Forming young people, giving women a leading role, and nurturing lay believers who can build the future of society and democracy should be priorities for Latin America, Pope Francis told the Church’s continent-wide coordinating body, CELAM, based in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá, on Thursday.

Francis has long been linked to CELAM, which is by far the oldest and strongest collegiate continental body in the Church. Founded in the 1950s, its general conferences — Medellín (1968), Puebla (1979), Santo Domingo (1992) and notably Aparecida (2007) —  are seen as key for reading and applying the Second Vatican Council in light of the continent’s history and challenges.

Francis’s address to its executive committee, the first since Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, comes in the year of the tenth anniversary of Aparecida, when the Latin-American bishops’ blueprint for a “continental mission” was drafted by the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

He began his address — held in the residence of the papal ambassador in Bogotá, rather than its offices on the outskirts of the city — by affirming CELAM as “a vital reference point for the deepening of Latin-American catholicity,” and a “center for fostering a sense of discipleship and missionary spirit.”

He urged the Church in Latin America to continue to be inspired by Aparecida’s “continental mission,” which he desribed as “the effort to place Jesus’ mission at the very heart of the Church, making it the criterion for measuring the effectiveness of its structures, the results of its labors, the fruitfulness of its ministers, and the joy they awaken.”

Without joy, he added, “we attract no one.”

Noting that God speaks in Jesus “with the unmistakable voice of the Father to his children,” he said the “great challenge” facing the Church was “to speak to men and women about this closeness of God, who considers us his sons and his daughters, even when we reject his fatherhood.”

Closeness and encounter, he added, are “the means used by God, who in Christ always draws near to meet us.” Being in a permanent state of mission, he said, meant staying close both to God and to the people, and keeping the focus on Jesus without whom “pastoral conversion falters.”

“If we do not set out with him on our mission, we quickly become lost and risk confusing our vain needs with his cause.”

Mission with Jesus in Latin America today, Francis added, means being concrete, touching flesh, and not giving into “the temptations of the doctors of the law, to wonder how far we can go without losing control over the territory we have marked out or our petty portion of power.”

Warning against being paralyzed in “air-conditioned offices, our statistics and our strategies,” he urged them to “speak to men and women in their concrete situations” in “one-on-one contact.”

Francis also addressed CELAM’s role in encouraging intra-continental unity both in the Church and wider society, contrasting the Church’s historic role in Latin America with that of exploitative foreigners and what he called “powerful figures and utopian dreams.”

“The Church is not present in Latin America with her suitcases in hand, ready, like so many others over time, to abandon it after having plundered it,” he said, but has quietly worked to build bridges, tear down walls, integrate diversity and promote encounter and dialogue.

In a powerful statement of the importance of the Church to the continent, he added: “No lasting construction in Latin America can do without this essential foundation.”

Reiterating the call in Aparecida and Evangelii Gaudium to respect and foster the faith and culture of ordinary people, Francis said the Church must never lose touch with “this moral substrate, with this rich soil present in the heart of our people.”

“The most luminous pages of our history,” he added, “were written precisely when she knew how to be nourished by this richness and to speak to this hidden heart.”

Francis ended with a call for the Church in Latin America to look to three “expressions of hope”: Its young people, women, and laity.

On youth, he urged CELAM to “make real room for them in your local Churches” and to invest time and resources in training them. “It is our task to present the young with lofty ideals and to encourage them to stake their lives on God, in imitation of the openness shown by Our Lady,” he said.

Using some of his strongest language yet on women, he said that without them “the Church on this continent would lose its power to be continually reborn,” and that “if we hope for a new and living chapter of faith in this continent, we will not get it without women.”

“Please,” he pleaded, “do not reduce them to servants of our ingrained clericalism,” for “they are protagonists in the Latin-American Church.”

Repeating a point he made in a letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in March last year, Francis said it was “imperative to overcome clericalism,” which, he said, “infantilizes” lay people and “impoverishes the identity of ordained ministers.”

He went on to identify what he has often spoken of as Latin America’s greatest need: Well-formed Christian leaders.

The continent’s greatest challenges, he said, awaited the growth of a “serene, responsible, competent, visionary, articulated and aware” Christian laity, capable of “contributing to the spread of democracy, the overturning of structures of endemic poverty and the creation of an inclusive prosperity based on lasting reforms capable of preserving the common good.”

The lasting solutions to Latin America’s deepest problems, he said, would be born not of “textbook answers” and “talkshow platitudes” but rather “that Christian simplicity hidden to the powerful, yet revealed to the lowly.”