Pope Francis’s Pastoral Mission

By Alexander Wilde*

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ministério da Defesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s trip to Latin America – like all papal visits since Pope Paul VI made the first in 1968 before the historic meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia – is pastoral.  The media are grasping for the implications of his visiting Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay this week, looking for a theme, for example, in the common factors of their poverty, indigenous populations, and environmental conflicts.  Others wonder if this Argentine pope, well acquainted with Peronism, carries a political message about the dangers of left-wing populism.  Yet others posit this trip in terms of religious “competition” to recapture market share from Evangelicals.

This visit and this extraordinary pope, however, are focused on his broader pastoral message – conveying to the faithful his deepest beliefs about what their faith demands of him and of them.  Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessors, has given a strongly social orientation to this pastoral ministry, while reinforcing its spiritual foundation in personal faith.  In doing this, he has embraced the renewal wrought by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and what he apparently judges the positive insights of liberation theology.  Christians must live their faith in the world and their times, and that includes engaging with other “men and women of good will” to realize God’s purposes for humanity.  Pope Francis repeats that phrase, taken from Pope John XXIII, in his new environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.  Visiting these three countries – in which conflicts over land, oil, forests, and water have mobilized social protests – presents clear opportunities to speak out about how the encyclical’s analysis and moral judgments may apply in concrete settings.

Pope Francis brings to his pastoral visit a belief that he and the Catholic Church should “meet people where they are.”  During 15 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, that meant being an active presence among the poor in the villas miserias.  Now he links that pastoral injunction to global issues of poverty, development, and the environment.  He appears to feel a deep responsibility to spur action but at the same time a strong grasp of the intractability of the larger processes, political and natural, involved.  He has said more than once that he expects his papacy to be brief, suggesting that he may view this trip within a God-given responsibility to use his limited time and moral authority to help us confront the most fundamental problems of our future together in this world.  Latin Americans have shown growing awareness of these problems.  Their response to this trip is probably not best judged by Mass attendance but rather by whether they can take concrete steps to link, as Francis does, the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the earth” in their societies. 

July 7, 2015

* Alexander Wilde is editor of Religious Responses to Violence: Human Rights in Latin America Past and Present (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming December 2015). 

The Catholic Church as a Field Hospital after Battle

By Alexander Wilde

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis / Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis is presenting a fresh and personal vision of the Catholic church and Christian faith that seems likely to breathe new life into the church in Latin America.  In a long interview released last week, he couched his message in terms appropriate to his global responsibilities, but it reflects how this first Pontiff from Latin America reads the recent history of his native region and its church. “I see the church,” he said, “as a field hospital after battle.” Having lived through several generations of often bitter conflict and traumatic violence, he clearly believes that the church must, in his words, “heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.” This dramatic, arresting metaphor of the church’s role in ministering to the human condition as he sees it today suggests that he aims to chart a fresh course – in the church and in society – after the divisions that marked the papacies of his two immediate predecessors. “The image of the Church I like,” he said in language that echoes the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and Latin America’s Liberation Theology, “is that of the holy, faithful people of God…on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows.”

This vision seems firmly rooted in his own experience as Jesuit Provincial and Archbishop in Argentina, where despite controversies over his actions or inactions during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, he is universally admired for his dedication to pastoral ministry. With this fundamental focus on those wounded by life, Francis will build on a foundation that already exists in Latin America today. Despite the notorious purges of liberationist tendencies in church structures that began in the 1970s, priests, nuns and lay people can be found throughout the continent living out pastoral vocations amidst new (and old) forms of violence at the grassroots. Francis will almost certainly, like his predecessors, affirm most doctrinal orthodoxies, such as the intrinsic value of even unborn human life (“I am a son of the Church”). But already his pastoral emphasis is a clear break: “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must … be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

Francis thinking is permeated by concepts and practices that come from the Council, Liberation Theology and the pastoral experience of the Latin American church. He clearly hopes to move beyond old divisions and draw from what that church has learned to meet the regions challenges today. Those include a challenge to convey the churchs deepest truths of salvation in ways that Evangelical Protestants have done so successfully in the region. And it is not coincidental that he urges, We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner. He will, undoubtedly, be opposed by conservatives that dominate the church’s ecclesiastical structures (resisting, for example, new paths of policy advocacy by the faithful on issues of poverty and inequality). His new appointments to gatekeeper roles such as nuncios and bishops will be closely watched. He has also inherited an institution shamed by sexual and financial scandals that will demand much of his time and energy. But in just a few months Pope Francis has changed perceptions among Christians and non-believers alike of how the Catholic church may again become a vital force in our world today. In Latin America a new emphasis on face-to-face pastoral ministries among the poor could well move its moral voice for social justice behind already visible popular pressures against growing economic inequality.

Alexander Wilde directs the Center’s two-year project on Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Religious Responses to Violence in Latin America

By Alexander Wilde, CLALS Research Fellow

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980's at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores "pablodf" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Commemoration of those killed in the 1980’s at a church in Cordoba, Argentina | By: Pablo Flores “pablodf” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin America today is one of the world’s most violent regions. It has been so for 50 years, although the character and agents of violence have changed considerably over time. The “old violence” of the 20th century was largely political, associated with revolutionary insurgencies and repressive regimes that systematically violated fundamental human rights. The “new violence” is largely criminal – illegal drug traffickers and urban gangs are among the leading perpetrators – but its consequences in many societies have been comparably lethal. Countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia have among the highest murder rates in the world.  “Citizen security” is a leading issue in politics throughout the region.

Religion played a significant part in confronting the old violence.  Human rights became a new cause for the Catholic Church, which in some cases helped legitimate peace settlements and democratic transitions. In the generation since then, Latin American Christianity has been transformed.  Evangelical and Pentecostal churches have achieved unprecedented growth. Catholicism has been reined in by Rome to curb the influence of Liberation Theology. More pietistic and spiritually-oriented theologies have flourished within both traditions. The result has been a tendency to turn away from the “political” ministries of the past – defending human rights and promoting social justice. The Christian churches, it is widely believed, have failed to address the widespread violence of today.

Fresh research, however, is revealing ways in which – although less visible at the national level – they remain a vital force in violence-plagued societies. A two-year project at American University has produced studies of religiously based shelters for Central American migrants in Mexico, a 15-year Jesuit program of peace building and development in Colombia, and an Evangelical prison ministry in Rio de Janeiro, among a dozen pieces of new research. They identify particularly the significance of an active church presence among poor and marginalized populations, who suffer disproportionately from violence. This “accompaniment” appears to be motivated by Biblically-based beliefs about Christian love, the redemptive power of God and the direct experience of living with these populations in perilous, threatening conditions. Another emerging theme in project research is the potential significance of supportive national and international allies – who clearly contributed to the defense of human rights in the past and remain important in our changed, globalized world.

Violence in Latin America today reflects the wrenching changes these societies have undergone in the last half-century, and religion has been a dynamic dimension of those changes. In the region’s civil societies and the lives of its citizens, Catholic and Evangelical Christianity remains a potent and creative presence. Where it is willing to work and live in situations of conflict and violence, it could find a new role in bringing about more stable, peaceful and just societies.