A first-ever Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America, bringing together bishops, priests, religious and laity, ended Sunday with a commitment to accompanying “victims of abuse in ecclesial contexts,” in what amounts to a clear acknowledgment of impact of clerical sexual abuse scandals up and down the continent.
The resolution regarding victims was one of twelve “pastoral challenges” identified by the week-long summit.
The gathering included high-ranking Vatican officials such as Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a veteran missionary in Latin America, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops as well as the Pontifical Commission for Latin America; several lay theologians; religious men and women; and prelates who lead other continental bishops’ conferences, such as Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, head of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.
Pope Francis also made himself present through a video shared Nov.21, when this “new synodal organism” opened at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Though only some 1,000 people could actually take part in the assembly – and, of those, only 100 in person – sessions were livestreamed through YouTube and social media platforms, along with daily press conferences held in Mexico City with some in-person participants. The gathering technically ended on Sunday with a closing Mass celebrated in the shrine dedicated to the patroness of the Americas, but the last working session and news conference were held on Saturday.
The assembly was preceded by a widespread consultation carried out both in person and online throughout most of 2021.
Looking to the past, planning for the future
The last conference of the Latin American bishops (CELAM) took place in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil, with then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, coordinating the drafting of the final document.
The idea to hold a gathering involving the entire people of God instead of only the bishops was suggested by the pontiff, who, when asked to summon a new conference, told the newly elected leadership of CELAM in 2019 there was still much to learn and implement from the last one.
According to Argentinian Father Pedro Brassesco, the assembly was an “experience of synodality, which has been reaffirmed as an essential way of being Church,” held above all “to renew the spirit of Aparecida, which impelled us and continues to impel us to the mission.”
“To transform the structures of the Church, to convert ourselves pastorally is always for the mission, for the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the raison d’être of the Church,” said the Argentine priest, adjunct secretary of CELAM.
Brazilian Cardinal Odilio Scherer, vice-president of CELAM, also focused on the missionary call of Aparecida, acknowledging that despite its richness and the fact that it’s still very current, the document hasn’t been sufficiently taken up.
The Archbishop of São Paulo also pointed out that fully adopting Aparecida’s call for a continental Church that is constantly missionary has to be attentive to issues that have arisen since 2007, including “new ecclesial, social, humanitarian, economic, political and cultural issues that challenge the mission of the Church.”
“We take up again an important concept of the Aparecida Conference: conversion,” he said, insisting that the Church cannot be content with a pastoral effort of “conservation” and to launch a true pastoral missionary renewal.
The People of God is one
Sister Gloria Liliana Franco, president of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious (CLAR), argued that the renewal and conversion of the Church in the continent must follow “three p’s,” meaning “belonging (pertenencia in Spanish), participation and patience.”
“It will only be possible for us to cooperate in the processes of renewal of our Church that Pope Francis has convoked us for through a profound experience of belonging, of feeling ourselves part of the Church, each one of us from our experiences and charisms, that are different but complementary,” the Colombian religious said.
This feeling of belonging also applies for the women in the Church, something which, she argued, was “resolved” in the frame of the assembly. Citing the active participation and remarks delivered by women (Susana, Isabel, Rosario, Bridgit, Marta, and more) up and down the continent throughout the week-long discussions, Franco argued that it became clear that women “have to be” involved in the spirituality of the Church, with a “new, creative, symbolic and up-to-date” incarnation of Jesus’ message.
Women must also be present “at the border” and the “peripheries,” with migrants, the Afro-communities of the continent, with the poor and marginalized, offering both “mercy and transformation.” Having heard the witness of women from Latin America, Franco said, “we understand that women have to be present in the places of theological reflection,” and it also became evident that women have to be “in the corner of resistance and prophetism, where with sincerity, we verbalize and express what we want for women in our Church.”
The Secretary of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America, layman Rodrigo Guerra Lopez, said during his remarks taking into account the present moment of the Catholic Church, it’s important to remember the premise that faith summons people to live in communion and in unity.
“The same faith calls us to be as patient as possible with the defects and deficiencies of others, and therefore, the same faith invites us to judge with prudence and of course, when one is the one who commits the error: to ask for forgiveness,” the Mexican layman said
Guerra strongly argued that the Ecclesial Assembly is a learning process, and as such, part of a broader story, defining it nevertheless as a first instance for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean where “we are giving ourselves the opportunity to listen to each other, to try to dialogue, to try to embrace and welcome and to try to correct.”
