The First Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean: Experiences of a synodal process

By Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto SJ and Mauricio López Oropeza, 25 February 2022
A January 2019 file image of worshippers during the the Vigil Mass at World Youth Day 2019 in Panama. Image: Isaac Gutiérrez/Panama2019

 

Embracing renewal at a time of uncertainty

In the days immediately preceding the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, in February 2020, without knowing the dimensions of the storm that was bearing down on us, although we could already sense it, we were preparing for the First Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean. It was an experience animated by CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), in coordination with various regional ecclesial institutes of consecrated life, social ministry and others. A few months earlier, responding to the proposal of the presidency of CELAM to convene a new conference of the episcopate of that region, Pope Francis had instead advised that an ecclesial experience open to the entire people of God should take place and that we should continue to deepen the strong message of the Vth Conference of CELAM in Aparecida (2007),[1] which still has much to tell us.

The conclusion was clear: within the framework of the renewal and restructuring of CELAM, which was underway, and following the fruits of the Amazon synod and its four prophetic dreams for that region and for the whole Church,[2] it was opportune that we continue to develop a synodal path aimed at the consolidation of a true ecclesiology of the people of God in line with the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium. It was, in other words, a call to continue on the paths traced out almost sixty years ago for the conversion of our Church.

In an extraordinary moment of prayer in March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the pope commented: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that should nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. […] You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”

In the face of this dramatic situation, the journey of the First Ecclesial Assembly for Latin America and the Caribbean was also confronted with a most difficult set of questions: Does it make sense to continue the preparation of this experience while humanity suffers the most acute crisis of our time? Is it really possible to conduct a synodal process of this size and depth, already seemingly impractical in itself in “normal” times, in the midst of the pandemic?  Would continuing such an experience, on the part of the Church, be a responsible act, when we do not know what real repercussions this crisis will have on the people of God?

These questions were not taken lightly. In fact, the outline of the assembly was completely transformed, and the overall focus was changed in several ways as we followed the events of the pandemic around the world and, more specifically, in Latin America. More than once the dates were altered, and on several occasions we wondered if we should give up this idea of a seemingly unrealizable event, given the situation we were in.

In the light of the Lord of Life’s invitations, at certain moments along the way, when the situation of the pandemic seemed to be getting darker, an experience of true community discernment led the members of the organizing commission to make a decision about which there would be no more second thoughts. In our discernment, we realized that, even at the cost of reworking the outline, method and dates of the assembly, this unprecedented experience would have to be a prophetic sign of a Church that is alive and close to its people in the context of a time of mortal danger. The First Ecclesial Assembly should be the indelible mark of a Church that does not limit itself to an attitude of mere survival, passive and inward-looking in the raging crisis, but should be a presence that instills hope, builds the future by being present, and listens to the people at the moment of greatest need.

The decision was rightly traced back to trust in the Lord of Life. Those who made it were very attentive and sensitive to the painful course of the crisis, but we were sure that the time had come to define what kind of Church we were called to be: either passive and fearful, focused only on self-preservation, or a Church “going forth,” a Church that, despite the storm, goes out to meet those who cry out and wait, and that makes the courageous decision to accompany people in their renewal process, responding to a world being turned upside down by the pandemic.

It was necessary, in spite of the countless limitations, to choose to come out of this crisis much more determined to respond along the lines in which the Lord himself has challenged us and continues to challenge us in this watershed experience of history. The ecclesial assembly was to be an instrument to bridge the gap between before and after, according to the incarnational and synodal option that the Church and the world need so much today.

From that moment on, whatever happened next and however many fragilities there might be,  the First Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean was destined to unite its destiny with that of the journeying people of God and with the conversion pathway of the whole Church. In adverse conditions, we tried to adapt the methods of listening and participation in the situation, based on the experience and skills we had available. Moreover, we were faced with the challenge of conducting a process inspired by synodical experiences, but freed from some of its structural limitations. In spite of obvious limitations, the assembly was meant to be an instrument of God to outline a way, perhaps irreversible, of being a Church in synodal listening and going forth, a Church that is increasingly a missionary disciple.

The path of the ecclesial assembly

It was an unprecedented experience at the ecclesial level, because of the synodal focus and the genuinely ecclesial perspective applied to a region-continent. It is impossible not to consider this experience as a pioneering process in the journey of our Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. In its regional scope resides a most significant contribution for the universal Church. This proposal was elaborated in the light of the ecclesiology of the people of God, which since the Second Vatican Council has reached this Church of the periphery, but which in past decades has also made the reverse journey, becoming a contribution of the periphery that illuminates the center.

