What happened to Pope Francis’s vision for Latin America?

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope, at Aparecida in 2007

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.

Described in 2012 by George Weigel as the “master plan for the New Evangelisation in Latin America”, the papal biographer reported favourably on his discussions about Aparecida with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the principal drafter of the final document. When less than a year later Bergoglio was elected Pope, Weigel was only one of many observers to interpret his election in relation to Bergoglio’s leadership at Aparecida. “Everyone in the Church, [Aparecida] writes, is baptised to be a ‘missionary disciple’,” wrote Weigel. “Everywhere is mission territory, and everything in the Church must be mission-driven.”

Indeed, CELAM proposed a “great continental mission” that was the pastoral plan for all of Latin America. When weeks after his election Pope Francis announced his new principal advisory group, the council of cardinals, it included Cardinal Errázuriz and Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, also on the Aparecida drafting committee. It seemed clear that the Aparecida moment had arrived for the Church Universal. When later that year Pope Francis issued the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he confirmed that the entirety of the Church’s activity should directed toward missionary discipleship, calling for a Church that went out of herself, leaving behind the sacristy for the streets, the chancery office for the field hospital.

Five years later, the great continental mission has stalled on multiple fronts. The most dramatic end of Aparecida’s missionary energy is in Chile, where sexual abuse cases were so disastrously managed in both Chile and Rome that it has now metastasised into a catastrophic crisis from which it will take at least a generation to recover. There will be precious little energy left for missionary initiatives as Chile will be preoccupied with investigation, recrimination, litigation, compensation, contrition and reconciliation.

The role of Cardinal Errázuriz brought Pope Francis’s mishandling of Chile into his inner circle. Meanwhile, media reports of an alleged scandal in Cardinal Maradiaga’s diocese has meant that neither of the Latin Americans on the Council of Cardinals has been a force advancing the Holy Father’s pastoral priorities, but rather a distraction.

Yet it is also those pastoral priorities that, counter-intuitively, have distracted the Church from its primary proclamation of the Gospel. The family synod process in 2014 and 2015, culminating in the publication of Amoris Laetitia in 2016, focused enormous energy inward, as even the Holy Father’s most enthusiastic supporters could not agree on what was being taught. The mission of proclaiming anew the Gospel message for marriage and family life was compromised by doctrinal disputes over ambiguous footnotes and language apparently at odds with the settled teaching, for example, of John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Surprisingly, the pontificate has devoted extraordinary energy precisely to the affairs of the sacristy, as it were: the five-year plus discussion of bureaucratic reform discussed by the Council of Cardinals, the implementation of financial reforms and their reversal, the implementation of sexual abuse reforms and their reversal, the resignation of the new prefect of communications and its partial reversal. The prospect, made possible by reforms by Pope Francis, that a new multi-year round of revised liturgical translations is in the offing is yet another sacristy-intensive initiative.

External factors have also blunted the capacity of the Latin American Church to implement Aparecida. Recent attempts to liberalise abortion laws in both Chile and Argentina have consumed ecclesial energy on issues that Pope Francis would prefer not to be “obsessed” about.

Moreover, the decade since Aparecida has been politically difficult in the CELAM countries. Venezuela is the most cruel reality, with the population starved by its own government, but just this year the bishops in Honduras, Nicaragua and Ecuador have all been seized by the necessity of dealing with political crises. The Mexican bishops, for their part, are attempting to deal with continuing lethal violence against their priests. It is very difficult to engage in missionary work when various depredatory regimes are filling the field hospital with bodies.

It has proved a particular challenge for Pope Francis, reluctant as he is to criticise leftist regimes. As he prepares to welcome Bolivia’s Evo Morales – the man who gave Pope Francis the hammer-and-sickle crucifix – this Saturday for the sixth time, the Holy Father must lament that the Church’s credibility regarding “preferential option for the poor” requires it to oppose regimes that claim the same mantle.

Perhaps the clearest evidence though that Aparecida has been abandoned is the 2019 synod for the Amazon region. More than a decade after Aparecida, the great continental mission has failed to provide adequately for the vast mission territory at the heart of its own continent. The synod, in its preparatory phase already laying the groundwork for the ordination of married men as priests, is not aimed at launching a great missionary push into the interior from the surrounding countries, but leaving the Amazon to itself, conceding that the great continental mission is inadequate to the task.

The proposal is breathtaking, namely that the same celibate priesthood which evangelised the entirety of Latin America in the face of immense challenges is today not a viable option. The radical step of ordaining married men is based on the premise that missionaries cannot be found for the task. The Church permanently in mission envisioned at Aparecida has concluded that missionary failure is now permanent.

A Church turned inward, plagued by scandal, on the back foot on life issues, confronted by catastrophic political failure and unable to evangelise its own interior – that is not the galvanising vision of CELAM in 2007. Far from being an Aparecida moment for the entire Church, Aparecida has been abandoned even at home.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the June 29 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here