In response to several inquiries about the significance of Pope Francis’ visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida during his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day 2013 later this month, I have prepared the following background note. In Latin America “Aparecida” evokes first and foremost the great Basilica of Our Lady in that city, which is the fourth most popular Marian shrine in the world.
This explanatory note will not focus on the shrine as much as on the message and meaning of Aparecida for Latin American Catholics and for the entire Church. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the catechist bishops for World Youth Day in Rio will make mention of the message of Aparecida, and more specifically to the concluding document of the Fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Aparecida in 2007 on the theme: “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ, so that our people may have life in him”. That document finds an authentic expression and realization in World Youth Days.
In May 2007, Bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean region voted overwhelmingly (127-2) to approve a final document calling the region's Catholics to renew their commitment to discipleship and mission and setting directions for the church in the region for the next 10 to 15 years. The document, more than 100 pages long, was then sent to Pope Benedict XVI, who approved the text now known as the “Aparecida Document,” the master plan for the New Evangelization in Latin America. The experience of Aparecida offers a powerful message of hope and some best practices to pastoral ministers and church leaders.
The first part of the document, entitled "The Life of Our People," begins with a section giving thanks to God for the gift of being disciples and missionaries. It is followed by a description of the social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic and ecological situation in the region, which poses immense challenges such as globalization, structural injustice, and the crisis in the transmission of faith.
In the second section, the bishops explore what it means to be disciples and missionaries today, including "the joy of being called to proclaim the Gospel"; the vocation of discipleship; communion among Catholics with different vocations, as well as dialogue with other denominations and religions; and faith life, including popular religious practices, Catholic communities and movements, and formation, especially Christian initiation, lifelong catechesis and religious formation.
The last section outlines pastoral priorities for the church in the region. It notes the "new faces of the poor," including the unemployed, migrants, and those who are abandoned or ill, and highlights the urgent need to care for the environment, which has been a constant theme throughout the historic gathering of bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Aparecida document has a strong evangelical thrust. It says that everyone in the Church is baptized to be a missionary. No one comes out of the baptismal font without a job! Furthermore, there is no place that is not mission territory. Everything in the Church must be mission-driven.
The Aparecida document also speaks clearly and positively about the person and role of Jesus Christ. One can see and hear the person of Pope Benedict XVI on nearly every page of the document. The raison d’etre of evangelization is to foster friendship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God who reveals both the face of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity.
The Aparecida document is not a defensive document. If Catholics are leaving the Church and finding a spiritual home in Pentecostal communities, it is not the fault of those individual Catholics but of the Church. The Catholic Church must honestly ask herself what is missing in her presentation of the Gospel and the authentic, full living of the Gospel. Unless we are blatantly honest without our past errors, current malaise, lack of creativity and inability to connect with the modern world, and without a willingness to fill those gaps, we will continue to witness massive departures of the faithful from the Catholic Church. The old adage “build it and they will come” must be taken to heart. Because if we don’t build new structures and welcoming places, the people will simply go elsewhere, and those “elsewheres” are often not the most lifegiving places for our people.
The antidotes to our pastoral failures are what the bishops gathered in Aparecida call the necessity of “permanent catechesis”: an ongoing encounter with the Lord Jesus, deepened spiritually through Word and Sacrament, the Bible and the Eucharist.
Let me attempt to offer several interpretive keys to the “success” of the Aparecida document and explain why this important text has resonated with so many people throughout Latin American and far beyond. Aparecida evokes first of all a major Marian shrine, and through their meeting at this holy place of pilgrimage, the bishops were confronted on a daily basis with the traditional piety of Latin America that finds such rich, moving, beautiful expression manifested toward the Mother of the Lord. The Mother of the Lord brings together past, present and future and offers countless opportunities of creativity and fidelity to the millions of people who flock to this shrine.
During their stay in Aparecida, bishops had regular contact with huge numbers of the faitfhul that come to the shrine on pilgrimage. The shepherds had the opportunity to “take on the odor of the sheep.” This important gathering was not held in a downtown convention centre or major hotel complex, nor in the quiet confines of a monastery or abbey. The meeting took place in the midst of a continuous pilgrimage of God’s people. Such a pilgrimage becomes a privileged opportunity to witness popular piety and devotion and experience new missionary endeavors that are all part of this reality called the New Evangelization. The same phenomenon takes place during every World Youth Day, in the midst of the noise, the chaos, the music, the dancing, the crowds and the prayers of millions of young people. The 2007 Aparecida meeting of Bishops took place in an atmosphere of liturgy and prayer. As the bishops voted on propositions, paragraphs and amendments to the text, the Latin American and Caribbean Churches were singing and praying around them and for them.
At Aparecida and in the document that now bears the name of that hallowed shrine, bishops promised to defend the poor and excluded, including children, people who are ill or have disabilities, at-risk youths, the elderly, prisoners and migrants. They also pledged to promote formation for Christian politicians and legislators "so they contribute to the building of a just and fraternal society."
Bishops promised that the church will work to ensure "health, food, education, housing and work for all" and to combat the ills of society such as abortion, war, kidnapping, armed violence, terrorism, sexual exploitation, drug trafficking and corruption.
Bishops also affirmed several key elements of liberation theology, even though those two words never appear in the official documents. After nearly thirty years of confusion and controversy, in Aparecida liberation theology’s authentic, lasting legacy begins to emerge.
But perhaps the most visible fruit of the Aparcida document was made known to the world on the night of March 13, 2013, when one of the participants in the Aparecida Conference, who was himself one of the architects of the masterful, pastoral teaching, appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and was presented to the world with a new name: “Francis.” If you wish to understand what Aparecida was all about, listen to Francis and watch his profound simple gestures. But more than simply listening and watching, imitate them. For in the person of Pope Francis, millions who flock to Brazil will have an opportunity to see and hear the message of Aparecida in the flesh.