Latin America has repeatedly been called the "Continent of
Hope."1 As the Church throughout the world reflects about
mission and identity in the context of the New Evangelization,
hope seems to be the term that best captures what Catholics are
to be and embrace in today's historical moment. If the New
Evangelization is about hope that the God of Life remain faithful
to the divine promise of salvation through Jesus Christ, hope
that God's reign be real in the here and now of our lives, hope
that despite our human limitations God walk with us in the
everyday, we must remain attentive to the signs that point to
In the English-speaking world, it is easy to overlook the
signs of hope that sustain the life of the Church in Latin
American societies. Much attention is given to the fast-growing
presence of Catholicism in Africa, a true sign of the times; the
experience of being Catholic in deeply pluralistic societies in
Asia, a gift from which much needs to be learned; or the rapid
decline of Catholic life in Europe and some parts of North
America, which calls for serious reflection and assessment. Yet,
there is also much to lift up from the experience in Latin
America, where nearly half of all Catholics in the world live.
Catholicism is deeply rooted in the culture of Latin American
societies; three-fourths of the Latin American population identify
with this religious tradition. Catholic worship and religiosity
are vibrant. Catholic leadership is strong, playing significant
roles not only in ecclesial conversations but also in the larger
society. For more than five centuries, after a long and complex
process of inculturation, Catholic Christianity has played a key
role in shaping the Latin American socio-cultural ethos through
education, social services, the arts, and even politics.
One must be careful, of course, not to romanticize the
Catholic experience in Latin America. The Continent of Hope is
also a continent where the existence of deep-seated social
inequalities, widespread corruption, violence, discrimination
against women and ethnic minorities, and abject poverty, to
mention only a few major problems affecting these societies,
demands that we ask to what extent Catholicism has actually
taken root.2 From a historical perspective, we cannot ignore that
the conquista, the enslavement and exploitation of indigenous
groups as well as people of African descent, and the silence
before the injustices, particularly toward the poor, are realities
that continue to have dire effects upon hundreds of millions of
people and often took place under the watch of many who called
In the midst of the ambiguity of this reality, the Church in
Latin America has advanced its ref lection on the New
Evangelization and shares her wisdom. It is interesting that what
seems to be the first formal reference to the idea of a "new evangelization"
was made in 1968 by the Latin American bishops
gathered for their Second General Conference in Medellín,
Colombia.3 The concept would later reappear in Puebla, Mexico,
in 1979.4 Blessed Pope John Paul II affirmed it there, used it later
in Poland, and then made it a central category during his pontificate.
In 1983, Pope John Paul II, in an address to the bishops
of Latin America, asserted: "The commemoration of the half millennium
of evangelization will gain its full energy if it is a commitment,
not to re-evangelize but to a New Evangelization, new
in its ardor, methods and expression."5 Perhaps it is only a coincidence
that the term New Evangelization was first used in Latin
America. Yet, if the New Evangelization is to be an experience of
renewal, it seems appropriate that we search for signs of hope in
a continent where Catholicism remains a strong presence.
For several decades, various voices have reflected upon the
idea of a new evangelization, its possibilities, and the implications
for the lives of Latin American Catholics.6 At the forefront
of these reflections are the bishops of Latin America, particularly
through their general conferences.7 Another group of
insightful partners in the conversation about evangelization are
Latin American theologians advancing analysis from a liberationist
perspective. Most of them write and teach while actively
involved in the pastoral life of their faith communities (for
example, parishes and institutes of leadership formation), which
roots their theology in the everyday lives of the people and makes
their scholarship relevant beyond academic circles.8 A third set
of voices in this reflection is that of countless Catholic women
and men evangelizing day and night in their faith communities.
Whether serving as catechists or local missionaries, participating
in ecclesial base communities or parochial and diocesan initiatives,
or sharing their zeal inspired by the spiritualities of lay
ecclesial movements, these Catholics are constantly modeling
creative ways of evangelizing at the grassroots level.
Let us briefly look at five dynamics that capture well the
commitment of Latin American Catholicism to the New
Evangelization. These dynamics give us a good sense of the
Church's evangelizing energy in this part of the world.
The reflection about evangelization in Latin America has been
intimately linked to methodology. This has made it possible for
pastoral leaders and theologians at all levels to speak a common
language when reflecting about the Church's evangelizing action
in the Latin American context. By the middle of the twentieth century,
Latin American pastoral leaders and theologians were significantly
familiar with the See-Judge-Act methodology associated
with the work of Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn and the Catholic
Action movement. The methodology had been widely embraced
in various parts of the world. In Latin America, it would become
a marker of pastoral action as well as theological reflection.
