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from issue no. 01 - 2004

25 years ago the first of 102 journeys abroad by John Paul II took place

First stop, Puebla

From 27 January to 13 February 1979 the third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate was celebrated in Mexico. It was an event of great, not just ecclesial importance. Cardinal López Trujillo, then Secretary General of CELAM and now President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, remembers those days. Albino Lucani did not intend to take part. Karol Wojtyla decided to go…

by Gianni Cardinale

Alfonso López Trujillo

Alfonso López Trujillo

Twenty five years ago, between 27 January to 13 February, the third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (CELAM) was celebrated in Puebla. It was an event of great importance, ecclesial and otherwise. On that occasion, in fact, the first of the 102 international journeys of John Paul II took place. Furthermore, Puebla was perceived as a turning point, towards conservatism, of the Latin American Episcopal leadership in contrast with the previous General Conference which had been held in Medellín, in Colombia in 1968.
To celebrate the quarter century of the Conference 30Days posed some questions to Cardinal Alfonso LÓpez, 68 years old in November, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family since 1990 and formerly Archbishop of Medellín. The Colombian Cardinal was in fact one of the leading figures in Puebla, having given long service to CELAM. Elected Secretary General of CELAM for the four year period 1972-1976, he was then reconfirmed for another four years until March of 1980. From 1980 to 1983 he filled the role of President of CELAM.
«The third Latin American Conference of Puebla in Mexico, was a fact of decisive importance for the Church of Latin America,» Cardinal López Trujillo recalls. «The subject was “Evangelization in the present and future of Latin America”. The spirit and the incentive of Evangelii nuntiandi, a document by Paul VI which I do not hesitate to call exceptional, gave a clear imprint to the works of that Conference. John Paul II said that “the Church of Latin America has been reinforced in its vigorous unity, in its own true identity”».
Your Eminence, the celebration of the Conference of Puebla was planned for 1978. But that was the year of the three Popes, with the death of Paul VI and the unexpected death of John Paul I. Did that create difficulties?
ALFONSO LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: Of course! Some people went so far as to interpret the events as a sign that Providence did not want the Puebla celebration. So in the end some sought to put obstacles in the way of its taking-place. And that when everything was already ready. But the question was immediately clarified. There were many problems on the agenda: it was impossible not to celebrate the Conference.
At what point were preparations with Paul VI?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: Everything was ready to inaugurate the Conference on 12 October 1978. The Pope, who had summoned and followed preparations with the care and attention customary with him, was called to the House of the Father when we were getting to the end of the last meeting of the presidency of Puebla and of CELAM in Bogota. You can imagine the impact. The news was given us by the then Nuncio to Colombia, Archbishop – now Cardinal – Eduardo Martinez Somalo, who had worked a great deal with CELAM in the preparation. We were overcome by sadness at the loss of a great Pontiff, and also for the fate of Puebla. In any case it was urgently requested that the future new Pope be asked to re-convoke Puebla. Which John Paul I did.
Paul VI had planned to inaugurate the conference personally?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: If age and health had allowed him, I don’t doubt that he would have done so. In May 1978, the 22nd precisely, the day in which my nomination as Coadjutor Archbishop of Medellín was made public, the Pope received us along with the presidency of Puebla, and with myself as Secretary. Cardinal Paolo Bertoli, Counselor of the Commission for Latin America, also accompanied us. At the end of that unforgettable audience, in response to the renewed invitation to inaugurate the Conference personally, the Pope replied: «I shall see the Conference of Puebla from Paradise». It was the last time I saw Paul VI, the Pope who nominated me bishop and who stimulated my ministry, with an understanding which I carry in my heart.
John Paul II festively received in Puebla by the Mexican faithful during his first apostolic journey

John Paul II festively received in Puebla by the Mexican faithful during his first apostolic journey

