Church in Latin America faces aggressive secularism and polarisation

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), held in Aparecida, Brazil, from 13 to 31 May 2007. The final document promulgated by the conference, known as the Aparecida Document, has been fundamental for the Church in Latin America since then. The relator general of the Aparecida Document was the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, and many of the crucial aspects of his current pontificate, such as the pastoral outreach, the concept of an “outgoing” Church and the mission of the laity, can be traced back to it.  In this interview, the head of the Latin America section of ACN, Rafael D’Aqui, speaks about some of the challenges the Church is facing on what is known as the “continent of faith”, and which consequently are also reflected in the work of the foundation. 

The American continent is currently facing situations of social instability which have led to internal division and even street violence in many countries. Are you concerned about this situation?

Undoubtedly, in many of these countries there is an aggressive tendency which seeks to silence the voice of the Church, especially on family and pro-life issues. Many of our project partners have told us that in their countries there is a polarisation of society, with increasingly large groups characterised by their extremist positions, and this is going to be a problem in terms of social cohesion in many states. Nonetheless, we should not forget that Latin America continues to be the “continent of hope”, as Pope Paul VI affirmed in 1968 and Benedict XVI reaffirmed in 2007, because it is home to practically half of all the Catholics of the world, including a great many young people.

Looking to the future, one of the greatest challenges for Latin America is the immense growth of urbanisation. How is ACN hoping to tackle this challenge? Are there plans for developing the missionary pastoral outreach in urban settings?

ACN always responds to the needs identified by the local Church. Consequently, we believe it is very important for the Church to identify these major urban centres and their growing peripheries. Over the next few years, we would like to encourage a missionary outreach in the suburbs of these major urban centres and assure the presence of the Church there, for example through the formation of catechists and pastoral workers, through training sessions or published literature. The growth of the cities is very much connected with internal migration, so we believe it is necessary to develop a ministry of pastoral welcome in these areas. The great challenge is to help the new arrivals to integrate without losing their Catholic identity, which is very often threatened.

Rafael D´Aqui (ACN) with Carmelite Descalced sisters
Rafael D´Aqui (head of the Latin America section of ACN) with Carmelite Descalced sisters

The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few… One of the challenges for the Church in Latin America is the shortage of vocations, and a lack of priests to minister to the faithful. How is ACN helping to support the Church in this regard?

We can see that it is very important to develop the vocations apostolate, above all in those regions where there is a large Catholic population and too few priests. As a pastoral foundation we aim to support vocations programs in the most needy dioceses. The presence of the priest is important in these encounters, and it is crucial to maintain this closeness to the young people in particular, which is why sometimes we need to provide vehicles to enable the priests to visit the schools and parishes more easily. At the same time, ACN is supporting youth events, summer camps and vocations discernment conferences and encounters.

But in addition to vocations discernment, there is also the question of the care of the priests themselves, who as shepherds tending their flock often live in very difficult situations, the result of a life lived out of love for their people, but also a consequence of the economic crisis, the pandemic and so forth.

You mentioned that we are facing an advance of aggressive secularism in many of the countries of Latin America. There are orchestrated attacks on the right to life of the unborn and on the family, notably in Argentina, Chile and Colombia… What can the Church do in such situations? And how is ACN supporting it?

We believe that ACN needs to strengthen the faith of the families and of the young. These are, so to speak, the achilles’ heel of society. We need a youth apostolate that can form leaders with a strong sense of identity, conscious of their dignity and also well formed in affective relations and sexuality. We need well informed young people, because secularism is often disseminated within society through disinformation and distortions of the truth, so there is a need to educate people in bioethics and the social doctrine of the Church. There are problems not only in the area of aggressive secularisation, but also grave issues of social injustice and corruption.

You have also spoken of the political polarisation of society which is causing a great deal of division on the continent and in the Church as well. How can ACN respond to this and help the Church in its role as mediator?

The absence of solutions, insecurity and a sense of vulnerability seem to be pushing people to adopt extreme positions. In response, we are increasingly seeking to encourage the formation of Catholic leadership cadres, rooted in the social teaching of the Church. One means of achieving this is through the DOCAT publication, which is an excellent source of information for young people in the area of social justice and also helps them to put it into practice. At the same time, we believe that communication plays a fundamental role in response to the advance of aggressive secularism and also in the issue of social polarisation. Therefore, we believe it is very important to encourage evangelization via digital means and using the Catholic media, so that we can reach as many people as possible.

What aid was given by ACN, in concrete terms, for Latin America in 2021?

Last year we approved 969 project requests from over 800 partners in at least 320 different dioceses on the continent. The countries that received most aid were Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti and Cuba. We should not forget that Latin America was one of the most severely affected by the pandemic in 2021. And within the Church itself, Covid caused the deaths of many of the Catholic faithful, pastoral workers, bishops, priests and religious. At the same time, the reduction in church collections – as a result of the lockdowns – was a massive challenge to the support of the work of evangelization and human development in many countries. In response, ACN had to provide even greater help for priests and religious in mission contexts, in the form of basic support, or Mass intentions. In some countries, such as Haiti, Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela, ACN’s response also came in the form of emergency medical aid to help cope with the healthcare crisis.

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