The visit of Pope John Paul to Central America, which begins on Thursday (25 January) will, according to an official Vatican programme, emphasise the Catholic Church's concern for the poor.
The visit of Pope John Paul to Central America, which begins on Thursday (25 January) will, according to an official Vatican programme, emphasise the Catholic Church's concern for the poor. With an address to the Third Congress of Latin American Bishops in Mexico, this visit may prove a key event of the Pope's reign, and also important for the unity of the Roman Catholic Church.
SYNOPSIS: The only previous visit to Latin America by a Pope was in 1968 by Paul the Sixth. It coincided with the last conference of Latin American Bishops, which for the first time set the Catholic Church on the side of the poor and oppressed. Pope Paul's attendance at that meeting is seen to have strengthened the new political direction that followed.
Over half the world's 700 million Roman Catholics live in Latin America. The rapid change from rural to urban economics presents the church with problems special to developing countries. In remote areas, established Christian religious practices are still mixed with pagan rites...often performed by witch doctors.
In many areas too, there is a marked shortage of priests. This ordination, in Bolivia, allowed a married man with eight children to become a priest. Papal dispensation was given because the local community of 1,000 families had no priest. In Peru, foreign-born priests make up over half the active clergy, because not enough local men can be found.
But for Vatican officials, and for the present Pope, the over-riding problem in Latin America is the relationship between Church and State. With the exception of Mexico, Catholicism is still embraced as the official state religion. Since the 1968 bishops' conference, church leaders have increasingly denounced torture, exploitation, arbitrary arrests and the immense difference between rich and poor.
Within the Church hierarchy in Latin America there's also been a polarisation of views, between what are seen as the progressive, and often left-wing elements, and the conservative...who want the Church to return to a purely evangelical position.
But many bishops have already adopted political stances opposing their governments. These attitudes have made the Latin American Church the most radical and socially militant in the world.
The involvement with politics has led to violence. In Argentina in 1976 the killing of three priests, alleged to be members of a left-wing organisation, was attributed to a right wing group. There are other, recent, reports of increased tension between Latin American governments and Catholic clergy.
Many priests, some with Marxist philosophies, are working closely with peasant and trade union movements, seeking social, economic and political change. The popular support they gain is often cause for antagonism from government organisations. Some priests are also reported to have joined guerrilla groups.
The bishops' conference in Mexico is expected to be dominated by an attempt to define the Church's role in Latin America. To this extent the opening address of Pope John Paul may provide some indication of the extent he agrees or disagrees with the present progressive trends.