CLEVELAND—Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago urged educators, students in Catholic universities and the clergy June 24 to remove the unseen wall separating North America from South America and to work toward creating a unified continent.

Cardinal George, in his keynote address at the opening of “A Dialogue Within U.S. Catholic Higher Education About Latin America” at John Carroll University in Cleveland, called for more exchanges of students and faculties between U.S. and Latin American Catholic universities and colleges.

The June 24–27 event, first of its kind in the country, was attended by about 100 delegates including representatives of 40 U.S. Catholic universities, Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Auxiliary Bishop Julio Teran Dutari of Quito, Ecuador, and educators and representatives from many Latin American countries.

It was sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Latin America, both based in Washington; the Diocese of Cleveland; and Jesuit-run John Carroll University.

The dialogue was designed to explore ways to improve relationships between the two regions so America will eventually be regarded as “a single entity,” as Pope John Paul II urged in his apostolic exhortation on the Synod of Bishops for America, a document addressed to Catholics in North and South America.

The papal text, which was unveiled during his trip to Mexico City in January, reflected the recommendations of the synod, which was held at the Vatican in late 1997.

The Pope said the bishops should “reflect on America as a single entity, by reason of all that is common to the peoples of the continent, including their shared Christian identity and their genuine attempt to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and communion between the different forms of the continent's rich cultural heritage.”

It is in this context, Cardinal George said, that educators and churches in the United States should develop programs to build solidarity between the two regions.

Citing an example, he said that the archdioceses of “Chicago and Mexico City recently entered into a declaration of intent expressing a desire to increase communication.” Though it is in elementary stages, Cardinal George said he is optimistic that the mutual cooperation will grow.

Among the ideas envisioned by the Chicago Archdiocese is exchange of ministerial staffs, students and volunteers. “Seminarians can work in Latin American churches,” said Cardinal George.

The prelate said creating awareness of Latin America among students would yield long-term benefits because they would be able to shape policies benefiting the United States and Latin America. He encouraged efforts toward “higher learning and knowledge of Latin America, its political, economic and educational system.”

That part of the world, according to Cardinal George, is a victim of what he called “an economic crime” by developed countries. Churches and universities, he said, can play an important role in eliminating economic crime.

The Pope had talked about the need for a free-trade agreement between North America and South America well before its enactment by the United States a few years ago, he said, adding that it has brought economic relief to a few Latin American countries. By and large, they still require economic assistance.

To eliminate economic disparity among developed and underdeveloped nations, Cardinal George said, he wants to explore the possibility of setting up “an international center for equal economic growth to monitor economic crimes.”

The United States and other developed countries often neglect countries with limited economic structure, he said.

“The poor are considered a burden instead of seeing them as opportunities to help them and serve God.”

Several Latin American countries, he said, are reeling under “economic slavery” wrought by previous corrupt regimes that ran up enormous debts. He also called on international banks and lenders to provide relief from these debts.

A partnership with Latin America would benefit the United States as well, especially to learn more about the importance of family ties, he added.

“South Americans come here not simply to better their lives, but also to send money back home to their parents,” he said. “They have such strong commitment to their family. And it's necessary to keep the family intact.

“We can learn much more from them on how they accept God in their lives and in their country,” he added.

Cardinal George said U.S. Catholic universities could establish student and faculty exchanges, share information and data and participate in research.

“We have a great responsibility to make sure that the Church's voice is heard,” he said. “For the first time, the Church is genuinely global.”

Suggestions and recommendations made at the event will be distributed to U.S. Catholic universities as a resource document for initiating Latin American programs and curriculum.