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America in focus as bishops, theologians confer at Notre Dame

NCR Staff
South Bend, Ind.

A clash of views over who should serve as patron of the Americas symbolized at a mid-October conference a broader conflict of visions for the future of the church in the Americas.

The conference, sponsored by the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, brought together bishops and theologians from the two hemispheres to talk about Pope John Paul II’s document “Ecclesia in America.” The document, signed Jan. 22, during the pope’s five-day trip to Mexico, served as his formal response to the 1997 Synod for America.

The pope asked church leaders to imagine the two continents as one America as a way of promoting solidarity.

“It caught my imagination,” John Cavadini, chairman of the theology department, said by way of explaining his decision to sponsor the conference. The three-day event, with more than 25 speakers, was first in a series of millennium events planned by the department.

The pope has proposed Our Lady of Guadalupe as “patron of America,” calling for a cross-hemispheric feast, and many conference speakers followed that lead.

However, Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary of El Salvador, proposed that the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero be named patron as a way of assuring that the church would remain focused on social and political realities, particularly the needs of the poor. Romero, outspoken critic of the Salvadoran military, was shot in 1981 while celebrating Mass.

While the pope has made urgent pleas for attention to a host of social problems in Latin America, describing them as “social sins which cry to heaven,” he eschews the social and political strategies that marked leftist struggles against oppressive right-wing governments of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Calling for “a new evangelization” in the democratized political environment of Latin America of today, the pope stresses conversion based on a personal encounter with Christ and intercontinental solidarity as basis for church renewal.

In the past, the pope said in the document, “a pastoral strategy directed almost exclusively to meeting people’s material needs” in Latin America may have left unsatisfied people’s “hunger for God,” making them vulnerable to aggressive proselytizing by Protestant religious groups.

But Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, noted liberation theologian, said the poverty that fed the uprisings of the 1980s has far from disappeared. Sobrino was among several speakers who noted that disparities of wealth in a globalized economy might, in fact, have grown worse.

The conservative vision and leadership that characterize the church today is unlikely to result in renewal, Sobrino said. The vision that is needed, he said in a powerful speech that ended the conference, belongs to the church of 30 years ago, symbolized by a meeting of Latin American bishops in the Colombian city of Medellín.

That 1968 conference was a turning point for a church moving away from its traditional alliance with military and economic powers and becoming an outspoken enemy of institutionalized oppression and violence. Liberation theology was its intellectual fodder; justice in service to the poor was its rallying force. The Vatican throughout the 1980s waged a counter-attack against the model of church forged at Medellín, silencing theologians, warning priests to stay out of politics and appointing conservative bishops.

“What kind of church is able to promote those things: solidarity, communion, encounter with Christ?” Sobrino asked, referring to the synod’s priorities. “The church we need for the future is the church we don’t have today, the church of Medellín. That church was real. It was the church around which martyrs began to flourish.”

Martyrs, he said -- “not only Bishop Romero, but women, children, elderly people who were massacred in Guatemala, El Salvador,” the “nameless, crucified people of our times, confront us with honesty; they interrogate us. That is why it is so important that we in the church have martyrs ... because the church has a problem with being challenged.

“There was also a fantastic generation of bishops,” Sobrino said, who “with the sisters, priests and theologians really tried to do service to the poor, the victims” of oppression.

“Liturgy, canon law, those are spaces we created to defend ourselves from reality,” he said by way of criticizing the internal focus of many church leaders today.

Sobrino narrowly missed becoming a victim of an army massacre in November 1989 that took the lives of six of his Jesuit colleagues, their housekeeper and her daughter at Central American University in San Salvador. Sobrino was teaching a theology course in Thailand at the time.

Chávez, sometimes described as a bishop in the tradition of Romero, and Robert Ellsberg, editor of Orbis Press, echoed Sobrino’s sentiments in formal responses to his talk.

The desire to “risk all” that marked the church at Medellín, Chávez said, is necessary for change and transformation in the church. “The powers of this world would like to bury the martyrs, but the church cannot live and be true to its mission without being persecuted.”

Noting that Romero’s name was absent from the pope’s document on America, appearing not even in a footnote, Ellsberg said the document lacked “concrete connection to reality.” All the references to “encounter with Christ, to solidarity, lack specificity,” he said, without a reference to Romero.

Other bishops, though also regarded as progressive, focused more positively on the pope’s agenda. “The mission will overcome tensions in the church and take us forward,” said Bishop Luiz Demétrio Valentini of Brazil. Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of Guatemala said church leaders in Latin America should not “take for granted that the faith has been presented or understood.” Many Catholics, ignoring the gospel call to serve the poor, say bishops and priests are only worried about politics, historical memories, political prisoners. “Protestant evangelizers make it easy,” he said: “Tithe, pay your offering and you will be saved.

“Many Catholics think of themselves as good Catholics, but don’t want to get involved in their neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to help them find a relationship between the Eucharist, Christ and the poor.”

Other speakers focused more directly on solutions to social problems cited by the pope: the drug trade, political corruption, violence, the arms race, racial discrimination, social inequalities and environmental destruction.

“These sins are the sign of a deep crisis caused by the loss of a sense of God,” the pope wrote. He also said a global economy driven by “neoliberalism” -- the cultivation of unfettered markets -- has worsened the plight of the poor.

Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, disagreed. He said an economic atmosphere “favorable to the creation of many new small businesses is an urgent matter for the liberation of the poor.”

“Better than to give the poor bread is to help them launch bakeries and other firms,” he said.

Jesuit Fr. Douglas Marcouiller, economist from Boston College, called for Christians to “press for labor changes” where economic policies oppress workers on both sides of the border.

Conference talks were interspersed with small-group sessions, where participants considered strategies for building solidarity, such as “twinning” parishes and dioceses, developing networks at various levels, sponsoring “immersion experiences” and interhemispheric conferences to link families, promoting “cybercommunities.”

“If you could start a movement, Americans together could be the saviors of the world,” said Bishop Jorge Jiménez of Colombia.

U.S. bishops’ surveys already show a high degree of involvement in Latin America, said Daniel Lizárragaz, interim director of the Secretariat for Latin America, National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. But, he added, “Mutuality is the key.”

“We have lots of problems” in the United States, he said, and the faith-based perspectives of Latin Americans would balance our “secular perspective.”

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said in a plenary address that cross-cultural encounters would make better Christians of all Americans. “I don’t know Christ nearly as well unless I know a Nigerian Christian,” he said. “My sense of Christ is incomplete until I have a global vision equal to the mission and identity of the church itself.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999