Mission in Postcolonial Latin America

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This entry discusses the history and development of missionary endeavors in the postcolonial period of Latin America. For a survey of the colonial period, see mission in colonial america, i (spanish missions) and mission in colonial america, ii (portuguese missions).

Introduction. The expulsion of the Jesuits in the eighteenth century followed by the anti-clerical independence movements in the early nineteenth century brought the colonial phase of the history of evangelization in the Americas to an end. For a period of time the faith was kept alive and transmitted in many parts by the cofradías or lay confraternities in the absence of an organized evangelization. Circuit riding, often ill-prepared diocesan priests were overwhelmed by the pastoral needs of the people. Formation and education in the faith passed to various religious orders, which established schools in much of the republican era.

The early twentieth century witnessed virulent anticlerical attitudes in Mexico arising from a backlash against the Church's growing influence in the secular sphere. The Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s in Mexico led to a period of persecution and the strict separation of Church and State. Elsewhere in Latin America, that separation was not so rigidly adhered to and many governments had concordats with the Vatican that allowed the Church to maintain schools and to carry out evangelization unhindered. It wasn't until the early 1960s, with the influx of many North American missionaries, that the Church in Latin America entered into another phase of an evangelizing outreach.

Developments in the Renewal of the Latin America Church: Medellín. Concerns over how to evangelize and transmit the faith to the growing population of Latin America received an impetus when the continent's bishops met for the first time in Rio de Janeiro in 1955 and formed the Latin American Episcopal Council or consejo episcopal latinoamericano (CELAM). The Second Vatican Council gave an added impetus to Church leaders to address this question, leading to the convocation of the Second Conference of CELAM in Medellín, Colombia in 1968. Called to adapt the spirit of Vatican II's aggiornamento to the Latin America reality within the continent, Medellín reflected the winds of change that paved the way for the adoption of a critical stance toward unjust structures in civil society, and a preferential option for the poor. Radical developments, such as the comunidades de base (basic christian communities) supported by new theological currents and symbolized by the emergence of the theology of liberation, captured worldwide attention and imagination. By the same token, these changes provoked a negative reaction from some sectors long acccustomed to the Church's traditional apolitical stance. Latin American bishops such as Dom Helder Camara in Brazil, Cardinal Juan Landázuri Ricketts in Peru, Eduardo Proaño in Ecuador, Marcos McGrath in Panama, and Sergio Mendéz Arceo and Samuel Ruíz in Mexico lived out the spirit of the Medellín documents and enthusiastically translated its conclusions into concrete pastoral actions that contributed to the renewal of evangelization in the Latin America Church.

Puebla. The Third Conference of CELAM was held in Puebla, Mexico in early 1979. While affirming the basic thrust of Medellín, it also gave new emphasis and urgency to the Church's evangelizing activity by under-scoring the "evangelizing potential of the poor" and by calling for the Latin America Church to step up and assume its mission ad gentes role outside of, as well as inside, Latin America. Puebla took a much more guarded approach to the movement of Base Christian Communities, preferring to see them be much more under ecclesiastical supervision than as a lay-led grassroots expression of the Church. Likewise, the assessment of the writings of liberation theologians resulted in a qualified approval that also cautioned against unnuanced dependence on Marxist analysis.

Santo Domingo. The Fourth Conference of CELAM in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1992 affirmed the renewal process initiated at Medellín and Puebla and expanded its focus by recognizing developments in emerging theological currents from indigenous and Afro-American peoples, feminist theologians, and a growing ecological movement. One of the most important developments at Santo Domingo was the pope's call for an American Synod joining the local churches of North and South America and the Caribbean to discern the concerns and challenges for evangelization in an age of globalization and interdependence. At Santo Domingo, many church leaders voiced their concerns over the phenomenal growth of Protestantism in Latin America in recent decades, especially of Pentecostal churches. Alarm from some sectors over this development did not readily translate into concrete strategies. Some envisioned a weakening of ecumenical relations with the more historical churches due to what many perceive as the aggressive proselytism of more sectarian Christian groups. As Latin American society becomes more pluralistic, cultural Catholicism will likely become less of a factor in identity.