The method invites a serious analysis of la realidad in
which people live, particularly the circumstances and challenges
that prevent women and men from achieving fullness of life. The
social sciences play a significant role in this analysis, mindful
that there may be a variety of readings of any reality from different
perspectives. Once pastoral leaders have a better grasp of
reality, the next step is to critically read that reality in light of the
Christian message and discern those signs that point to the presence
of God's reign as well as those that deny such presence.
Christianity has something to say to people here and now. The
third moment of the method emerges out of the conviction that
the interpretive analysis of reality and the discernment that
takes place in light of the Christian message must lead to
informed action. The Christian community must do something
to address the challenges that directly affect lives (for example,
poverty, injustice, prejudice, etc.) and affirm those realities that
are signs of life in history. See-Judge-Act enjoys a particular simplicity
that translates into adaptability in nearly every context
and at every level of reflection. Pastoral leaders embraced it in
the form of the pastoral circle9;Latin American theologians
made it the engine of their intellectual contributions.10
The General Conferences of the Latin American bishops,
particularly Medellín, Puebla, and Aparecida, have affirmed the
importance of this methodology in the pastoral life of the
Church. It is important to note that these conferences and the
documents emerging from them have done a good job echoing
key conversations about evangelization throughout the continent.
This has guaranteed that their conclusions be widely used
as roadmaps for pastoral action and theological reflection.
Latin American pastoral leaders took to heart the Second
Vatican Council's invitation to engage culture(s) in dialogue as
part of the Church's evangelizing mission as well as the echo of
this invitation in Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii
Nuntiandi (1975). Only three years after the end of the Council,
the Latin American bishops gathered in Medellín envisioned
ways to speak relevantly to the many peoples in the continent, particularly the poor. For Latin Americans, the reflection on
"inculturation," a term that would become commonplace in
ecclesial documents in the 1980s, has been shaped by at least
three dynamics. First, the acknowledgment that Catholicism is
deeply ingrained in most societies in the continent, thanks to
a process of cultural and religious mestizaje that has lasted
nearly five centuries. The vibrancy and multifaceted experience
of Latin American Catholicism is the starting point for the New
Evangelization in this part of the world. Second, awareness that
cultural currents shaped by the forces of globalization and the
rapid urbanization of Latin American societies are challenging
Catholics to think critically of new ways of presenting and living
the faith in a changing world.11 Of special concern for Catholic
pastoral leaders in Latin America are the inroads of secularism
and the growing presence of non-Catholic religious groups,
some explicitly Christian and others not. These realities are certainly
urging Latin American Catholics to be more attentive to
questions of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, for many a
very unfamiliar terrain. Third, the emergence of voices from
indigenous groups, black Catholics, and women that until
recently were silent or ignored in conversations about evangelization
and theological reflection and are now reclaiming their
rightful place at the table in the larger society and in the Church.
The bishops gathered for the Fourth General Conference in
Santo Domingo in 1992, the same year that theological and pastoral
voices had the opportunity to assess the Church's five hundred-
year presence in this part of the world, offered key insights
to better understand the relationship between faith and culture
in light of the particularity of the Latin American experience: 1)
Inculturation must lead to the development of a "Christian culture." 12 2) The Gospel is to be inculturated in the already existing
cultures in the continent, including indigenous and African-
American, and the emerging cultural realities, for example,
urban life.13 3) Liturgy and prayer life must be inculturated; popular
religiosity should be affirmed as a "privileged expression of
the inculturation of the faith."14 4) An "inculturated evangelization"
must be liberating; it must promote all dimensions of the
dignity of every person, especially those persons who are most
vulnerable.15 Aparecida would confirm these convictions.
Poverty continues to be the most critical social problem in Latin
America to this day—to be more exact, material poverty. In
2013, a little less than thirty percent of the population (167 million
people) lives in poverty, eleven percent in extreme poverty
(66 million). There have been major improvements during the
last two decades in this regard. In 1990, nearly half of the Latin
American population lived in poverty, a statistic that remained
almost unchanged for decades. From the perspective of demographic
transitions, the percentage of Latin Americans living in
poverty has significantly decreased. However, it is scandalous
that the number of people living in poverty has more than doubled
during the last half a century! Latin America is one of the
regions in the world with the highest levels of income disparity.
Poverty and inequality together lead to other social ills and to
the realization that the root causes of these problems still have
not been adequately addressed.
