Prior to an April visit to Argentina, I read the “Aparecida Document,” the final report of the Fifth General Assembly of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), which was held in Brazil in 2007. This master plan for the New Evangelization in Latin America is rather long—20-times longer than the Gospel of Mark, I’d guess. But in virtually every other respect it’s an entirely admirable piece of work that should be known throughout the world Church. (For those interested in the full text, it’s available here: http//old.usccb.org/latinamerica/english/aparecida_Ingles.pdf.)
The first thing to note about the Aparecida Document is its strongly evangelical thrust: everyone in the Church, the bishops write, is baptized to be a “missionary disciple.” Everywhere is mission territory, and everything in the Church must be mission-driven. Then there is the document’s forthright Christocentrism, which reflects the teaching of Benedict XVI (who opened the assembly with a masterful address): the whole purpose of evangelism is to foster friendship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God who reveals both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity.
The Aparecida Document is also noteworthy for its lack of defensiveness. If Catholics are leaving the Church and finding a spiritual home in Pentecostal communities, that’s the Catholic Church’s fault; it’s not something to be blamed on buckets of gold from El Norte and the machinations of the U.S. government (as two generations of Latin American churchmen had often charged). The Catholic Church must figure out what is missing in its presentation of the Gospel and its living of the Gospel: filling those gaps is the way to invite back home those Catholics who move away from their historic spiritual home. The Catholic failure here, the bishops frankly concede, is an evangelical failure. And the answer to that failure is what they call “permanent catechesis”: an ongoing encounter with the Lord Jesus, deepened spiritually through Word and Sacrament, the Bible and the Eucharist.
In a meeting with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., the archbishop of Buenos Aires and one of the world Church’s great leaders, I asked how the Aparecida Document—which seemed such a break from previous CELAM documents—had happened. The cardinal cited three reasons.
First, Aparecida is a Marian shrine, and meeting there oriented the bishops’ reflections in two directions: toward the traditional piety of Latin America and toward Our Lady as the Star of the New Evangelization (as Blessed John Paul II had named her). In that intersection between past and future, and under Mary’s protection, there was an opportunity for real creativity in facing the truth of the Church’s situation and prospects.
Second, the bishops had regular contact with the throngs that came to Aparecida on pilgrimage: it was as if CELAM was meeting, not in some convention center or monastic enclosure, but right in the middle of the People of God on their pilgrimage through the early 21st century—a pilgrimage in which both popular piety and new missionary initiatives will be part of the New Evangelization and in which lay Catholics will be the Church’s primary evangelists.
And third, the cardinal replied, the bishops were surrounded by prayer: as they discussed the future of the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean at the shrine of Aparecida, they could hear their people praying around them. Thus the fifth CELAM conference became, not another bureaucratic exercise, but a kind of retreat.
There is no need to over-romanticize this: the Aparecida Document was also the result of some hard thinking and hard work (some of it done by Cardinal Bergoglio, who was too modest to claim any such credit). But it is also true that the Aparecida experience suggests that good things happen at mass meetings of bishops when the bishops live like pastors, in close contact with their people, and when their deliberations seem more like the Upper Room of the Acts of the Apostles than an annual stockholders’ meeting.
The Aparecida Document also suggests that Latin America is far more than just the demographic center of the Catholic Church.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.