Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Developing a Vision of Church in Latin America

by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo


On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Puebla Conference, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo covers two specific points of interest: first, the preparation of the Puebla Conference and the Holy Father's Opening Address; secondly, the development of the Conference, particularly the document drafted by the Bishops, which Pope John Paul II recommended for evangelizing Latin America, and its impact on the Church worldwide.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano


8 - 9 & 10

Publisher & Date

Vatican, March 3, 2004

Part One

The opening of the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate took place at the Palafox Major Seminary in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, on 28 January 1979. There is no doubt that the Opening Address given by the Holy Father John Paul II, Vicar of Christ, who presided in person, plotted the course and determined the decisive spirit of this historic Conference.

In their presentation of the Puebla Document which was very positively received, the Bishops say that they were graced by the personal presence of the Pope, and that his word was "a precious touchstone, stimulus and orientation for our deliberations. We refer especially to his Message to the participants of the Third Conference in the Homily during the concelebration at the Basilica of Guadalupe, in the Homily at the seminary of Puebla and especially in his Opening Address" (Presentation of the Document by the Co-Presidents and the Secretary General in Puebla and Beyond, p. 113).

This important Church event was "a great step forward" for the pilgrim Church in Latin America.

In their Message to the Peoples of Latin America, which the participants approved unanimously as they did the Document, the Bishops state regarding the Holy Father: "His luminous words traced broad lines and touched deep levels for our own reflections and deliberations, breathing the spirit of ecclesial communion" (n. 1).

The Pope himself, in a Letter dated 23 March 1979, Memorial of St Turibius of Mongrovejo, in which he expressed his satisfaction with the results achieved by the Puebla Document, wrote: "Your Document, the fruit of assiduous prayer, deep reflection and intense apostolic zeal . . . offers — as you intended — a rich set of pastoral and doctrinal guidelines on questions of supreme importance. It must serve, with its precious criteria, as a light and a permanent stimulus for evangelization in the present and future of Latin America . . . The Church of Latin America has been strengthened in her vigorous unity, in the determination to meet the needs and the challenges attentively considered throughout your assembly" (Letter to Bishops of Latin America, 23 March 1979; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 7 April 1979, p. 7).

In broad outline I would like to treat several points of special interest concerning the Puebla Conference. This 14 and 15 February, the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) held a special commemoration of the event in Mexico which I was pleased to attend.

I will address two consecutive but separate parts: first, I will deal with the preparation for the Puebla Conference and the Holy Father's Opening Address; I will then treat the development of the Conference, and particularly the document the Bishops drafted which John Paul II recommended as useful for evangelization in Latin America. I will subsequently describe its dissemination and strong impact on the Church, and not only in Latin America.

General Conference Preparation

The idea was developed of consulting the Bishops' Conferences on the possibility of suggesting to Pope Paul VI the convocation of another General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, 10 years after the Medellin Conference. Thus, with the Pope's approval conveyed by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, CELAM organized and began to study a suitable theme to present to the Holy Father for his consideration. The Bishops, so enthusiastically involved in the Synod on Evangelization in 1974 and the resulting Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, thus came to choose "evangelization" as the main theme so that the Church might fully assume her basic priority mission.

The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi was acclaimed almost immediately. The points it treated were crucial and there is no doubt that this was the Document that made the greatest pastoral impact in the post-Conciliar period.

CELAM had held its General Assembly in Rome in early November 1974, immediately after the Synod. Indeed, the vast majority of the Assembly's participants had taken part in the Synod and CELAM had coordinated their participation by holding various meetings. It should be remembered that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, acted as Relator Generalis.

In this perspective of evangelization, the Synods on catechesis (Catechesi Tradendae) and on the family (Familiaris Consortio) — the first in the Pontificate of John Paul II — as well as subsequent Synods, were then celebrated.

The Holy Father was also entertaining the idea of the dynamic vision of the New Evangelization that he first spelled out at the CELAM Assembly in Haiti in March 1983, to which he contributed his original Message.