It is important to clarify that this experience has not supplanted the Sixth Episcopal Conference of CELAM, nor does it intend to do so. That is to say, an ecclesial assembly is something new, born with its own identity. As we have already said, this assembly signified the choice of a living presence of the Church that looks to the future, takes on real challenges, and takes actual steps toward a synodal missionary discipleship that needed to be further promoted, even in the context of the pandemic. Although it was an arduous decision, the impetus of the Amazon synod and the experience of the newly established Amazon Ecclesial Conference urged us to continue that experience,  and not to lose sight of the goal of a more synodal Church, following the ways of the Gospel.

In response to the invitation of Pope Francis, who, when launching the assembly in January 2021, asked us to “exclude no one,” an unprecedented process of participation took place with all the people of God. About 70,000 people participated in a formal way: 45,000 in community spaces; more or less 10,000 individually; and about 15,000 in thematic forums, proposed and programmed by the people of God themselves, Church organizations or other related entities. Then there was a number of people that cannot be identified with certainty, but certainly some other tens of thousands who were not formally registered. In this space, all the diversity of the Church could be utilized, with a strong emphasis on the presence of the laity, and especially women as essential protagonists, shaping the present and future of the Church.

Some consider these numbers to be modest, and it may be that they are right, if we consider the total number of Catholics in the region. However, as a point of reference we have recent ecclesial experiences where participation was reduced to a few dozen people, almost always from official structures. We must also consider that the listening process was held from March to August 2021, that is, during one of the most complex periods involving pandemic restrictions. In any case, such a listening experience and its scope are unprecedented for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean, and this was a gift from God.

We have left behind the vision of isolated events or one-off activities, because this assembly is a process, not yet finished, marked by different stages, clearly identified and organized, inspired by the synodal enterprise envisaged  by  the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (EC): the definition of a theme and related objectives to circumscribe a specific horizon; elaboration and dissemination of the document for the preparatory journey; broad listening to all the people of God who wished and were able to participate, with the clear intention of reaching a vast audience, open in such a way to ensure that “all the excluded” could take part effectively and directly; a spiritual and liturgical itinerary to accompany the entire process; the elaboration of a document for discernment (Instrumentum laboris) based on listening and to guide the search for common horizons; a hybrid phase of the plenary assembly, (both virtual and actual participants) with unprecedented participation in terms of composition and quantity. This involved more than 1,000 people, of whom 966 participated virtually or at local meeting points, and 72 who were physically present in Mexico City, as representatives of the ecclesial components at all levels. The results were  in the form of challenges or pastoral orientations on the basis of which the next steps will be taken (among others: pastoral orientation document of the assembly; renewal of the challenges to the people of God; connection with the synod on synodality; consolidation of the renewal and restructuring of CELAM.

Factors that did not help the process of the ecclesial assembly

Participation in the process of listening to the people of God in the broadest sense, although for the first time and with such an unprecedented horizon, and furthermore in the midst of a pandemic, did not reach with the necessary impetus a consistent number of voices, presences and representations of the different geographic and living circumstances. We did not manage to involve more deeply the voices of the “unlikely,” whose presence should have been indispensable to reach the objective of the assembly. Neither the coordinators of the assembly, nor the particular commissions of each country, found the right way to ensure the existence of bridges or adequate conditions for these people to participate in the listening phase.

In the delegations from each country, selected by the ecclesial commissions – coordinated by the episcopal conferences – participation in the plenary phase did not always reflect the breadth of listening or the diversity of the Church. In other words, at times the temptation to delegate to groups that are more institutionalized or closer to the thinking of those in leadership positions in the Church has prevailed. The lack of broader and more meaningful participation of groups from the periphery was most notable in the country delegations, as well as in the experience of those present in Mexico. Some episcopal conferences have had little engagement, as a whole or in the relevant ecclesiastical jurisdictions, in the process. In many cases and in several countries, it was thanks to the conferences of religious women and religious men, to pastoral projects, or to others that broader participation was achieved.

A more careful preparation of the delegates to the assembly was lacking. We perceived, in fact, that a good number of them had not carried out a serious exercise of prayerful and reflective reading in preparation for the discernment experience. They should have played the role of representatives of the various voices of the Church in their countries, but in many cases this was not the case. We found that little work had been done on the discernment document, and this reduced the depth of impact of the plenary phase, which took place November 21-28, 2021.

We in the coordination and animation team did not offer sufficient accompaniment, or the necessary preparatory sessions, to ensure that the delegates received more essential understanding of community discernment and on their way of taking part in it, so as to experience fully the passage from “I” to “you” and from “you” to “we”; and in that “we” to find “Him,” the Lord Jesus and his will. The shortness  of time, technical difficulties and our inability to foresee problems made it impossible to dedicate more space to the preparation of what was the fundamental pivot of the assembly: community discernment by groups.

