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Hans Czarkowski {*}

What will become of the "Continental Mission"?

Provisional Appraisal of the Reception
of the Bishops' Assembly of Aparecida


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2008, P. 417-423
webmaster's own, not authorized translation



    Since the Fifth General Assembly of Latin American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil (see HK, in July 2007, 343 ff.) more than a year has passed. The Catholic Church in Latin America is now striving to implement the perspectives of Aparecida in the individual countries. With it everywhere the project of a "continental mission" is tackled, but also the political commitment of the Church is anew considered.


A new awakening takes place in the Catholic Church in Latin America. The document of the General Assembly of the Latin American Bishops from 13 to 31 May 2007 found quickly its way into the local churches on the continent. Since the publication by Benedict XVI on 29 June 2007 and the presentation at the 31st Ordinary Assembly and the election of the new head of CELAM in Cuba (4 to 13 July 2007) connected with it, this programmatic draft is decisively effective for theological thought and pastoral action of the local Catholic churches in Latin America.



When you examine the official initiatives of the church in Latin America one year after Aparecida in the process of implementation it becomes evident that the Assembly and its document has got going a comprehensive continental process of reflection, planning and action. Step by step it is being implemented in the 22 bishops' conferences with almost 800 dioceses with a total of 481 million Catholics (that are 42.56 percent of 1.12 billion Catholics worldwide) in more than 31.000 parishes with tens of thousands chapel- and base communities associated with them (CEBs - "comunidades ecclesiales de base").

How the implementation succeeds can quantitatively hardly be properly assessed and summed up for such a short time. From outside the impact of the document is therefore easily underestimated. Long since key messages have been popularized by songs, slogans, symbols, texts and radio messages. Aparecida 2007 has found an area of indirect influence in the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada with a total of about 260 dioceses: via the cooperation conferences of bishops of North and South America as well as the Caribbean, through the high proportion of "Hispanics", migrants from Latin America who with and without legalization often as committed Christians live in the north of the continent, via the Caribbean as cultural bridge between North and South.


New Vitality in the Caribbean

The Fifth Assembly of Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Aparecida had deliberately underlined the title "Latin America and Caribbean". The Bishops' Conference of the Antilles (AEC) was therefore present in Aparecida and was represented by the then chairman of the AEC, the Archbishop of Kingston (Jamaica), Lawrence Burke. At its plenary assembly from 27 to 30 March 2008 and its ad Limina visit in Rome from 31 March to 7 April 2008 the Church of the Antilles decided to implement in cooperation with the Church in the United States the "continental mission" proclaimed in Aparecida.

A new commitment to spiritual vocations among the youth of the Antilles and the development of vital encounters with Christ especially also for young people are to become the main foci. The catechesis is to become a "lifelong learning". The adult catechesis had to accompany the religious education of children and adolescents. It was welcomed that with Michael James a deacon was appointed Secretary of the AEC, in Trinidad & Tobago, with seat in St. James. The successor of Archbishop Burke in Kingston, Archbishop Donald Reece, wants as newly elected chairman of the AEC to promote the pastoral work in the Antilles according to the Aparecida decisions.

The AEC also pointed to the fact that the Bishops' Conferences of Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico will arrange their own programmes for the realisation of Aparecida. The Cuban bishops offer a website that shows the structures and information about the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998 but can so far offer only little material about Aparecida. The Bishops' Conference of the Dominican Republic has according to the methodological three steps "looking, judging, acting" very critically analysed the pastoral situation of the dioceses in the country and in a new pastoral plan shown solutions that make actions of the church effective for mission work. With the help of animated graphics those who are responsible are in courses to learn to impart these new accents for a missionary commitment to the pastoral workers.


Initiatives in Central America

The Central American Bishops' Conferences, loosely federated in SEDAC (Secretariado de América Central), endeavour to achieve an independent national implementation of Aparecida but exchange experiences on the SEDAC level. At the cooperation conference of 30 November 2007 in Nicaragua the promotion of spiritual vocations in Central America and Panama had priority.

