Home > Archives > 09 - 2003 > Preference for the poor remains the priority, but...
from issue no. 09 - 2003

BISHOPS. Interview with the new President of the CELAM

Preference for the poor remains the priority, but...

Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, Archbishop of Santiago in Chile gives his views. The situation of the Latin-American Church, the economic and social crisis of the continent and the new political direction of Argentina and Brazil

by Gianni Cardinale

Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa at the 29th Ordinary Assembly of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), held from 13 to 16 May in Paraguay

Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa at the 29th Ordinary Assembly of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), held from 13 to 16 May in Paraguay

From 13 to 16 May the 30th Ordinary Assembly of the Latin-American Episcopal Council (CELAM) was held in Paraguay. Around sixty prelates representing the episcopates of Central and South America took part. The new leaders of this important Church body were elected on the occasion. Sixty-nine year old Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, of the Schönstatt Fathers, Archbishop of Santiago in Chile, was elected President of CELAM for the four-year period 2003-2007. Fifty-three year old Mexican Carlos Aguiar Retes, Bishop of Texcoco, was voted in as First Vice-president, sixty-one year old Brazilian Geraldo Lyrio Rocha, Archbishop of Vitória da Conquista, as Second Vice. Elected Secretary General was sixty-four year old Dominican Ramón Benito de la Rosa y Carpio, Bishop of Higüey (promoted Archbishop of Santiago de los Caballeros). Seventy-one year old Colombian Cardinal Pedro Rubiano Sáenz, Archbishop of Bogotá, was called to chair the Economic Council.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for the Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America also attended the first days of the CELAM Assembly.
The new heads of CELAM came to Rome at the end of June and were received in audience by the Pope on the morning of Saturday 28. 30Days took advantage of this visit to meet Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa and ask him some questions on the situation in Latin America.

Your Eminence, from the privileged standpoint of the presidency of CELAM, how do you see the situation of the Latin-American Church?
FRANCISCO JAVIER ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: The seeds of the Gospel spread by the first evangelization are still giving their fruits. The Catholic substratum of our culture is a living reality. The phenomena of secularization are not present to the same degree and aren’t making ground at the same pace as they are elsewhere. Even the sociologists are surprised at the faith in God of the immense majority of the population, at the popular religious sentiment and its expressions, such as devotion to the Virgin Mary, the admiration for the person of the Pope, to be found in Latin America. The growth and multiplication of Church movements is an encouraging phenomenon, and the evangelizing presence of permanent deacons, who are doing valuable work especially in situations where priests are not plentiful and the influx of men and women religious, from Italy for instance, that was once significant, now no longer happens. Nevertheless, we are working hard at training qualified catechists, one of the more frequent forms of voluntary work with us, in pastoral work with the young and in the field of vocations, but in that field it’s clear we must trust in the Lord. The faith and the heart of the Christian communities beat in liturgical celebrations.
Those are the positive aspects. And the more problematic ones?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: Certainly more can be done to strengthen the Christian roots of our people and more is being done, so that all the pastoral work of the Church leads to an encounter with the living Jesus Christ, avoiding a catechesis that has only intellectual content, incapable of transforming life and reawakening solidarity.
We are working hard, besides, so that the Church be a real sacrament of communion and of reconciliation. The recent past has also left a great many scars on our countries and on our Church situations. The Church must help heal them and must do it first of all internally, so as to become a true model and instrument of reconciliation.
Somewhat like you did in Chile during the 2000 Holy Year with the liturgical ceremony of the “Purification of Memory”…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: The Chilean episcopate has done no more than follow the example of the plea for forgiveness made by the Pope during the Great Jubilee. We have acknowledged with clarity and humility, trying not to offend other persons, the sins committed by the sons of the Church in the past.
Neither the Pope’s gesture nor that of the Chilean episcopate aroused much enthusiasm in some ecclesiastical circles…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: It’s obvious there’ll always be someone to believe that if the Church acknowledges past faults it loses credibility. It’s not true. If the Church wanted to celebrate the Birth of the Lord before the crib with sincerity, it’s a good thing that it has acknowledged that it has done a great many things that aren’t in accord with the Good News that the Lord brought us. By so doing the Church doesn’t decrease but increases its credibility.
Your Eminence, how do you instead see the social situation of the continent?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: In recent decades unfortunately social problems have grown sharper. In many countries poverty has grown, and deprivation also. There is also a lack of trust in public services, above all among young people, not least because of the disrepute into which the political parties have fallen, something that has brought about ungovernable situations in several countries on the continent. It’s true that we have many committed lay people, many well-trained, but there is a lack of figures of high moral and religious stature to act as leaders and moral and political guides for the younger generations.
Is this critical situation due to internal problems or is responsibility to be sought elsewhere?
Poverty in the streets of Santa Fe in Argentina

