The Church Addresses the Synodal Challenge (Part I)

Latin America: An Impulse for the Universal Church. What Are the Priorities?

I Church Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean © Enrique Soros

At the end of the Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico City, from November 20-28 of this year, a prophetic spirit resounds in the Continent’s Church, called to expand and integrate into the whole of the Americas and in the universal Church.

100 Assembly members present, and 900 virtual ones, in percentage 20 Bishops, 20 priests, 20 women and men religious, and 40 laypeople, women and men of different social and ecclesial realities. And the most unusual, all with the same value in their capacity as assembly members.

The strategy: a creation of Pope Francis. The process: an irruption of the Holy Spirit and a community open to His call.

The CELAM Bishops talk about it with joy and even pride. “We went to the Pope to suggest a Sixth General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopate and he <suggested instead> an Ecclesial Assembly that involves everyone.” The Bishops made it theirs. Since Medellin, Colombia in 1986, they have been working on the implementation of Vatican II in the Continent. For a less self-referencing Church, open to the world, to the human reality, to social justice, and, therefore, to a closer and more alive God in the heart of the people.

The 5th General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, reviewed life from all its perspectives, the dignity of the human being, of the People of God and, as such, gave great importance to communion as an essential value to be missionary disciples. The unity of the Church above action, and missionary discipleship in Jesus Christ, “so that our peoples have life in Him.” Pope Francis saw that this mission is not sufficiently incarnated in the Continent’s Church, and on this occasion invited the assembly to involve all, and not only the Bishops, including the presence of some laypeople. Hence the name “ecclesial assembly” and not “episcopal.”

The Humility of the Missionary Disciple

 Undoubtedly the process is prophetic, namely, in profound openness to God’s voice in the soul of the people. The key attitude is that of listening, which implies being free from pre-conceived structures to open to the reality of the other. Pope Francis affirms that a good theologian writes Theology on his knees, in humility, and that one who has an answer to everything is a mediocre theologian.

The same thing can be said about pastoral care. The missionary disciple does not go out to teach, in the first place, but to reverence Jesus in his brother, in his sister, in the needy. That experience opens an exchange of hearts that makes healing possible and is an invitation to conversion.

The 12 Pastoral Challenges and Their Context

 After the arduous work of the one thousand assembly members, the editorial team had to take on the task of summarizing the pastoral priorities in 12 challenges, which were published in the order in which they represented in the main the voice of the Assembly. The mission of the Editorial Team of the 12 Pastoral Challenges did not consist in offering a closed study in the form of a document, expressing in a systematic context the different points expressed by the assembly members, but in trying to be as faithful as possible to the actors’ voices.

To put the points in context now is an essential task, and presents the challenge to do it by discerning as People of God. What’s important is not to get bogged down in sterile discussions but to begin by listening.

Is All that Is Essential Found in the 12 Priorities?

 Obviously, many assembly members will feel that a challenge, which they consider essential, is lacking on the list. It’s impossible to avoid this. Only an attitude of humility in a “personal encounter with Jesus Christ” will be able to help us to understand that not all that has been said is included, but it’s about opening an area to God’s grace; that it’s a process in which all opinions matter, and that it’s not necessary or possible to include all on the list, no matter how much we feel that “ours” has more worth. The most important achievement of synodality is the union of hearts and listening to the other, in humility, feeling ourselves represented in our brother’s voice, even if we think differently.

The First Pastoral Challenge

 As a contribution to discernment, trying to put the challenges of all of them in context, I believe the central one, which puts all others in perspective, is number 11, which invites to “foster a personal encounter with Jesus Christ incarnate in the Continent’s reality, as everything stems from that personal encounter with Jesus, who touches the heart, who embraces, who elevates, who fills the soul, gives meaning to life, heals wounds and calls for profound conversion. It’s that Jesus who drives us to ”overflow,” as Pope Francis says and as is repeated with passionate conviction. We must transmit what we have received, it overflows.

And it’s that Christ, who puts us in the context of reality. It’s the incarnate Christ, who makes Himself present in the lacerating and at the same time hopeful reality of the Continent. It’s Christ who calls us to replace unjust social structures with more just ones and, at the same time, to be close to one who suffers, to a concrete brother, to cure his wounds and open his heart to Jesus’ grace.

The Second Pastoral Challenge

 I see number 9 as the second pastoral priority: “To renew, in the light of the Word of God and of Vatican II, our concept and experience of the Church as People of God, in communion with the richness of her ministerial nature, which avoids clericalism and fosters pastoral conversion.”

These two challenges can help us to see all the others under the mantle of Jesus’ presence, of His revelation and closeness, of the Magisterium of the Church and of the conception of the Church as People of God, as brothers, as family, with a common mission: pastoral conversion. This implies one’s own conversion, in the first place, and then to invite to the conversion of all.

In Part II we will analyze the synodal spirit and its difficulties and in Part III, the 12 Pastoral Challenges of the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester