Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the May 24, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
The Fifth General Meeting of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean began in Aparecida, Brazil, on Sunday evening, May 13. I arrived on Friday morning in Sao Paulo, one of the world’s largest cities. Some say the population is at least 20 million, and that’s not hard to believe as you fly into the airport. The city is vast. Aparecida is about 2 hours Northeast of Sao Paulo (Portuguese for St. Paul) and about the same distance from Rio de Janeiro, farther to the northeast, along the Atlantic coast. The freeway to here from Sao Paulo is excellent. The town is about 40,000 nestled in a valley surrounded by rolling hills.
Aparecida is the location of the largest Marian shrine outside of Europe. The basilica is huge, built in cruciform shape, with the altar in the center. The basilica was dedicated in 1982 by Pope John Paul II. The seating capacity is several thousand, difficult to judge because of vast open space inside. The Eucharistic chapel alone is as large as our Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Aparecida means “appearance.” According to legend of centuries ago, the native people found a statue of the Blessed Virgin in the river which runs through the town. The head of the statue was missing, but where the head was found was also the site of a huge catch of fish. The basilica is named Our Lady of Aparecida and is a very popular shrine in this part of the world. The town is filled with small hotels. We are staying in one of the newer ones – no hot water in the rooms, but an electric heater in the shower head. The rooms are very simple, but the food, though not fancy is excellent. The people are very friendly and most hospitable. As I passed by one of shops on Sunday afternoon after the papal Mass, the young fellow proudly announced as I passed by his shop, “I speak English and I am your friend.” I have yet to fulfill my promise to go back.
This site was chosen as the place for the fifth general meeting of CELAM, the acronym for the umbrella organization of 22 bishops’ conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean. Pope Benedict XVI came to Brazil to open the conference. He spent the first couple of days in Sao Paulo. He arrived here Saturday evening for the rosary service in the basilica. The liturgy was truly beautiful, with a Scripture reading at the beginning of each decade of the rosary and his talk near the end of the service. The basilica was packed. There was high energy amongst the crowd.
The next morning, Pope Benedict celebrated an outdoor Mass behind the basilica, with a crowd of about 200,000. At 4 p.m. that afternoon, the Holy Father celebrated a vesper service with the bishops in the conference room underneath the main floor of the basilica. During this vesper service he also gave a lengthier talk officially opening the V General Conference of CELAM. He left later that evening for Rome.
These general conferences of CELAM are held about every 10 years. They are of no small significance, especially this one. About half of the Catholic population of the world resides in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are significant challenges for the Church in this part of the world. Poverty, evangelization, breakdown of family life, disparity between the rich and poor, youth, environment, migration, the need of catechizing the faithful, the challenge of assisting Catholics to remain faithful to the Church in a rapidly changing world: these are just some of the issues we face as a community of faith. Certainly these challenges are familiar to us in our country, but tackling some of the needs here, such as poverty and justice, seem even more urgent.
About 260 people are in attendance; about 160 of them are bishops. The rest of the group consists of laity, theological experts, deacons, and priests. Several cardinals from the Vatican also are present.
One of the great blessings of a gathering such as this is to come to know the situation and challenges of the Catholic Church in both North and South America. On Sunday, those of us from the United States had lunch with a bishop from Haiti. His story quickly makes real the tremendous faith and courage of the Church in other parts of our hemisphere. After he described his desperate situation of poverty, and lack of resources, with what seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, I asked him, “Where is your hope?”
After a few moments, he responded, his eyes tearing up a bit: “Only in God’s providence.” And we think we have our challenges!
Other bishops from Europe and North America have been invited to attend this conference as well. There are four of us from the United States: Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of Las Cruces, N.M. (a member of the original planning commission); Bishop Jaime Soto, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Orange (chair of our Committee on Latin America); Bishop Placido Rodriguez of the Diocese of Lubbock (chair of the Committee on Hispanic Affairs); and Msgr. Carlos Quintana, Executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat on Latin America. Two Canadian bishops are here as well. We have been invited as participants, and some of us have voice and vote in the proceedings.
In a world that has suddenly become a global village, the Church’s teaching reminds us of how connected we are to one another in love and responsibility. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us just how seriously the Lord demands of us a response of concern, love and action. I hope that our time here together in Aparecida will give clearer direction for all of us as to how we might respond to the call of Jesus to be in solidarity with one another.
May God’s peace and joy be with you.
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