At that meeting the Suffragan Bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chávez and the Suffragan Bishop of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Romulo Emiliani called for more effectiveness of the Central American media network, in order to deepen the understanding of Aparecida in the population. It was said that in that way it was possible, to help reduce people's strong desire to emigrate to the USA by overcoming poverty.

On the websites of the Bishops' Conferences of El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua the news and work tools of CELAM are in detail presented and is invited to the advanced training offers of ITEPAL (Instituto para América Latina Teológico) and of the Bible Centre CEBIPAL (Centro Pastoral Biblico para América Latina) to Bogota in Colombia.

From Honduras Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa is a committed advocate, at national and international level from the perspective of Aparecida, for the people of Latin America. He also represents the views of the Honduran bishops. On the Katholikentag (general assembly of the laity) in Osnabrück in May 2008 Cardinal Rodriguez called for a more active role of the church in politics and society:



"Especially in Latin America major changes are necessary. We as Church must contribute the Gospel and the Catholic social teaching to our countries' politics" said Rodriguez at the panel discussion "One year after Aparecida" organized by Adveniat and Misereor in the One World Centre of the Katholikentag in Osnabrück.

The bishops in Mexico want to deepen and implement the new evangelization in the light of the Aparecida document, in order to find in the spirit of Aparecida an answer to the challenges of the country. They want to be a "church of disciples and missionaries." With its programmatic "Message to the People of God in Mexico" the 85th General Assembly of the Mexican Bishops' Conference under its chairman Carlos Aguiar Retes, Bishop of Texcoco - one of the Vice-President of the Latin American Episcopal Conference in the bygone period at the end of March 2008 got totally involved in the Aparecida process.

Admittedly, the situation in the country was, as it were, "grey", but they wanted to achieve a reorientation of the pastoral structures and methods. Together with Aparecida they emphasize that in Mexico the "change of an era" takes place, particularly since in the areas of violence and poverty a culture of death more and more asserts itself (established). They trust in God, the Lord of history, who showed the church the way. To it belonged "to overcome the "separation of faith and life in Mexico", to implement with renewed force the preferred Option for the Poor and to become a "Church of Christ's disciples and missionaries".


Attention to the Indigenous Cultures

The Bolivarian Andean countries Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia have admittedly not got together in an organized church subgroup, as Central America with Panama (which formerly belonged to Colombia) in SEDAC. They are geographically in their combination to be distinguished from the political unification initiative "Bolivarian Alternative" (Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia) brought into being by the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. But there are many contacts among the bishops and similar church priorities, already by the mere fact of the high proportion of indigenous people in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. So under the horizons of Aparecida the reflection on the indigenous cultures is thematically of greater importance than in other countries.

The political regroupings through the election results in Ecuador and Bolivia in favour of an increased influence of indigenous groups, particularly of the Quetchua and Aymara, have made even more aware of those common perspectives. On the other hand, the combination of pro-indigenous policy and socialist society conceptions does not make it easier for the church politically effectively to implement its values and conceptions. It is conspicuous how just in the media sector with regard to Aparecida the church places its hope in modern electronic media, even with its own software, which is sold by the central information network RIIAL.

On its website the Bishops' Conference of Bolivia gives the current offers of CELAM in the area of training after Aparecida a central place; but it also takes up the suggestions of the Fifth Assembly to come with regard to current issues to more cooperation among the local churches of neighbouring countries. From 17 to 19 June 2008 the bishops of the neighbouring dioceses of Brazil and Bolivia had their 10th meeting. In a joint message they condemned drug trafficking and violence in the cities of the border area, called for a process of comprehensive transformation in the region and pointed to the message of the Gospel that gives hope to people "who are close to the poor." Common priorities of the Pastoral were the extension of the base communities as well as the assistance for migrants without documents. The Continental Mission which had been started in Aparecida will - so they hope - have a positive effect on the religious development of the border area.