The number of participants in the listening phase was characterized by more than 67 per cent female presence, but in the plenary assembly phase women were only 36 per cent of the representatives of the delegations of the countries. For us, this was one of the most worrisome limitations because, although the percentage of bishop, priest and deacon representatives could only be male, even in the other components the percentages reflected a serious limitation to ensuring a greater representation of women, who would have been a decisive presence, participating in the listening.

During the course of the assembly, along with strong signs of a desire and willingness to change, some forms of clericalism, already pointed out at the time, were also noted that did not help the process.

The aspects of this experience that give the most hope

The very fact that an unprecedented assembly was held indicates, from an ecclesial and synodal perspective, an irreversible precedent for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean, and will have an impact in continuity and in opening new paths for the continent, and perhaps for the universal Church.

The composition was broad, imperfect, but authentically representative of the people of God according to a structure that better reflected ecclesial diversity: 20 per cent bishops; 20 per cent priests and deacons; 20 per cent men and women religious; 40 per cent laymen and women from various pastoral areas, including – although to a minimal extent – groups considered peripheral. This, too, constitutes a very important precedent for the composition of synodal processes in the Church. In fact, if in an event animated by CELAM it was possible to proceed in this way, by now we can no longer ignore the possibility that this mode of representation, more faithful to the identity of the people of God, may be the case in all ecclesial spaces.

The listening phase, as mentioned above, involved at least 70,000 people in an official capacity in community spaces, thematic forums, and on an individual basis. The transparency of the process and the commitment to mutual listening were manifested in the presentation of the results of the “Narrative Synthesis of Listening,” which took place with total openness, so that all God’s people could know the work done from their voices and contributions. This is a novelty, given that such contributions from the people of God have been usually confined to the internal workings of ecclesial bodies, and here, too, the respect for transparency and reciprocity in consultations constitutes a significant precedent.

We worked according to a method of participation and community discernment, which deeply characterized the experience of the groups in the assembly. The space assigned to the discernment groups was the cornerstone, and in it the experience of God was strong. People, beyond their ministry or role in the Church, felt the bonds of fellowship, fully participating in the process. They felt they were truly heard, and how powerful the experience of discernment is in promoting a more synodal Church. We believe that significant progress has been made regarding the option of listening and discernment in common as ways of being and doing Church.

Spirituality was an essential element throughout the process and oriented our common experience to seek God’s will, to place the word of Christ and his following at the center. This, along with the effort, albeit imperfect, to try out new ways of walking together, were the most important dimensions of the assembly, and they prevented us from falling into the temptation of clericalism, which could have led to an attempt to replicate the pattern of the CELAM conferences, that is, to place at the center of the entire experience a single and definitive document. Undoubtedly this new path was the important experience.

With a valid and fruitful choice, we wanted to connect this experience with the synod on synodality convoked by the pope. This happened not only because the secretary general of the synod of bishops, a member of its council and the rapporteur of the synod on synodality were present, but because of a coherence with the dialogical path that CELAM had been promoting for months to ensure that the ecclesial assembly would be in communion with the ongoing preparation of the universal synod. In this sense, the assembly’s contribution was invaluable, as the members of the synodal institution themselves recognized.

The participation of representatives from other regions of the Church from their continental conferences, both when it took place in terms of actual presence and when it took the form of contributions, all of which were very positive about this experience, was greatly appreciated. The special meetings that took place with such ecclesial representatives from other regions of the world made it possible to share in-depth the teachings and experience of the preparation and conduct of this assembly. This should prove useful to their initiatives in other areas of the world. Equally important was the presence of the Congregation for Bishops and its Commission for Latin America (CAL), which made it possible to make progress in finding a more organic way of coordinating and getting to know each other better.

As a fruit of the experience of community discernment, we have set out 41 challenges for the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some are new pastoral matters, others express the need for further deepening and commitment, and still others reflect confirmation and continuity in areas where we are already doing intensive work. It is very important to point out that, although the selection made by the members of the assembly led to the definition of 12 priorities, the 41 challenges are the fruit of experience and, as the Church in the region, we are called to respond to each of them.

The digital broadcast, addressed to all members of the people of God, via various channels, of about 80 percent of the assembly (except for the discernment groups) was a  manifestation of the desire to open up the experience of the assembly to the whole Church.

Horizons and next steps in an open process

The ecclesial assembly is a process, and therefore it is not finished; it will be followed by successive phases of reporting, implementation and accompaniment in the particular Churches, in the episcopal conferences and with the religious men and women across the region. Likewise, we hope that each participant will be able to multiply the experience made in his or her own context of origin.

CELAM is already encouraging the integration of the 41 challenges in its various pastoral activities to ensure continuity, and is working with the various regional or territorial platforms, institutions and networks so that each one will carry out the same process of appropriation and commitment to respond to all these challenges, to the extent that they will be relevant on a case-by-case basis.

