The sight of a Pope slowly approaching the welcome ceremony's stage at the Benito Juarez airport in Mexico City was certainly far from the young man who so enthusiastically, and easily, bent to kiss the Mexican soil 20 years ago.
Yet Pope John Paul II, showing that his appeal comes not from his ability to appear as a media superstar, but to draw on an inner strength, delivered a soul-lifting message and a powerful pastoral program that some bishops have described as “the new American Dream” for the third millennium.
The Holy Father made clear since his arrival that he came to all America “as an apostle of Jesus Christ and successor of St. Peter to confirm in the faith all men and women of the American continent.”
His visit here had a strong Mexican flavor: Mariachis greeted the Pope with the tunes of “Cielito Lindo,” and the crowd chanted his praise in a distinctively Mexican way. The warm environment that surrounded the two massive meetings and the long travels on the popemobile helped to strengthen the message the Pope came to deliver.
The archbishop of Mexico City, Norberto Cardinal Rivera, said, “Mexico, with its strong and lively Catholicism, provided the best framework to boost the demanding program the Holy Father has delivered to us, the bishops of America.”
The “program” is the postsynodal apostolic exhortation entitled Ecclesia in America, “The Church in America,” which was based on the recommendations of the majority of the bishops at the end of the Synod for America in late 1997. The Holy Father signed the document upon his arrival Jan. 22 at the apostolic nunciature.
The following day, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Ecclesia in America was officially presented in a powerful, emotional ceremony.
“I have come here,” said the Pope, “to put at the feet or our mix-raced Virgin of Tepeyac, star of the New World, the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, which summarizes the pastoral proposals and suggestions of the Synod for America, entrusting to the Mother and Queen of this continent, the future of its evangelization.”
After the homily — delivered in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French — the Pope gave red and golden copies of the exhortation to a group that included U.S. and Latin American cardinals, bishops, an Eastern-rite patriarch, priests, men and women religious, indigenous men, adult men and women, young adults, and several children.
John Paul also blessed the replicas of Our Lady of Guadalupe that will be distributed among the dioceses of the continent in order to encourage a campaign of spiritual renewal in preparation for the Jubilee year 2000. The seven-chapter long Ecclesia in America includes a prayer for the families of America and describes the Christian nature of the continent and the riches of its Catholic tradition, especially in Latin America. It also reviews the challenges the Catholic Church has to face in order to renew its pastoral mission in today's world.
Thus, the document gives pastoral guidelines to a variety of challenges, from the renewal of parish life to the promotion of priestly vocations, from the defense of the right to life to the war against drug trafficking and corruption.
Yet according to most of the bishops the document is fundamentally a call for the new evangelization. “It would be a mistake to consider the document just as a ‘to do’ list in the many fields in which the Church has to be present,” Archbishop Esteban Karlic, president of the Argentinean Bishops' Conference, told the Register.
Archbishop Karlic and then Archbishop Francis George of Chicago shared the role of general secretary during the Synod for America. Karlic said that the exhortation “is a strong, demanding call for the new evangelization, an evangelization that has to reach all the corners of daily life.”
On Jan. 24, during an impressive Mass that gathered almost 1 million Mexicans at the Hermanos Rodriguez stadium, Pope John Paul seemed to confirm this interpretation, when he described Ecclesia in America as a call for the new evangelization.
“The postsynodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, presented yesterday, is an invitation to this beloved continent to give a renewed ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ, welcoming and responding with missionary generosity to his mandate of proclaiming the Good News to all nations,” the Pope said during the Angelus prayer, after the Mass at the stadium ended.
Bishops from both sides of the Rio Grande agreed that the new evangelization of the continent and its missionary response to the needs of other continents, such as Africa and Asia, has to be faced by them as one united force.
“The Holy Father has consistently called the bishops of North and South America to see themselves as one church and as one people,” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told the Register. “The most important moment of this visit was the unity of the celebration with the Holy Father, it was an unbelievable experience of unity among North and South America as the one America the Holy Father is asking us to be,” the archbishop said.
“The Pope has made clear that the difference among our cultures is a contribution to a rich unity rather than an obstacle to it,” said Archbishop Karlic.
Costa Rican Archbishop Roman Arrieta Villalobos told the Register that “North Americans cannot speak of ‘America’ meaning only the United States, while South Americans cannot speak of ‘the continent’ meaning only Latin America. We now share one dream and a common mission.”
On his part, Cardinal George said the document “showed that we all are sons and daughters of God and are together in this place of encounter between the Virgin Mary and her people, and now, a place of encounter for all the peoples of this continent.”
The Pope's call to unity among Catholics in the continent has its first, most visible expression among bishops. In fact, this year will see at least three meetings that will gather bishops from throughout the continent: the North-South meeting of bishops sponsored by the Latin American Bishops' council (known as CELAM) in Cuba next month, the fifth Latin American Missionary Conference that will become the first American Missionary Conference in Argentina in July, and a North and Latin American meeting on parish life that could take place in Mexico in early December.
Nevertheless, the Pope believes that the call to unity involves not only the bishops, but all Catholics.
The apostolic exhortation ends with an appeal addressed to families: “I invite all the Catholics of America to take an active part in the evangelizing initiatives which the Holy Spirit is stirring in every part of this immense continent, so full of resources and hopes for the future. In a special way, I invite Catholic families to be ‘domestic Churches,’ in which the Christian faith is lived and passed on to the young as a treasure, and where all pray together.
“If they live up to the ideal which God places before them, Catholic homes will be true centers of evangelization.”
Alejandro Bermudez, the Register's Latin American correspondent, writes from Peru.