Seasonal Reflection: Pope Francis and the Latin American Church

Joseph Nangle, OFM Features

What experiences made Pope Francis who he is today? Below, a friar who served for 15 years in South America as the Latin American Church underwent radical change following the Second Vatican Council, discusses how those changes continue to influence Pope Francis’ approach to the papacy.

What a difference a year makes!

I write this on the first anniversary of Benedict XVI’s shocking announcement of his resignation as pope. As we remember, that gesture shook the Catholic world. But could any of us imagined what would happen a few weeks later when a relatively unknown Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected pope by the College of Cardinals, called himself Francis and asked a blessing from the crowd in St. Peter’s Square?

From that moment to the present, on virtually a daily basis, Pope Bergoglio has surprised, delighted, challenged, frightened, inspired — you choose the verb — not only the Roman Catholic world but people across the globe. All of us know the details of this “new springtime” in the papacy of the Catholic Church. No need to review here that well-documented record. So let me take a slightly different approach to this “Francis event.”

Argentine Life and the Latin American Church
Some weeks ago, friends of mine returned from a vacation to Argentina. One of their comments related to this former Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires. As they observed Argentine life, they told me it was clear that Pope Bergoglio was a genuine representative of that unique culture. They mentioned in particular the human warmth they encountered, the outgoing Argentine spirit, the “abrazos,” or love for life, so evident in Argentine music, dance and fiesta.

While I agree with this and believe that one key to the worldwide fascination with Pope Francis is his Argentine heritage, I believe there is a deeper reality in his background that makes him what one person has described as “the Pope of Hope.” That is the history of the Latin American Institutional Catholic Church over the past half-century, one that almost exactly parallels Jorge Mario’s own life journey.

If any Catholic community caught and interiorized the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council, it was and continues to be the Church of Latin America. Barely two and a half years after the close of that historic Council, episcopal representatives from every country in Central and South America and the Caribbean, together with theologians, religious and laity, gathered in Medellin, Colombia to incorporate insights of the Council into their own ecclesial and civic realities. In a series of pastoral documents, the Medellin Conference set the Church in Latin America on a new course, one almost diametrically different from its historic role theretofore.

Those documents laid out concepts and challenges such as “the preferential option for the poor” and the reality of “institutionalized sin” in the political, economic and social structures of Latin America. They called on every area of Church life — Episcopal, lay, religious and clergy — to stand with the poor and make pastoral decisions based on how they affect the marginalized, oppressed and rejected majorities there. As someone who worked as a parish priest in Lima, Peru, during those years, I can testify to the enormous changes both of heart and ministerial objectives that these challenging statements brought about in all of us.

Ministering to the People of God
More to our present subject, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969 and appointed Provincial of his Jesuit province in 1973, had to have been affected by this application of the Second Vatican Council in his Latin American Church. Follow-up episcopal conferences in Puebla, Mexico, 12 years after Medellin and the 1992 gathering in Santo Domingo, the same year Bergoglio was consecrated as bishop, surely had an impact on his life and ministry.

I say this because the process of these meetings was totally distinct from former methods of “doing pastoral theology” in the Catholic Church; the process permeated the way Church life in that part of the world was conducted. Rather than the traditional “top down” method of applying hard and fast Church teaching to each human situation, the Latin Americans started from the experience of people, particularly the poor, and asked what God’s word had to say about those specific situations (“bottom up”). One can see in Francis’ approach to his role as pope this way of judging and acting — one that is based on the lives of women and men.

These conferences of the Latin American and Caribbean Church, as noted, have paralleled the “career” of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. After becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, named a cardinal in 2001 and president of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference in 2005, he came to international attention in 2007 as the Latin American and Caribbean Church gathered once again, this time at the great Brazilian shrine of the Blessed Mother, Aparecida. Here, Cardinal Bergoglio played a central role in the clear call to the people of God as a missionary people. He served as chairman of the committee charged with drafting the final document of Aparecida and represented the assembly of conference participants in presenting it to Benedict XVI. Little wonder that less than six years later Bergoglio became the Argentine Pope.

One paragraph from the Aparecida Document sums up for me the entirely fresh approach that Pope Bergoglio brings to the papacy. I believe it also sums up his amazing and immediate impact on the Catholic Church and on the world:

“A Catholic Church reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of the faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. Our greatest danger is the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church in which everything apparently continues normally, but in reality the faith is being consumed and falling into meanness.” (Document of Aparecida #12)

 Fr. Joseph, a member of the Provincial Council since 2011, serves as director of post-novitiate formation. Friars interested in submitting reflections about holy days, holidays and other timely topics are asked to contact the HNP Communications Office by phone (646-473-0265 ext. 321) or email.