The Church in Latin America has not been indifferent to
the reality of poverty. When Catholics in the continent do not
pay enough attention to this reality, prophetic voices emerge to
remind the baptized that all they have to do is look around. To
speak of the Church in Latin America is to speak of a church
that is poor, a church that cannot be excused from making a
preferential option for the poor.
This is precisely one of the central markers of evangelization
and theological reflection in Latin America: the preferential
option for the poor. The bishops of Latin America formally
introduced this concept at their gathering in Medellín and it has
become a constant guide of the Church's evangelizing mission in
the continent: "The Lord's distinct commandment to ‘evangelize
the poor' ought to bring us to a distribution of resources and
apostolic personnel that effectively gives preference to the poorest
and most needy sectors and to those segregated for any cause
whatsoever, animating and accelerating the initiatives and studies
that are already being made with that goal in mind."16 Four
decades later, a new generation of bishops gathered in Aparecida
and, echoing the voices of theologians and pastoral leaders from
throughout Latin America, affirmed: "We commit ourselves to
work so that our Latin American and Caribbean Church will
continue to be, with even greater determination, a traveling
companion of our poorest brothers and sisters, even as far as
martyrdom. Today we want to ratify and energize the preferential
option for the poor made in previous Conferences."17 From a theological
standpoint, the preferential option for the poor is the
hallmark of the work of thinkers such as Gustavo Gutiérrez,
María Clara Bingemer, Ignacio Ellacuría, Ivone Gebara, and Jon
Sobrino, among many others, whose scholarship has helped the
Church in Latin America and beyond to better understand what
it means to engage reality when deeply impacted by poverty and
Among the most effective forms of evangelization and catechetical
outreach in Latin America are the comunidades eclesiales de
base (ecclesial base communities).18 The concept in itself is not
new. This is basically how the earliest Christian communities
lived and celebrated their faith; most missionary efforts throughout
history have been sustained by the development of small
faith communities. Thousands of ecclesial base communities
were established throughout Latin America, particularly since
the middle of the twentieth century; many of them remain active
to this day. Ecclesial base communities are more than prayer
groups, Bible study groups, or sporadic church meetings. They
are communities. Members gather regularly to pray, read the
Scriptures, and to discern the practical implications of their
faith for their lives, at the personal and communal level. Ecclesial
base communities are characterized by a strong sense of comunidad (community), solidaridad (solidarity), and responsabilidad (responsibility). These characteristics make ecclesial base communities
spaces for Catholics at all levels in the life of the
Church to grow in their faith with others, sharing common concerns
within the context of their lived reality, and envisioning
ways of bringing that faith into action to transform that reality.
They have served as intimate, safe spaces for people to name how
they perceive the presence of God in their lives here and now,
and to develop leadership skills to better serve the structures of
the Church (for example, clergy, vowed religious, theologians,
catechists) and the larger society (for example, teachers, politicians,
community organizers). Most ecclesial base communities
operate within the structure of parish life and have been recognized
by the Latin American bishops, as well as many theologians,
as key resources of renewal in the Church.
Since Medellín, all General Conferences of Latin American
bishops have strongly affirmed the value and the need of ecclesial
base communities for the Church's mission in the continent.
Medellín observed that these communities must be "the fruit of
evangelization."19 Furthermore, while presenting a vision for
ministry as pastoral de conjunto, the document observed that
the "base Christian community is thus the first and fundamental
ecclesial20 nucleus which must, on its own level, take responsibility
of the richness and expansion of the faith, as well as of
the worship experiences through which this faith is expressed.
This community is then the cornerstone of the Church's structure
and the focus of evangelization while also serving today as
a key factor in the promotion and development of the human
person."21 Puebla confirmed the value of ecclesial base communities
while echoing the words of Pope Paul VI in Evangelii
Nuntiandi, identifying the communities as "hope for the universal
Church."22 The bishops in Puebla recognized that these communities
undoubtedly foster "more personal interrelation,
acceptance of God's Word, re-examination of people's lives and
reflection on reality in the light of the Gospel;"23 they are "the
expression of the Church's preferential love for the common
people."24 Santo Domingo pointed to the missionary potential of
these communities and renewed the invitation made in previous
documents for these communities to work as closely as possible
with other ecclesial structures such as the parish and the diocese.
25 Finally, Aparecida, speaking from the perspective of an
ecclesiology of communion that has characterized the reflection
about the Church and its evangelizing mission, highlighted that
ecclesial base communities are "a sign of vitality in the particular
church . . . they can help revitalize parishes, making them a
community of communities."26 Ecclesial base communities not
only make the Church and the faith she proclaims more accessible
to the people but also more relevant and attentive to their
questions and concerns as they search for the God of life in the
midst of their particular circumstances.