Because of the "event of Aparecida" the Brazilian Bishops' Conference (CNBB) had postponed for a year their "General Guidelines for the Evangelization" already prepared for the General Assembly of 2007 and adopted them in April 2008 after a detailed discussion in the light of the Aparecida document. They are in force until the year 2010. The Secretary General of the CNBB and Suffragan Bishop of Rio de Janeiro, Dimas Lara Barbosa in the introductory text underlines that these guidelines adapt the decisions to Brazil (see Document of Aparecida, paragraph 431).

In 216 articles it is worked out how the church in Brazil can integrate in a solidary, just and fraternal way those who are excluded from the life of society. The guidelines invite the Brazilian Catholics to pass on "with courage, enthusiasm and creativity the valid message of the Gospel to others" and "to develop the new life in Christ". Greatest importance is therefore attached to the "personal encounter with Christ". In the strength of their baptism the faithful are to become disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. "Each diocese is to become a 'missionary community'. It is to be inspired by a spirituality of communion and participation".

In the following Brazil's current religious and social situation is analysed, the guidelines are substantiated more in detail and concrete steps for action are pointed out. The three steps "looking, judging, acting" can easily be recognized as the red thread.



It is explicitly pointed out that the Catholic Church in Brazil is missionary, both inwards and outwards. So Brazil will cooperate in the great continental mission, but give it "a Brazilian face".


Important Theological Contributions

Against that background it is not surprising that the President of the Brazilian Caritas and Bishop of Jales (Sao Paulo), Demetrio Valentini in a press briefing at the 46th General Assembly quite self-confidently stated: Aparecida had given back Latin America and especially Brazil its pastoral and missionary identity. Systematically the bishop applies - exemplary for many of his about 300 colleagues in Brazil - the decisions of Aparecida as guidelines in his diocese to pastoral conferences and in training courses. He points out that Aparecida had given the church base communities "citizens' rights within the Church", even if there had initially been some reservations among the bishops.

It is an important contribution to the integration that also leading Brazilian theologians participate in the process of Aparecida. In a much-noticed "Dicionário de Aparecida" the mission theologian Paulo Suess has expounded 40 key words for a pastoral reading of the document of Aparecida (see Editorial Paul, Sao Paulo, 2008). The 40 terms coincide with the key words of the CNBB's "diretrizes" but tighten them up on central perspectives such as inculturation, interreligious dialogue, ecumenism, identity, history, church, Holy Spirit, the poor, to mention only some of them.

Suees classifies the key terms as belonging to six main categories: 1st The starting point of the discussion, 2nd theological foundations, 3rd subjects of evangelization, 4th practice, attitudes and results, 5th resources, instruments and structures and 6th horizons. The author wants to offer with the small dictionary a semantic network for the "forest of the 240 text pages of Aparecida" making possible a transversal reading: for a speech, a series of lectures, and a quick personal orientation.

In a comment of the Conference of the Religious of Brazil (CRB) the role of women in the process of Aparecida shows more to advantage. At a regional seminar in Brasilia on 31 May 2008 the theologian Vera Bombonato for example deepened the positions of Aparecida on the spiritual life and Sister Rosalie stressed that women and nuns can go to places where others cannot come.



The spiritual life provokes to create alternative areas in which the "excluded and enclosed [Eingeschlossenen]" can meet, so that the" Excluidos "learn to become protagonists of their own history.

Before and during the Fifth Assembly in Aparecida Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, archbishop of Santiago de Chile, was the President of the Latin American Bishops' Council. His reconciling moderation has decisively moulded the preparation and course of that fifth continental meeting. As leitmotif the sentence was decisive "We need a new Pentecost and a church without borders", which he formulated on 19 June 2008 at a family conference in Santiago de Chile and thus also signalled the implementation of Aparecida for the different target groups of the Catholic Church of Chile.