The Second General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate was celebrated at Medellin. Its theme echoed the Council that had recently closed (7 December 1965): "The Church in the present transformation of Latin America in light of the Second Vatican Council" (24 August-5 September 1968). It was inaugurated in Bogota by Pope Paul VI during his Visit to Latin America for the International Eucharistic Congress. His Opening Address, which he gave in Bogota Cathedral and not in Medellin to avoid travelling, was most enlightening.

The time was ripe for a new assembly. CELAM prepared it and Paul VI convoked it on 12 December 1977. Its theme: "The present and the future of Evangelization in Latin America".

The Holy Father John Paul II expressly mentioned this Second Assembly in his Opening Address at Puebla: "The Conference that is now opening, convoked by the revered Paul VI, confirmed by my unforgettable Predecessor John Paul I and reconfirmed by myself as one of the first acts of my Pontificate, is linked with the now-distant Conference in Rio de Janeiro, which had as its most notable result the birth of CELAM. But it is linked even more closely with the Second Conference of Medellin, of which it marks the 10th anniversary.

"In these last 10 years, how much progress humanity has made and, with humanity and at its service, how much progress the Church has made. This Third Conference cannot but acknowledge that reality. It will therefore have to take as its point of departure the conclusions of Medellin, with all the positive elements that they contained, but without passing over the incorrect interpretations at times made and which call for calm discernment, opportune criticism and clear choices of position" (Opening Address, Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, Palafox Major Seminary, Puebla, 28 January 1979; ORE, 5 February 1979, p. 1).

John Paul II paid a very beautiful tribute to Evangelii Nuntiandi, describing it as Paul VI's "spiritual testament", the "obligatory point of reference . . . of the whole Conference . . . into which he put his whole pastoral soul as his life drew to a close" (ibid.). His words remind me of what was to be the last Audience that Paul VI granted to the Presidency and Secretary General of Puebla. This is what he said in May 1978, in answer to our invitation to open the Conference: "I will see this Conference in heaven". The truth of his words was brought home to us when we learned in Bogota during the last meeting of the Presidency of Puebla of his death on 6 August 1978, the day on which he was called to the Father's House.

Everything was ready for the inauguration of the Conference at Puebla on 12 October, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and then in the Seminary at Puebla de los Angeles.

The Holy See approved the various modalities of the Regulations for the Conference, the conditions for the participation of Bishops' Conferences, guests with and without the right to vote, experts, men and women religious and lay people. It was very clear that this was a Conference for Bishops, convened by the Pope to whom the Document would be submitted, and at which Bishops were in no way to delegate their responsibility. Regarding experts, in practical terms it was arranged that only those who had actually received the placet from the Bishops' Conferences should attend. With regard to theologians who were not invited, this entirely logical criterion was invoked.

It was the Holy Father who appointed the Presidency of Puebla: Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, Archbishop of Fortaleza and President of CELAM; Archbishop Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico City, and, as Secretary General, Archbishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Coadjutor Archbishop of Medellin. CELAM began intense and dynamic preparations.

It first drafted the consultation document based on a preliminary series of suggestions by the Episcopates. Then, after taking a consensus of the Episcopates and publishing them faithfully, it produced a very complete draft of the Working Document.

The Puebla Process

The preparatory stage was not free of surprises and problems.

As I stated Pope Paul VI, who had convened the Conference and had closely followed various aspects of it with a stimulating interest, died two months before the opening of Puebla. He had welcomed this ecclesial event with great hope and knew well its enormous importance. The disagreements and tensions to which it gave rise were further proof of this.

Some people spread the idea that an effort was being made to take a step backwards, burying the Conference of Medellin. They forcefully presented this conjecture to some in the media. They undoubtedly dreaded a deep reflection and clarification of their own above-mentioned interpretations of the conclusions of Medellin, especially on peace and on concepts such as poverty, in the light of criteria that imposed a Marxist analysis on the conflict of class struggle.