Poverty in the streets of Santa Fe in Argentina

ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: To both of those factors. A large number of builders of society have no professional ethics, and when they lose credibility because they don’t do their job properly, they don’t react in time. On the other hand the means to give impetus to rapid productive and human development are missing. Some countries don’t have them because paying off their foreign debt is strangling them. But where has all that loaned money gone to? Unfortunately many times the flood of money has financed corruption instead of economic development. So it happens that there are countries on the verge of bankruptcy in which there are some very rich characters who live thanks to money pocketed immorally.
Those the internal causes. And the external ones?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: The globalization of the economy, as it was done, has determined the fact that the poorest countries and peoples are sidelined by development. Globalization is a fact of life, inevitable, but it’s not inevitable that it should lower the standard of living of the people already with very little. It depends on the model of globalization that is applied. We can and must hope that there is real globalization of solidarity, the criteria for which are not only economico-financial but also create space for respect of the dignity of the economically underdeveloped.
Among the causes of the impoverishment of the continent there is also the “free market” policy that has reigned over the last decade…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: Let’s take the case of Argentina: they say that it has plummeted into this terrible crisis precisely because it followed free-market doctrine to the letter, applying the recipes prescribed by the international financial bodies. Unfortunately this “free market” system has been set up within a relationship of inequality among the various nations, with the weaker countries unable to escape the diktats of the more powerful. The problem, however, doesn’t concern only the model but the people who apply it, their honesty, their sense of justice, their concern for the weak and the dignity of the peoples and their cultures. That is why I believe that only a pastoral of sanctity, linked to greater attention to the social doctrine of the Church, can bring about change. But it will take decades.
Catholic circles are also uneasy about the ALCA, the free market agreement backed by Washington, that is supposed to economically unite North and South America. What do you think of the notion?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: It was precisely the Canadian bishops who told us to be very careful about the ALCA. They have done research into the negative effects caused by the NAFTA [the free market agreement between US, Canada and Mexico, ed.]
And yet Chile very recently joined the NAFTA…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: Chile is looking for forms of political and economic association with different groups of countries. Both with Asian countries and with the European Union and the US. The main point however is that these accords be made together with the other Latin-American countries so they have greater bargaining power.
In the space of a few months Argentina and Brazil have elected new presidents who have stirred considerable hope especially in the poorer strata of the population of those two important countries. What do you think of these hopes?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: We must wait a while before judging. The elections only took place some months ago, in the case of Lula in Brazil, or even a few weeks ago, in the case of Kirchner in Argentina. It’s understandable that the newly elected presidents must do something to satisfy the parties and the social interests that supported them. The situation in Argentina is particularly difficult and it really is too early to make assessments. Thank God the elections have raised hopes. It’s clear on the other hand that Brazil has a natural position of leadership in Latin America generated by the presidency of Cardoso. I believe that Lula may be able to maintain that leadership.
Your Eminence, let us talk about the CELAM. During the May Assembly structural changes were made. Has some bureaucracy been got rid of?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: I don’t like the term bureaucracy: it’s wrong to use the term when speaking of the CELAM. The leaders of the body are elected every four years and every time there is a profound change. In May there were only three people who got a second mandate. In Bogotá there are only nine priests working full time to promote the eighty projects that have been recommended by the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America. And they are new also. How can one talk of bureaucracy? The CELAM has a much slimmer structure than many other Church bodies. That given, it’s true that the structure of the CELAM has been further simplified.
At the May Assembly Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re stated that a bishop’s concern «will always be the proclamation of the Gospel, but he must also help human progress and the good of all». The Latin-American Church is sometimes accused of being unbalanced in its social commitment…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: According to the times and circumstances, greater value is set at times on certain aspects of the Christian life. It’s obvious that when there are priests who are in contact every day with situations of great poverty, there may be the temptation to a more unilateral commitment in the social sense. That happened in part after the CELAM General Conference held in 1968 in Medellín. Liberation theology also arose out of an awareness of the enormous injustices present on our continent. Today instead importance is also given to other aspects of the Christian faith, for example the lectio divina that has spread almost like a new thing, although the monastics have always practiced it. And almost all the new ecclesial movements have at the core of their charism the school of sanctity and communion. It’s clear, however, that they mustn’t lose social perspective.
