Pope Benedict XVI is making his first trip to the Western Hemisphere, having travelled to Brazil to open a strategising session with Latin American bishops.
The May 9-13 visit began with a string of pastoral events in Sao Paulo, where the pope was to have met with young people and canonise the first Brazilian-born saint.
Then he was to move to the basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida to inaugurate the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, celebrating Mass and delivering a major speech to participants of the May 13-31 meeting.
The trip turns a spotlight on Latin America, a geographical area that has had little attention from this pope to date, but where 43 percent of the world’s Catholics live.
It also broadens the horizons of the pope’s two-year pontificate, taking him outside Europe, where four of his previous five trips have occurred.
“I think we may have this idea of a pope who has spoken a lot about Europe and who has a ‘bookish’ culture in the tradition of European thought and reflection,” said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
“But although many people are not aware of it, this is a pope who travelled extensively as a cardinal and who has been able to acquaint himself with diverse realities of the church,” Father Lombardi said.
“I think the messages, gestures and images of this trip will help people understand how the pope sees the ‘universal’ side of his ministry, in a more evident way than before,” he said.
The issues on the Latin American bishops’ agenda are not new, and the pope reviewed them in capsule form last February:
- The need to revitalise the faith among the church’s members in order to generate a new sense of mission in society.
- The proselytism of religious sects, which require, in the pope’s view, a new effort in Catholic education.
- The “growing influence of postmodern hedonist secularism,” which is seen as dramatically eroding the traditional values of the predominantly Catholic continent.
- Marriage and the family, which the pope said show “signs of yielding under the pressure of lobbies” that push for legislative changes and which are threatened by the increase in divorce, cohabitation and adultery.
- Economic injustice and the fight against poverty, along with the growing phenomenon of migration, which also impacts family unity.
The pope is well aware that many Latin American bishops believe the Church stands at a turning point after losing ground in recent decades.
At the last Synod of Bishops in 2005, the pope listened as Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes told the assembly that in Brazil – the most populous Catholic country in the world – the number of Catholics was declining by about 1 percent each year, with many lost to Protestant sects.
“We have to wonder: How long will Brazil be a Catholic country?” Cardinal Hummes said.
According to the Vatican’s statistics, the Catholic percentage of Latin American populations has dropped about 4 percent over the past 25 years, but many believe the official figures don’t tell the real story.
In Brazil, for example, the Vatican says 85 per cent of the population is Catholic, but experts who follow census figures say the real number may be closer to 70 per cent.
The general conferences of Latin American bishops are considered milestone events, and some have produced important shifts in pastoral direction.
This year’s edition will reflect the impact of globalisation and the need for greater collaboration among churches of North and South America, especially on issues like economic migration.
To favour that kind of exchange, the more than 160 voting members of the conference will include four US bishops as well as US Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. Two bishops and a cardinal from Canada also will attend.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world, the pope likely would have heard of social issues like urban violence, homelessness, corruption and economic disparity.
Outside Aparecida, the pontiff was to have visited a Franciscan-run drug rehabilitation center, called Fazenda da Esperanca (Farm of Hope).
In addition to illustrating Christian charity in action, the visit would have given the Pope an opportunity to highlight the deep human and social damage done by the drug trade throughout Latin America.
When the Vatican recently critiqued Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, a pioneer in liberation theology, some saw it as a sign of things to come from the pope and the May bishops’ conference.
But Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said he did not expect liberation theology to be a crucial issue during the papal visit.
Instead, he said, the Pope was likely to focus on concerns like secularisation, the activity of the sects and urbanisation, and their relationship to the fundamental question of how to announce Jesus Christ in an evolving culture.
The impact of papal visits, of course, does not depend solely on official events and papal speeches.
Perhaps more than on previous trips, the world would be watching to see how Pope Benedict, an academic at heart, interacted with the more outwardly emotional culture of the region.
During his first trip to Brazil, Pope John Paul II walked through a slum neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where he chatted with residents and, moved by what they told him, left his papal ring as a gift to local parishioners.
No one was suggesting a repeat performance by Pope Benedict, but many were interested to see whether the Pope used gestures as well as words to communicate his concern for the poor.
With 14 major events, it was a relatively busy schedule for the 80-year-old Pope.
But almost from the beginning of his pontificate, he has made this trip a priority.
According to Latin American bishops, it was the pope who chose the Marian sanctuary as the site for the conference and announced that he would be coming.
The pope also chose the theme, “Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ, So That Our Peoples May Have Life in Him.” The focus on the person of Jesus Christ is typical of the pope, who just published a book on the figure of Jesus.
In late April, sources said the pope had cancelled or shortened some audiences at the Vatican in order to work on his speeches in Brazil. Many are looking for the two papal talks happening today – his sermon and his inaugural address – to set the tone and the direction of the conference.
The bishops of Latin America have said they hope the conference will launch a new evangelising mission across the continent, a type of spiritual mobilisation throughout the Church.
The Pope knows this cannot be accomplished from the top down, however.
That may be why, rather than announcing grand plans or programs, he has so far focused on more fundamental tasks.
As he told planners earlier this year, the Latin American conference must first of all “encourage every Christian to convert and become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, sent out by him as an apostle.”