SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Ten years ago, Latin American bishops gathered in the Brazilian town of Aparecida to “rethink the Church’s mission” and “relaunch it with fidelity and boldness.” Those are words of the Aparecida Document, whose writing commission was led by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Aparecida says that Catholic faith cannot be “reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices.” It is, instead, “the encounter with an event, a person [Jesus Christ], which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Taking stock of the Aparecida Document’s 10th anniversary, Crux had a lengthy conversation with Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo, in Brazil. A member of six Vatican commissions and once a front-runner at the conclave that elected Pope Francis, he is probably the most influential voice in the Brazilian Church.

“We have not dedicated enough energy to put into practice what is stated in the Aparecida Document,” he said, at his office in the Metropolitan Curia of São Paulo, on 4 August. “The Church in Latin America needs to move from a pastoral approach of maintenance and conservation, to a decidedly missionary pastoral style,” he added.

Scherer believes that sometimes Church documents take too long to be applied: a move “from call to action” is necessary. For him, Francis is the right pope for our times.

“He is doing a lot by showing what the contribution of Latin America to the whole Church is,” he said.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of São Paulo, Brazil, pictured on August 4th, 2017. (Credit: Archdiocese of SP/Rafael Alberto)

Among other issues, Scherer commented on some of the main challenges of the Church in Brazil, the most Catholic country in the world. He analyzed the migration of faithful from Catholic to evangelical communities and the current corruption crisis in the country’s political scene.

On Amoris Laetitia, he said his archdiocese is still “at the beginning of an interpretation,” as it is supposed to be read slowly. He aims to do it with the help of the local clergy. Anyhow, “a central message of Amoris Laetitia is that the Church does not exclude families because of their imperfections,” said the cardinal.

Crux: Ten years after the publication of the Aparecida Document, how do you assess the Church’s accomplishments?

Scherer: The document is a key point of reference for the Church in Latin America. Through Pope Francis, many of the questions posed in the document were given to the Church in the rest of the world. He was the head of the drafting committee. However, I believe that we have not dedicated enough energy to put into practice what is stated in the Aparecida Document. There are many issues that need to be recaptured and put into practice with greater perseverance. It still has so much to yield.

Can you give examples of what needs to be applied better?

The central issue is that our faith is not born from a beautiful speech. Our faith and our religious practices are not based on an ideology or an elaborate system of doctrines. It is born from the personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ. This is a word of Pope Benedict XVI that became one of the main guidelines of Aparecida. Evangelization is a process that should help people meet God and go beyond, learning the ways of God through the practice of Christian life, the ethical, moral and religious life. That remains true, but there is still so much to do. So much to do. That’s what, in fact, Pope Francis is calling us to do.

Another issue was that the Church in Latin America needs to move from a pastoral of maintenance, conservation, to a decidedly missionary pastoral. This requires a new approach. We cannot think only of taking care of what we have, of what we are, but always keep before us the missionary openness. That is what Pope Francis is telling us. An outgoing Church in a constant state of mission.

A third thought is the pastoral conversion. The church needs to go through a practical conversion in its attitudes and processes. That means integrating much more the missionary dimension in the Church’s constant action of ordinary life. Being missionaries cannot be just a moment, but the whole ecclesial life. It’s for the whole community.

You use the word “practice” many times. Aparecida also speaks of practicing the faith through works. Is this about the “preferential option for the poor”?

When I speak of practice of ecclesial life, I include also doing theology, liturgy, and, of course, I include the moral virtues, a commitment in the world, a social commitment. The practice of ecclesial life is all of these things together.

Of course, Aparecida, in line with previous conferences, drew attention to the social situation in Latin America. The Church cannot ignore poverty, social injustice, violence, corruption, trafficking, disrespect for human dignity. You must always be very committed to these issues, in fidelity to the Gospel.

Pope Benedict XVI said in Aparecida’s opening speech that the preferential option for the poor is not a question of ideology, but of Christology. It is consistent with the act and the teaching of Jesus Christ. This, of course, needs to be translated into ecclesial life practices.

Was the election of Pope Francis a response to the need to look at the peripheral church?

I think the choice of Pope Francis, first of all, is in God’s plan. We invoke the Holy Spirit and ask his guide for all the work of the conclave. At this point in history it should not be considered extraordinary that it was someone from Latin America, as it represents more than half of Catholics.

But it was providential that Bergoglio was chosen, since he has a wide experience of the Church in Latin America, not only as Archbishop of Buenos Aires … He was a key character in Aparecida. So, he was prepared to carry out the mission given to him and he is doing it in a very good way.

The Holy Spirit manifests himself this way: He sends the man, the Pope, that is important for each moment in history.

I believe that, for this moment in Church history, it was important to have someone like Pope Francis. He is doing a lot by showing what the contribution of Latin America to the whole Church is. It has its own way to evangelize, to relate to the world, the society, the culture, the people. It is a form of ecclesial life that can be transmitted.

What are the main challenges facing the Church in Brazil?

The first is a deficit of evangelization, which is historical. Not long ago we had an absolute majority of Catholics and, therefore, there was no concern of a further evangelization. Transmitting the faith was just normal. It was a social practice.

