Aparecida on Christ and Culture

The following quote makes an interesting argument, moving from one point to another in perhaps an unexpected way.

The first point is specifically about Latin American culture. When the Gospel came to the Indians, it did not hurt their culture, it liberated it. By itself that is perhaps a happy, pat-ourselves-on-the-back Catholic triumph.

But Aparecida draws an important conclusion about culture in general. Today there is a great concern, including among some Catholics, to rediscover cultural particularity: a sense of place, a distinct way of life, artistic traditions, etc. The quotation below simply argues that this need not be opposed to the universality of the Church, of truth, and of the Gospel. The best way to really live local culture is to set it free through encounter with the truth who is Christ, and the universality which is the global Church.

Two other conclusions: first, within the truth of Christ – not outside it – we discover the true place of dialogue, of appreciating and affirming legitimate differences. I, an Anglo-American, can appreciate the best in Latin American, African, or Asian culture precisely through our contact in the Truth which is Christ.

And second, Christ is the truth. If you really want truth, if you really want culture, seek ye first his face, his kingdom, his righteousness. Don’t start with culture; find culture in Christ.

brazil-popeThe proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture. Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life and with elements that can lead to a new synthesis, in which the diversity of expressions is always respected as well as the diversity of their particular cultural embodiment.

Ultimately, it is only the truth that can bring unity, and the proof of this is love. That is why Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, “love to the end”, is not alien to any culture, nor to any person; on the contrary, the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people everywhere to growth in genuine humanity, in authentic progress.

-The Aparecida Document

Aparecida: An Introduction

brazil-popeOn Wednesdays we have been exploring how we live out our faith, through meditations on the capital sins, the sacraments, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

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.