By Christopher White, The Tablets National Correspondent
NEW YORK – In the midst of a deadly government crackdown on its own citizens in Nicaragua, mounting tensions in Venezuela, and a crisis of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, several thousand delegates from across the Americas gathered in Bolivia last weekend to discuss how “The Joy of the Gospel” can evangelize a wounded Church.
What began in 1977 in Torreón, Mexico as an assembly to reflect on Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (“Evangelization in the Modern World”) has developed into a regular summit approximately every five years to bring together the Church in Latin America.
Following Pope John Paul II’s 1999 exhortation Ecclessia in America, which focused on solidarity in the Americas, leaders from the United States were invited to participate – and according to Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, one of the delegates from the U.S. – this year’s gathering served as a reminder of the “vibrancy and maturity” of the Latin American Church, which, he said, is now evangelizing the rest of the world.
The 5th Congreso Americano Misionero, commonly referred to as CAM, met in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, from July 10-14, where Pope Francis’s 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, largely considered the blueprint of his papacy, served as the touchstone for this year’s discussions.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who was joined by three other U.S. bishops – John Barres of Rockville Centre, Joe Vásquez of Austin, and Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle – along with nearly 40 other individuals from ministries in the United States, told The Tablet that migration and human rights concerns took center stage.
“You really can’t talk about evangelization if you don’t talk about the realities that people are going through right now,” said Archbishop Wenski, “and that meant the realities of the migratory woes, the increase of human rights violations, etc. That was front and center.”
This year’s CAM was Archbishop Wenski’s third time in attendance, and he said that bishops from Nicaragua were noticeably absent, as were bishops from Haiti, while only one prelate from Venezuela attended.
“It’s unfortunate, but understandable given the turmoil in these countries right now,” said Archbishop Wenski.
While the structure of the conference was divided between plenary sessions on specific topics – with Archbishop Wenski noting that Boston College’s Hosffman Opsino’s talks on migration were among the most popular – and a mix of prayer and worship, he said the entire gathering followed the traditional Catholic Social Teaching paradigm of learning to “See, Judge, and Act” in light of the Gospel.
“It was part of the methodology involved in this conference, as it is with a number of the conferences convoked in Rome by the Holy Father,” Archbishop Wenski told The Tablet.
He added that the entire event reminded him of last summer’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders, organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which was also centered on “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Reflecting on his experience, Archbishop Wenski said it was impossible not to realize just how much the experience of the Latin America Church is shaping the global Church.
“Latin America for a long time was the recipient of missionaries, but now, more and more Latin America is the one sending the troops,” he said. “There are Latin American Church workers in the Congo, working in Korea, and many other places.”
“The Latin American Church has matured to become a missionary Church,” he added. “I think that’s not only the sign of the vitality of the Church but also maturity, that it is capable of sharing the gospel.”
As for proof, he said look no further to the current occupant of the seat of Peter – Pope Francis – who is history’s first pope from the global south and, according to Archbishop Wenski, “reaffirms the vitality and maturity of the Latin American Church.”
For his own message to the Congreso, Archbishop Wenski summed it up succinctly: “Evangelization is about relationships.”
At a Mass for the U.S. delegation, Archbishop Wenski said that during his homily he reflected on the fact that he’s often stopped on airplanes by fellow travelers, who, upon seeing him in his clerics, will say, “I’m happy that you’re here, it must mean we’re going to have a safe flight.”
“I can’t promise anything because I’m in sales, not management,” is his stock response.
“The key thing we have to remember about evangelization is that we’re not just about managing the Church and controlling structures,” he said. “If we do that, we forget what our basic mission is, and our mission is to be into sales.”
“Jesus didn’t tell his disciples about the cross at the beginning,” he continued. “He just said, ‘come and see.’ Then he established the relationship with him and then he revealed the cross.”
“But he started with relationships,” Archbishop Wenski said, “because evangelization is about relationships.”