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May 31 CELAM 5, Aparecida and Pope Francis

Today we look at the short history of the Latin American Bishops Conference, their most recent meeting in Mexico at Aparecida and how this lead to the election of Pope Francis and the blueprint for church reform in Evangelli Gaudium 'The Joy of the Gospel'


Today at Aparecida in Mexico the 5th conference of Latina American Bishops was closed by Pope Benedict XV. The council (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), is better known as CELAM, and was created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pius XII had encouraged the creation of CELAM as the first continent wide collegial-structure in the modern church. In 1955, the first conference, reflected the European identity and formation of many of the Bishops, and was described by the influential Uruguayan thinker Albert Methol Ferrer as a mirror conference. In that it reflected the theology that had been developed in European Centres which was less relevant to the realities of South and Central America. However, this changed in 1968 with the second conference in Medellín, Colombia, following the global Second Vatican Council. Medellin adapted the fruits of Vatican 2 in a creative way to the Latin American context with a focus on the poor and oppressed in society. Successfully arguing that the presence of the Church must go beyond the promotion of personal holiness by preaching and the sacraments. The bishops agreed that the church should take "a preferential option for the poor" first mentioned in the encyclical Rerum Novarum seventy years earlier (see pod of May 15 ).

Controversially, CELAM 2 in Medellin also approved Christian "base communities" in which the poor might learn together by reading the Bible. The goal of the bishops was to liberate the people from the "institutionalized violence" of poverty (Less than 5% of the population of Latin America at the time owned over 90% of the land). They maintained that poverty and hunger were preventable. The flourishing of liberation theology after this conference would create tensions especially in the pontificate of John Paul II who had a deep suspicion of ideology after his own experience of communism in Poland. Consequently CELAM 3 & 4 in Puebla and Santo Domingo were tightly controlled by Rome, coinciding with a spiritual retrenchment of the church and the collapse of Communism. Hopes that had grown in the light of Vatican 2 had been dashed and it seemed that CELAM was regressing to being a mirror conference again, rather than becoming the Source Church, developing its own theology for the universal church, that Methol Ferrer had hoped for.

However, this would change in the Fifth Conference held in Aparecida, which was opened by Benedict XVI on May 13 and ended today on May 31, 2007. The theme of the Fifth Conference was: "Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ so that our peoples may have life in Him," inspired by a passage from the Gospel of John, who narrates "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" . The Latin American Catholic Church, had been learning a lot from the rapid growth of Pentecostalism in its huge megacities, particularly amongst the poor. The challenge was how to articulate a new missionary identity in a post-Christian globalised world. Moralistic drift had characterised Catholicism in the era of Globalisation. From the Latic American perspective, the 70’s had been dominated by the political ideologies of revolution and hope only to give way to a withdrawal of the Church into a type of ‘protected enclosure’. The church was starting to define itself by culture wars rather than a missionary impulse. The challenge was how to shift from the back foot to the front foot, away from ‘opposing’ without offering an alternative, to ‘proposing’ and offering an attractive view of Christ which transcended the emptiness of consumerism. They recognised the power of the popular spirituality of Our Lady of Gaudalupe, or Our Lady of Aparecida where they were meeting, hearing the prayers and songs of the tens of thousands of pilgrims. This allowed them to develop an authentic liberation theology that was rooted in the experience of the poor, a 'teologia del pueblo'.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentinian

Jesuit was elected by his brother bishops to chair the important committee charged with drafting the final document of Aparecida. Inspired by Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ‘ That being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” Aparecida proposed a new model for the Church. Based on this encounter, leading to awe, then the decision to follow, would they felt provide authentic witnesses and lead to communal renewal. This encounter was especially powerful in the lives of the poor and the pueblo fiel, God’s holy faithful people. Bergoglio would later be elected Pope Francis after Benedict’s shock resignation. Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis first encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel repeated the lessons they had learnt in Aparecida, but this time for the global church.


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