This week we begin a new approach to this question: a reading of “the Aparecida document.”
Aparecida is the great Marian shrine of Brazil, where an image of Mary appeared to two poor fishermen. In May of 2007 the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean gathered there to discuss pastoral strategy. This was the fifth such gathering since Vatican II. At Vatican II the bishops discovered the great gift that comes from gathering together to speak about mission and pastoral care. They brought that home to gatherings on their own continent.
This conference, however, was different, because this time they gathered at a great Marian shrine. They were surrounded, inspired, and supported by the faith of real pilgrims. They were themselves immersed not in media or fancy hotels, but in a place of prayer. They met in a hall underneath the shrine, where they could hear the pilgrims singing above. And they placed themselves under the protection of Mary. What emerged was a deeper experience of pastoral zeal.
Another thing that emerged was a great leader, a certain cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who six years later would be elected pope and take the name Francis. It was he who led the composing of the final document, based on the three weeks of discussions.
The “Aparecida document,” he said, presents a great “harmony,” a spiritual wisdom of the bishops gathered at that Marian shrine. But the great visionary of that harmony was Bergoglio-Francis himself. He saw how to fit it together – and, more importantly, he would say, he was the one who learned the most from this movement of the Spirit.
Our approach to the document will be precisely to look for this synthetic vision. We will not dig into particulars, but we will review the outline of the document at various levels, in order to discover how it all fits together: the harmony of Aparecida.
The insights of Aparecida are particularly for Latin America. But they speak to us in the United States, as well. They speak to us first because we too are Americans, part of this new world. There are great differences between the North and the South, especially our much greater wealth, and our country’s decidedly Protestant heritage. But we are all relatively new countries, founded by Europeans, but displaced Europeans, remaking their world. We share the same intensely immigrant, new-world experience.
It is amusing to think sometimes of Francis, bull in a china shop, as a cowboy American, with our decidedly American willingness to challenge convention. It is significant that Europe speaks not of seven continents, but five: Antarctica doesn’t count, and from their perspective, America is one.
We can also learn from the differences. How would we innovative Americans think about pastoral work if our culture was Catholic from its inception? The Latin Americans can teach us. And how do Americans think when they are not immersed in material wealth, that great opiate that replaces faith? The poorer countries can teach us. Indeed, this is the experience of many Americans (unfortunately, not myself) who have gone on “mission” trips, and come back renewed by the freshness of Latin America’s deep Catholicism and rich poverty.
We should always be aware of the danger of “creeping infallibility”: the Holy Spirit protects the Church when the Pope teaches, but sometimes we are tempted to treat as Church teaching everything ever said by someone who would later become Pope. Whether Francis, Benedict XVI, John Paul II, or Pius X, what they wrote in their friends’ high school year book is not a revelation from God.
That said, Cardinal Bergoglio’s insights at Aparecida are important to us. In a very real sense, it was the man of Aparecida who was elected Pope. The Cardinals are not infallible, but they saw in this man the pastoral insights that the Church needs in our age.
Our reading of the Aparecida document will give us insight into who Francis is and how he thinks. But more importantly, Francis aside, they manifest some of the greatest pastoral thinking of our age. We read this not as part of Francis’s magisterium, but as a great movement of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us to think deeper about how to rediscover the life of faith in this modern world.