When examining Pope Francis’s perspective on synodality, many observers, both proponents and detractors, often discuss two possible influences that helped shape his approach. One factor they often point out is the extent to which the way the Church was organized during the first millennium plays a role, with its many local and general synods convened to address doctrinal and disciplinary questions. They will also discuss the impact of the Second Vatican Council’s strong emphasis on episcopal collegiality on Francis’s vision. Although these two factors certainly serve as sources of inspiration for Pope Francis’s vision of synodality, we must not overlook the traditional and vibrant synodal experience of Latin America.
To overlook the influence of the Latin American Church would be a mistake, since its particular experience of synodality thoroughly formed Pope Francis’s thought and likely explains the Holy Father’s affection for this term. Developing a greater understanding of Latin American synodality may also dispel many of the mistaken ideas that papal critics often level against the concept of synodality, such as the supposed inconsistency between decentralized participation and the concentration of powers on the Successor of Peter.
The 1899 Plenary Council
During colonial times, intense missionary activity ensured that Catholicism would gain a solid foothold in Latin America. Eventually, Latin American peoples rose up against Spanish and Portuguese rule and founded their own independent nations. The newly empowered political elites started to view Catholicism with suspicion, as a remnant of the colonial powers. The new Latin American republics of the 19th century were, therefore, profoundly anticlerical, if not anti-Catholic.
This created problems for the Latin American episcopate. These bishops were particularly courageous and persistent. In fact, only men imbued with a strong missionary spirit and zeal for the faith accepted the mission of leading a Latin American diocese during those dangerous times, and this ensured a high-quality selection of bishops. Some bishops were exiled three or four times, and each time they rebuilt a diocese from scratch in the places where they were banished.
These bishops were often isolated in their efforts. Alone, they were powerless against the constant political attacks they faced. They knew they had to come together to address the increasing secularization of the dioceses under their care. This was not an easy task. Their flocks were often secluded, hidden in dense jungles or inaccessible mountains. The bishops ministered to wide varieties of people, from many different cultures and spread across a vast continent, without a satisfactory network of roads and infrastructure to connect them.
They needed a hub around which they could unite. They tried gathering in local synods for each country or region, but the political instability around them meant that few councils could safely take place at the time.
So, they rallied around the Successor of Peter instead. At the time, Europe was being swept by its own liberal revolutionary fervor. In 1870, the Papal States fell, and the pontiff became a “prisoner in the Vatican.” The pope’s power to advocate politically for the Latin American Church was greatly reduced.
But these bishops kept pressing forward. The pope may not have had the political power to help them, but he had the spiritual authority to guide them. Their efforts eventually bore fruit. In 1898, Pope Leo XIII issued the brief encyclical Quum Diuturnum, granting them the possibility of calling a plenary council for the entire Latin American region.
Though Leo thought that the council should gather in Latin America, most bishops manifested interest in gathering in Rome instead. This was because “it would be easier for the majority of [the bishops] to come [to Rome] than to go to some distant American city on account of the difficulties of travel in [their] own country.” Additionally—and most importantly—such a choice also manifested a deep “love for the Holy See.”
The Plenary Latin-American Council gathered in Rome the next year. It brought together 53 bishops from all over the continent and became the most important Catholic Latin-American event to that point. The main objective of the council was not to discuss doctrine but to examine the problems assailing the territory at the time. They addressed the difficulties in the relations between Church and State, especially regarding public education and marriage. They also had to come to terms with other problems, such as the lack of religious education of many of the faithful, as well as superstition, syncretism, and sects.
This plenary council issued resolutions that had more to do with governance than doctrine. The council resolved that the clergy should grow in holiness and piety, to give a life example that would draw the faithful to the Church. They also agreed that the sacraments should be promoted, Catholic education and catechesis should be renewed, and a new pastoral approach should be implemented.
In short, in the face of increased secularization and lack of catechetical formation, the council knew it had to focus on evangelization. All Catholics—including laypeople—were called to foster a thoroughly Catholic culture in Latin America. The council’s resolutions were so systematic, they inspired St. Pius X when drafting the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the first official comprehensive codification of Canon Law in the Latin Church.