Various countries experienced the praxis of movements, especially of priests who were greatly influenced by this ideology, which was a torment; one cannot conceal the injury and harm they caused and the debilitation the Church suffered from the absence of a converging ecclesial vision. They ruined many vocations to the priesthood and the religious life and their sympathy with guerrilla violence led some to a sort of political compromise that dramatically challenged certain practices.

There was no lack of generosity or pain caused by blatant unjust phenomena, but fog was enveloping the theological field and seeping into certain milieus as a myth of messianic hope. This was the result of a reductive form of liberation theology about which Evangelii Nuntiandi had already provided timely criteria which had been contested and rejected by many. Undeniably the achievement of a renewed pastoral zeal was accompanied by an ambiguous position of growing diffidence to the Church's social teaching, presented as lacking in depth and revolutionary "ethic" and labelled a concession to the powerful. The Bishops were well aware of this and the ecclesial situation was discussed at the preparatory meetings with the Episcopates in the four areas they occupied.

The present had to be examined in the light of true evangelization and with a view to the future. We felt the respectful support of the Pope and the Roman Curia, a proven help and an expression of dialogue and communion. A forceful slogan was coined: communion and participation; it inspired and illumined the drafting of the consultation and working documents as well as the organization of the Conferences.

A consistent, shared faith at the root of a demanding evangelization was an obvious prerequisite designed to give a decisive answer, especially to Christology and ecclesiology.

After Paul VI, Pope John Paul I convoked the Conference of Puebla once again and prepared his Opening Address, but it was not long before the Lord summoned him home.

Providence had marked the course of events: when the Conference of Puebla was convoked for the third time, the Holy Father John Paul II decided to inaugurate it himself and thus began the remarkable series of his Apostolic Visits throughout the world.

Paul VI had inaugurated the Conference in Medellin during his one and only visit to Latin America for the Eucharistic Congress in Bogota.

On the first journey of his Pontificate, John Paul II came to us as a gift of Providence on the occasion of his Pastoral Visit to Mexico. His determined and committed personal decision paved the way for what some considered difficult to achieve. There were no diplomatic relations with Mexico at the time; the Church was not recognized there and thus the idea of a Journey at the beginning of his Pontificate made some think that his presence in Puebla was inadvisable. The Pope's decision was very much in tune with the ardent desire of CELAM and of the Episcopates.

Part Two

I have mentioned the Assembly's warm reception of John Paul II's Opening Address.

The clarity and prophetic vigour of its content set the course and outlined a model for the meetings that coincided with the distribution of work to the commissions and with a carefully studied work dynamic.

The Opening Address: Key Points

The Bishops spoke of the three pillars or "tripod" that the Holy Father had developed: truth about Christ, truth about the Church, truth about man. This brought to the fore the centrality of a radical and committed choice of faith with a view to evangelization which, I must repeat, had to be fundamental.

First, the Pope stressed the type of Conference: a conference not of politicians but of Pastors, persons dedicated to the pastoral care of communities. This central criterion was to enable the study of reality with its disturbing phenomena to be made in the light of faith, with the explicit and unequivocal gift of self to the Lord and to his Church: to the Church of Christ, with full force on the genitive. In this way the Pope recalled the closest unity between Christological and ecclesiological perspectives on the basis of the concept of man, with a genuine Christian anthropology that shed light on the serious ambiguities and errors of that time.

It was a Conference for which the Bishops were responsible as Pastors, appropriately assisted but not replaced. Their mission and action had to be guided by the Gospel and not substituted by an ideological and political "praxis", very different from pastoral charity; they were responsible for their flock and for the community as such.

The horizon extended far beyond the discussion of liberation theology, although that issue was clearly present. If disturbing deviations had resulted in a reprehensible ecclesiological vision that later started the race to an equivocal Christology, then an authentic profession of the Lord and his total Lordship was essential. It was important to stand by the criterion not to alter the truth about Christ; to understand the Church as the People of God and not as a Church of the people, in relation to the Kingdom of God even if it cannot be completely identified with it.

This "tripod" approach was inspired by Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 78: "The Gospel entrusted to us is also the word of truth": "The truth about God, about man and his mysterious destiny", completed by the truth about the Church.

