“The poor and the young constitute the wealth and the hope of the Church in Latin America,” declared Óscar A. Romero, the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, in 1980. Those two forces—the poor and the young—will converge as Pope Francis, who has made the poor a central focus of the Church, heads to Rio de Janeiro for the 28th World Youth Day. The first World Youth Day with a Latin American pope, celebrated in Latin America, will put the focus squarely on what Pope Benedict called “the Continent of Hope,” and therefore we offer this whirlwind tour of Latin America’s Catholic soul.
As Pope Francis arrives, the turbulent political climate looms large. It always does in Latin America. The region has a history of upheaval, with the Church in the middle of the drama, ever the tempest-tossed barque navigating perilous waters. The most recent turmoil concerns widespread popular protests against Brazil’s largesse in funding big international events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, while spending in needed infrastructure and social programs languishes (official support for WYD2013 could fall into the same category, but it is much smaller in scale). The Brazilian president’s popularity has plummeted and six people have been killed during the protests, but this tumult is tame by comparison to the trouble that has characterized the continent. During the 20th Century, a few Latin American countries had all-out civil wars (e.g., Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua); many others had simmering insurrections, military coups and similar episodes (e.g., Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Peru); and pretty much the entire region has endured military juntas and dictatorships, all generally aimed at containing social unrest begot by deep economic disparities in the way Latin American societies traditionally have been structured.
The Church acknowledged the economic disparities in a landmark regional synod held in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, and attended by Pope Paul VI. “There are many studies of the Latin American people,” the bishops said in a statement then. “All of these studies describe the misery that besets large masses of human beings in all of our countries. That misery, as a collective fact, expresses itself as injustice which cries to the heavens,” they declared. The bishops at Medellin defined the twin pillars that characterize the Latin American Church’s spirit: evangelization and integral human promotion. The Latin American bishops re-confirmed this commitment at their most recent meeting, which was held in 2007 in Aparecida, Brazil—one of the cities in Pope Francis’ WYD2013 itinerary. Then Card. Jorge Mario Bergoglio played an influential role at that meeting, and is largely responsible for its resulting document. The influential Catholic commentator George Weigel lauded the text. “The Aparecida Document suggests that Latin America is far more than just the demographic center of the Catholic Church,” he wrote. “In the light of Christ,” the document states, “suffering, injustice, and the cross challenge us to live as [a] Samaritan church, recalling that evangelization has always developed alongside the promotion of the human person and authentic Christian liberation.” That commitment to evangelization with human promotion appears to be the core of Pope Francis’ own mission and it likely stems from his roots in the Latin American Church.
Some have questioned whether the quest for social justice has always accompanied evangelization, as the Aparecida document states. One of the strongest voices to speak up in favor of social justice in Latin America was the aforementioned Archbishop Romero, killed in El Salvador in 1980 specifically because of his denunciation of human rights abuses by the military dictatorship in his country. In a 1979 pastoral letter, Romero argued that “the Church has always made its presence felt when society clearly seemed in a sinful situation,” and he pointed to early champions of the rights of the natives, such as Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, in Mexico. In May 2007, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the Church’s track record was not spotless. The Pope recognized “the suffering and the injustice inflicted by colonizers on the indigenous populations, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled upon.” But, he noted that the excesses had been “condemned at the time by missionaries like Bartolomé de Las Casas,” and did not outweigh “the wonderful works accomplished by divine grace among those populations in the course of these centuries.” Pope Benedict noted the contributions of church leaders, historic and present. “The Gospel,” he said in 2008, “brought there by the first missionaries and preached fervently by Pastors full of love for God such as Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, has put down deep roots in this beautiful Land and has yielded abundant fruits of Christian life and holiness.”
From Bartolomé de las Casas to Óscar Romero, the Latin America Church has traversed the rich expanse of the Continent’s history. Most recently, the Church navigated the tumultuous 20th century, when many Latin American countries struggled to finally resolve the unfinished business of emancipation from European colonial powers (mostly Spain). A secret 1969 CIA analysis divided the mid-20th century Latin American Church into three factions: ultraconservative “Reactionaries,” mainstream “Uncommitted,” and the burgeoning “Committed” block. Reactionaries were the smallest group, and though the Uncommitted were vast, the Committed clergy were the most influential, it found. They were buoyed by the outcome of the Second Vatican Council, where their leaders successfully lobbied for a strong commitment to social justice. Pope Benedict was a theological consultant at the Council, and he recalled that, “well aware of the extreme poverty of its people, on a Catholic continent,” the Latin contingent at the Council pressed the issues of “the responsibility of the faith for the situation of these people” and “responsibility for the future of this world and eschatological hope” as dimensions of the faith in the modern world. The 1969 CIA report noted that the Committed Latin American clergy were “insistent on the Church disposing of its material possessions and becoming a ‘Poor Church’ as well as the ‘Church of the Poor’.” (Compare Pope Francis: “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”) Indeed, the Latin American Church is an influential sector of the global Church today. As George Weigel said, “Latin America is far more than just the demographic center of the Catholic Church.”
The Latin American Church is at least that—the demographic hub of the global Church. A recent Pew study quantified the vast shift towards Latin America in world Catholicism. “In 1910, Europe was home to about two-thirds of all Catholics, and nearly nine-in-ten lived either in Europe (65%) or Latin America (24%),” the study found. “By 2010, by contrast, only about a quarter of all Catholics (24%) were in Europe. The largest share (39%) were in Latin America and the Caribbean,” the study concludes. Latin America’s Catholic identify, though waning somewhat, is still fairly strong. Some Latin American countries—like Argentina and Costa Rica—still recognize Catholicism as the official state religion. Others—like the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru—do not recognize the Church officially, but still give it preferential status in their constitutions. And while the CIA’s 1969 classifications seem somehow outdated, there are still currents within Latin American Catholicism that are useful to understand. An article in The Christian Century differentiates among four: (1) popular piety (which “features fiestas and holidays, as well as huge gatherings in honor of various statues of the virgin, or of patron saints”); (2) the traditional church; (3) the Vatican II church (the heirs of the “Committed” group—which would include Pope Francis and Archb. Romero); and (4) the activist church (the more radical currents of Liberation Theology). Hopefully knowing the back story will help newcomers to better understand how these currents interact.
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In 1979, Óscar Romero celebrated a vigil with the young. He presented the participants to the general congregation. “Without a doubt,” he said, “this prayer vigil has strengthened their spirit and made them pleasing to God because they have fortified the meaning of the Church.” Then he turned to the young people themselves. “As I look at you, my dear young women and men,” Archb. Romero said, “I think of the central person of this morning’s reflections: the young Jesus.” Like Jesus, Romero said, young people should ask themselves, “What does God desire of you? Above all other economic and family considerations it is important to be able to discern this question: what does God desire of you?”
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Update: Pope Francis struck a similar chord in remarks to the faithful during his July 21 «Angelus» prayer. “All those going to Rio want to hear the voice of Jesus, to listen to Jesus,” the pope said. They want to ask, “Lord Jesus, what must I do with my life? What is the path for me?”