Pope Francis & the Latin American church

Author: Austen Ivereigh

Pope Francis & the Latin American church

One of the untold stories behind the election of Pope Francis in March 2013 was the quiet ascent of the Latin American Church, especially after the great meeting of its continent-wide episcopal council, CELAM, at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida in May 2007. 

Aparecida marked a coming-of-age moment for the Latin American Church – and for its chief protagonist, the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. 
On the flight from São Paulo to the shrine, Benedict XVI said: “I am convinced that from here will be decided — at least in part, but a fundamental part — the future of the Catholic Church. For me this has always been clear.” 
In his homily at a huge Mass in the shrine after the departure of Benedict XVI, Bergoglio used a striking metaphor when he spoke for the first time (at least in a major public arena) of las periferias existenciales, the existential margins. 
The phrase struck many chords. It suggested not just the slums, but a world of vulnerability and fragility, a place of suffering and longing and poverty, yet also joy and hope — the place where Christ had chosen to reveal Himself in contemporary Latin America. 
It was this genius for identifying trends, or tendencies, and giving them a new, startling language that led to the delegates voting overwhelmingly for Bergoglio to take charge of writing the concluding document. 
Aparecida was the expression of a new maturity, of a local Church come of age. In its vision and vigour, its fierce advocacy of the poor and its missionary spirituality, its bold proclamation of the birth of a new springtime of faith, Aparecida was now the programme, the key to a major new effort of evangelization in Latin America. 
Nowhere else in the world was there anything to compare with it. 

Benedict XVI resigns

Just under five years later, in March 2012, at the end of a fleeting trip to Mexico and Cuba, Benedict XVI decided to stand down. 
He had stumbled on the steps of the cathedral of León in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, and that night hit his head on the sink as he fumbled his way to the bathroom in his León hotel in the city. 
He agreed with a few close advisers a resignation date less than a year later: February 28, 2013, to be announced two weeks earlier, which would give time to allow a new pope to be installed in good time for Easter 2013 and to go on to lead World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro the following July. 
Given the confidence in the Latin American Church he had showed at Aparecida, there is something poignant about Benedict XVI, unsteady on his feet in Mexico, and thinking ahead to Brazil, deciding to be the first pope in 600 years to stand down. 
It is hard now not to see in that decision an exhausted European Church standing back to allow the vigorous Church of Latin America to take its place. 
In a retreat to Caritas he gave at the end of 2012 Bergoglio said the Church “has to find the embers of faith, the embers of hope, the embers of love”. 
What kept the ashes cold was what he called “the disenchanted Church”, a self-sufficient Church of fear and spiritual worldliness closed to “the enchantment which the Holy Spirit gives when it speaks in our hearts and prays for us.”
Bergoglio spoke of the synod on the new evangelization of October 2012, which had finished a few days earlier in Rome. 

A new source Church

The synod had exposed what Bergolio’s Uruguayan philosopher friend and intellectual mentor, Alberto Methol Ferré had foreseen: Europe was no longer the source Church. In Ignatian terms, it was in desolation: turned in on itself, excessively focused on what it lacked, with an exaggerated fear of perceived threats. 
Why was it that an Asian or Middle-East bishop whose flocks were being killed and bombed could be so hopeful and joyful, yet bishops in a Church where nobody suffered that real kind of persecution spoke as if Christian civilization faced annihilation? 
The rich-world Church was blaming the culture, rather than itself, for its decline. 
Yet the first obstacle was not the culture, but a Church that no longer evangelised, that had allowed the living water to go stale. The problem was that “we have Jesus tied up in the Sacristy,” he told the Caritas delegates.
This was precisely the image he used just a few months later, in the speech to his fellow cardinals on the eve of the conclave that persuaded so many of them to conclude that the Holy Spirit had already chosen the next pope. 
They elected not just a man, but a Church and its programme. In choosing Francis, the cardinals were bringing the fire lit at Aparecida to Rome, to re-invigorate the universal Church. 
  • “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” by Austen Ivereigh, published by Allen and Unwin, price £20 (plus P&P) is available from Goodnews Books. Call 01582 571011 or email 
  • This article is an extract from a larger piece published in the GoodNews Magazine. To read the full-length article and discover other great features like this, please click here to subscribe.

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