By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a fluent Spanish speaker with deep ties to the church in Latin America, believes that Pope Benedict XVI will be a hit during his May 9-13 visit to Brazil for the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The Latins will be overwhelmed by the humility and the graciousness of the man,” McCarrick said in an April 21 interview at the North American College in Rome. “They’ll be so enamored that they’ll listen to him … at least that’s my dream.”
McCarrick predicted that the humility of Benedict will stand in stark contrast to the swagger and braggadocio that Latin Americans often associate with their political and economic leadership.
McCarrick, who stepped down as the cardinal of Washington, D.C. in May 2006, also predicted that Latin Americans will discover a pope who knows more about their local situation than they might expect from this quintessentially European figure.
“They will find he understands them better than they think he does,” McCarrick said. “They will be surprised by how well he understands them.”
McCarrick said that Benedict’s experience of meeting with bishops and other Catholics from Latin America for almost a quarter-century as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, along with his capacity for reading and absorbing material from different cultures in their original languages, will serve him well.
“He’s studied the world very carefully for the last 25 years,” McCarrick said, “and he comes to his role with great preparation.”
McCarrick said he believes Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, embodies the right approach to reach Latin Americans.
“This is the land of the abrazo,” McCarrick said. “You have to talk to the heart, not just the head.” In that regard, he said, the pope’s discussion of human love in the encyclical expresses “the essence of Christianity.”
“More than any other place, Deus Caritas Est is made for Latin America,” McCarrick said.
McCarrick called Benedict’s decision to attend the meeting of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean a “great grace” and a sign of “his love and pastoral care for the church in the part of the world.”
At the same time, McCarrick said that the task in front of the pope in Brazil is “not easy.”
The occasion for the trip is the fifth General Conference of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference, which brings together all the bishops of the region. McCarrick described this meeting as a critical crossroads for the body.
“What’s at stake is the future of CELAM as an instrument of growth and development of the church in Latin America,” he said, explaining that after the turbulence of the last thirty years, related in part to battles over liberation theology, CELAM now “has to confront a new series of challenges.”
First, McCarrick said, the bishops of the region find themselves for the first time facing a “growing secularism,” a new phenomenon in a continent which for centuries has been overwhelmingly Catholic, and which in recent decades has witnessed explosive growth in Pentecostal and Evangelical bodies.
“For the first time, some in Latin America are turning away from religion altogether, which is new,” McCarrick said, adding that he had in mind particularly legislative trends in some Latin American nations.
In part, McCarrick was referring to recent moves in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Chile to loosen some restrictions on abortion. A similar debate is unfolding in Brazil, where Benedict XVI will visit.
Second, McCarrick cited as a challenge to CELAM the rise of what he called “new dictatorships” in Latin America, this time from the political left. He said he had in mind Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and other new Latin American rulers with ties to Chavez.
“In each case, these governments affect the church, which we see especially clearly in Venezuela,” McCarrick said. “How is CELAM going to deal with that?”
McCarrick said that in forging pastoral strategies, it’s important for CELAM to move beyond what he described as adversarial dynamics with Rome which critics saw in some forms of liberation theology.
“Without fidelity to the See of Peter, CELAM cannot do what it is capable of doing,” he said.
McCarrick described himself as a “supporter” of CELAM, against critics who argue that such a large regional body tends to swamp the contributions of individual bishops and national bishops’ conferences. But in order to strengthen CELAM, McCarrick said, the Latin American bishops need to accent their relationship with Rome.
“In many cases there have been misunderstandings, probably on both sides,” McCarrick said. “It’s important that we all speak with one voice, though not in the same language. What we need is one voice in many languages.”
Losses of Catholic population to Pentecostal movements, coupled with a severe priest shortage, have led some Latin American bishops and church leaders to call for greater lay empowerment. McCarrick said he concurs, but that proper formation of the laity is important.
“There has to be more lay involvement, which is fulfilling the desire of the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “The gospel isn’t written just for the priests, but for everybody.”
Yet, McCarrick acknowledged, “this is always a debatable thing in Latin America because of its past history,” referring to struggles over the lay role as understood by liberation theology, especially its advocacy of “base communities” – small groups of Catholics who meet for Bible study, prayer, and social action. Critics sometimes charged that the base communities were seen by liberation theologians as the nucleus of a “church from below,” set in opposition to the hierarchy.
“These groups did not always have the direction, leadership and formation they needed,” McCarrick said. “Formation has to be one of the great goals” of any move to promote lay involvement in the pastoral mission of the church, he said.
As a Catholic in the United States, McCarrick said, he feels a direct stake in the vicissitudes of the church in Latin America.
“We’d be foolish to think otherwise, just as the United States is politically foolish is we don’t work continually on our relations with Latin America,” he said. “Latin America should be our first neighbor. It’s right next door. On issues such as migration and cooperative economic development, we have huge shared interests.”
“As Catholics, we have to look to the local churches in Latin America, because we face much the same issues,” he said.
As for what he expects from the CELAM meeting, McCarrick cited a line from the text of the Mass for Sunday, April 22, which addresses a plea to God for “renewed youthfulness.”
“That’s what I pray will come,” he said.