The Reception of the Council Vatican II in Brazil and Latin America. Leonardo Boff

The Reception of the Council Vatican II in Brazil and Latin America


We are celebrating 50 years since Vatican Council II (1962-1965). It reflected a break from the path the Roman Catholic Church had followed for centuries. It had been a Church that was like a beseiged fortress, defending herself against everything coming from the modern world; from science, technology and such civilizing forces as democracy, human rights and the separation of Church and State.

But a burst of fresh air came from an old pope from whom little had been expected: John XXIII (1881-1963). He opened the doors and the windows. He said: the Church cannot be just a respectable museum; it must be everyone’s home, filled with fresh air and a pleasant place to live.

Above all, the Council represented, in an expression coined by John XXIII himself, an aggionamento, this is, an actualization and reconstruction of the way of understanding itself and the form of its presence in the world.

Rather than enumerating the principal elements introduced by the Council, we are interested in seeing how that aggiornamento was received and practiced by the Latin American Church and Brazil. This process is called reception, and consists of a re-lecture and application of the council’s understandings in the Latin-American context, which is very different from that of Europe, where all the documents were created. We will only touch some essential points.

The first was, without doubt, a tremendous change in the ecclesiastic atmosphere: before the Council, a «great discipline», the Roman uniformity and the obsolete and somber air of ecclesiastic life, predominated. The Churches of Latin America, Africa and Asia were mirrors of the Roman Church. But suddenly, they began to feel the Church-source. They could shed old forms, and create new languages. Enthusiasm and willingness to create shone.

In second place, the social place of the Church in Latin America was redefined. Vatican II was a universal Council, but from the perspective of the major and wealthy countries. The Church in the modern world was defined there. But there existed an under-world of poverty and oppression that the Latin American Church understood. The Church had to move from the center of humanity, towards the sub-human periphery. If in the periphery there was oppression, her mission had to be one of liberation. The inspiration came from the words of Pope John XXIII himself: “the Church belongs to all but she strives to be principally the Church of the poor.”

This change was undertaken by the various Latin American episcopal conferences, from Medellin (1968), up to Aparecida (2007), as the preferential and solidarian option for the poor, against poverty. That option that became the trademark of the Latin American Church and of the Theology of Liberation.

In the third place, is the concretization of the Church as the People of God. Vatican II put this category ahead of the Hierarchy. People of God is not a metaphor to the Latin American Church; the great majority of the Latin American population is Christian and Roman Catholic, thus it is a People of God, suffering under oppression as occurred in ancient times in Egypt. From there is born the dimension of liberation that the Church has officially adopted in all her documents from Medellín (1968) to Aparecida (2007). This vision of Church-people-of-God allowed for the emergence of the Ecclesiastic Base Communities, and the social pastorals.

In the fourth place, the Council understood the Word of God contained in the Bible as the soul of ecclesiastical life. This brought about the popular reading of the Bible, and thousands on thousands of Bible circles. In those circles, Christians compare the living page of life with the page of the Bible and draw practical conclusions in an environment of communion, participation and liberation.

In the fifth place, the Council opened itself to human rights. In Latin America human rights were understood as beginning with the rights of the poor, and thus, in the first place, the right to life, to work, healthcare and education. From there, the other rights are understood, the right of mobility, among others.

In the sixth place, the Council embraced ecumenism among the Christian Churches. In Latin America ecumenism does not focus so much on doctrinal convergence as on the convergence of practices: all the Churches together struggle for the liberation of the oppressed. It is a mission-focused ecumenism.

Lastly, it established a dialogue with other religions, seeing in them the presence of the Spirit that arrives before the missioner, for which reason their values should be respected.

And finally, it must be recognized that Latin America was the continent where Vatican II was taken most seriously, and where major transformations occurred, portraying the Church of the poor as a challenge to the universal Church and to all humanitarian consciousness.



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