The Growing Influence of the South American Model on the Church

April 04, 2022
Members of the Ecclesial Conference of Amazonia

Under Pope Francis’ leadership, the Roman Curia has become less and less Italian-speaking and more and more Spanish-speaking. The Argentinian pope, who has a perfect command of Italian due to his Piedmontese origins, surrounds himself with people who speak his mother tongue. He has thus filled dozens of management positions with candidates from Spain and Latin America.

Italian is certainly still the dominant language in the Vatican, but today it faces serious competition from Spanish, emphasizes the German agency Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur (KNA), taken over by the Swiss agency on January 31, 2022.

At the top of the hierarchy, we find the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, since 2017, the Spanish Cardinal Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer (77), who will soon be replaced due to his age. His compatriot, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso (69) has been president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue since 2019.

They were joined the same year by two other Spaniards: Juan Guerrero Alves (62), prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, and Alejandro Arellano (59), who for some months has headed the Roman Rota, the second highest court of the church. And in October, Francis appointed a Spaniard, Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga (76), president of the governorate of Vatican City.

At the Secretariat of State, in charge of diplomatic relations of the Holy See, it is an Italian, Pietro Parolin, who is still in command, but the pope added to him in 2018 the Venezuelan archbishop Edgar Peña Parra (61 years old), as substitute for the Secretariat of State, which makes him the “number three” man in the Vatican.

When work meetings bring together almost exclusively Spanish speakers, these prelates confer in their mother tongue, notes KNA. Vatican press releases are also increasingly published in Spanish, sometimes even without an Italian translation. In 2020, the apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia was unveiled in Spanish for the first time.

This development is not only the expression of the Pope's desire. It takes into account the weight of Spanish-speaking countries in the universal Church: 40% of Catholics in the world live in Latin America. This new balance means that traditional Eurocentrism is gradually disappearing.

The composition of the college of cardinals also manifests this change. In the event of a conclave, there would be 119 cardinal electors today. Among them, 23 are Spaniards or Spanish-speaking South Americans; they supplant the current 20 Italians, as the most important linguistic group.

This is not just a preponderant linguistic influence. The Church in Latin America is very advanced in the “synodality” promoted by Pope Francis, and in this area too its role continues to grow in the universal Church. In of February 11, an article by Rafael Luciani for the Herder Korrespondenz was published, translated and adapted by Davide Pesenti, Rafael Luciani is very involved in this “synodality.”

A professor at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello of Caracas, Venezuela, and at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (United States), he is a theological adviser to the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), the Latin American Confederation of men and women religious (CLAR), as well as the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. – He is progressive and expresses himself in the jargon of progressives.

According to him, Latin America is one of the main sources of inspiration for a new synodal practice in the universal Church. The “synodal style” has de facto permeated the ecclesial life of the continent, since the creation of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in 1955. The “organ of contact and cooperation,” it has given rise to new collegial approaches which deepen even more today.

In the eyes of Rafael Luciani, the experiences of participatory management within the Catholic Church in Latin America have paved the way for the next synod of bishops to be convened by Pope Francis in 2023, with a view to finding new institutional models for the Church in third millennium.

A latest example of synodality on the Latin American continent is the creation of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA). Launched in June 2020, its dual objective is to formulate and accompany the implementation of a “common pastoral action with differentiated priorities” [sic] that fully corresponds to the realities of the local Churches.

Concretely realizing the post-synodal exhortation of Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia (2020), the foundation of CEAMA was inspired by new participatory forms of Church management, present since the 1950s.

The new Conference is a response to the invitation expressed by the Synod on the Amazon (2019) to “create a pan-Amazonian ecclesial communication network that encompasses the different means used by the particular Churches and other ecclesial institutions.”

The synodal form is manifested first in the choice of its name: it is not an “episcopal conference,” but an “ecclesial conference.” It associates, at different levels of participation and in common processes of discernment and decision-making, ecclesial and non-ecclesial actors.

There are the seven episcopal conferences of the Amazonian countries, ecclesial organizations such as Caritas, the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR), and the Ecclesial Amazon Network (REPAM), but also representatives of indigenous peoples, as well as experts appointed by the presidency of CEAMA and by Pope Francis.

All church partners participate in discussions on future decisions made by the bishops based on discernment and joint deliberations.

This development follows the process of synodal restructuring initiated in 2018 by the entire Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), a process in which not only the bishops of the continent participated, but also lay people, religious, and priests, like other ecclesial institutions.

At the end of this vast process, a new model of Church management was adopted. It reformed church organization into three main components of structures, decision-making, and culture. Both the institutional reform and the change of ecclesial vision were established on three key principles: participation, co-responsibility, and subsidiarity.

Also according to Rafael Luciani, the most innovative feature of this process was the “decentralized” way in which decisions were made. The procedure put in place involved different instances of common discernment and deliberation. All the work was done from the bottom up; final decisions being made by local episcopal authorities who had participated in all stages of the process.

The path was a long one, because a truly synodal collegial structure requires first of all a new organizational culture, based on working together, sharing responsibilities, permanent dialogue, and the active participation of lay people – especially women. This, in order to overcome the authoritarianism and clericalism that may have characterized the old modes of operation.

As the preparatory phases of the synod of bishops on synodality unfold, it is important to bear in mind this South American realization of synodality. Rafael Luciani does not hide it. For him, the participatory structure of the Latin American Episcopal Council has fostered a new model of organization and encouraged greater pastoral cooperation.

From the start, the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) stemmed from a new local ecclesiology that recognized the theological status of the socio-cultural reality lived in a specific region, consequently transforming the Church’s way of being and living.

In this way, each particular Church was better integrated into a greater communion with the other institutions of the continent and with the whole people of God. A perspective that the current synodal path wishes to realize on the scale of the universal Church.

Under the jargon of this modernist theology, we understand perfectly that it is a question of “Amazonizing the Church” There is no doubt that this South American model favors the establishment in the universal Church of the “inverted pyramid,” of which Francis spoke on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the synod of bishops, on October 17, 2015: Jesus constituted the Church “by placing at its summit the Apostolic College, of which the Apostle Peter is the rock,” but – according to him – in this Church, “as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is under the base.”