Papal Volunteers for Latin America

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The Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA) were volunteer Catholic lay missionaries committed to pastoral and social work in Latin America for short-term service, usually three years. Consistent with the stress on Catholic Action found in papal encyclicals (e.g., Pius XI's Non Abbiamo Bisogno in 1931, and Pius XII's Mystici Corporis in 1943) and with the orientation of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL) approved PAVLA on April 20, 1960. Monsignor Paul Tanner, General Secretary of the NCWC wrote to the U.S. bishops, asking them to establish the program in their dioceses. Michael Lies, a diocesan priest of Wichita, Kansas, was named the first national director in 1961, and served one year in that capacity. The national office, established in Chicago, was placed under the Bishop's Committee for Latin America, and administered by the NCWC's Latin America Bureau, whose director from 1959 to 1968 was John J. Considine, M.M., a Maryknoll priest. The office was meant to function as an umbrella agency, coordinating the requests of Latin American bishops for assistance within their dioceses and other ecclesiastical jurisdictions, and the diocesan directors, religious communities, lay mission societies, and even individual volunteers that wanted to participate.

Independent language schools in Cuernavaca, Mexico; Petropolis, Brazil; and Ponce, Puerto Rico, as well as a few domestic Catholic colleges and universities provided varying degrees of language, theological, pastoral, and cultural formation for candidates. In the first year, 112 volunteers were sent to Latin America. They and subsequent lay missionaries were primarily engaged in various forms of teaching, medicine, social work, community development, and the creation of credit unions.

A series of problems plagued the program from its inception, including an initial lack of financial support, tension between many diocesan directors and the national office over questions of coordination and control, and deep disagreements among various parties over the screening, formation, and assignment of candidates. Many volunteers, once in Latin America, experienced little local support for their apostolates. By 1967, the number of active PAVLA volunteers began to decline. When Louis Michael Colonnese, a priest of Davenport, Iowa, became director of the Latin America Bureau in 1968, he initiated the process that resulted in the closing of the national office in 1971.

Bibliography: a. dries, The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1998). g. m. costello, Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth-Century Crusade (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1979).

[j. f. garneau]