Energized by the recent Synod for America, an Argentinean archbishop discusses the historic possibilities awaiting the Universal Church

Archbishop Stanislao Esteban Karlic, 70, of Parana, Argentina, one of the two special secretaries for the Special Synod of Bishops for America was elected to a 15-member committee that will help John Paul II draft the post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

He spoke with REGISTER Latin America correspondent Alejandro Bermudez in Rome at the conclusion of the Synod.

Bermudez: How would you evaluate the Synod?

Archbishop Karlic: From the point of view of the contents, it will provide the region, together with the Holy Father's apostolic exhortation, with fundamental guidelines to foster the New Evangelization from a continental perspective. But, I would like to highlight the Synod as an event—an occasion that has its own value, even had it not concluded with a series of proposals.

We have had the opportunity to experience a deep sense of communion that has grown among the bishops from all America, thus providing the foundations to build fraternity and solidarity that, because of real cultural differences and social barriers, is not easy. Today, I think that even the most skeptical regard the idea of Church unity on the continent as both possible and important.

Why is it so important?

Because communion and unity are, for Catholics, a mystery and a reality of faith. Today, in an ever more globalized culture, we have to make this unity real in our lives if we want to respond to the historic opportunity the Pope has unveiled: to become the forerunners of the global culture by experiencing and witnessing the “Catholicity,” that is to say the universality of our Church. From this Synod on, we are encouraged, as bishops, to become protagonists of this process. This idea, this concept, has been assimilated and internalized by most of my fellow bishops, if not all. Most of us are going back to our dioceses and to our nations with the conviction that we have to start this process as soon as possible.

Have the bishops discussed concrete means to make this project real?

It has been said several times that this Synod was not convoked for theological speculations or to write another catechism, but to discuss practical pastoral means to carry on the New Evangelization requested by the Pope. The meaning of “practical” for the Church must not be confused or evaluated by the pragmatist standards of our secularist culture, for which “practical” means evident, immediate, tangible, even spectacular achievements.

This is not the case when we talk of changes according to the Gospel. Of course, the changes requested by the Pope imply a new solidarity between north and south that must be concrete in economic and social dimensions. But in order to achieve this, the Catholic Church must work in the only thing that will guarantee real, long-lasting changes—the change of mentalities and hearts in people.

In this field, the sacred field of the human person, changes are very slow. For this effort, which we are ready to start, clear ideas and a strong conviction are needed.

Do you think bishops are coming out of the Synod with these two elements—clear ideas and strong convictions?

I believe so. As one of the secretaries of the Special Assembly for America I have been blessed with an exceptional opportunity of probing the thoughts and the feelings of many, I would even say most, of my brother bishops. I can say that most of them are seriously convinced that this program is possible. This Synod has been determined in creating this conviction.

Was consensus achieved because controversial issues were systematically avoided or because there was real agreement even in points that are usually matter of conflict among bishops?

There was no attempt to avoid potentially controversial issues. Each issue was judged and evaluated not according to the enthusiasm or timidity with which it was presented by a synodal father, but by its capacity to be integrated into the objective, which was to design pastoral guidelines for the New Evangelization. That was basically the horizon, the mind set and, somehow, the filter for the issues.

Everything that was helpful for the New Evangelization was highlighted. This consensus on the criteria for choosing the issues was, I believe, both the secret of the Synod's success as well as its first fruit. This also showed that we don't need to wait for the creation of new structures in order to achieve communion in practical things. This is rather new for us.

What other important things do you consider as innovations?

Well, the radical change of language, which also conveys a change of mentality that is in process. We [South American Bishops] are now starting to speak of America instead of Latin America, while “America” for bishops in the United States does not mean only the United States, as it has done.

This is not only a change of language, as I said. It also means to start thinking globally, as a continent, not only as a country or region. It also means that challenges have to be selected, not giving an artificial dimension to problems that are only local or regional, no matter how big they may look. Other issues, on the contrary, are global. This is the case with migration, for example.

Migrants are moving not only from Mexico to the United States. They are also moving in great numbers from Paraguay to Argentina, from Peru to Chile, or from Guatemala to Mexico. They all pose the same challenges: a group that must be welcomed in the country they are moving to, a group that is in a potential situation to be separated from their cultural values, a group that requires a special ministry that at this time is not being properly provided.

Another important consensus is the increasing spirit of a missionary commitment ad gentes—that is to say, aimed to bring the Gospel to other continents. Countries like Canada, the United States, and Colombia have had this tradition, but most of the other countries have not and now are trying to share, even from their own poverty of human resources.

During the Synod we have determined that America as a whole, as one Church, has a special responsibility regarding Asia and the Pacific, since the biggest population is there and since it has become the axis of the new process of globalization.