When did you meet Paul VI?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: When he came to Colombia – and he was the first Pope to set foot in Latin America – to preside over the Eucharistic Congress and to inaugurate personally the Medellín Conference, which took place in the Bogota Cathedral. At the time I was in charge of the preparations for the Congress, of the pastoral aspect. For me it was truly a grace, young priest that I was, to kiss his hands in the Bogota Nunciature. I then had the chance to be received in audience various times, as auxiliary bishop of Bogota and as Secretary of CELAM. My admiration and gratitude towards him are very great and my work in CELAM and in the field of Liberation Theology were particularly inspired by him.
Did you have the opportunity of meeting Albino Luciani before he became Pope?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: Not personally. When he was elected Pope, I was summoned by him in relation to Puebla, which was soon to begin. I had a long audience about different aspects of the Conference. Certain questions interested him particularly, such as lay ministers, certain problems of the Church, the religious, catechesis. Pope John Paul I in his cordiality wanted information about precise points. He was preparing his inaugural television message for the Conference, because he didn’t think that he could participate personally. He had planned the recording in two parts, because – I found out afterwards - he wasn’t used to speaking for long at a time. Which explains the compressed style of his luminous interventions, such as those published in Illustrissimi, a book I had just finished reading. It was tiring for him to speak at length, because he had had lung problems. His love for the Church and his simplicity, which had impressed the world, were striking. I have twice been to give lectures in the Center named after him in his diocese.
Did you know Cardinal Wojtyla well?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: I got to know him particularly during the Synod on evangelization, of which Cardinal Wojtyla was general co-ordinator. It must be remembered that it was the Synod which gave rise to Evangelii nuntiandi. It was a key synod because, among other things, essential points and problems such as the criteria for a genuine Christian liberation, not compromised by ideologies, were dealt with: issues that were raised especially by the Latin-America delegates and which turned out to be almost completely novel to those coming from other latitudes. The issue of inculturation also, the “coutumiers” marriages as practiced in different parts of Africa, grass-root communities. The criteria presented by Paul VI were a beacon that cast light on all the problems in timely fashion.
When then the white smoke announced the election of Cardinal Wojtyla, I was in Rome, near the obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square. I was in the company of Father Cipriano Calderón (afterwards bishop and vice-president of the Commission for Latin America), who oddly enough was carrying the book Segno di contraddizione, (Sign of contradiction), the collection of spiritual exercises preached by the Archbishop of Krakow to the Roman Curia. And they speak of the ways of Providence!
When did you meet John Paul II for the preparations for Puebla?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: To tell the truth I had the opportunity of informing Karol Wojtyla about the subject before he became Pope… I was in Rome for the beginning of the pontificate of John Paul I and at the end of the Eucharist I met Cardinal Wojtyla, who was waiting for a car at the exit of the sacristy of Saint Peter’s. I proposed that he get into my car, but he preferred to wait. During the wait for the Cardinal’s driver, which was very long, because the traffic was intense due to the rain, he asked me questions about the Conference in Puebla. I had the time to inform him about different aspects, about the fundamental points which would be debated, of the backdrop to Evangelii nuntiandi. I would say that the “information” was enough because the car took a long time to arrive. I didn’t imagine that I was giving, as the Secretary of Puebla, a sort of report to the future Pope, who was to go to inaugurate Puebla and with it the apostolic journeys of so much benefit to the world.
How were the preparations made for the Pope’s journey?
LÓPEZ TUJILLO: I was called to Rome when the Pope convoked the Conference of Puebla again and the new plan was outlined, with the date postponed. CELAM was ready. It was evident that the Pope had the intention of inaugurating the Conference, however a final decision on that presupposed that various problems be resolved beforehand. John Paul II consulted his collaborators in the Roman Curia, who encountered difficulties which were not easy to resolve. On our part, that of CELAM, the project was greatly desired. Among the problematic questions there was, among others, the lack of diplomatic relations with Mexico. The Pope weighed up everything and his firm, let’s say strong, decision to participate set in motion the Curia, CELAM, the Church in Mexico, all of Latin America, to prepare for the journey. As I remember it, I was the only one of the CELAM directorate to meet John Paul II in preparation for Puebla.
John Paul II intervenes at the third General Conference of CELAM on 28 January 1979. In the foreground can be seen the then archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo

John Paul II intervenes at the third General Conference of CELAM on 28 January 1979. In the foreground can be seen the then archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo

How was the inauguration? Were there unexpected difficulties?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: After the memorable con-celebration in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, memorable, even though there were some organizational problems, we gathered for the celebration in Puebla before the multitude and in the evening for the inaugural address. The long journey lasted three hours and the first improvised roofless “Pope mobile” almost gave John Paul II sunstroke. The doctors were worried and I remember that only after having taken much liquid was the Pope able to make the celebrated address of inauguration. He spoke with depth and clarity. It was the famous Puebla “tripod”: the truth about Christ, the Church and man. It was the backbone of the Conference.
Were there particularly difficult moments in the preparation and in the on-going at Puebla?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: The preparation entrusted to CELAM was an intense, shared, process, normal because the unity of the directorate was firm, the collaboration of the think-tank generous and the consonance, especially with the episcopates, solid. Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider was president of CELAM, and we directors prepared together the “consultation” document, called the green document, because of the color of the cover, and, once response had been received from the episcopates, the working document was prepared, for which we invited some bishops outside of CELAM. Everything was normal, with some exceptions.
What were they?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: There was a group opposed to the celebration of Puebla, indeed there were some intimidatory visits to the Vatican to hinder its preparation. It was even said that five episcopates were opposed to the consultation document, among whom were those of Brazil and Panama. And this despite the fact that the document had not yet been distributed to the Episcopal Conferences and that, in so far as Brazil was concerned, Cardinal Lorscheider, who presented the document, was at the same time president of the Brazilian Episcopal Conference. It was a set up, clarified in time by Dom Aloisio. The episcopates participated fully and freely, with complete awareness. The think tank studied with some members of the CELAM theological Institute especially hot topics, which were presented as subsidiary at Puebla, among others, the subject of martyrdom. We received timely and precious collaboration from many. That is not to say that there were not discordant voices, few expressed publicly, but that at Puebla they voted unanimously in the end.
The principle was firm: the Conference was led by the bishops and CELAM adhered to this. Experts or pressure groups neither substituted nor limited their responsibility. And it was not by chance that, without ruptures, in serene continuity, I was elected president of CELAM, some months after Puebla.
One of the hot topics at Puebla was that of the so called grass-roots communities and Liberation Theology.
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: And Puebla, in the end, lauded the valid grass-roots communities, those of an evangelizing nature, in communion with the bishops. However it pointed out that it was necessary to avoid their politicization and to preserve their ecclesiality, because some interpreted the grass-roots communities as constituted by the “base” of the popular Church. One has to remember about Liberation Theology that not a few people in Latin America chose the violent way of guerrilla warfare, including priests and religious, generous but tricked by the Marxist myth which, far from helping to redeem poverty, finished by betraying them. Puebla however signaled rebirth for the world of social doctrine, with the stress on human dignity, that of the poor and of oppressed peoples, the exploited, wounded by centuries of injustice.
Another hot topic was that of the preferential option for the poor…
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: So much so that in the preparatory phase and at the Conference itself special attention was given to delimiting the correct perspective and comprehension of the expression, avoiding an interpretation that was not very objective. The Latin American bishops, both those who had participated in the Council, as well as those of more recent nomination, had sufficient conception of the social doctrine of the church. They worked for the poor, without falling into a widespread interpretation coming from Marxist analysis, which considered them the spearpoint of the class war. In the preceding conference of Medellín an option was made, neither ideological nor an apologia for violence, despite the fact that some subjected the Medellín texts to capricious interpretations, to which the Pope made reference.
In Puebla therefore the preferential option for the poor was defended, not reductive however, neither exclusive nor excluding. That did not please the liberation theologians.
Who represented the liberation theologians and what was their position during the Conference?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: We need to remember that multiple efforts at dialogue with the principal theologians were made in CELAM. For example Gustavo Gutiérrez was also part of the preparatory team presided over by me. The liberationists did not participate in the Conference as experts or guests, because there was the criterion, approved beforehand, of being presented by the Episcopal Conferences, something which did not happen in the case of those people. The great majority of the bishops took a clear distance. In fact there was a pressure group in Puebla aiming to exert outside influence, but it got nowhere, however, nor was it supported in its endeavour or intentions. They tried but without result. After the unanimous vote on the Puebla document they proceeded to formulate criticisms because according to them it was a step backwards. Only afterwards did they apparently convert, underlining one or another point.
The final document of Puebla was not influenced therefore by the thinking of the liberation theologians?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: In reality they sought to have an influence, but without success. The clear texts on Liberation Theology were written, as was publicly known, by Dom Hélder Camara and by myself. I am talking about numbers 480-490 in the final document. And they received the full approval of the Conference. In that text a theology of authentic and genuine Christian liberation is not condemned. On the contrary. But every ideological derivation in a Marxist sense is reproved without mincing words. Allow me to read number 486: “It is a liberation which knows how to use evangelical means, with their own peculiar efficacy, and which does not resort to any kind of violence, nor to the dialectic of class war, but to the vigorous energy and action of Christians”. That was the prevalent feeling and therefore unanimous in the document. Genuine Liberation Theology would lack originality if it was cornered and manipulated by ideologies (cf. no.483).
Have you met any liberation theologian recently?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: Personally we were friends, in the team as well. There have been no personal breaks in that area. I’ve written quite a lot on the subject of liberation theology, concentrating always on the contents, and not on the people. A few weeks ago I met Gustavo Gutiérrez by chance, who like me was in the Pauline bookshop, on Via della Conciliazione. It was a very cordial meeting, we remembered old times. Even though he is seven or eight years older than me, we knew each other from before I was ordained priest, because I was president of Catholic Action in Bogota before entering the seminary, and he was active in the same field. It is well known that our positions on the material in question did not coincide. And to tell the truth, I am not aware of a rectification on certain subjects that was nevertheless asked of him…
What do you expect of a new Conference, fifty years after the foundation of CELAM?
LÓPEZ TRUJILLO: I hope it will be a Conference that is well rooted in the past, in actual reality and very open to the future, to the great problems of the Church on the continent and in the world. Hopefully not giving much space to certain subjects discussed by some in Europe who do not take the mission into account very much, raising generally unfounded problems, such as alleged “Roman centralism”, or supporting an ambiguous notion of collegiality, as if setting the Pope and the bishops in opposition.
Some have said that in Europe the threat is the new paganism. And this is also a danger for Latin America, as one sees especially today in certain Parliaments and institutions. The Latin American Church has a great historical responsibility because of this: not only for the weight of numbers which it has, but most of all for its qualitative one, for the identity, the communion and the fervor of evangelization which distinguish it.

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