Processes such as the Ecclesial Assembly “are highly hopeful, if they start from humility and the request for mutual forgiveness, from all of us, where perhaps my judgment is too hasty, where perhaps my intolerance has prevented someone from participating, where perhaps I myself, because of my tiredness, no longer make my best effort to be patient and charitable.”
Ouellet said that “there is no such thing as the People of God and the hierarchical Church: the hierarchy is part of the People of God.”
Furthermore, he said during one of the press conferences, “the bishops have to behave as faithful, in fraternity with all, listening to all, because it is the same Spirit that inhabits all the members and guides them towards a witness given to humanity and towards salvation.”
Synodality, key element for pastoral conversion
Throughout the assembly, participants stressed that Pope Francis’ vision for a synodal Church, taken from the Second Vatican Council, is a core principle for the missionary Church Aparecida proposed. According to Ouellet, the first objective of synodality is to “make the Church a witness of mutual love, because if there is no love [among its members] no one will believe us.”
Synodality, he said, is the “organizational dimension of communion,” and a Church that is ever more synodal is one where “everyone feels that they are participants, that they are respected, that they are members, that each one has a contribution to make.”
Sister Dolores Palencia, who also hails from Mexico, argued that Latin America has “emerging signs of a new ecclesial model in a synodal key,” citing the restructuring of CELAM, the creation of a similar structure for the Amazon region, that includes dioceses from eight countries, the celebration of diocesan Synods and Plenary councils, as well as the assembly itself.
The synodal process is rooted in listening, and it has to involve everyone if it is “to overcome unequal relationships of superiority and subordination typical of clericalism, and to bet on the reciprocal need and work together.”
“Participation not as a concession but as a right of all, being a duty to take advice from listening to those who exercise authority,” argued Venezuelan theologian Rafael Luciani, who was co-presenter with Palencia. “Listening is neither generic nor abstract.”
During their talk, the theologians called for the assembly to be an instrument that further advances synodality in the regional Church, creating what Luciani called “a new culture of ecclesial consensus,” because, according to the religious sister, “the future of the Mission is at stake.”
“We need to leave behind the clerical model … and its privileges,” strengthening instead the idea that “all the people of God must be responsible for [implementing] actions that are transformative, flexible, attentive to the needs of the new generations, who can recreate a participative ecclesial community, of consensus, with new and diverse ways of living the authority and making decisions.”
“It is better to have a church with errors and mistakes, ready to get up again and restart the journey, than paralysis, panic, which stops the passage of the Spirit and stiffens,” Palencia said.
The assembly, from the eyes of a European
One of the guests invited to the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America was Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who presides over the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union and serves as the general rapporteur of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
He personalized his remarks by saying that he was speaking as someone who lives in Europe, “an old continent in which the Church is sometimes a little tired,” facing a great secularization that the Church has yet to find a way to properly address.
As an example, he spoke of Germany, a country where today, the number of people with no religion is almost as high as that of Protestants and Catholics together. Yet, as Pope Francis teaches, Hollerich said, “God must be sought and found in today’s secularized world,” and as such, it’s important to remember that “God is present in today’s Europe”.
The assembly, beyond serving as a personal inspiration for the speech he will deliver in 2023, opening the Synod of Bishops in Rome, brought together many realities where God is found in the personal level of each participant, in their individual joys and sorrows, as well as those of their communities and peoples.
Participants “were able to discern the presence of the living God in these realities, to discern his call, and to give a personal and communitarian response to this call.”
The 12 challenges ahead
In their final message, the assembly members pointed out challenges that will mark the pastoral itinerary in the process of missionary and synodal conversion that lays ahead for the Latin American Church. They reiterated their commitment to revive the spirit of Aparecida in preparation for two major jubilees: the 500th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe (2031) and the 2,000 years of Christ’s death, known as the Jubilee of Redemption (2033).
The challenges include:
- Working for a renewed encounter of all with Christ, “incarnated in the reality of the continent.” promoting and accompanying young people as protagonists of the life of the Church.
- Tending to “the victims of abuse in ecclesial contexts and to commit ourselves to prevention.”
- Promoting the active participation of women in the ministries and in the spaces of discernment and ecclesial decision making.
- Promoting human life from conception to natural death.
- To continue fighting clericalism through synodality.
- Listening to the cry of the poor.
- Renewing seminary formation.
- To accompany native peoples and Afro-descendants as they fight to preserve their lives, their land and their culture.