We are also convinced that the north-south dialogue is possible, at least from the perspective of the Catholic Church. If we foster this dialogue until it becomes a deep communion, then we will be able to become a strong testimony, even a model, for a better understanding at a secular level among the nations of the region.

What has been the most important issue highlighted by the Synod?

I believe it is the centrality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, son of God. All the other proposals and pastoral conclusions sprout from this truth. In fact, from this mystery, we believe we are all brothers and sisters, we believe we have the same dignity and that everything has been created for the well-being and happiness of all. This means that because someone owns some of the goods created by God, the possession of this good is not an end in itself, but it has been created for the happiness of all.

America, as a continent, has been created for the well-being of all Americans. Can you see all the human rights, all the social consequences that come out of this statement? This means that it is because of our faith that we demand the right for a person to have a job or the opportunity to raise a family with basic securities.

The term ‘globalization’ was used frequently during the Synod. Is there anything new in the bishops' thinking about this phenomenon?

Definitely. Bishops now have a less ambiguous stand toward it. We believe that the global culture is a great opportunity to apply the Catholic, universal nature of the Church by bringing the Gospel to all peoples. But at the same time it conveys several challenges: it opens the opportunity for the powerful to have more possibilities to apply an almost unlimited power.

This makes particularly urgent the need to defend the rights of the individual, the particular groups and cultures, because the global culture can also become a threat. Globalization is, in short a great opportunity, but also a risk, because we can be harmed by the secularist dynamic it conveys. In this manner, the role of the laity is not only important, but decisive. In fact, lay people who are deeply involved in the process have to be the front-runners of the New Evangelization. They can achieve, in this particular respect, what other members of the Church cannot.

That is why the Synod highlighted the need to recover the importance of the social doctrine of the Church as well as the evangelization of political, economic, and cultural leaders. Catholic universities are very important as well. They should become Catholic think tanks where major problems are analyzed and confronted from a Catholic perspective.

Did the Synod reach any common conclusions regarding normally divisive issues such as birth control or capital punishment?

These issues were mentioned, but in their true proportion, respecting the main theme, which is the New Evangelization of America. There can be different opinions, but the Gospel is always the Gospel, and its interpretation depends not on the opinion, feelings, or desires of the individual, but on one, unified Magisterium. That, basically, is what it means to be a Catholic. So the great challenge here is to apply the Gospel to the reality of America.

Most of our problems are in the human mind. There are several ideas, even among Catholics, that do not belong to the criteria that Jesus Christ came to share with us as a gift of love. This is where our task begins. If men and women are renewed by the transformation of their minds, as St. Paul describes, then understanding the most complicated issues and applying of the most demanding teachings of Jesus simply flow as a consequence.

Take, for instance, the several social issues pending in America. What would happen if a truly Christian entrepreneur requested the bishops to articulate a more socially sensitive business policy? What would happen if we request Christian politicians in the United States to be more tolerant with the rights of immigrants who look for a better future there?

As I said, it is a very slow change, but the only way we can expect the Gospel to become real is to make it real in human minds, in human hearts, in the human person as a whole. It does not mean to forget or delay social issues to an indefinite time in the future. It just means to do first things first.

How do the bishops plan to achieve this transformation?

That goes back to the problem of testimony, which I think has been somewhat underesimated by many in the Church in recent decades. I certainly believe in the effectiveness of pastoral techniques and programs, in the use of modern means, and even advanced technologies. The evangelization of culture, the “New Areopagus” mentioned by the Holy Father in his encyclical Remptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer, 1990) stress their importance. But they are basically instruments.

The means or the medium can heavily influence the message, but it never replaces the message. Just try to compare the apostolic effectiveness of someone like Pope John Paul or Mother Teresa. Hasn't the secret of their success been the intense, transparent way they witnessed Christ to all the world? That is what I mean. In other words, with more saints we would have fewer problems.

In pursuit of a growing conscienceness in all America, what role do you see for Latin America?

I would rather talk about my own country, Argentina. I hope and pray that it becomes a front-runner in fostering communion and solidarity with all the neighboring nations and also a testimony of unity at a continental level. This is something that must be achieved at all levels. MERCOSUR [the common market among Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay] is, for example, a good initiative in this regard that can be a model and even set the pace for the region.

We bishops are determined to contribute to such unity from our own pastoral perspective at least. As a matter of fact, bishops of Chile and Argentina have signed a common statement appealing to our nations and governments to find a final solution to the controversy of the so-called Continental Ice, which is the only border dispute pending.

At a continental level, just as the fifth National Mexican Missionary Congress turned years ago into the first Latin American Missionary Congress, we expect the sixth Latin American Missionary Congress, scheduled for 1999 in my Archdiocese of Parana, will become the first Pan-American, or simply “American” missionary congress. That could be a concrete contribution to fostering a common missionary spirit at the continental level.

—Alejandro Bermudez