Latin American Church Leaders Reflect on Pope Francis
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As the anniversary of Pope Francis’ papacy approaches, Latin American ecclesial leaders discuss the past 10 years of his leadership.

By Lucien Chauvin, OSV News

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — The teachings of Pope Francis are generating a new buzz in Latin America as the region gears up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the election of one of its own as bishop of Rome and leader of the world’s more than 1.3 billion Catholics.

While the pope has changed the global Church, the impact is palpable in Latin America, where national churches throughout the region will commemorate his election March 13, 2013, by shining a light on his teachings, from his focus on the Amazon to the sweeping synodal process.

“We are celebrating 10 years of a decision that has changed the Church and given the world an Argentine who is pope of all people,” Father Máximo Jurcinovic, spokesman for the Argentine Conference of Bishops, told OSV News.

“The teachings of Francis are transforming the spirit of the Church in our region. The greatest gift is reading his teaching,” he said.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1936 and was archbishop of the capital for 15 years before being elected pope. While not the first non-European pope (there have been popes from Bethlehem, Syria and modern-day Libya before), he is the first from Latin America — home to an estimated 40% of the world’s Catholics — and the first Jesuit.

In his native Argentina, the weeklong celebration of the 10th anniversary of his election will center on numerous aspects of the pope’s first 10 years, but the central day will include an interreligious celebration with the leaders of different religions in the country.

“Ecumenism was a key element of Francis’ tenure as archbishop and has continued into this papacy,” Father Jurcinovic said. He added that this was clearly seen when the pope traveled to South Sudan in early February with leaders of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

“The closeness and communion with sister churches is one of the things that has distinguished his papacy. This was expressed in ‘Fratelli Tutti’ and was in plain sight during his recent visit to Africa. It is dialogue in the service of peace,” Father Jurcinovic told OSV News.

For Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, a Jesuit like Francis, the pope’s focus on the earth, especially the Amazon, and Indigenous peoples are two defining characteristics of his first decade leading the Church.

“I think the backbone of his papacy is with the poorest and those on the periphery. These first 10 years of Francis can be summarized in the four dreams about the Amazon in his postsynod commentary,” Cardinal Barreto told OSV News.

The four dreams are listed in “Querida Amazonia,” an apostolic exhortation released by the pope following the October 2019 Synod of Bishops of the Amazon Region.

Barreto said that while the pope refers to the Amazon, the dreams about the rights of the poor, preservation of cultural riches and nature, as well as Christian communities capable of commitment, are universal and guiding principles for the Church in the world.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is the first pope from Latin America. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

He said that the pope’s journey is not new. It started with heeding the calls of the Brazilian bishops during the Latin American bishops’ council (CELAM) meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, before his papacy began. It continued through the publication of his 2015 Laudato Si’ encyclical, the pontiff’s visit to the Peruvian Amazon in 2018, the Amazon Synod in 2019 and, finally, the creation of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region in June 2020.

“The Ecclesial Conference puts into practice what Francis has been preaching over the decades. It is significant because as an ecclesial body it is all the people of God and recognized by the Holy See,” the cardinal said.

Bishop Miguel Angel Cadenas, apostolic vicar of Iquitos in northern Peru, told OSV News that the pope’s emphasis on synodality is critical for the Church.

“Synodality is a central idea for Francis, and I think it is right on the mark. It is a process so that we can listen to each other and discern what is going on around us. It is something necessary for the Church and the world,” Bishop Cadenas said.

Bishop Cadenas, an Augustinian, said the current synodal process that began in 2021 and will culminate in October 2024 should lead to a Church with a renewed vision that better understands the periphery. He said that Pope Francis has focused on the peripheries through his travels, through his selection of new cardinals, and through the beatification and canonization of new saints.

“Many new cardinals are from the peripheries, small churches that have been given importance. The same thing is true with saints. It is a new way of seeing the Church,” Cadenas said.

In Latin America, Francis has named the first cardinals in El Salvador, Haiti and Paraguay, and only the second cardinal in Uruguay’s history. He has also named the first-ever cardinal in Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon.

Pope Francis is also responsible for canonizing the first two saints in Uruguay. The first, Anna María Rubatto, was an Italian nun. She lived only a short time in Uruguay, but died in the country. She was canonized in 2022. The second, Jacinto Vera, will be canonized this May. He was the first archbishop of Montevideo, the capital of the country, and he will be the first saint born in the country.

Bishop Emeritus Alberto Sanguinetti of Canelones, who was the local postulator for Archbishop Vera, said Francis was creating new role models for the Catholic faithful.

“The image of a saint is a strong symbol that people identify with as an intermediary with God. Saints are seen as bridges who intercede on our behalf. Jacinto Vera is someone who people relate to, because they can see themselves in him,” Bishop Sanguinetti, who headed the Canelones diocese until 2021, told OSV News.

Cardinal Barreto added that the pope knows that there is opposition within and outside the church to changes, including his preference for the peripheries and focus on synodality.

“He is very aware that as he walks he has to listen to God, the cries of the poor and the clamor of the earth,” the cardinal stressed.

Featured image: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, blesses a young woman during a 2012 confirmation at Our Lady of Caacupe Chapel in a poor section of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS photo/Ricardo Gomez, Reuters)

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