Historically, the evangelization in Brazil began with the missionaries, since 1500. But it was deficitary over four centuries, because the missionaries were few. In the period of the Brazilian Empire, in the nineteenth century, the Church needed an imperial decree even to found a parish. We arrived to the Republic, in 1889, with very little clergy, only 12 dioceses throughout Brazil. There were practically no seminaries.

Only then, the Church organized dioceses, parishes, missionaries, clergy training. We still feel this today. Our people are traditionally religious, but of a shallow religiosity, that is with little depth. At all times this is in danger of being left abandoned, or replaced by other Christian communities.

Is that the reason why evangelical groups grew so fast?

The success of the evangelicals occurred from 1950 until now, but especially since the 1970s. They found a fertile ground of non-evangelized Catholics. And these Catholics “in name only” found someone who preached with insistence and perseverance.

Today we have a population that has ceased to be Catholic in majority. According to projections, we still have 65 percent of Catholics, but the group of people “with no religion” has grown as well. This picture shows the superficial evangelization. Somehow we still have to solve this problem.

Priests are still too few?

We have a clergy shortage, historically, even if we have a larger number of priests than in the past. Until 1970, at least half of the clergy was foreign. Today the vast majority is Brazilian.

There are challenges on all sides. There are strongly proselytizing Christian groups, or even anti-Catholic. The vast majority of Catholics is indifferent. They do not bind to the life of the Church, to the Christian practice. We need to do a better job to go out and meet them, because they are Catholics. They are children of the Church.

You recently convened an archdiocesan synod. Is it a way of thinking about these challenges?

The idea of this synod comes from my concern to pass from calls to action. The Church has many documents, many indications. But I realize that it takes too long, when it does, to reach the “ground floor” of the Church, the everyday practice. The synod is a time for our archdiocese to think about “what does all this have to do with us?” How do we translate the calls of God in new forms of ecclesial life and pastoral practice?

The Church in Brazil has been concerned with environmental issues for a long time. Did Laudato si’ offer any extra help?

The Church in Brazil works on these issues since the 1980s. Pope Francis’s contribution is really huge, because it is broader. I want to highlight two aspects. First, the public conscience in preserving the environment. This is well said in the “common home” expression. It is easier to understand that all humanity is a family and, therefore, all have part in the common home, not just a few people, some states. The home should benefit everyone, but also should be well-kept by all.

The second point: Much of the deterioration of the environment derived from the accumulation of wealth within some groups or peoples; that is social injustice. The poorest people do not have even the minimal capacity to care for the environment, because they need to somehow survive. Greater economic justice is important to preserve the common home.

Another issue is related to responsibility. Dealing with the environment selfishly implies a moral responsibility, including before God. This is a new element.

How has the Church of São Paulo interpreted and acted the guidelines of Amoris Laetitia? How do you personally interpret it?

We are still at the beginning of this interpretation, or application. We have to understand it well to translate it better on new ways of ecclesial and pastoral life, either in relation to the family or in relation to the youth, and help face problematic situations that affect families.

We need to change the traditional form of the pastoral for the family, which cannot be an appendix. It cannot be a pastoral among many others. It must be transversal and present throughout the whole church. Amoris Laetitia should guide us for a long time. Here in São Paulo, we try to welcome the document immediately. But we must, first, help to read and help explain.

We’ll have a clergy update course in which we will address Amoris Laetitia and with them we will try to better understand what the Pope says and try to reflect on how this should have consequences for our pastoral action. The Pope said that the document should be read slowly, in order to avoid making mistaken conclusions or adopting wrong practices.

But can the Church help families that sometimes are seen as imperfect?

Every human reality is imperfect. Thank God we have many good families, but a central message of Amoris Laetitia is that the Church does not exclude families because of their imperfections.

First, we welcome families and enhance what is already good in them. We help them to walk in the ways of the Gospel. We support those who have difficulties to identify the problematic situations and see if there is any solution.

If there is no solution, yet we cannot abandon the families to themselves. We must express hope to everyone. If God does not close the door to anyone, the Church should not close the doors, a priori, to anyone. The Church must help everyone realize the ways of God.

Pope Francis says that corruption is a form of sin. How do you assess the political situation of Brazil and how can we overcome the crisis?

It is not only in our days that corruption is a sin! It collides with at least two commandments: the seventh and the eighth. Corruption is a falsehood, but it also means stealing. And the poor are always the main victims of public resources deviations. Fortunately, in Brazil, we are at least trying to clear the public life a little.

The Church has been talking about corruption for a long time. Once, a president of our episcopal conference, in 2004 or 2005, said that the greatest evil of Brazil is corruption. This created scandal. Today we are seeing that in fact it is so. The Church must help denounce corruption but also to propose morality criteria. That depends on a change of culture.

We live in times of great political polarization. Radicalism is a risk?

Every radicalism starts with a prejudice. One could be very unfair against another person because of a prejudice. Therefore, radicalisms do not build justice. They should be avoided and, therefore, serenity, discernment, a detached search for truth and respect for all people should be in the foreground. Even before any previously taken positions.