The script for the pontificate of Pope Francis was written six years before his election, at the Aparecida plenary assembly of the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM). In the sixth year of the pontificate however, the set has been transformed, the actors seem miscast, the plot has been altered and the curtain is set to come down early. Has the great continental mission proclaimed at Aparecida been abandoned?

A continental episcopal conference for Latin America – stretching from Mexico to Argentina and including the Caribbean – was established by Pius XII and held its first plenary meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1955. But it was the second plenary, in Medellín in 1968, that made CELAM a major force. Medellín marked a definite turn toward the “preferential option for the poor” as a hallmark of the Church in Latin America.

The subsequent rise of liberation theology in the 1970s meant that the third plenary conference, in Puebla in 1979, would have to clarify to what degree Marxist categories could be employed in service of the Gospel. The new pope who came to Puebla, John Paul II, knew something about that, and set out to sift the wheat from the chaff.

It was a sign of how important the CELAM plenary – where more than half of the global Catholic population is represented – had become that St John Paul II made it his first foreign trip only three months after his election, keeping the appointment Paul VI had made.

The next assembly, held in Santo Domingo in 1992 to mark the quincentennial of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, was less consequential. There were complaints about heavy-handed control from Rome, and it was not clear if there was an appetite for another CELAM plenary.

But after a long interval there was a plenary in 2007, under the CELAM presidency of Cardinal Javier Errázuriz, Archbishop of Santiago. Aparecida was at least equal in importance to Medellín, and was described by many as a coming of age for CELAM.

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