On Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis met with the forty-five bishops who form the Coordinating Committee of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM). He focused on the legacy of the meeting of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Aparecida in May 2007.
He began his address by mentioning four hallmarks or pillars of the Aparecida conference. First, the participation of the Particular Churches as a process of preparation culminating in a document of synthesis, which while serving as a point of reference throughout the Fifth General Conference, was not taken as a starting point; the prayerful setting and the accompaniment in the form of the songs and prayers of the faithful; that Aparecida did not end with a document but instead continued in the Continental Mission; and finally, that it was the first conference of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean to be held in a Marian shrine.
The Pope spoke of the two dimensions of the Continental Mission: the programmatic, consisting in a series of missionary activities, and the paradigmatic, setting in a missionary key all the day-to-day activities of the Particular Churches. The Pope explained that “this entails a whole process of reforming ecclesial structures. The ‘change of structures’ (from obsolete ones to new ones) … will result from the very dynamics of mission. What makes obsolete structures pass away, what leads to a change of heart in Christians, is precisely missionary spirit”. Francis mentioned two of the current challenges of missionary discipleship: “the Church’s inner renewal and dialogue with the world around us”.
The Holy Father went on to outline some “temptations against missionary discipleship”, such as the transformation of the Gospel message into an ideology: “the attempt to interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel itself and apart from the Church”; functionalism, which “reduces the reality of the Church to the structure of an NGO” and “applies a sort of ‘theology of prosperity’ to the organization of pastoral work”; and finally, clericalism, “a temptation very present in Latin America” which “explains, in great part, the lack of maturity and Christian freedom in a good part of the Latin American laity”.
The Pope then suggested some ecclesiastical guidelines: first, “the missionary discipleship which Aparecida proposed to the Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean is the journey which God desires for the present ‘today’ … It is given in the ‘today’, but also ‘in tension’. There is no such thing as static missionary discipleship”, linked neither to the past nor the future.
Second: “The Church is an institution, but when she makes herself a ‘centre’, she becomes merely functional, and slowly but surely turns into a kind of NGO. … From an ‘institution’ she becomes a ‘enterprise’. She stops being a bride and ends up being an administrator; from being a servant, she becomes an ‘inspector’. Aparecida wanted a Church which is bride, mother and servant, a facilitator of faith and not an inspector of faith”.
Third: “In Aparecida, two pastoral categories stand out”, Francis said. “They arise from the uniqueness of the Gospel, and we can employ them as guidelines for assessing how we are living missionary discipleship in the Church: nearness and encounter. Neither of these two categories is new; rather, they are the way God has revealed himself to us in history”, he continued, recalling that the pastoral plans which do not take account of these dimensions “can at best provide a dimension of proselytism, but they can never inspire people to feel part of or belong to the Church”, and added that “one touchstone for measuring whether a pastoral plan embodies nearness and a capacity for encounter is the homily”.
The fourth and final aspect: the Pope commented that “Bishops must lead, which is not the same thing as being authoritarian”, and offered some guidelines: “Bishops must be pastors, close to people, fathers and brothers, and gentle, patient and merciful. Men who love poverty, both interior poverty, as freedom before the Lord, and exterior poverty, as simplicity and austerity of life. Men who do not think and behave like ‘princes’. Men who are not ambitious, who are married to one church without having their eyes on another. Men capable of watching over the flock entrusted to them and protecting everything that keeps it together: guarding their people out of concern for the dangers which could threaten them, but above all instilling hope: so that light will shine in people’s hearts. Men capable of supporting with love and patience God’s dealings with his people. The Bishop has to be among his people in three ways: in front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can sniff out new paths”. In conclusion, Francis added “we are lagging somewhat as far as Pastoral Conversion is concerned. We need to help one another a bit more in taking the steps that the Lord asks of us in the ‘today’ of Latin America and the Caribbean. And this is a good place to start”.