The Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (CELAM III), took place in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979. The meeting, originally intended to mark the tenth anniversary of CELAM II at Medellín, had to be postponed because of the deaths of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I. Paul VI's apostolic exhortation evangelii nuntiandi provided the theological background. The presence of John Paul II, especially his remarks in three major homilies, set the tone.
Meeting Overview. The CELAM Secretariat, strongly influenced by Bishop Alphonso Lopez Trujillo, prepared a preliminary document which concentrated on the problem of secularization and the role of the Church in Latin America's transition from a rural-agrarian society to an urban-industrial society. At the outset divisions emerged among the voting bishops and non-voting participants. Many felt that the preliminary document was a betrayal of the program established at Medellín. Gradually a consensus emerged. CELAM president, Cardinal Aloisio Lorsheider of Brazil was instrumental in bringing the perspective of the meeting closer to the social analysis, methodology, and human rights concerns of Medellín. Unofficial periti, mainly Latin American liberation theologians, also influenced the process leading to the final document.
The bishops recognized that the social, economic, and political problems of 1968, not only remained, but had become more serious. Secularization was not the principal obstacle to spreading the gospel. Evangelization in Latin America meant that the Church had to address once again the problems of poverty, structural injustice and social sin. Once this situation was faced, the discussions took on more of a liberationist perspective. The final document, to some degree, reflects this perspective, "… a cry is rising to heaven, growing louder and more alarming all the time. It is the cry of a suffering people who demand justice, freedom and respect for the basic rights of human beings and peoples" (par. 87).
Final Document. The final document is divided into five parts: Pastoral Overview of the Reality That is Latin America; God's Saving Plan for Latin America; Evangelization in the Latin American Church; Communion and Participation; A Missionary Church Serving Evangelization in Latin America; Under the Dynamism of the Spirit: Pastoral Options. The conference's view of Jesus is significant for its attempt to hold a middle ground within the contemporary Latin American theological context. It lamented the attempt to distort the message of Jesus and use it for ideological purposes. "That can be done in one of two ways: either by turning him into a politician, a leader, a revolutionary, or a simple prophet on the one hand; or on the other hand, by restricting him, the Lord of history, to the merely private realm" (par 178).
Two dominant themes emerged: "Communion and Participation" and "A Preferential Option for the Poor" On the one hand the central motif of communion and participation appeared to try to replace liberation as the dominant theological message. The preferential option for the poor, however, recalled and reinforced the message of liberation. "We affirm the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor, an option aimed at their integral liberation" (par.1134). The text continues, "The vast majority of our fellow humans continue to live in a situation of poverty and even wretchedness that has grown more acute" (par 1135). "Hence service to the poor is the privileged, though not exclusive, gauge of our following of Christ" (par. 1145).
In spite of some repetition and contrast, the final document clearly understands evangelization as liberating from personal and social sin and as fostering communion and participation both in the Church and in society at large. CELAM III endorsed a centrist position but further committed the Church to social pastoral planning, solidarity with basic Christian communities and defense of the poor.
Bibliography: celam iii, La Evangelizacion en el Presente y en el Futuro de America Latina: Puebla, Documento Aprobado (Mexico 1979); j. eagleson and p. scharper, eds., Puebla and Beyond: Documentation and Commentary, translated by j. drury (Maryknoll 1979) (References in text to paragraph numbers are the same in Spanish and English versions). p. berryman, "What Happened at Puebla," Churches and Politics in Latin America, ed. d. h levine (Beverly Hills 1979). e. dussel, The History of the Church in Latin America: Colonialism to Liberation, trans. a. neely (Grand Rapids 1981). g. gutierrez, The Power of the Poor in History (Maryknoll 1983). p. lernoux, Cry of the People (New York 1980). g. maceoin, Puebla, a Church Being Born (New York 1980).
[j. p. hogan]