HAVANA — Settled by the Spanish and Portuguese, Latin America has been strongly Catholic for much of the past half a millennium. But that’s been changing, according to a Church document released July 11.

The document came from a meeting of Latin American bishops which was attended by Pope Benedict XVI.

Not only are Protestant religions making inroads among the Catholics of Mexico, and Central and South America, the traditionally Catholic culture is showing signs that it’s taking on the secular ways of its northern neighbors and Western Europe.

But three months after Pope Benedict XVI visited Brazil, there are already plans afoot to address the issue.

“If we want to save our continent, our Church must be declared, from now on, in state of permanent mission,” declared Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana.

Archbishop Ortega was speaking at the closing Mass of the 31st Ordinary Assembly of the Latin American Bishops Council (CELAM) held in the Cuban capital July 10-13.

The meeting was the first to be held since the General Conference of Latin American Bishops convened in Aparecida, Brazil, in May, and the first to be held in a country where the Church is severely controlled by the communist regime.

“It had a great relevance to hold this large event here,” said Bishop Juan de Dios Hernández Ruiz, secretary general of the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It gave us the opportunity to show that the Church in Cuba is not less capable of responding to the challenge of becoming disciples of Christ and missionaries in our own country, in our continent and around the world, if needed.”

“The [CELAM] meeting, more than ever, helped us feel like equal brothers in the family of the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he added.

CELAM’s 31st Ordinary Assembly attracted most of the attention of the region’s media because it was held in Cuba, and also because the bishops elected a new president, Archbishop Raymundo Damasceno Assis of Aparecida, host of the recent bishops’ summit.

And in a clear message of support to the Church in Venezuela in its struggle with the near-dictatorship of President Hugo Chavez, the 71 cardinals and bishops attending the meeting elected one of Chavez’ most outspoken critics, Archbishop Baltazar Porras of Mérida, Venezuela, its first vice president.

‘Great Mission’

Nevertheless, “Most of our time was dedicated to discussing concrete ways to awaken the Church in our region, as well as to give shape and put in motion the ‘Great Continental Mission’ we committed to launch in Aparecida,” Argentinean Bishop Andrés Stanovnik, CELAM’s new second vice-president, said.

Bishop Stanovnik said that most of the root problems described by the Latin American bishops in the final document of Aparecida were summarized during the closing Mass celebrated by Cardinal Ortega at the cathedral of Havana.

“We do not experience an open confrontation against the Church, but there is a sustained effort to erode the Christian culture and replace our core values with a strange list of ‘rights’ that attacks life, family and community under the mantle of a false ‘freedom of choice,’” said the Cuban cardinal.

“The growing subjectivism and relativism, proposed or even enforced by the powers that be in our region, is a new challenge, an addition to the several social and religious problems we traditionally had,” he added.

“Catholics must become, therefore, more than ever, the ‘voice that cries in the desert,’ calling to a personal and social conversion,” he said.

The new president of the Latin American bishops’ conference, Archbishop Damasceno understands this. He announced that “the main goal of the institution will be to help apply the conclusions of Aparecida, which have at its core the awakening of the evangelization energy of the Catholic Church in the region.”

In fact, in his letter authorizing publication of the conclusions of Aparecida, Pope Benedict noted that the document contains “many useful pastoral indications motivated with rich reflections in the light of the faith and of the current social situation.”

“I will do my best to make sure that all the departments of CELAM will concentrate on becoming effective and flexible instruments of service to assist local episcopates in the application of the conclusions and the implementation of the ‘Continental Mission,’” Archbishop Damasceno said.

2 Priorities

According to Archbishop Baltazar Porras, to put the Church in a “state of permanent mission” requires concentrating on two priorities: “reverting the process of secularization by strengthening Catholic identity; and recovering lapsed Catholics, including those who have joined evangelical and fundamentalist groups.”

Indeed, in his letter to CELAM, Pope Benedict said that he “read with particular appreciation the exhortation for priority to be given, in pastoral programs, to the Eucharist and the sanctification of the Day of the Lord, as well as the expressed wish to strengthen the Christian formation of the faithful in general and of pastoral agents in particular.”

“In this context,” the Pope added, “I was happy to learn of the desire to create a ‘Continental Mission,’ which episcopal conferences and dioceses are all called to study and put into effect, channeling all their vital energies to this end.”

There are still questions about what the “Great Mission” will look like. A source at CELAM explained that “several details are still to be defined by the region’s local bishops,” but said that “bringing out Catholics to visit homes door to door, just the same way evangelicals have been doing fairly successfully for years, will be an important part of it.”

The source also said that “this strategy of going out to reach Catholics wherever they are instead of waiting for them at the local parish” has already been applied successfully by Catholic groups in the region.

In fact, in Mexico, organizations such as Siempre Fiel (Always Faithful), founded in Monterrey in 1994, and Apóstoles de la Palabra (Apostles of the Word), have brought thousands of lapsed Catholics back to the Church.

For now, some reforms within CELAM’s structure have been applied in order to face the challenges of secularization. At the Havana meeting, it was decided that the former Department of Family, Life and Culture, will be divided in two new departments, one for life and family, the other for culture and education.

“There is no doubt the challenges faced by the right to life and family on one hand, and the secularization of our culture on the other, require separate strategies,” Carlos Polo, president of the Latin American office of the Population Research Institute, said.

Polo said that life and family organizations in the region now have “an outstanding roadmap in the document of Aparecida, which mentions the role of the family as the primary cell and tool of evangelization some 120 times.”

The focus of the future projects, nevertheless, will not be in the structures.

In fact, No. 11 of the Aparecida document calls for a Church “not depending so much on great programs and structures, but in men and women who have incarnated the values of the Gospel in their hearts.”

“The document of Aparecida calls all Catholics to stand up and become missionaries now,” explains Cardinal Ortega.

“But in order to do that we have to become like Abraham, who left all security behind and decided to follow God’s promises,” he adds.

“This is the time not to impose,” Cardinal Ortega concluded, “but to strongly propose, announce, in time and out of time, the truth about Jesus to individuals, families, communities as well as to the political, economic and social systems.”

Alejandro Bermúdez
is based in Lima, Peru.