Leo XIII was so impressed with the Plenary Council, he asked the Latin American bishops to gather in “national” episcopal conferences. Many councils followed, which successfully renewed the Catholic presence in the continent. From 1900 to the Second Vatican Council, Latin America convened a staggering 63 synods, 10 provincial councils, and 4 plenary councils!
From these national episcopal conferences, a new idea began to emerge: an organization that would connect all the bishops of Latin America.
In 1934, Pope Pius XI convened an International Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pius sent as his legate a certain Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would later succeed him as Pope Pius XII. As a result of this experience, Pacelli grew very fond of Latin America and remained particularly aware of the region’s plights and challenges.
Later, when all the bishops of Latin America were gathered in a council in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1955, they petitioned Pius XII to form CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council. In the very same year, the Holy Father granted their request.
Though the Latin American bishops—once again, out of respect for the Holy See—wanted CELAM to be based in Rome, Pius XII did not accept that proposal. CELAM should be in Latin America, for Latin America. So, the bishops decided it would be based in Bogotá, Colombia, where CELAM’s headquarters remains to this day.
It is important to note that CELAM is not a super-episcopal conference, but rather a council (consejo)—but not in the sense that the word is usually understood in typical Catholic lexicon (as in an “ecumenical council”). It is an organism that includes all the bishops in Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout its history, CELAM has implemented joint initiatives to support the bishops’ pastoral work, and it has also come together periodically, at the request of the pope, in general conferences to discuss common problems. The First CELAM General Conference is considered to be the 1955 meeting in Rio. Others would soon follow.
Medellin and Puebla
CELAM became even more important following the Second Vatican Council, which called for a more synodal configuration of the Church. It is no wonder that the Latin American episcopate would be optimally positioned to answer this call, given their history.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, additional challenges had emerged. The Cold War was at its peak. The relations between the bishops and the state had soured again, as the 19th century positivistic liberalism morphed into 20th century Marxist revolutions. The greatest danger, theologically, was the emerging Liberation Theology, which tried to provide a theological justification for Marxist ideology.
When St. Paul VI published his social encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967, it seemed that he had written it specifically for Africa and Latin America. It is therefore not surprising that these continents would be particularly receptive to this encyclical. Unfortunately, many liberation theologians exploited this document for their own purposes and promoted a Marxist agenda based upon a twisted reading of Populorum Progressio.
This was the cultural context when CELAM gathered in 1968 in its Second General Conference, hosted in Medellin, Colombia. Paul VI himself presided over the opening of this conference! This was the first time a sitting pope had ever set foot on American soil. However, some attrition was about to happen.
Some of the documents on poverty and social justice that were produced in Medellin were written with the contributions of controversial theologians, including Gustavo Gutierrez and Helder Câmara, foundational figures in Liberation Theology. Nevertheless these documents had valid readings—and even necessary ones—that addressed the socio-political context of Latin America of the day.
For this reason, Paul VI did not delegitimize the Medellin conference. He allowed the documents to be published, but he did not officially approve them. Rather, he replied by issuing the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, which unequivocally condemned Marxist readings of Christianity. Instead of a purely human and political liberation, the pope proposed a liberation of the Kingdom of God, emphasizing local culture, popular devotion, and the need for evangelization.
Evangelii Nuntiandi was particularly important in the formation of a certain Argentinian priest named Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would later be elected Pope Francis.
Jorge Bergoglio was not the only one to take Evangelii Nuntiandi to heart. In a characteristic way, the bulk of the Latin American episcopate replied with total fidelity towards the Pope. So, when in 1979, CELAM gathered its Third General Conference in Puebla, Mexico, they tried to correct the excesses from Medellin.
At the time of Puebla, Paul VI had already died. The reigning pontiff was St. John Paul II who, hailing from communist Poland, was particularly keen to reject Marxist interpretations of Christianity. At Puebla, there was a strong unity among the Latin American episcopate in support of its proposals. The final document reaffirmed Medellin in its preferential option for the poor but balanced it by warning against the dangers of ideologies within the Church.
During the preparation stage for Puebla, it is noteworthy that a group of Argentine theologians assembled in regular meetings, working to figure out a non-Marxist approach for implementing the demands of Catholic Social teaching in Latin America. And one of the participants in this group was a certain Fr. Jorge Bergoglio.
