By Justin McLellan
VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis greeted the thousands of faithful gathered in a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square March 13, 2013, he quipped that his brother cardinals looked almost to “the ends of the earth” to find a new bishop of Rome.
The end of the world, in this case, was Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Pope Francis was born to Italian immigrants in 1936 and served as archbishop from 1998 until he became pope in 2013. He is the first pope born outside of Europe since the year 741 and the first from Latin America, where an estimated 40% of the world’s Catholic population lives.
That distinction has molded Pope Francis’ approach to governing the Church over the first 10 years of his pontificate, forging pastoral priorities and doctrinal decision-making rooted in his identity as a servant of the people in Buenos Aires’ “villas miserias,” or shantytowns, first during a military dictatorship and then during a profound financial crisis.
“Usually, European popes start thinking about theology from philosophy,” Emilce Cuda, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, said. But in Latin America, she said, looking at humanity’s relationship to God begins with common people.
Cuda said that’s because Latin America was “the first continent to take seriously the Second Vatican Council” and with it the idea that God’s will can be discovered by listening to all baptized members of the Church.
The resulting openness to “communal discernment,” as Cuda described it, characterized the early priestly life of Pope Francis, who was ordained a priest just four years after the council ended, and extended all the way into one of the most recent events of his pontificate: the opening of the current Synod on Synodality.
The synod seeks to gather input from all baptized members of the Church to inform discussions among the world’s bishops on building a listening Church. The bishops will meet in Rome in two sessions, the first in October and then again one year later.
“It’s not a different theology, it’s not a different Church, it’s not a Latin American pope now at the top of the Catholic Church; it’s the continuation of one tradition that began in the ’60s in this council,” Cuda said. “Pope Francis is going ahead with this challenge that started with the Second Vatican Council.”
Mar Muñoz-Visoso, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, said that Pope Francis’ Latin American pastoral style was translated into Church teaching right from the start of his pontificate.
As an example, she cited his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” on proclaiming the Gospel in today’s world, and likened it to the final document from the Latin American bishops’ council meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. Pope Francis led the committee that drafted the document, which insisted evangelization in Latin America must involve close engagement with the faithful, especially those on the margins of society.
“One could say ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ takes the main tenets of Aparecida and re-proposes them for the Universal Church,” she said, including the “rich tradition of collegiality and common discernment” in the Latin American Church.
That contribution to the Universal Church from what has historically been considered the margin of the theological world is what Dr. Hosffman Ospino, associate professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College, identified as the greatest impact of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
“We have traditionally looked at Latin America as mission territory, but we haven’t looked to it for leadership. Francis changes all that,” he said. “He shows that Latin American Catholicism is vibrant with much energy that is both theological and pastoral.”
For Latin American immigrants, especially in Europe and the United States, Ospino said, the figure of Pope Francis “reaffirmed” their experience of the Church and put them back in contact with a vocabulary of “mission” and a fondness for popular devotion typical of the churches they grew up in.
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, said that having a pope from Latin America has “opened up to the Universal Church the perspective of Latin America.” As the leader of a diocese that borders Mexico, Bishop Flores said Pope Francis’ pastoral style and care for migrants “very much resonates” with the reality of the Rio Grande Valley.
“Everyone brings their history with them when they serve in the priesthood, and certainly in the papacy,” he said, “and his pastoral sense of trying not to forget anybody and trying to always keep in mind who might not be taken care of is something that is very much born out of that Latin American experience.