Already on 9 July 2008 the Chilean Bishops' Conference published the "New Pastoral Guidelines for the Next Five Years". They take up the decisions of Aparecida and make them obligatory for the pastoral practice of the country: The personal encounter with Christ in God's word and in the commitment to the poor and excluded is to be promoted. That is to happen in the context of the current reality of the Chilean people in pastoral priority fields. The role of the "constructores de la sociedad" is emphasized, i.e. of those responsible for the society from the ranks of workers, entrepreneurs, social initiatives, academics, students, politicians and the people in the media.


Clear Accents Critical of Society

Numerous publications and broadcasts in Chilean radio and television programs deal with Aparecida. The "Editorial Tiberíades" publishes a series of 25 teaching aids in a "simple pastoral language" in which the main topics of Aparecida are to be made accessible. Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz himself has written the first issue. He takes up key points such as missionary vocation, parish and church base communities, popular piety, offices and services in the church, Catholic education as well as the field of culture and education.

On the Osnabrück Katholikentag the Chilean theologian Loreto Fernández, one of 25 female participants in the Fifth Assembly, spoke about the role of women in the church in the context of Aparecida. She stressed that it was possible for women to contribute their concerns in the final document: "Things go step by step, but they go ahead." In their final document the bishops had for instance pointed to the particular urgency of the commitment to disadvantaged women. The fact that the final message explicitly spoke of "hedisciples and shedisciples" was an important signal to the women of Latin America.

Argentina takes a quite different approach. When already in Aparecida in the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's report on the situation in Argentina a strong accent critical of society was felt, so Aparecida has apparently strengthened the Church in Argentina in its resolve to interfere with its own positions in the social situation of the country. On 3 September 2008 the final document was presented to a broad societal public in Buenos Aires and was the prelude to well-directed political statements, e.g. on the inner societal dialogue, respect for the Christian positions in (the)sex education, and educational policy in general. The Church in Argentina has emancipated itself from the "Officialism" of different Peronist currents in Argentina.


The Role of CELAM

Argentina influences the smaller countries of Mercosur, Uruguay and Paraguay, which nevertheless apart from the two great neighbours strive to obtain a profile of their own. In Paraguay the document of Aparecida was published and spread in a special edition by the Bishops' Conference. In Paraguay the popular piety of the shrine Caacupé is of great importance. Millions of Catholics annually look there for spiritual experience and personal orientation. Aparecida has confirmed this way of popular devotion.

The church in Uruguay finds new spiritual ways in order to overcome secularization. In both countries the bishops hope in the sense of Aparecida that the Catholic laity becomes active in the country's politics in various parties, after first in Uruguay and then in Paraguay parties oriented towards social democracy and socialism have asserted themselves, in elections recognized as reliable, against the previous "oficialistas", i.e. against the "Colorados" ruling for decades. In contrast to that in Argentina a breaking open of the "Oficialismo" by the opposition does not yet begin to emerge, although the Argentine President Christina Fernández de Kirchner tries to focus on new lines in social policy.

Although the implementation of Aparecida primarily happens in the individual Latin American countries in the local churches, the Latin American Bishops' Council CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano y del Caribe) is of great importance, for it gives impetus and coordination.



At the same time it should be noted that the Fifth Assembly was according to canon law a meeting of elected, delegated and by the Vatican confirmed Latin American bishops with guests and experts. Beforehand the preparation had been transferred to CELAM. On the other hand, the Fifth Assembly in Aparecida had a management and structures of its own, which were only partially identical with CELAM. It was the goal, as Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, one of the three presidents of the Fifth Assembly and President of CELAM said, to arrange it "without straitjacket" as an open and transparent process.

That is to be effective also for the implementation. So the Latin American Bishops' Council offers substantial assistance by its structures. In particular ITEPAL's and CEBIPAL's, the Bible Centre's theologically and pastorally qualified offers in the field of education are to be mentioned. Added to it is the procurement of practical work tools, in particular a didactically prepared "workshop model for the document of Aparecida" as well as other media, and the digital networking by RIIAL.