Following Puebla, there was a Fourth General Conference in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1992. And then came the event that is key to unlocking Francis’s vision of synodality: the Fifth General Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007.
Aparecida was a very significant choice. Our Lady of Aparecida is the most popular Marian devotion in Brazil—in fact, she is the patron saint of the country. Furthermore, the general conference began on May 13 (feast of Our Lady of Fatima) and ended on May 31 (the feast of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary).
Each day, the proceedings started with the celebration of morning Mass. On May 16, the Mass was celebrated by the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. His homily was so well-received that it was met with thunderous applause. It was during this homily that Bergoglio coined one of his favorite talking points: the “throwaway culture.”
Bergoglio’s success led to his election as the President of the Redacting Committee of Aparecida’s final document. From the beginning, Bergoglio was clear: the final document should be short and practical. The final document of Aparecida avoided political ideologization and focused instead on pastoral and missionary conversion — hallmarks of Francis’s pontificate.
Certainly, the Aparecida conference profoundly affected Bergoglio and later influenced his pontificate. And certainly, the notoriety that the good cardinal achieved during this synodal process contributed to his papal election 5 years later.
Many of the ideas contained in the Aparecida final document would eventually crystallize in Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. This document set forth the program of his pontificate and laid out his vision for the Church.
The successful Latin American experience with synodality provides vital context for Pope Francis’s views. This experience created the framework wherein Bergoglio was formed and molded. It is from this often-forgotten history that we can learn what Francis really wants synodality to be.
For Francis, the first pope hailing from Latin America, synodality is an important instrument for helping bishops grow stronger together in communion, preparing them to face the problems of a secularized and uncatechized world. Francis experienced first-hand how synods can be sources of missionary zeal, propelling the Church to evangelize in an indifferent and even hostile society—exactly what we need at this moment.
But Francis also knows that synodality only works properly if it is emptied of any kind of ideological manipulation. This explains why neither the German Synod (with its proposals to change Church teaching according to a progressive agenda) nor the traditionalist naysayers truly understand the pope’s project. Synodality is not another weapon to be wielded in a culture war, from left or right.
Francis also learned, from his experience with Latin American synodality, that the best remedy against ideological manipulation is trust in the Vicar of Christ, the guarantor of unity and orthodoxy. The reason why Latin American synodality was so effective is because the bishops always gathered around Peter, spiritually if not physically. From the beginning of his synodal project, Pope Francis has always been very clear that synodality only happens when done cum Petro et sub Petro (“with Peter and under Peter”). As the Holy Father said:
The fact that the Synod always acts cum Petro et sub Petro — indeed, not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro — is not a limitation of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. For the Pope is, by will of the Lord, “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful”. Closely related to this is the concept of “hierarchica communio” as employed by the Second Vatican Council: the Bishops are linked to the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) while, at the same time, hierarchically subject to him as head of the college (sub Petro).
This is not authoritarianism, nor is it a hurdle to proper decentralization. As we have seen from Latin American history, bishops can have a significant amount of autonomy, while giving the final decision-making power to the pope. There is no contradiction between the two, unless there is an attitudinal problem that shuns filial obedience to the pope.
Francis’s vocation grew while he was surrounded by this fruitful synodal spirit. I believe that this is what he is trying to replicate, but at the scale of the universal Church. Maybe Catholics in the West should pause and listen to the experiences of Catholics from other parts of the world. Perhaps the reason people don’t understand Francis’s vision of synodality is because they are not acquainted with the way a truly synodal Church works. Francis wants to show us that authentic synodality is not only possible, but it is highly beneficial, as long as it is understood and implemented on its own terms, and not from a Western-centric, culture wars perspective.
May the Holy Spirit illuminate all of us and guide us all on this synodal adventure, just as He has done with our Latin American brethren.
Alejos, Carmen-José. “América Latina en el Siglo XX: religión y política,” Studia et Documenta, Vol. 11 (2017), 19—47.
Alejos, Carmen-José. “La evangelización en los concilios celebrados en América Latina entre 1899 y 1957”. Annuarium Historiae Conciliorum, Vol. 44 (2012), 241—262.
Borghesi, Massimo. “The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.” Collegeville: Liturgical Press Academy, 2018, pp. 86—87.
Image: Image of Our Lady of Aparecida. Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76435653
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.