A theme that permeates nearly every ecclesial document, theological
reflection, and pastoral initiative in Latin America is mission.
Despite being a continent where most people identify with
Catholicism, a sense of urgency about the need to evangelize
with a missionary spirit is rather evident. The mission is never
over. That Catholicism has flourished in the continent and
remains vibrant despite the many challenges people face
expresses the missionary zeal that characterizes the life of the
Church in Latin America. A number of efforts have shaped a
deep-rooted consciousness about mission in the imagination of
Latin American Catholics. Of particular interest are the Latin
American congresos misioneros (missionary congresses) that
began in the 1970s and now have grown into continental initiatives
under the name of American Missionary Congresses.
Several countries also organize national missionary congresses.
Another effort worth highlighting is the success of the infancia
misionera (missionary childhood), supported by the Pontifical
Society of the Missionary Childhood and present in several
Latin American countries whose goal is to instill a missionary
spirit in Catholic children. To this we can add the profound
impact of biblical missions and the reflection on catechesis that
authentically responds to the reality and needs of Latin Americans
on the continent.
Medellín used the word "mission" nearly fifty times in its
conclusions, referring to almost every aspect of the life of the
Church in Latin America, from the work of the bishops and
theologians to that of parents, catechists, and ecclesial base communities
as such. The next general conferences followed suit.
Puebla, for instance, asserted without hesitation that the Church's
work of evangelization in Latin America, past and present, is
"the result of the unanimous missionary effort of the whole people
of God."27 Santo Domingo treated the topic of mission explicitly
from the perspective of the New Evangelization, which must
be "new in its ardor, methods and expression."28
But perhaps the most important initiative associated
with mission at present is the Misión Continental (Continental
Mission). In 2007 the bishops gathered in Aparecida declared
that the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean was in a
state of "permanent mission."29 The continental mission has
emerged since then as an effort to rekindle the effort to share the
Good News in the midst of the changing circumstances that
shape the Catholic experience throughout Latin America today.
The continental mission is not a program or a series of directives
introducing something radically new. It is an attitude, a fresher
way of evangelizing with renewed enthusiasm, within structures
and practices that already sustain the faith of entire communities
while creatively embracing a missionary spirit. This is the New
Evangelization. Aparecida has articulated what I believe is a valid
vision for the Church everywhere else: "The pastoral conversion
of our communities requires moving from a pastoral ministry of
mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry."
30 Because Latin American Catholics are in a state of permanent
mission, catechesis has been defined as a "permanent
catechetical journey."31 All structures of the Church in Latin
America, from ecclesial base communities and the very active
lay ecclesial movements to entire episcopal conferences, and
everything in between, have been challenged to embrace this
missionary effort. Aparecida invited Catholics to become "missionary
disciples." Many have accepted the challenge, and good
things are happening—truly a remarkable experience of the
work of the Holy Spirit in the life of our contemporary Church.
Catholicism in Latin America is far from a perfect experience.
Many of the challenges that the Church faces in the West are also
becoming challenges in Latin America alongside the particular
socio-cultural circumstances described at the beginning of this
essay. Nonetheless, Latin American Catholicism as a whole
remains vibrant and, in the context of the New Evangelization, it
has much to share with the rest of the Church. In this essay, I have
identified five particular dynamics that together constitute the wisdom
of a church that has grown deep roots in the Latin American
cultural context: a well-defined method for evangelization and
theological reflection, commitment to ongoing inculturation, a
preferential option for the poor, the vitality of ecclesial base
communities, and a firm commitment to being in a state of permanent
mission. We could certainly highlight other dynamics,
but these suffice to illustrate how the New Evangelization is
unfolding in this part of the American continent.
Why will Catholics in the United States do well to pay
attention to the wisdom of the Church in Latin America as we
reflect on the New Evangelization? Approximately forty percent
of Catholics in the United States share Latin American cultural
roots and the number continues to grow. Migration patterns
from Latin America are rapidly transforming thousands of
parochial communities as well as many other elements of
Catholicism in this country. Without a doubt, the New
Evangelization in the United States during the twenty-first century
will be closely linked to the integration of Latino
Catholicism into the larger multicultural American Catholic
experience. As a theologian invested in the reflection on how the
Church can best advance its evangelizing mission in the United
States, one of my hopes is that as Latino Catholics become more
at home in our faith communities, the wisdom gained from the
experience of being Catholic in Latin America will fire up a new
moment in the life of the Church in the United States. My sense
is that we are already moving in that direction.
