor Church for the poor,” he told Vatican Radio.
Another significant item will be a second synod of all the Americas, the first of which took place 20 years ago this year. Ties between bishops north and south of the Rio Grande — organizational as well as of affection and kinship — have been growing ever stronger: CELAM’s projects receive most of their funding from the North-American bishops. A meeting on mercy in Bogotá, Colombia, last year was the biggest gathering of bishops of north and south since the 1997 synod that led to Ecclesia in America.
This week’s meeting will have a contingent of bishops from the U.S. and Canada to discuss a new “synod of the Americas” — to take place not in Rome but in, say, Central America or Mexico. It would allow the Churches of north and south to speak with a single voice on key global issues such as immigration, climate change, violence, drugs and threats to marriage and family. Given that the Americas now contain close to half of all the world’s Catholics, their voice would be hard to ignore.
It would also be a key step towards strengthening the voice of continent-wide bishops’ bodies, which Francis wants to see. In a globalized age when so many challenges cross borders yet which is seeing a return of nationalism and nativism, regional bishops’ gatherings will be an important prophetic platform. CELAM, by far the oldest and strongest of these bodies, is called to lead the way.
Most of the discussions this week will have an internal focus, hearing from continental church initiatives. Among these, the formation of lay leaders will have a special prominence. Francis wants CELAM to resist clericalism and help form committed lay people imbued in Catholic social doctrine, to rescue politics on the continent from left-wing messiahs and neo-liberal technocrats.
But he wants to see more lay leaders trained to serve local parishes. Concerned that too many Latin-American Catholics live in isolation from the Church, he has asked CELAM to help bishops’ conferences train local leaders and catechists, some of whom could be deacons.
These trained “pastoral agents” would allow the multiplication of what in the Archdiocese of Bogotá, Colombia, are called “listening centers” — places where people can come to speak of their problems and pressures and be heard by a pastor or a lay person trained in discernment.
CELAM has created a new training and formation body, the elaborately named CEBITEPAL (Pastoral-Biblical-Theological Center for Latin America), to focus its efforts. Within it, the so-called Social School (Escuela Social ) created last year has a kind of observatory function, to help the continent’s bishops coordinate responses to challenges such as climate change or drug-trafficking, and to teach social Catholic doctrine.
All of this — and new financing for such initiatives — suggests that we’re likely to hear more from CELAM in the coming years. There’s nothing quite so energizing as to believe that now is a kairos, a favorable time — and there’s nowhere in the Church right now that feels that more than Latin America.