Isn’t there a danger of a spiritualizing Church that is unconcerned by social questions?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: It’s almost impossible for that to happen. Could be that a group, a community, even a diocese, concentrates for a certain period of time only on the spiritual training of their members; however, that will be the point of departure for the whole Christian commitment, and it’s almost impossible to live without seeing the plight of the poor who surround us. And one can’t forget the Lord’s attitude towards the poor, widows, the sick.
In what way do liberation theology and the preferential option keep their relevance?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: Preferential concern for the poor remains an absolute priority throughout the Latin American Church. The issue of liberation theology is different since, though setting out from just exigencies, it offered a partial and reductive vision of the Gospel message, even through an arbitrary selection of the books of Holy Writ. In the same way it isn’t allowed to study the word of God only from one perspective, that of the poor in the socio-economic sense, keeping silent on the preferential option of Jesus for the poor in spirit, with which he built his Church. Albeit the two options frequently coincide, it is not always so. At times it happens that the poor from the material point of view, are not poor in spirit. Many pharisees come from poor sectors of the population.
The fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the CELAM is approaching. Is a new General Conference being planned?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: The presidents of the Latin-American Episcopal Conferences have asked the Pope for a celebration on the level of a General Conference for the fiftieth anniversary of the CELAM. It would be the fifth after those of Rio de Janeiro in 1955, of Medellín in 1968, of Puebla in 1979 and of Santo Domingo in 1992. There is no definite decision, but we have been told that the Pope is looking positively at the request. It’s our wish that the Pope also be present in person at the new Conference, which might take place in Quito in 2006. And to facilitate his presence the Conference could also take place in Rome.
In an article on the CELAM May Assembly the British Catholic weekly ‘The Tablet’ spoke of a calmer and less antagonistic atmosphere than in the past…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: I wasn’t present at all the recent assemblies and so I have no direct experience of the matter. It’s true, however, that the bishops now meet more often and friendship and communion are growing amongst them. And as for that, if the meetings of bishops are not schools of communion, what use can they be for the good of the Church?
The Pontifical Commission for Latin America devoted good part of its last plenary meeting, held last March in Rome, to the problem of the sects. Is it a very alarming phenomenon for the Church?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: Yes and no. It’s less alarming than was feared. Up to a short time ago it was thought that most of Brazil would be Pentecostal in the arc of a few years. And that has not happened. Nevertheless the whole phenomenon is worrying. It’s true, membership of the sects has increased in a notable fashion. Without counting then that in some countries certain groups and sects conduct their proselytism aggressively against the Church and without any ecumenist spirit. For the Church the growth of these groups entails the challenge of approaching in merciful spirit and with missionary ardor, holding out the Bible and the image of the Virgin Mary, to the very many people who have left it, eager to encounter the brotherly support of Christians, and thirsty for communion and the Gospel.
Behind this expansion do you glimpse a design for dominance by the US or do you think nothing similar is involved?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: One sometimes notes, in effect, an extraordinary multiplication of missions and preachers coming from the United States without there being that many believers. But there are now also fully home-grown bodies.
The situation of the indigenous populations is another delicate issue for Latin America…
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: These populations have a stronger awareness of their identity than they had in the past, and also the cultural world tends to have greater respect for minorities. Within the Indio world, however, there are different tendencies. There are native groups, the Mexican ones for example, who want to recover their traditions without giving up the Christian faith. Elsewhere instead there are even people who want to return to Pre-Columbian paganism. To avoid that involution I think it’s important to pay attention to the figure of the Indio Juan Diego whom the Pope canonized just a year ago in Mexico.
You are a part of the secular institute of the Schönstatt Fathers – you were also their General Superior – and also had a role in the Conference of Latin American religious (CLAR). Additionally from December 1990 to September 1996 you were called to Rome as Secretary of the Congregation for Religious. In the past there have been moments of crisis between the CLAR and the Holy See. How do you see the situation today?
ERRÁZURIZ OSSA: I was, in fact, called to Rome just at the moment of maximum strain between the CLAR on the one hand and the CELAM and Vatican on the other. In 1992 in fact the most difficult plenary gathering in the history of the CLAR was held, and the Holy See had to intervene because an “autonomist” coup was going on that was breaking communion, as was a move to reduce the wealth of the charisms to the mere setting up of small communities in working-class surroundings, excluding, for example, presence in the schools and hospitals. Today luckily things have changed. The CLAR recognizes the plurality of charisms that have arisen out of the “imagination” of the Lord. Of course, the CLAR encourages valid initiatives, but problems remains, though nothing comparable to the situation of twelve years ago.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português