Aparecida, Brazil — Aparecida, Brazil
Christ, not political ideology, is what will make Latin America “the continent of hope,” Pope Benedict XVI told the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean this morning in a Mass to open their Fifth General Conference.
“Not a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system,” the pope said. “Faith in the God who is love – who took flesh, died and rose in Jesus Christ – is the authentic basis for this hope.”
That claim has been Benedict’s constant theme over his May 9-13 trip to Brazil, which concludes today with the formal opening of the General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) in Aparecida, home to the largest Marian shrine in the southern hemisphere. In a nutshell, Benedict has insisted that the urgent political and social problems of Latin America must not distract the church from the core of its mission, which is to proclaim the Risen Christ.
Only faith in Christ, the pope has argued repeatedly, will provide the lasting values upon which a truly “just and fraternal” society can be built.
While that’s a universal message, it is especially relevant in Latin America. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), many Catholic theologians, priests, bishops and lay activists in Latin America have sought to mobilize the church to respond to the continent’s pressing social and political crises, above all the disparities between rich and poor – a gap which, according to United Nations statistics, is more dramatic in Latin America than anywhere else in the world.
The pope acknowledged that focusing on the spiritual dimension of the church’s life “must not serve as an excuse for avoiding the historical reality in which the church lives as she shares the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor and afflicted.”
Yet Benedict has insisted that this social solidarity must not dislodge proclamation of Christ, participation in the sacraments, and the promotion of holiness as the heart of Catholic identity. It is not the role of the church to provide specific political solutions to Latin America’s problems, the pope has said, but rather to provide the evangelical “motor fuel” for a commitment to finding those solutions.
For the third time over the course of his five-day trip, Benedict said that real peace is to be found only in Christ, “the peace that the world cannot give.” He said that faith in God is Latin America's "most precious inheritance."
In his homily this morning at the Sanctuary of Aparecida, Benedict also again invoked the image of Pentecost in praying for a new burst of evangelizing and missionary activity in Latin America.
In addressing the bishops, Benedict reminded them of the “Council of Jerusalem” as described in the Acts of the Apostles, which ended with a decision not to impose to Mosaic Law upon converts from paganism. The decision was announced by the formula, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …”
That formula, the pope said, expresses the method by which decisions should be reached in the church, “whether in small gatherings or in great ones.”
“It reminds us of the importance of community discernment with regard to the great problems and issues encountered by the church along her way,” he said. “The church’s leaders discuss and argue, but in a constant attitude of religious openness to Christ’s word in the Holy Spirit.”
“It is not only a question of procedure,” Benedict said. “It is a reflection of the church’s very nature as a mystery of communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
Benedict acknowledged that the CELAM conference is an especially important event in the life of the church, since the churches in Latin America “constitute, proportionally, the majority of the Catholic community.”
Against the backdrop of dramatic recent losses to Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, as well as the growing phenomenon of Latin Americans without any religious faith at all, Benedict insisted that the Catholic Church must not grow by “proselytism.” Instead, he said, it must grow by “attraction,” through spiritual and practical imitation of Christ.
In Catholic parlance, “proselytism” is understood to mean aggressive, and often manipulative, efforts to coerce people into embracing a given religious option. “Evangelization” and “mission,” on the other hand, are invoked to mean respectful efforts to share Christ with others, both through explicit proclamation and also through service, leaving people free to make up their own minds. Hence “proselytism” is used in a pejorative sense, often in reference to what Catholics call the Pentecostal and Evangelical “sects,” while “evangelization” is regarded as an urgent pastoral priority.
The Mass was held outside the sanctuary, in order to accommodate a crowd that was supposed to number over one million. (A trip guide published by Vatican Radio said “over one million are expected.”) In the end, it was much smaller, estimated at 150,000. Local authorities offered three explanations for the disappointing turnout: Sunday is Mother’s Day in Brazil, so many people may have opted to be with their family; the events in São Paulo were overwhelming, perhaps intimidating some people; and that media coverage of the Mass was so extensive that many Brazilians were satisfied to watch it on television.