Sometimes it is hard to see the power of the Resurrection in the cultural divisions that mark our human experience. We know by faith that the living Christ is always prompting a spirit of unity among Christians. Our gifted Pope is nudging, or rather leading, us toward a new unity in the Church and giving us a roadmap for the new millennium. The direction he envisions for Americans, north and south, is that we will discover each other anew in Christ and overcome longstanding indifference and, in some cases, fear.
Thinking of the Church in terms of this hemisphere instead of just our own diocese or parish will be a new and exhilarating experience. Pope John Paul II has given us an example of how to go about it. Listening to the Pope one gets the impression that he would like to see Catholics everywhere expand their horizons and open their hearts. He speaks frequently of a “global Church” and has convened synods of bishops during the last several years from all regions of the world.
The Synod of the Americas held in 1997 had for its theme “Encounter with the living Jesus Christ: the way to conversion, communion and solidarity in America.” The Pope sees that the Church, as part of its religious mission, must stir up a spirit of unity among the people of the American continent. The key to achieving this goal will not be “re-evangelization,” but “new evangelization” — with new ardor, new methods and new expressions of faith.
One of the challenges for us as North American Catholics is to expand our horizon and take an interest in Latin America. We have to break out of a cultural shell created by living as part of an affluent superpower. A certain insularity may well be part of every culture, but in a large developed country like ours it is easy to think that what happens here is more important than what happens in other parts of the world. A certain cultural inertia makes us perfectly satisfied with our agenda and our national interests. An earthquake in Central America or a hurricane in South America can rouse us to respond generously with money and material aid for a little while. But do we have a sense of solidarity with Catholics on the continent of Latin America and see ourselves as one Church with them?
A certain cultural inertia makes us perfectly satisfied with our agenda and our national interests.
One problem is that many Americans know so little about Latin America and not take it seriously. The Latin countries seem remote and we tend to stereotype them as underdeveloped and in a state of constant revolution. We do not distinguish their cultures, music or language. We enjoy tacos, enchiladas and salsa, and associate the Spanish language with day-laborers and migrant workers. Their literature and religious practice are unknown to us. A scholar has written recently that even experts in Latin studies tend to be concerned about Latin countries only as an extension of Washington policies.
The bishops can be important teachers in encouraging Americans to learn about the Church in Latin America. Their synod, according to Father Richard John Neuhaus who attended, was a communal reflection on their hopes and concerns for the Church. In both North and South the new evangelization means a new energy for creating a culture of life in many different settings. In the North we have to work against an aggressive secularism that threatens to undermine the moral basis of our democracy. In South America the Church is beleaguered by the aggressive proselytizing of new religious groups and by the breakup of an old Catholic culture that is encountering religious pluralism for the first time. The Jubilee year can mark the beginning for us of new efforts to learn more about the Church in Latin America and to pray for the unity that God wants.
Another nudge toward the goal of greater unity comes from a worldly source: Advances in communication technology make instant global communication by fax and modem an everyday reality. We have the computers and wireless communication at our fingertips, but do we have the will to be connected “by more than phone lines” with the Church in our own hemisphere, in Central and South America?
The expansion of possibilities of communication must be matched by the expansion of our hearts and minds and spirits. Our Church will then be able to experience its “catholicity” in new ways.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.