- See John Paul II, Address to the Third General Conference of the
Latin American Episcopate, Puebla, Mexico, January 28, 1979. See also
Benedict XVI, Homily during the opening Mass for the inauguration of
the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the
Caribbean, May 13, 2007.
- Catholic leaders and thinkers are very aware of these dissonances
in a continent where most of the population profess to be Catholic. See, for instance, Fifth General Conference of Latin American and
Caribbean Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil (2007), Conclusions, 527– 528.
Available online at http://www.celam.org/conferencia_aparecida.php.
- The bishops of Latin America, in the letter "The Presence of the
Church in the Present Transformation of Latin America" (September
6, 1968), which introduced the conclusions of the Medellín gathering,
made the commitment to "encourage a new evangelization and a rigorous
catechesis that reach the elites and the masses to attain a faith that is
coherent and committed." (Translation and emphasis mine.)
- See Third General Conference of the Latin American Bishops in
Puebla (1978), Conclusions, 366.
- John Paul II, Address to CELAM (Opening Address of the Sixth
General Assembly of CELAM, March 9, 1983, Port-au-Prince, Haiti),
L'Osservatore Romano, English Edition 16/780 (April 18, 1983), 9.
- Hispanic Catholics in the United States have been deeply influenced
by many of these reflections and incorporated them into various
documents and processes about Hispanic ministry. I will focus on US
Hispanic Catholicism and the New Evangelization in the next essay in
- Rio de Janeiro (1955), Medellín (1968), Puebla (1979), Santo
Domingo (1992), and Aparecida (2007). All five general conferences
and their conclusions constitute what can be perceived as a five-decadelong
conversation about evangelization with recurrent themes and
sensibilities, each responding to a very particular moment of the history
of Catholicism in the continent.
- Think, for instance, of the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote
his most influential works while serving as a full-time pastor in one of
the poorest parishes in Lima, Peru.
- The pastoral circle brings the three moments just described,
preceded by an insertion into the people's lived reality, as a cycle that
needs to repeat itself on a regular basis. Effective evangelization cannot
be done from the comfort of an office or removed from actual realities.
It must take into consideration the questions, struggles, joys, and hopes
of the community to which one brings the Good News. For a description
of the pastoral circle see Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, "Social
Analysis: Tool of Pastoral Action" in Social Analysis: Linking Faith and
Justice (New York: Orbis Books, 1983), 7–30.
- See Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation
Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987).
- In 1950, 25.6 percent of the population in Latin America lived
in cities. In just six decades, by 2012, that number rose to 80 percent.
Latin America is the most urbanized region in the world.
- Fourth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Santo
Domingo (1992), Conclusions, 13, 230.
- Ibid., 30, 256.
- Ibid., 36, 43.
- Ibid., 243–251.
- Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops in
Medellín (1968), Conclusions. See more particularly Document 14,
"The Poverty of the Church," 9. Available online at http://www.shc.edu/
- Aparecida, n. 396. (My emphasis.)
- Some English translations render the term base (in Spanish) as
"basic" instead of "base" (in English). See, for instance, the English text
of Aparecida, available on CELAM's website (http://www.celam.org/
aparecida.php). My sense is that the term "basic" does not capture the
full meaning of base in Spanish. Base certainly points to elementary
structures (basic units) and size (small communities), but perhaps the
most powerful meaning of the word in the Latin American context is
social location: the grassroots. These base ecclesial communities, by
and large, have been spaces where people in urban contexts and rural
areas, many of them poor and with very little influence in the politics of
society and the Church, are invited to think and speak about important
issues affecting their daily lives in light of their Christian convictions.
Base ecclesial communities have been privileged spaces for countless
Latin American Catholics and non-Catholics to assert that faith and life
are intimately intertwined.
- Medellín, 8.10.
- Standard translations use the word "ecclesiastical." I believe that
the term ecclesial is more accurate and faithful to the original Spanish
text. "Ecclesiastical" conveys a too narrow, juridical sense of being
Church, while ecclesial in this particular case points to the idea of the
Church as a vocation.
- Medellín, Document 15, 10, my translation.
- Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern
World (1975), 58.
- Puebla, 629.
- Ibid., 643.
- See Santo Domingo, 61.
- Aparecida, 179.
- Puebla, 9.
- Santo Domingo, 28–30.
- See the Message of the Fifth General Conference to the Peoples
of Latin America and the Caribbean introducing the conclusions of
Aparecida, available online at http://www.celam.org/conferencia_aparecida.php.
- Aparecida, 370.
- Aparecida, 298.