CELAM created a Commission and a programme staff of its own for the "Continental Mission" decided in Aparecida. All in all 50 people are working on the implementation. Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Archbishop of Aparecida, the in Cuba in July newly elected President and the Secretary-General, Suffragan Bishop Victor Sánchez of Mexico City have the central responsibility. CELAM texts stress that the "Continental Mission" has long since begun with the work in the local churches, but by the central opening of the Continental Mission Congress in Quito in August 2008 is to get a push ahead and into the width.


Prospects for the Whole Continent

These sidelights on the geography of the church in Latin America direct - according to the three steps "Ver-Juzgar-Actuar" (looking, judging, acting) of the Aparecida document - [first] the "attention to reality", [second] to "the context of Jesus Christ's life and message" as criterion for judging, and [third] to the "initiatives for Jesus Christ's life for our peoples".

In fact, the view of the church in Latin America on the reality of the continent has become sharper in the one year after Aparecida; in political declarations specific requests were made. The results of Aparecida were to a large extent included in the national pastoral plans, what with many details has especially succeeded in Brazil. Throughout America the bishops are glad that Aparecida already in the working paper, in the discussions and in the implementation in the year behind has again taken up the methodical way of working in the social and in the pastoral reflection of Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979) - in contrast to Santo Domingo (1992).

The three steps "looking, judging, acting" are applied to the church, social, economic and political situation of the respective country. With it the analyses presented in Aparecida by the chairmen of the Bishops' Conferences are taken up more explicitly and specified, as that regarding politics is above all on the agenda in Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador. In Paraguay, after the election of Fernando Lugo as the new President with a vote share of more than 40 percent, one still reacts cautiously waiting but no longer negatively, and first contacts for a dialogue are being established.

In general, the relationship between state and church in Latin America gets new attention. It becomes obvious that the new socialist-oriented presidents and governments even more clearly stress the separation of church and state, especially when they come from a church context. This leads, especially in the fields of applied Christian ethics for the values of life, of the recognition of religious non-governmental organizations, and of education and pastoral social action (Caritas) to noticeable tensions. Open conflicts between church and state exist above all in Venezuela.

In the individual countries the church unanimously continues to demand - in agreement with the respective situation - to overcome corruption, especially in the elections and to eliminate the causes of violence and of a culture of death through drug trafficking and consumption, by which above all young people, particularly young men are affected. The debates on environmental issues, such as the protection of the rain forests and the production of bio-fuels are conflictive. The work of the Church in these areas is supported by a growing number of civil initiatives which are very courageously working "transversally", i.e. in different political movements, as Aparecida had demanded it in response to the "change of the era".

The preferred Option for the Poor and the integration of the socially excluded, the "excluidos" is unambiguously demanded, which was to determine action in politics and society. With it the church avoids to commit itself to individual parties or politically active groups. It is important that Adveniat and Misereor have especially also at the Katholikentag in Osnabrück in 2008 confirmed these guidelines of Aparecida as criteria for their project policy. Aparecida is not primarily a theological theory but a life process which influences all areas: everyday life of political parties, civil groups, the broad field of Catholic education, Catholic colleges and universities, the cultural environment of urbanity, especially in the capitals with their "Areopagoi" of a global and post-modern economy and media presence.



It remains to be observed how the relationship between church base communities and new spiritual communities, particularly also the charismatic movements will develop in Latin America, and how both movements will integrate themselves in the local churches and complement each other.

It remains exciting to wait and see whether by the missionary awakening of Aparecida the process of the numerical development can be changed and whether the number of Catholics in Latin America will increase again. But it may also be that after Aparecida it is primarily not about quantitative growth rates of Catholics but qualitatively about a revitalization of the Catholics' religious life by the encounter with Jesus Christ. From it a greater impact of the Christian testimony can result, which changes society and builds up the church in order to take responsibility for its global mission.


    {*} Hans Czarkowski (born in 1941), Dr. phil., after working with Missio and in the General Secretaries' Office of the ZdK 1987 to 2003, head of the Department of Public Relations and spokesman for Adveniat; since 2003 as a freelance journalist in Latin America.


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