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Carmen-José Alejos, Professor of History of the Church in Latin America at the University of Navarra, Spain

Evangelization, a round trip

Sun, 17 Mar 2013 11:53:00 +0000 Published in La Razón

Finally, it is about time, we have a Latin American Pope. How many millions of people must have exclaimed this late in the afternoon on March 13. After 420 years in which the Spaniards brought the faith to the New World, he brings it back to us, he brings it back to the Old World.

In fact, on the second Columbus voyage, in 1493, Ramón Pané, a hermit of the order of St. Jerome, arrived in the Antilles. In March 1495, he went to live among the Indians of Cacique Guarionex and stayed there for two years. He learned the Taino language to teach them the faith. He was the author of the first book written in the New World in a European language : "Relación acerca de las antigüedades de los indios". According to his own account, he explained to them that God is the creator of the world and then taught them to pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

Spain brought the faith to America from its beginnings. However, the black legends, criticisms, prejudices and feelings of guilt that inundate many Spaniards and Europeans know no bounds. We feel ashamed of the discovering, management assistant, cultural and evangelizing task that we carried out for more than three hundred years. Why? Mistakes and abuses were made. Something inevitable, every human work has them. But could it be that in a society that rejects God, it is not well seen that the Catholic faith has been spread and we have to ask for forgiveness?

Nothing is black and white. Everything has its nuances, including American evangelization. However, one cannot avoid facing the truth. And this is that, in its beginnings, the Catholic Monarchs considered it a primordial task that the conquerors were accompanied by religious who would teach the faith to the inhabitants of these new lands.

They belonged to reformed religious orders that had purified the burdens that prevented them from living according to the evangelical faith and had renewed their life and their convents. Thanks to this reform, their evangelizing desires were genuine, strongly rooted and they were ready to face whatever difficulties there were; which, by the way, there were many.

The faith was carried by religious (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits...) blameless, with a high sense of their mission statement, which they carried out with their words and lifestyle. Fray Toribio de Benavente was called "Motolinía" by the Mexican Indians, which in the Náhualt language means "he who is poor or afflicted". The missionaries lived with the poor, as the poorest of the poor. The evangelizers and the American ecclesiastical hierarchy were characterized from the first moment for defending the rights of the indigenous people. The American Church today maintains this social concern. And this is the task that Pope Francis has developed extensively in his 16 years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Photographs of his attention to the sick, to the most needy, are circulating on network . He is a sample of the role of the Church in Latin America. Not in the style of Liberation Theology, but according to the Gospel and the tradition of the first Christians who lived charity among themselves, taking care of each other, providing what the others needed.

The evangelization carried out by the Spaniards was profound, it taught the faith and to live coherently according to that faith. It carried out an important task of culturization, taking advantage of the natural religiosity of the natives to imprint on it the footprints of Christ. That is why John Paul II could call it "constituent evangelization". That is to say, not only were the inhabitants of the New World evangelized, but a new people was constituted, the Latin American people who are naturally believers. Atheism is not a Hispanic American trait. The sects, the diverse religious confessions have diffusion precisely because their natural tendency is to believe in God. That is also why Catholicism is still in force, with an unstoppable force.

Catholic quarry

Some point out that Latin America is a "quarry of Catholics". And they are right. Latin America is home to 432 million Catholics, the territory with the most faithful of the five continents; 73% of the population declares itself Catholic; the two countries with the largest Catholic population are Latin American (Brazil with 133 million, and Mexico with 96 million); Colombia is the sixth country in the world with the most Catholics, 38 million; Argentina, where the new Pope comes from, has 31 million.

What can Ibero-America contribute to the slumbering, overly rationalistic and, why not say, sclerotized faith of Europe? A lot. Priests and religious who want to be well trained continue to arrive in Europe. The Schools of Theology of Rome, of Spain are a good sample of it. Young priests and religious who want to serve the Church as the Church needs to be served. Many of them during the time of their programs of study help in parishes. There are also Spanish dioceses in which there is an abundance of Latin American clergy. Therefore, we receive the Word of God and the sacraments from them. Faced with such low numbers of Spanish clergy, it is not difficult to imagine that in 10 years' time priests, well trained in Europe and with the impetus of Latin America, will have to come to help us.

The United States is also strongly evangelized by Latinos, especially Mexicans, who fill the churches. They make up almost a third of Catholics and half of them are under 40 years old. Yes, Latinos carry the faith wherever they go. And this ties in with another interesting idea. A Pope that they have gone "to the end of the world" will show us what the Latin American Church can bring to the world. And that fills all Latin Americans with pride (why not say it?), whether they are Catholics or not.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI have "elaborated" the faith, Pope Francis is going to show us that this faith is simple, that it is a celebration, that it is joyful, that it is young. In other words, that the Church is alive.

A whole continent

Benedict XVI in the words of his last days as Pontiff constantly spoke of prayer; Pope Francis began his pontificate praying and asking the blessing of the faithful for him. A custom that is rooted in Latin America: asking the blessing of the priest and parents.

In the face of the secularization of Europe and North America, comes a faith of the people. Of a people who suffer basic needs but are joyful, they have a meaning to live: their faith. On the contrary, in Europe our suffering is spiritual: there is no lack of anything but we have no meaning in life. As opposed to what was expected (or rather, what the media told us that the Church needs): a young, strong pope, with stamina and capacity to "fix" the Curia, to face the challenges of humanity; the Holy Spirit has offered us a priest little known to the majority, humble, simple, who travels by bus and who makes himself dinner. Once again God breaks our molds: He was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, lived for 30 years in a small town, died stripped of everything and thus achieved our salvation. The Church, which seeks to bring Christ's salvation to all people, cannot present itself in any other way: with humility and simplicity. Let us not seek in the Church, in the Pope, the same as in the world: power, pride, success. That was not the life of Christ and it is not the life of the Pope.