Pope in Brazil: Faith, not politics, will save Latin America

Aparecida,Brazil May. 15, 2007 (CINS/CWN) - The greatest gift the Church can offer to Latin America is the Catholic faith, Pope Benedict XVI (bio - news) told the region's bishops, as he presided at the May 13 opening of the 5th general assembly of the Latin American bishops' conference (CELAM).

"Only from the Eucharist will the civilization of love spring forth which will transform Latin America and the Caribbean," the Holy Father said, in his lengthy address to the opening session of the CELAM meeting.

The Pope stressed that evangelization must be the top priority for Catholic leaders in Latin America, and the Church's social action should flow from and serve that primary mission. The people of the region need a firm foundation in the Gospel, he said, in order to resist the temptations of Marxism, materialism, and a superficial or emotional approach to religious faith.

Earlier on Sunday, at a morning Mass that formally inaugurated the CELAM meeting, the Pontiff had said in his homily: "This is the priceless treasure that is so abundant in Latin America, this is her most precious inheritance: faith in the God who is Love, who has shown us his face in Jesus Christ."

Pope Benedict expanded on that theme in his afternoon speech, delivering a major address on the challenges facing the Church in Latin America: a region that he had dubbed "the continent of hope."

The Pope's opening talk at the CELAM meeting was the dramatic high point of his 5-day visit to Brazil. He had arranged the trip in order to attend the CELAM session, and selected the Marian shrine at Aparecida as the site for the meeting.

The Pope's address was delivered at a Vespers service, after CELAM's president, the Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, had greeted the bishops gathered from across the continent.

Pope Benedict began his address by noting that the culture of Latin America is thoroughly permeated by Christianity. The Pope rejected the argument that Christianity came to the region through the suppression of an existing culture. The evangelization of the continent, he argued, "did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture." Quite the contrary, he said, "The wisdom of the indigenous peoples fortunately led them to form a synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith."

Today, the Pope said, the Church faces the challenges brought by a global economy which "brings with it the risk of vast monopolies and of treating profit as the supreme value." In Latin America, he added, there is another disquieting trend: "authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded." Here the Pope seemed clearly to be referring to leftist governments such as the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chavez, who has clashed frequently with Church leaders there.

The Pope offered a strong critique of Marxism, saying that wherever it has been practiced, the ideology not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit."

However, the Holy Father did not limit his critique to leftist ideology. The same materialism that characterizes Marxism, he said, can also be seen in secular societies based on consumerism, "where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness."

In this social context, the Pope reasoned, the Church can be most helpful by counteracting the force of materialism with a clear spiritual message. "If the Church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject," he observed, "she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice, because she would lose her independence and her moral authority."

Assessing the religious life of the continent, Pope Benedict praised the "notable degree of maturity in faith" among lay evangelists. But he added that "one can detect a certain weakening of Christian life in society overall and of participation in the life of the Catholic Church, due to secularism, hedonism, indifference and proselytism by numerous sects, animist religions and new pseudo-religious phenomena." He later added his concern about "a flight toward emotionalism, toward religious individualism."

The antidote to these tendencies, the Pope concluded, is a spiritual renewal of the Catholic faith, and a new, vigorous evangelization of the continent.

About 200,000 people gathered at Aparecida for the Sunday-morning Mass that began the CELAM meeting. That crowd was well short of the expectations of organizers, who had prepared for nearly 1 million. A much larger congregation-- estimated at about 1 million-- had gathered on Friday for the canonization of Frei Galvao at a ceremony in Sao Paulo.

The opening session of the CELAM meeting was the last major event on the schedule for the Pope's trip to Brazil. On Sunday evening he took a helicopter from Aparecida to the Sao Paulo / Guarulhos airport. In a farewell talk, the Holy Father said that his memories of the trip, and of the enthusiasm he saw among the faithful of Brazil, were "forever impressed on my memory." Then he boarded his return flight for Rome, arriving there early on Monday morning.

Rather than returning directly to the Vatican, the Pope went to his summer residence at Castelgandalfo, where he is expected to spend the week, resting after his trip.

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