Pope Francis worked on it as a cardinal and says there's richness there yet to be exploited.
In the four years since he was elected, Pope Francis has visited Latin America five times. His affinity for the region goes beyond his national loyalties. Instead it reflects the fact that Latin America can offer the rest of Church important lessons on how to keep faith alive and relevant in the face of changing social realities.
Some of those lessons are easy to find, already spelled out in what is known as the Aparecida Document. An English translation is available here.
Pope Francis just spoke about the document, or the meeting from which it was created, on Thursday in Colombia, saying that “Aparecida is a treasure yet to be fully exploited.”
Here’s some background:
Pope Pius XII approved the creation of the Episcopal Council of Latin American Bishops (known by its Spanish acronym CELAM) in 1955, and three years later established the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Pope Paul VI became the first pope ever to visit Latin America in 1968. During his visit he officially opened CELAM’s second general conference, held in Colombia.
CELAM has a permanent secretariat located in Bogota and an executive body elected by and among the Latin American bishops. The elected executives meet annually to reflect on issues facing the continent and discern how to face those challenges as a united Church.
General Conferences, which include all of the continent’s bishops, have been held five times. The most recent was in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. It was opened by Pope Benedict XVI in a visit to that country, and has come to be seen as a “coming of age” moment for the Church in Latin America.
The 5th CELAM general conference was characterized by open conversation and honest reflection based on issues and needs that truly reflected the reality of life in Latin America.
Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took part in the Aparecida conference and was chosen by his peers to lead the committee that would draft the concluding document for the conference. That document, referred to as the Aparecida Document, has come to be seen as a road map the entire Church can use. One of its main tenets is the call for a continental mission, a Church that goes out in search of ways to proclaim the Gospel to all.
In that document the Latin American bishops expressed what they believed to be keys to keeping the Gospel message alive and relevant in Latin America:
-helping each Christian have a personal encounter with Christ
-living with the simplicity and humility taught in the Gospel
-a preferential option for the poor and marginalized
-a serious concern for the environment
-prayer, especially popular cultural devotions
The bishops also recognized that Marian devotion played a key role in uniting Latin Americans from north to south. Every country on the continent has a national devotion to Mary, though in each country the faithful refer to her by a different title, as a result of a different miracle or apparition attributed to her. (For example, in Argentina Catholics have a devotion to Our Lady of Lujan, while in Cuba, Catholics are devoted to Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.)
But the true beauty of the Aparecida document lies in the fact that it can easily be applied to the whole Church.
Since his election in 2013 Pope Francis has quoted or borrowed from the Aparecida Document so many times it is hard to keep track.
Three of his most important documents, considered blueprints for his papacy, are heavily inspired by the key themes of the Aparecida Document or reference it extensively: the 2016 document Amoris Laetitia about the challenges facing the family, 2015’s Laudato Si’ on human ecology and caring for our earth, and the 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium or Joy of the Gospel, about the new evangelization.