Just a Thought - Medellin and the Whole Church.
Late in the evening of Nov. 16, 1965, just three weeks before the closing of Vatican II, about 40 bishops gathered at the ancient Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome to celebrate the Eucharist. Those catacombs are a long stretch of underground galleries and tombs, where the bodies of many Christian martyrs have been buried.
Most of the assembled bishops were Latin American - a few came from Europe, Africa, Asia and one from Canada. Dom Helder Camara from Brazil led the group. They signed an agreement known as the "Pact of the Catacombs". Inspired by the spirit of the Vatican Council, the bishops affirmed their faith in Jesus Christ and renewed their love for the Gospel.
They also committed to live in simple ways, without privileges and embracing austerity and poverty as well as the poor and the promotion of justice and liberation. They promised to advocate "laws, social structures and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons, and thus for the advent of a new social order, worthy of the children of God".
A few weeks later the bishops returned to their home dioceses inspired by the council and its final documents. it was time to bring Vatican II to life at the local level - a series of events and planning processes were set in motion. These led to 'the Conference of Latin American Bishops' in Medellin, Colombia in 1968. The new momentum of the council and the spirit of the 'Pact of the Catacombs' guided a new dawn for South American Catholicism.
Latin America in the 1960s was fertile soil for the seeds of the council - the area became the continent of Catholic hope.
It was a mixed hope: poverty, inequality, corruption, political instability and illiteracy and other social ills were rampant. But countless Catholics throughout the continent were rereading the Scriptures in small communities and changing the ways and structures in which they lived. Yes, there was hope.
During the 50s and 60s, the winds of economic, political and social transformation blew strongly in Latin America. Governments in the region had embraced theories of development fueled by neo-capitalism ideology, which focused mainly on economic growth. Policies and practices emerged from these theories benefited only certain elites. The vast majority lived in dehumanizing poverty.
Revolutions, internal wars, dictatorships, ideologies like communism were tried. But the lives of most people changed little. There was a need for a different reality that would affirm the dignity of every human person and provide a renewed hope for all. Catholic pastoral leaders read the conclusions of the Council and seized the moment. One bishop wrote of the need for a humanism that would confront physical, cultural and spiritual hunger. He (Bishop Larrain) spoke of the existence of 'vicious circles of misery that are the result of current structures' - the reality of structural sin.
It was then that bishops and theologians (Gustavo Gutierrez, Juan Seguno and Lucio Gera) and pastoral workers began to talk about the need to address the root causes of structural violence, poverty and oppression. And so was reborn a theology committed to denouncing the causes of underdevelopment and sinfulness. It was so needed,because Christianity if holistically liberating - the liberation that Jesus Christ brought to humanity.
Between 1965 and 1968, the bishops of Latin America and their theologians met in various countries and developed the framework, language and focus that would characterize Medellin.
Medellin revolutionized pastoral and theological reflection. it set the tone, language and method of how Latin American Catholics - and many other Catholics throughout the world, would reflect on evangelization for the next 50 years. Medellin developed a method for engaging reality with a critical eye, evaluating it from the perspective of the faith, using the best available tools (scientists, anthropologists and other experts) for discernment and then acting upon such reality in an informed manner seeking transformation. The method evolved into an instrument of social analysis: pastoral action should respond to the particular realities that shape the lives of God's people here and now.
In other words, start where people live and understand who they are. if the church is to respond to the challenges of being Christian, it must listen to the diversity of voices and experiences that constitute the People of God. This meant guaranteeing the creation of spaces/ avenues where the hierarchy could attentively listen to people's voices and honor their wisdom.
It is in Small Communities that a space for personal encounter, growth in the faith in a communal environment and the advancement of works to promote the human person is best provided. The building of ecclesial communion starts from below, in the particular circumstances where people encounter Jesus Christ and his Gospel every day. When that does not happen reform is needed.
Medellin spoke explicitly of the sociopolitical dimensions of evangelization. It named the essential relationship between the church's mission and the engagement of the Christian community to bring about the common good. All the People of God must jointly 'inspire, encourage and press for a new order of justice that incorporates all people in the decision-making of their own communities. All the baptised are to act as agents of change in society. This calls for the creation of conditions for all to flourish.
Evangelisation, then, has to be more than raw indoctrination. All must take ownership of their futures. Evangelisation demands the conversation of structures to further justice and solidarity. This is genuine pastoral conversion, so that the church can be an authentic sign of Christian liberation for all - as are Jesus and his message. Evangelization must direct itself toward the formation of a personal, internalized, mature faith. Such a faith is one that can read the signs of the times which are 'expressed above all else in the social order'. At the risk of becoming irrelevant and disconnected, the church in its evangelizing efforts cannot ignore reality with its demands and possibilities. neither should it ignore people's everyday experiences.
Many of these people are poor! And so the need for courage to name and unmask the causes of poverty, and the disturbing correlation between small elites becoming richer and more powerful, while the vast majority drown in poverty and anonymity. To-day 1% of the world's population owns more that 50% of all existing wealth.
Medellin captured the voice of a portion of the church. But that portion has much to say to the rest of us, with its own language, committed to the necessary transformation to live the mission and message of Jesus.
The bishops who gathered at Medellin wanted more than than documents and mere declaration. They wanted to identify commitments and actions for change. More indoctrination and programs will be of little value if we at the Small Christian Community level are not prepared to carry them out as a personal commitment even at the cost of sacrifice.
I know from personal experience how Medellin has been a natural conversation partner for Nigerian and Sierra Leoneans at the grassroots level. Its language and wisdom spoke to us in our pastoral work, in our conviction that we are the People of God through a common baptism, that we can together take responsibility for decision-making, that we can name corruption and find appropriate way to work for justice and peace - all of that and more, despite critiques and even opposition in some sectors of the hierarchy.
The bishops who signed the 'Pact of the Catacombs' 50 years ago could not have known where their commitment would take them. Yet they trusted the Holy Spirit in the same way as John XX111 did when he convoked the Second Vatican Council. The spirit of the pact and of the council found life in Medellin, which then inspired people in other parts of the world. It inspired some of us in Africa to realise that missionary discipleship was to be found in serving the poor and those who are most vulnerable, promoting the whole person and trying to change those structures that prevent people from flourishing. It showed us the need for promoting participation, consultation, formation and the exercise of synodality - the things that Pope Francis has affirmed as of great importance.
To-day, fifty years later, I would hope that the mission and message of Medellin would resonate vigorously with us Australians who are struggling to bring Jesus and his message to a society that is increasingly individualistic and consumer-driven. Can the National Synod be a means of doing so?