To preach the truth about Jesus Christ is the priority task of Bishops as teachers of the faith. This "duty" is a "fundamental commitment" (cf. ibid., n. 1). The Pope warns in no uncertain terms against "'re-readings' of the Gospel . . . They cause confusion by diverging from the central criteria of the faith of the Church . . . In some cases either Christ's divinity is passed over in silence, or fallacious interpretations at variance with the Church's faith are put forward. Christ is said to be merely a 'prophet'. In other cases people claim to show Jesus as politically committed, as one who fought against Roman oppression and the authorities, and also as one involved in the class struggle. This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the agitator from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechesis" (cf. I, 4).

As for the truth about the mission of the Church, the Pope denounces interpretations in which "a certain uneasiness is at times noticed with regard to the very interpretation of the nature and mission of the Church", the secular interpretation of the Kingdom that would derive from a socio-political structural change and the replacement of the "institutional" or "official" Church with the "Church of the people", which springs "from the people and [takes] concrete form in the poor". This is ideological ground (cf. I, 8).

Therefore, the fact that the Pope took an interest in this well-known and disputable form of interpretation, as the Puebla Conference did later, is no secret. We can say that Evangelii Nuntiandi and the Opening Address of the Pope had already shed light on what was later to be expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Instructions concerning Liberation Theology (Libertatis Nuntius and Libertatis Conscientiae).

It has been said, in a warped and limited interpretation of the fruitful and complete teaching of Pope John Paul II, that whereas he is open to the social dimension, he is conservative in the magisterial and doctrinal dimensions. In this Address, it is already clear that a total and necessary complementarity in true unity exists, consisting of faith that leads towards genuine commitment to individuals, to humanity, to the poor, as the Gospel sees them and the Lord loves them.

The Pope affirms the attitude of the Christian who wishes truly to serve his least brethren, the poor, the needy, the marginalized: in a word, all those who in their lives reflect the sorrowing face of the Lord" (I, 4). This is why, in the perspective of Christ and of the Church, or rather, in the perspective of Christ's Church, we are able to understand the third truth about man. It is man, not the inadequate conception of contemporary civilization, that has injured human values, man himself whose mystery takes on light only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). This text of the Council is often quoted by John Paul II. A true Christian anthropology does not allow itself to be polluted by other forms of humanism (cf. I, 9).

All this must unite Pastors more solidly and firmly and lead to unity with the priests, Religious and lay faithful. The importance of the contribution that Religious have made to evangelization requires an indissoluble unity of outlook and action with the Bishops, loyally sought and part of a docile and trusting collaboration with the Pastors.

The Pope, therefore, expresses his desire and firm recommendation in these terms: "In this connection a heavy obligation weighs on everyone in the ecclesial community to avoid parallel magisteria, which are ecclesially unacceptable and pastorally sterile" (II, 2).

The truths mentioned, which are the cement of communion, pave the way to the subject the Pope treats broadly, touching on topics of crucial importance under the title: "Defenders and promoters of human dignity".

Concerning the many ways in which dignity has been wounded in Latin America, the Pope mentions the relationships between "evangelization and human advancement or liberation, focusing on the specific nature of the Church's presence in this broad and important area" (III, 1).

This explains the famous clause, inspired by Evangelii Nuntiandi, which becomes a central criterion: the Church "does not need to have recourse to ideological systems in order to love, defend and collaborate in the liberation of the human being" (III, 2).

"It is not through violence, the interplay of power and political systems, but through the truth concerning man" (cf. III, 3) that we must seek the remedy to suffering.

With regard to property ownership Paul VI, in a faithful interpretation of St Thomas in the Encyclical Popolorum Progressio, coins the apt new term "social mortgage" for the social foundation of ownership which it implies. This teaching works for society's good, "ensuring that the strong do not use their power to the detriment of the weak", a concern that has been strongly present in all the Pope's teaching (III, 4).

