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Wisdom from the Church in Latin America on the New Evangelization

Hosffman Ospino  

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 that hope.

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 themselves Catholic.

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 its consequences.

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. See Third General Conference of the Latin American Bishops in Puebla (1978), Conclusions, 366.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 this series.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. See Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987).
  11. 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.
  12. Fourth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Santo Domingo (1992), Conclusions, 13, 230.
  13. Ibid., 30, 256.
  14. Ibid., 36, 43.
  15. Ibid., 243–251.
  16. 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/ theolibrary/resources/medpov.htm.
  17. Aparecida, n. 396. (My emphasis.)
  18. 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.
  19. Medellín, 8.10.
  20. 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.
  21. Medellín, Document 15, 10, my translation.
  22. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern World (1975), 58.
  23. Puebla, 629.
  24. Ibid., 643.
  25. See Santo Domingo, 61.
  26. Aparecida, 179.
  27. Puebla, 9.
  28. Santo Domingo, 28–30.
  29. 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.
  30. Aparecida, 370.
  31. Aparecida, 298.

Hosffman Ospino, PhD,
is assistant professor of pastoral theology and religious education at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry. He oversees Boston College's graduate programs in Hispanic Ministry. He is the editor of Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century: Present and Future (Convivium Press, 2010) and the principal investigator for the 2011–2013 National Study of Catholic Parishes with Hispanic Ministry.

This is the second of a series on the New Evangelization:
The New Evangelization in a Diverse Church: Culture Matters
Wisdom from the Church in Latin America on the New Evangelization.

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