Pope Francis holds a dove in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican last May 15.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Pope Francis holds a dove in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican last May 15.

March 17, 2014
LISE ALVES
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Many Latin American Church leaders, who in the past have felt excluded from the decisions made at the highest echelons of the Church, expressed appreciation for the perspective Pope Francis has taken to the Vatican.

"There is (now) a greater understanding of the Latin American Church," said Bishop Miguel Olaortua Laspra of Iquitos, Peru.

"We know that he is one of ours, that he was at Aparecida, he knows the many realities, and he knows many people," he added, referring to a 2007 meeting of the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The year-old pontificate "has been a welcome surprise, due to his style and his knowledge of our continent, as well as the decisions he has taken in beginning to reorganize the Roman Curia," said Uruguayan Bishop Rodolfo Wirz Kraemer of Maldonado, president of the Uruguayan bishops' conference.

"He has the perspective of the so-called Third World countries," added Wirz, noting that this also includes a greater interest in what is going on in Africa and Asia. "He insists on meeting all types of people from all over the world and all walks of life. He pushes forth that missionary impulse found in the Aparecida document."

"What seems like a slogan to many is, for Pope Francis, a program for evangelization . . . to go outside the Church's walls and meet the Catholic people," the bishop added. "With his actions and not only speeches, he gives us these examples."

Bishop Guilherme Werlang of Ipameri, president of the Brazilian bishops' commission for justice and peace, said the pontificate has been a "confirmation that the Latin American Church is one of the lead actors in Vatican II.

"It shows that we, Latin America, as a people, have value, we need to be heard."

Father Mario Hector Panetta, secretary-general and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Mendoza, Argentina, agreed that "although he has experienced the Latin American reality, Pope Francis is not likely to focus only on the region. He is likely to prioritize the poorer people and one can find them in all regions around the world.

"What is wonderful is that Cardinal (Jorge) Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, continues to be the same person, with the same push for the Gospel," the priest said. "One may say that he is sending out these signals to garner attention, but if one looks closely at his history, his life has always been guided by the Gospel."

Vincentian Father Gabriel Naranjo Salazar, secretary-general of the Latin American Confederation of Religious, CLAR, said "Pope Francis insists on a Church by the poor, for the poor."

OPTION FOR THE POOR

That strongly reflects not just the spirit of the Second Vatican Council but also the "the preferential and evangelical option for the poor," he said.

Naranjo said people identify with the pope's message and with his reaffirmation of Vatican II.

"This has reawakened a sense of belonging to the Church just at a time when it was seriously threatened by problems resulting from scandals," he said.

Many people are "re-establishing their ties" to the Church, "including intellectuals, young people and people who had distanced themselves. People from other religions also feel a spirit of ecumenism" in the Catholic Church now, Naranjo said.

Nery Rodenas, director of the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, said there are signs of greater discussions at the Vatican in regards to human rights.

Pope Francis "has lived in Latin America, where signs of violation of human rights were very clear in previous decades. I believe as head of the church he will push forward a greater discussion about it."

The discussions, said Rodenas, will not only touch the countries in which there have clearly been violations of human rights but also countries where there are conditions for such violations.

Cardinal Orani Tempesta of Rio de Janeiro said Pope Francis "has a Latin American perspective for universal questions."

"He touches on concerns found throughout the world and not only those which concern Catholics," the cardinal said.

Many of those interviewed by CNS emphasized that Pope Francis' outgoing style should not be seen as a criticism of previous leaders of the Church.

NO COMPARISONS

"We should not compare him to our beloved Pope Benedict XVI," said Wirz. "Although the two have distinct personalities, they complement each other . . . their actions should be seen as a continued effort."

But not all Latin American Catholics are so enthusiastic with Pope Francis' first year.

In a survey published by broadcaster Univision, 23 per cent of Mexican respondents rated Pope Francis "mediocre," and another three per cent considered his performance "poor," lowest of any of the 12 countries polled.

Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, acknowledged the "affection" for Pope Francis has been lower in Mexico than other Latin American countries. He said Mexican Catholics are still strongly attached to Blessed John Paul II, who visited Mexico five times and helped restore relations between the country and the Vatican.

"The figure of John Paul II continues being very present and very difficult to supplant," he said.

Some Mexican priests say the reason has more to do with how much the bishops speak of Pope Francis.

"They speak of Pope Benedict XVI, they speak of Pope John Paul II, but they don't mention Pope Francis," said Father Raul Martinez, director of social ministries at the Diocese of Valle del Chalco.

(Contributing to this story were Barbara Fraser in Lima, Peru, and David Agren in Mexico City.)