Friday, November 16, 2012

The reception of Vatican II in Brazil and Latin America

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II (1962-1965). It marked a break from the direction that the Catholic Church had been following for centuries. It was a church that had come to be a fortress under siege, defensive against everything that came from the modern world, from science, technology and civilizational achievements such as democracy, human rights and the separation of church and state.

But there came a breath of fresh air from the hand of an old pope from whom nothing was expected -- John XXIII (d. 1963). He opened the doors and windows. He said that the church can't be a respectable museum; it has to be a home for everyone, airy and pleasant to live in.

First, the Council represented, in a phrase coined by John XXIII himself, an aggionamento, i.e. an updating and a reconstruction of how it saw itself and how it presented itself in the world.

Rather than list the main elements introduced by the Council, we are interested to see how that aggiornamento was picked up and translated by the Latin American Church and Brazil. This process is called reception and it is a rereading and application of the conciliar insights in the Latin American context, which is very different from the European one in which all the documents were produced. We will point out only some essential points.

The first was definitely the big change in the ecclesial atmosphere -- before the Council, "great discipline", Roman standardization, and the gloomy and outdated air of church life were predominant. The Churches of Latin America, Africa and Asia were mirror Churches of the Roman one. And suddenly they began to see themselves as source Churches. They could become inculturated and create new languages. Enthusiasm and courage to create radiated.

Second, in Latin America there was a redefinition of the Church's social place. Vatican II was a universal Council, but from the perspective of the rich center countries. That was how the Church defined itself in the modern world. But there was a sub-world of poverty and oppression that was captured by the Latin American Church. The latter had to move from the human center to the sub-human periphery. If there is oppression there, its mission should be liberation. The inspiration came from the words of Pope John XXIII: "The Church is of all but it wishes especially to be the Church of the poor."

In the various Latin American bishops' conferences from Medellin (1968) to Aparecida (2007), this change translated into solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, against poverty. An option that became the trademark of the Latin American Church and liberation theology.

Third is the concretization of the Church as the People of God. Vatican II put this class ahead of the Hierarchy. For the Latin American Church, "People of God" is not a metaphor. The vast majority of the people are Christian and Catholic, so they are the People of God, groaning under oppression as in ancient Egypt. Thus was born the liberation dimension that the Church officially assumed in all documents from Medellin (1968) to Aparecida (2007). This vision of the Church as the People of God made possible the emergence of the Christian base communities and the social ministries.

Fourth, the Council understood the Word of God contained in the Bible as the soul of the Church's life. This resulted in the popular reading of the Bible and thousands and thousands of Bible circles. In them, Christians compare the page of life with the page of the Bible and draw practical conclusions about communion, participation and liberation.

Fifth, the Council was open to human rights. In Latin America, these were translated into rights from the perspective of the poor and therefore, first, the right to life, work, health and education. From there, other rights are considered -- that of mobility, among others.

Sixth, the Council welcomed ecumenism among the Christian denominations. In Latin America ecumenism doesn't focus so much on the convergence of doctrines as on the convergence in practice -- all the denominations together work on the liberation of the oppressed. It's mission ecumenism.

Last, it established dialogue with other religions seeing in them the presence of the Spirit that comes before the missionary, therefore having to be respected with their values.

Finally, we must recognize that Latin America was the continent where Vatican II was taken most seriously and where the greatest transformations took place, projecting the Church of the poor as a challenge to the universal church and to all humanitarian minds.

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