APARECIDA, Brazil — The headlines were confrontational and political: “Pope slams abortion and gay unions,” “Pope promises divine justice for drug traffickers,” “Pope to bishops: Drop ideologies, follow Christ.” But in fact, the frequently misleading press coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip as Pope to Latin America provided little guidance about his real priorities on his visit, and about the light this sheds on his objectives.
The Holy Father personally selected the Marian shrine of Aparecida as the site for the fifth General Conference of Latin American Bishops, a gathering that has taken place every 10-15 years since 1955 with the goal of establishing common pastoral policies for Latin America.
A small, poor town 100 miles away from any major city, with tiny hostels serving mostly poor pilgrims, Aparecida initially seemed unfit to host the conference and the last major public event of Benedict’s May 9-14 trip to Brazil. The horde of journalists complaining about not having warm water or Internet at their hotels highlighted Aparecida’s shortcomings.
Nevertheless, after getting accustomed to the lack of some basic comforts, Latin America’s bishops came to appreciate the venue that is highly relevant to the history, religious devotion and the Church’s future in Brazil and Latin America.
Benedict’s choice also served as a metaphor of the key message during his trip: that living the discipleship of Christ by knowing the faith and practicing charity is far more important to Christian life than structures, rules or policies.
“The Holy Father has made it very clear: Social and cultural reform, from a Catholic perspective, will only come from men and women who live their faith,” said Colombian Bishop Héctor Gutiérrez Pabón, commenting on the Pope’s May 13 speech to the Latin American bishops’ general conference. “No faith: no social, political or cultural change, period.”
Earlier, while speaking to the Brazilian bishops, Benedict explained “it is the Pope’s mission to renew in the hearts of people everywhere that light that does not grow dim, because it seeks to illumine the depths of every soul that seeks the true good and peace that the world cannot give.”
“In short, it is not his mission to be a policeman of doctrine, as some expected from the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but to encourage Catholics to be what they are supposed to be,” one Vatican official said.
“The Holy Father believes that Catholics must discover, by the preaching and especially the testimony of their shepherds, that they belong to the Church and that such belonging has consequences in all levels of their lives,” the official added.
Benedict did address social and political issues, as media reports highlighted.
He strongly supported the right to life and marriage in a region where laws and cultural tendencies are becoming more and more hostile to both. He criticized economic inequalities as well as ideological distortions of the faith.
The Pope also told drug traffickers that “God will call you to account for your deeds” during a highly emotional encounter May 12 with young recovering drug addicts at the Fazenda da Esperança (Farm of Hope), in the town of Guaratinguetá.
But most of the press accounts ignored the fact that, at the same encounter, the Holy Father stressed “it is the conversions, the rediscovery of God and active participation in the life of the Church that attract even greater attention and that confirm the importance of your work. It is not enough to care for the body; we must adorn the soul with the most precious divine gifts acquired through baptism.”
According to Father Hans Stapel, the German priest who is the founder of the Farm of Hope, the Pope “is one of the few that has understood what we do here: It is not about a technique, is about the human person and the relationship of each with God within the Church.”
Speaking to a crowd gathered for his May 13 Mass at the large esplanade outside the gigantic Marian shrine in Aparecida, Benedict highlighted his message to Brazilians and other Latin Americans.
“The Pope wants to say to all of you: The Church is our home! This is our home! In the Catholic Church we find all that is good, all that gives grounds for security and consolation!” the Holy Father said. “For this reason the Pope has come here to pray and to bear witness with you all: It is worth being faithful, it is worth persevering in our faith!”
At the same Mass, Benedict stated that “the Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’: just as Christ ‘draws all to himself’ by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross.”
The simplicity of this message about God’s love expressed by Christ in the Church seemed to have a magnetic effect on Brazilian Catholics, who frequently pay little attention to their bishops.
Benedict’s May 10 meeting with youth, which likely would have attracted massive crowds in any other Latin American country, was barely able to fill São Paulo’s smallest soccer stadium.
But as the visit continued, Brazilians warmed to a Pope who spoke to them in their native Portuguese about a radical message of hope, love and consolation.
Organizers of the final Mass at Aparecida were surprised to see 300,000 Brazilians in attendance. While the crowd was below the million-plus numbers that could have been expected in Mexico, Chile or Argentina, it was far more than the crowd of 70,000 that organizers originally expected.
“This is the priceless treasure that is so abundant in Latin America, this is her most precious inheritance: faith in the God who is Love, who has shown us his face in Jesus Christ. You believe in the God who is Love: This is your strength that overcomes the world, the joy that nothing and no one can ever take from you, the peace that Christ won for you by his Cross!” said the Pope to a cheering crowd during his homily.
“This is the faith that has made America the ‘Continent of Hope,’” he said. “Not a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system.”
On the afternoon of May 13, hours before flying back to Rome, Benedict delivered the same message during the opening speech of the General Conference of Latin American Bishops.
“The faithful are looking to this fifth conference for renewal and revitalization of their faith in Christ, our one Teacher and Savior, who has revealed to us the unique experience of the infinite love of God the Father for mankind,” said the Pope during his speech, the longest to date of his pontificate.
In his words, the Holy Father recalled that politics is not the duty of the Church and proposed catechesis, the family, priests, religious men and women, vocations and youth ministry as its pastoral priorities.
Said Benedict, “From the faith in Christ, new paths and creative pastoral plans will be able to emerge, capable of instilling a firm hope for living out the faith joyfully and responsibly, and thus spreading it in one’s own surroundings.”
Alejandro Bermúdez filed this report from Aparecida, Brazil.