The Pope refers to the many and varied forms of human-rights violations: "the right to be born; the right to life; the right to responsible procreation; the right to work; the right to peace; the right to freedom, and social justice . . ." (III, 5). He offers a vast and disturbing panorama that leads to requesting respect for human beings on the lines of the Gospel. It is a genuine liberation.

John Paul II devotes entire pages to the topic of liberation which agree fully with Evangelii Nuntiandi and which it would take too long to recount here. It is a liberation with broader evangelical tasks, worlds apart from those that spread a reduced vision: an integral and profound liberation like that proclaimed by Jesus, consisting in forgiveness and reconciliation; a liberation that is not reduced to the simple economic, political or cultural dimension; a liberation that steers clear of curtailment or ambiguity and is not based on ideologies; a liberation faithful to God's Word and the Church's Tradition (cf. III, 6).

He explains clearly the renewed influence that this series of clarifications had on the Bishops.

The Address then mentions the social doctrine of the Church, the "eclipses" of which were being spread through caricatures with an ideological bias. Fresh confidence in the Church's social teaching was an expressed recommendation of the Roman Pontiff and the Puebla Conference.

At the time, CELAM was already fearlessly implementing its principles in order to analyze the serious situations in so many countries. Indeed, they were equivalent to an appeal for respect for human dignity, the dignity of the human being as an image of God.

"Placing responsible confidence in this social doctrine", the Pope said, "even though some people seek to sow doubt and lack of confidence in it, to give it serious study, to try to apply it; to teach it; to be faithful to it; all this is the guarantee, in a member of the Church, of his involvement in delicate and demanding social tasks, and of his efforts in favour of the liberation or advancement of his brothers and sisters" (cf. III, 7).

Indeed, the Bishops' Conferences served by CELAM organized various courses on social doctrine and the ideologies, particularly intense in many areas, which were most needed in order to respond to the dramatic situation in countries not only facing Marxist collectivism and the Marxist analysis, but also a relentless capitalism that was condemned unequivocally as an attack on the dignity of the poor whose rights are constantly trampled upon.

The Pope ended his Speech by mentioning some priority tasks, namely: the family, youth and priestly vocations.

Regarding the pastoral care of the family, he stressed as a prefigurement of the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio that "evangelization in the future depends largely on the 'domestic Church'", subject to so many threats and contraceptive campaigns that are destroying society (IV, a).

A few hours earlier he celebrated a Mass at Palafox Major Seminary in Puebla. Here he demonstrated the pressing need for the pastoral care of the family in order to reinforce a sense of family, so that families can withstand the serious challenges to their integrity confronting them: divorce, abortion, the "alarming number of children . . . who are born in homes without any stability" (Homily at Palafox Major Seminary, 28 January 1979; ORE, 12 February 1979, p. 5), and the scourge of poverty and want that create inhuman conditions.

He asks Governments to issue family policies and, like Paul VI in his Speech to the U.N., he demands that instead of "reducing the number of guests at the banquet of life" (ibid.), the amount of food on the table be increased, contrary to the Neo-Malthusian notes and hypothetical theories. At that time, 25 years ago, we were far from recognizing the myth of overpopulation as we do today!

The Pope would have liked to enter every home to bring every family a word of encouragement and hope. This was a beautiful wish and 10 years later he expressed it in the opening words of his Letter to Families Gratissimam Sane.

His brief but penetrating recommendation to young people sums up the love he has shown them throughout these 25 years with a heart open to their hopes: "How much hope the Church places in youth! How much energy needed by the Church abounds in youth in Latin America!" (cf. IV, c).

Calling upon Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Pope invites the Pastors to begin their sessions with:

"the boldness of prophets and the prudence of Pastors;

the clear-sightedness of teachers and reliability of guides and directors;

— courage as witnesses, and the calmness, patience and gentleness of fathers" (Conclusion).

The Successor of Peter ended his Message with the instruction Christ gave to his disciples: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19). Thus, the concentrated work at Puebla was initiated, which preceded the Apostolic Visit that began the "sowing" in Mexico.

— L'Osservatore Romano

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