LIMA, Peru — In his first weeks as head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has echoed many of the concerns that he and fellow prelates raised in a conference of Latin American bishops six years ago.
Evangelization, ministry to the poor and disenfranchised, the seduction of the global marketplace, cultural changes and the environment were among the issues addressed at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.
Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, headed the commission that drafted the final conference document — more than 160 pages.
“He gave everyone a chance to speak and gathered the most important points, developing the road map we were going to follow,” said Archbishop Ricardo Tobon Restrepo of Medellin, Colombia, who served on the commission with the man who is now pope. “We saw him as a serene man, solid, serious in his work, a man who went to the heart of the matter.”
Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago, Chile, who also served on the drafting commission, recalled “the feeling and conviction of coming face to face with a ‘man of God.’ With few words, he invited us to work in an atmosphere of faith and deep spirituality. He called us to trust in God, to discover the action of the Holy Spirit in our work,” he told Catholic News Service in an email message.
“I was struck by the great trust he placed in his collaborators. He ably wove together the contributions from the various study commissions and the work of the members of the drafting commission,” Archbishop Ezzati added. “I found him to be excellent at drawing things together and a great architect of dialogue and consensus.”
When the conference began, Cardinal Bergoglio was the runaway choice to head the drafting commission, said Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, who served on a subcommission that worked on the section of the final document about the environment.
“More than 130 bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean trusted him,” he said. “That trust reflected his simplicity, his lack of desire to stand out. Those things drew everyone’s attention.”
The cardinal repaid that trust by working long into the night, encouraging his colleagues who were drafting various chapters of the document and urging them to keep two things in mind — “Christ, the Good Shepherd … and the people who were awaiting a word of enlightenment that responded to their needs,” Archbishop Barreto said.
Three themes at the heart of the Aparecida conference, which Pope Francis has echoed in his early homilies, were “the personal encounter with Christ, the option for the poor and stewardship of creation,” the archbishop said.
At his installation Mass March 19, the pope called for people of faith to be “protectors,” respecting “each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
Before his election in March, Pope Francis told his fellow cardinals that the Church needed to reach people on the periphery. While he may have been speaking metaphorically, that expression resonates in Latin America, where slums and shantytowns of substandard housing, without sewers or running water, ring the cities.
Ministry in large urban areas like Mexico City, Sao Paulo or Lima poses particular challenges that the bishops discussed in Aparecida, and which the pope will have to address.
Jesuit Father Matthew Garr, former head of the Peruvian bishops’ Social Action Commission, has seen parish ministry change radically at Our Lady of Nazareth — a large, Jesuit-run parish in a hilly, dusty, low-income area of Lima — since it was founded in the 1960s.
“The parish grew up in relationship to the social situation,” Fr. Garr said. It responded to parishioners’ problems with programs like soup kitchens and ministry to gang members. Over time, the parish developed a social service area staffed by psychologists, social workers and volunteers and became known as a place where people could find help, whether or not they were active Catholics.
‘A pastoral pope’
That style was also embraced by Pope Francis, who urged priests in his archdaiocese to live in Buenos Aires’ shantytowns.
The Argentine pope “is demonstrating a pastoral style and a vision of the Church that is inspired by the experience in Latin America,” Archbishop Tobon said. “At a time when we are experiencing a profound cultural change, the Church must re-encounter its mission and vision and reach out in a new way in society.”
If Blessed John Paul II was a pilgrim pope and retired Pope Benedict XVI an intellectual pope, “Pope Francis is a pastoral pope,” Archbishop Barreto said. “He has already said that a pastor has to smell of sheep. That’s not a very diplomatic thing to say, but it is very evangelical. It expresses a Church that is close to the people, which does not exclude anyone, but which emphasizes what Christ emphasized — the poor, the sick, the excluded.”
Pastoral work in modern megacities, however, is fraught with challenges. Of the 100,000 or so people who live within the boundaries of Our Lady of Nazareth Parish, only 5,000 or 6,000 use the parish’s services each year, and even fewer are active in the main church or its neighborhood chapels.
“People don’t make the connection between (the social services the parish provides) and the faith community,” Fr. Garr said. “I don’t think we’ve reached the insight about how to evangelize the unchurched.”
Archbishop Tobon believes Pope Francis’ simple style will draw some people back to the Church.
“I think the style of Pope Francis, who goes out to the people, blesses children and lives simply is becoming a sign for many people who have distanced themselves from the Church or are indifferent,” he said. “But reaching out to and assisting the indifferent and the distant requires a Church that is very holy, very strong and very missionary. And that is not going to happen overnight.”
Such outreach was a recurring theme at Aparecida, where the bishops launched what they called the “great continental mission,” which has become “a permanent mission,” Archbishop Tobon said.
Following the bishops’ call, the Church in Medellin has formed small ecclesial communities that remain closely tied to parishes and the archdiocese, he said. In Lima, at Our Lady of Nazareth, such small communities date back to the Latin American bishops’ 1979 meeting in Puebla, Mexico. But community members are middle-aged now.
“The great challenge is how to work with young people,” Fr. Garr said.
Another challenge is how to support parishes. As missionary societies age and international aid dwindles, foreign missionaries are discovering what diocesan priests have known all along — that the Sunday collection in a parish like Our Lady of Nazareth barely covers basic expenses, much less services like the ones Fr. Garr’s parish has provided for years.
Those are just a few of the challenges that Pope Francis will face, not just in his homeland, but in developing countries around the world.
— By Barbara J. Fraser Catholic News Service