Revisiting hopes and challenges of the New World

When Spanish missionaries arrived in the New World, their mission was about more than simply bringing the faith to the pagan cultures found there. 

Cardinal O Malley
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, at the conference’s closing Mass. CNS photo by Paul Haring

According to Father Virgil Elizondo’s groundbreaking book on Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Morenita: Evangelizer of the Americas,” the missionaries wanted a “new Christianity” to flourish in this “New World”: “It was not seen as a simple continuation of the old Christianity of Europe, which, according to their opinion, was already dying out. There was to be a ‘New Church’ in the ‘New World,’ which was to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the old Church of Europe.” 

Five hundred years after the evangelization of the New World, the Church seems divided between continued high expectations for Catholicism in the Western Hemisphere and concern that the same problems afflicting the Old World now plague the New. 

The Western Hemisphere includes the largest Catholic country in the world, Brazil, and it includes 50 percent of the world’s Catholics. Together, the Catholics of Canada, the United States and Central America and South America total around 600 million souls.

New Evangelization

In 1997, leading up to the Church celebrations of the third millennium, Blessed Pope John Paul II convened a Synod of Bishops on the Church in America, which resulted in Ecclesia in America (“The Church in America”), a 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation. 

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Much of the conference was also dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patroness of all America. Msgr. Eduardo Chavez, postulator for the cause of St. Juan Diego, and Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, are co-authors of “Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love” (Doubleday). Msgr. Chavez spoke twice about the historical and spiritual significance of the apparition, including the scientific testing that has been done on the tilma, or cloak, upon which the miraculous image appeared. 
The image has survived harsh climates and bombs, and scientific studies have deepened the Church’s appreciation of it while not at all explaining how it came to be.
Likewise, Anderson pointed out that the image of a mixed-race woman, a mestiza, was a visual representation of the unity of the Indian and Spanish peoples, and helped to transcend the cultural divisions in 16th-century Mexico. For both Anderson and Chavez, the witness of St. Juan Diego, however, holds lessons for the present time.

It was in this document that the pope addressed the needs and the challenges of the Western Hemisphere, the gulf between rich and poor, and called for a New Evangelization. In many ways, the pope’s talk — which remains an eloquent appeal for greater North-South cooperation — reflected the sense that the New World is a unique laboratory for the Gospel message. 

On the one hand, the pope reflected on the impact of globalization, the debt burden of poor countries, immigration, corruption and the plight of unrestrained urbanization. At the same time, he urged the Church to commit itself to a “new evangelization — new in ardor, methods and expression.” This New Evangelization, as envisioned by the pope, included both a new encounter with the Lord and a deeper solidarity with the poor. Pope John Paul was particularly insistent on the latter point, challenging pastors, “with renewed fervor and updated methods” to “announce Christ to leaders, men and women alike, insisting especially on the formation of consciences on the basis of the Church’s social doctrine.”

Renewed missionary spirit

Last month, thanks to funding by the Knights of Columbus, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and the Knights sponsored a conference in Rome that revisited Ecclesia in America. The conference ran from Dec. 9, the feast of St. Juan Diego, to Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of All America. It gathered laity, priests, bishops and cardinals from throughout the Americas. Speakers included Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. 

In a Dec. 9 address, Pope Benedict XVI set the tone with a continued appeal for an evangelization marked by “a renewed missionary spirit and zealous generosity” as well as “suitable catechesis and a correct and ongoing doctrinal formation marked by complete fidelity to the word of God and the Church’s magisterium.” 

In his Dec. 10 address, Anderson expanded on these concerns, describing the Americas in terms similar to what occurred 500 years ago. What at that time was a clash of Christian and pagan civilizations, today is a clash of Christian and post-Christian. “The land we are called to evangelize is in an important sense new: It is neither pre-Christian nor Christian — it is for the first time in history a land facing a horizon that is post-Christian,” he said. 

Anderson drew a link between the Aztec culture of death involving human sacrifice and the present culture of death involving abortion, euthanasia and other symptoms of “a war of the powerful against the weak.” “Do we not encounter in society and in certain public policies an unspoken assumption that certain deaths are conditions for human flourishing?” he asked.

Care for migrants

The conference looked at a variety of social and spiritual challenges, utilizing working groups as well as speakers to raise issues of concern. And while the conference did not conclude with specific recommendations, it made clear that the issues discussed in Ecclesia in America remain concerns today. 

A particularly potent issue that united both North and South America was the problem of migrants. Guzman Carriquiry, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, expressed concern for the plight of immigrants both in North America and in Mexico, but he praised the U.S. bishops for understanding that Hispanic immigrants were a blessing, not a problem. 

This theme was picked up by Cardinal O’Malley. In addressing ways in which North and South could grow in communion, he called for “just and fair legislation” on immigration. Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez, retired archbishop of Guadalajara, underscored this point, stating bluntly that “the task belongs to the Church in the United States to ask for humane legislation for migrants.” 

Beyond such immediate political issues, conference speakers stressed the importance of collaboration between North and South, and the need for a sense of communion between the Churches in these two continents. If anything had changed in the years since Ecclesia in America was written, it was that the inroads made by secularism have afflicted the New World. The need continues to grow for a well-formed laity ready to defend the poor, the marginalized and the unborn. 

It was Cardinal O’Malley who invoked the sense of the New World’s opportunities when he concluded that in baptism America had become a “cosmic race,” a mix of European, indigenous peoples and Africans. “For us the cosmic race is the people born in baptism,” he said, “sons and daughters of the Mestiza Virgin … sons of one Father, one faith, one baptism and one America.” 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.