Sunday, at the feet of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a “new synodal organism” for Latin America was inaugurated in Mexico. Some 1,000 people — including laity, bishops and priests — will be taking part in a week-long gathering, both in person and online.

Through a video message, Pope Francis expressed his closeness with the Ecclesial Assembly, with two key words for the discernment process: Listen and overflow.

“I ask you to try to listen to one another and to the cries of our poorest and most forgotten brothers and sisters,” he said.

Meanwhile – the pope points out – the overflow “requires much prayer and dialogue so that together we can find God’s will, and it also requires finding ways to overcome differences so that they do not become divisions and polarizations.”

“I ask the Lord that your Assembly may be an expression of the ‘overflow’ of the creative love of his Spirit, who urges us to go out fearlessly to meet others, and who encourages the Church to be ever more evangelizing and missionary through a process of pastoral conversion,” he added. 

Peruvian Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos of Trujillo, President of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), was tasked with presiding over the opening Mass.

The archbishop said that the Ecclesial Assembly comes after “a long journey together, listening to everyone, feeling how beautiful it is to be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, protagonists and co-responsible for evangelization as missionary disciples.”

He asked God to open the hearts of those taking part, so that they are guided by a spirit of listening, synodality and ecclesial unity.

“True greatness is in letting oneself be illuminated by the Light of Truth, in discovering the action of God in history, in adhering to the project of Jesus Christ and having truth as the supreme norm of behavior,” he said. 

The Peruvian prelate compared this Assembly with the 1968 CELAM Conference in Medellin which he defined as “the ‘creative reception’ of the Second Vatican Council in a context marked by poverty and exclusion.”

The reason why the gathering is a true Ecclesial Assembly, Cabrejos said, comes from the fact that it’s not only a meeting of bishops, but of all the representatives of the People of God. In fact, bishops represent only 20 percent of those gathered.

Cabrejos pointed out that in the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean, “we are united in the diversity of ministries and charisms.”

“It inaugurates a new synodal organism at the continental level, which places episcopal collegiality in the heart of ecclesial synodality, an expression of the link between the bishop and the People of God in his local church, and of the conception of the universal church as a ‘church of local churches’, presided over in unity by the bishop of the church of Rome, with Peter and under Peter.”

The assembly

Venezuelan theologian Rafael Luciani told Crux on Sunday that the ecclesial way of proceeding inaugurated with the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean takes a new step in the reception of the Second Vatican Council inaugurated by Pope Francis in 2013: “It is a new phase centered on the ecclesiology of the People of God of Lumen Gentium,” he said. “This was the sentiment of Bishop Cabrejos’s words in his homily during the Assembly’s opening Eucharist.”

The implementation of the theology of the sensus fidelium has been one of the practical axes in the new reception of Vatican Council II that the Church of Latin America has made since the Synod for Amazonia, the Luciani said.

The process began with listening to many voices of the continent – not all of them Catholic -and this week will be expanded with the exercise of common discernment of what has been heard. 

“This is something new for us today,” he said. “However, this practice rescues what was the tradition of the Church during the first millennium, which was inspired by a culture of common discernment and ecclesial consensus, as shown by the episcopal praxis of [third-century] Bishop St. Cyprian.”

“One of the most significant novelties is that we are before an Ecclesial and not an Episcopal Assembly,” Luciani pointed out. “But it is not an assembly made up only of members of the Catholic Church. Participating in it, with equal footing one from the other, are individuals, social movements, religious and other institutions, to whom the Church wants and must listen in order to discern the changes that she herself has to make.”

Its ecclesial character is not defined by its ecclesiastical identity, but by its capacity to involve and listen to the world, and not only to believers, the theologian explained.

The idea for the event began forming in May 2019, during an assembly of bishops from all over the continent. The new presidency of CELAM was asked to send a request to Pope Francis to summon the bishops to a new general conference of the episcopate. The last such meeting was in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil.

This type of assembly is unique to Latin America, and no other continental conference of Catholic bishops has done anything similar.

Yet when the CELAM leadership brought the initiative to the pope, he argued that there are many things from Aparecida that were never applied, and advised them to hold a meeting of the people of God instead, to strengthen the guidelines that were set out in 2007.

Hence, the idea for an Ecclesial Assembly involving not only bishops, but also priests, religious, men and women religious, deacons, and laymen and women. The “Listening Process” began in March, and each local church put together its own plan so that people could participate, either in person or online, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Ecclesial Assembly is also looking forward to two important anniversaries in 2031 and 2033. The first date makes reference to the Jubilee Year of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the 500th anniversary of her apparitions, and the second marks the 2,000 anniversary of Christ’s resurrection.