Synod for America. The 1997 Synod of Bishop's Special Assembly for America held in Rome broke new ground for establishing closer connections between churches from the north and south and set the stage to create the foundations for greater collaboration around common problems within the perspective of the New Evangelization. Expectations ran high as to the potential for collaborative and joint efforts. At the same time, uncertainty over the future of CELAM and especially the continuous process of renewal begun at Medellín remained. The passing of an older, dynamic, high-profile generation of Church leaders also raised questions about the future course of evangelization in Latin America.

U.S. Missionaries in Latin America. The movement to send U.S. missionaries to Latin America was led by Cardinal Richard cushing of Boston, Maryknoller John considine, and Ivan Illich in the 1950s and 1960s. Religious communities like Maryknoll, the Columbans, and the Boston-based missionary society of st. james the apostle and such diocesan missions as St. Louis, Missouri (Bolivia) and Jefferson City, Missouri (Peru), Cleveland, Ohio (El Salvador), and New Ulm, Minnesota (Guatemala) participated in this massive missionary endeavor. While the number of North Americanborn missionaries working in Latin America had declined sharply by 2000, the missionary movement from north to south continued to show great vitality and creativity. More emphasis was placed on mission education awareness initiatives, different forms of inter-American cooperation and collaboration, along with an increased presence of laity. An expanded notion of what constitutes mission also influenced the changes in mission from a one-way process to allow for more dialogue on all levels. The challenges spelled out in the document Ecclesia in America, fruit of the 1997 Synod of America, provided the foundations for new directions and initiatives.

The changing profile of the U.S. missionary in Latin America in the last decades of the 20th century bear closer examination. Religious women embarking on a second or third ministerial career change arrived in greater numbers in the 1980s and early 1990s. Short and long-term lay missionaries with close ties to established diocesan groups and communities like maryknoll and the columban fathers appeared at the same time. In the 1960s, there were few options for the lay overseas mission vocation. By 2000, a greater number of possibilities for overseas cross-cultural service were available. Reflecting wider societal trends, many committed U.S. Catholics found themselves drawn to diverse forms of service of a short-term duration. The twining of parishes, or sister parish projects, from North and Latin America opened up even more paths for alternative service and networks of solidarity across the hemisphere.

Challenges and Questions. The witness of life and the Church's prophetic role in the defense of human rights, participation in the peace process, and the work of reconciliation were integral to the task of evangelization in Latin America. After the early 1970s, many missionaries gave their lives to spread the Gospel, of whom Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980), the U.S. churchwomen (1980), and the six Jesuits and their housekeeper (1989) in El Salvador became the most publicized examples. The recovery of the historical memory of atrocities committed against missionaries in places like Guatemala and El Salvador is not simply an adjunct to the work of proclaiming the Gospel, but an essential dimension of it.

One of the main vehicles for evangelization since the early 1970s, the comunidades de base (Base Christian Communities) enjoyed a process of continuous organic growth in places like Brazil. In other places, they declined in importance. Alongside the development of the CEBs, a resurgence of European-style lay movements like Opus Dei, Communione et Liberatione, the Neo-Catechumenate, and others, injected other protagonists and variables into the prospects for evangelization. This shift came about in tandem with the evolution in Latin America of large urban areas and mega-cities. A new pluralistic culture in the cities among both migrants and more educated elites presented new challenges as well. The challenges of globalization, urbanization, mass migrations, pluralism, and the acceptance of new information technology called for new mission strategies that focus on maintaining an evangelizing presence in the area of social communications, as well as dialogue with new social actors, the socio-cultural areopagi that Pope John Paul II referred to in his missionary encyclical redemptoris missio (1990).

Bibliography: j. comblin, Called for Freedom: The Changing Context of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll 1998). a. dries, The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History (Mary-knoll 1998). e. dussel, The Church in Latin America, 14921992 (Maryknoll 1992). a. hennelley, Santo Domingo and Beyond (Maryknoll 1993). s. p. judd, "Toward a New Self-Understanding: The U.S. Catholic Missionary Movement on the Eve of the Quin-centennial," Missiology 20 (1992) 457468. j. klaiber, The Church, Dictatorships and Democracy in Latin America (Martyknoll 1998). d. martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Cambridge, Mass. 1993).

[s. p. judd]

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