Mechanisms are being set in place to create new pastoral realities supported by CELAM and in coordination with bodies such as CLAR (Confederación Latinoamericana de Religiosos), Caritas and others, to ensure they are accompanied in those challenges where there is no other platform capable of supporting them.

In the Center for Pastoral Action Programs and Networks of CELAM, the creation of a Seminar on Pastoral Identity and Vision, with the participation of all aspects of CELAM, in particular the centers and groups of theological reflection, was already timely planned. Its task will be to accompany the response to the challenges identified by the assembly in the context of the restructuring of CELAM, as well as the connection with the synod on synodality. It is necessary to continue the reflection, to deepen and accompany the process of the assembly with the realities relevant to CELAM, with the thousand members of the assembly and with all the bishops of the region.

A working commission has been created which, between January and April, will draft the assembly’s pastoral orientations document. Its elaboration is not the center of the process, but it is part of the pastoral itinerary of our region.  It is necessary that it be developed in the established time and with the participation of different ecclesial bodies and the assembly, who will then return it to its members and to the people of God, so as to stimulate their reactions and consequent engagement.

Dialogue will be established with the various areas of CELAM and with the delegations of the countries that request them, in order to accompany the deepening, adaptation and response to the 41 challenges resulting from this stage.

The call to the overflow of the Spirit

The Church in Latin America and the Caribbean has adopted an authentic attitude of listening, in the conviction that in this kairos, which is God’s propitious time, we are called to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit who speaks with undeniable force to the people and asks that where sin abounds, grace may overflow, a true overflow of grace.[3] This First Ecclesial Assembly is, as a whole, a process that seeks to assist in common discernment so that the Church and society allow themselves to be challenged. It would aim to respond more truthfully and legitimately to the signs of the times in our region, to promote more forcefully its integral salvific mission, and to continue to clarify the new paths by which we can follow the Lord of Life more fully.

Seeking the difficult unity in diversity, we want to respond and accompany all the people of Latin America in this hour of extreme difficulty because of the pandemic, in which the most affected remain the most fragile, the favorites of Christ. Today Christ is being crucified with them.

When we were asked what was the most significant aspect of this ongoing experience, we replied that without a doubt the most important thing is to ask ourselves two questions that lie at the heart of what we have lived: in what specific, tangible ways have we been transformed – on a personal level, a community level and as the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean – by the experience of encountering and listening to the God of life in the real voices of God’s people, especially the most unlikely? And to what new paths have we been led by it?

If we have not lived a true conversion, the experience will have been in vain and, on the one hand, it will constitute a threat, while, on the other hand, it will result in a contribution that is always insufficient or compromised, because it is polluted by ideological reductionism. Finally, it is a matter of understanding how the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ invites us to come out of our safe place, knowing that we are heirs to a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, called to become participants in a missionary discipleship that is synodal as it sets forth.

No final document, no list of challenges and pastoral orientations, no methodological or operational element of the experience, no success or limitation of the assembly have any meaning or value if they do not place us in the perspective of knowing that we are called to follow Christ more closely; to feel challenged to trust in the kairos of God that we are living, and to feel in our skin the pain of those who continue to be crucified today in Latin America and the Caribbean, alongside whom we are called to walk to continue building the Kingdom.

May Saint Juan Diego, privileged witness of the redemptive presence of our Lady of Guadalupe, be an example to us to open our ears and hearts despite fears and doubts, forming us to value intercultural experiences. May the witness of his belief in the truth of the Lord through Mary, our Mother, give us the courage to set out after having welcomed, as Church, the strength of God’s presence in God’s people.

We would like to conclude this reflection by recalling the prayer that is offered to us in the apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio (EC), as an invitation to an attitude that has sustained our ecclesial assembly: “From the Holy Spirit for the Synod Fathers [in this case for the participants in the assembly] we ask, first of all, the gift of listening: listening to God, to the point of hearing with Him the cry of the People; listening to the People, to the point of breathing in the will to which God is calling us” (EC 6).

Reproduced with permission with La Civiltà Cattolica.

 

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.3 art. 2, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0322.2

[1].    Cf. D. Fares, “Ten Years on from Aparecida. The source of Francis’ pontificate”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. August 2017, laciviltacattolica.com/ten-years-on-from-aparecida-the-source-of-francis-pontificate/

[2].    Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Querida Amazonia’. Commentary on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. February 2020, laciviltacattolica.com/querida-amazonia-commentary-on-pope-francis-apostolic-exhortation/

[3].    Cf. D. Fares, “The Heart of Querida Amazonia. Overflowing en route”, in Civ. Catt. English Ed. May 2020, laciviltacattolica.com/the-heart-of-querida-amazonia-overflowing-en-route/

 

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