by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
Throughout these weekly reflections I have avoided self-references. However, for reasons which will be clear, this week will differ. It will be a personal experience to help understand the vast undertaking which Pope Francis has taken with his now three-year synodal process and one of its culminating moments currently being played out in Rome.
During the 15 years I served in Latin America, Vatican II took place. In 1968, three years after the closure of that Spirit-filled event, delegates from the institutional Catholic Church of South and Central America and the Caribbean met in Medellin, Colombia to reflect on the Council as it applied to their societies and churches.
In hindsight this conference (held August 24-September 6, 1968) was a seed for the current gathering of the global Christian Catholic Church now taking place. [A young Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was about to be ordained to the priesthood at that time.] It was principally a meeting of bishops, but liberation theologians played a crucial role in its discussions and final documents. At the same time a large number of the bishops present were pastors who served a Church made up overwhelmingly of impoverished people in remote areas of their countries.
Initially Medellin did not attract nearly the attention it later received. There was virtually no publicity much less fanfare around its preparation and processes. Perhaps even well-informed Catholics believed that nothing major could be expected from another gathering of bishops. Many saw them, perhaps to some extent unfairly, as ineffectual prelates tied too closely to powerful interests in their countries.
Nevertheless, the impact of Medellin on the Church in Latin America was immediate and stunning. As pastor of a large suburban parish in Lima, Peru, the challenges of this event totally overturned our approach to the ministry there. The insights from that providential week in Colombia directly influenced all that was being done at every level of Church life.
- The Conference described the social realities of Latin America – generalized and deadening oppression and dehumanization – as “institutional violence,” not, therefore some accident of history or of personal indolence, but the result of systemic and sustained societal structures.
- It called for a “preferential option for the poor,” that is, to judge every pastoral initiative through the optic its impact on the marginalized majorities.
- Despite the fact that very few, if any, lay people were present, the Conference devoted much time and thought to them; the issues discussed in this regard included the growing appreciation for the role of laity in the community; recognizing their autonomy; and their ability to help priests to understand the dehumanizing realities in which most of them lived.
- Promotion of “base Christian communities” as a logical outcome of this renewed understanding of what the “People of God” had to contribute to the life of the Church.
Providentially, at Medellin there was none of the schismatic poison coming these days even from high-ranking Catholic prelates. There was nothing like the conference called “the Synodal Tower of Babel” in Rome on the day before Pope Francis’s synod’s began this week with US American Cardinal Raymond Burke participating.
True, ultra-conservative groups like Opus Dei failed to understand what the Holy Spirit was doing at Medellin. Now Pope Francis has to contend with malignant forces which, under the guise of “faith-filled efforts,” are standing in the way of what hopefully will be another Pentecost in the Catholic Church.
When I presented myself to the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima on my arrival there, he met me in a plush drawing room of his palace where a young servant had directed me. He swept in dressed in all the signs of his elevated status. Medellin transformed him. The last time I visited him 11 years later, he was living in a lower middle-class neighborhood; he met me at the door dressed in ordinary clerical clothes.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.