Pope Francis works to reconcile divisions among Catholics in Latin America

The changes - like mending fences with proponents of liberation theology – have won Pope Francis grassroots support, even as they have rattled bishops, most of whom were installed during the tenures of his more conservative predecessors.

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Pope Francis is seen on a laptop screen as he chats students during a videoconference at the gang-infested neighbourhood of La Campanera, on the outskirts of San Salvador Sept. 4, 2014. Pope Francis warned children living in violent areas of El Salvador to avoid the influence of gangs or "maras."

It’s been dubbed the “Francis effect.”

In ways large and small, Pope Francis is having an impact on Roman Catholics in Latin America. He’s pushing ahead with sainthood for a controversial martyred prelate in El Salvador. He’s mending fences with proponents of a theology that the Vatican once shunned for its Marxist whiff. And he’s cautiously embraced new, livelier styles of worship that his predecessors had discouraged.

The changes have won Pope Francis grassroots support, even as they have rattled the church’s bishops, most of whom were installed during the tenures of his more conservative predecessors.

Nowhere is that conflict more evident than in this small Central American country, where a generation ago the church was at the center of what would become a civil war that would claim tens of thousands of lives.

It was aboard an Alitalia charter in mid-August that the pontiff announced that he was pressing the Vatican bureaucracy to hurry with the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for the poor and a critic of the Salvadoran military who was slain by a right-wing assassin in 1980.

“It’s very important to move in haste,” Francis told reporters aboard the airliner. “For me, Romero is a man of God.”

El Salvador’s bishops reacted with public delight, but longtime observers said there was anything but glee behind closed doors among those who still view Monsignor Romero as a sympathizer of the political left.

“The beatification of Monsignor Romero will be like a bucket of cold water for them. They neither agreed with him in his life nor after his death,” said Carlos Ayala Ramirez, the director of the radio station at the Jesuit Central American University in San Salvador.

A rifleman in a red Volkswagen shot Romero in the chest as he celebrated Mass in a chapel on March 24, 1980. At his massive funeral six days later, explosions and gunshots roiled the huge crowd, which stampeded, leaving some 30 people dead. Romero became a hero to the poor as the nation careened toward a civil war that took 70,000 lives over the next 12 years.

In 1993, a United Nations-backed truth commission set up under peace accords that ended the war a year earlier put the blame for the plot to kill Romero on a former army major, Roberto d’Aubuisson, the infamous “Blowtorch Bob” whose death squads killed hundreds of suspected leftists before and during the war.

Romero was the most prominent of numerous clergy killed in that period – a total of 18 priests and four U.S. nuns or lay workers were slain from the 1970s till 1989.

“When Romero died, there was silence in the Vatican,” said the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit who teaches theology at Central American University. Under then-Pope John Paul II, the Vatican slowed any move to make the slain archbishop a saint.

“The word was, ‘It’s not an opportune time,’” Sobrino said. “Powerful cardinals were enemies of Romero, and the canonization didn’t move forward. Why not? Because it is not easy to canonize Jesus of Nazareth. He was against so many people, the high priests, the wealthy.”

Today, Romero’s image is painted on schools across the country, and the former guerrilla movement known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, in power since 2009, has renamed the national airport and a highway for Romero.

“The FMLN has basically adopted Romero as its patron saint,” said Paolo Luers, a newspaper columnist sharply critical of the government. “This political usage bothers me and I think it bothers people in the church as well.”

Some Catholics elsewhere pray the beatification provides a healing message.

“His sainthood will be a way to not only rise above politics but hopefully unify all the divergent elements of Salvadoran society,” said Richard Coll, a Latin America policy adviser to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The impatience that Pope Francis, an Argentine and a Jesuit, has shown with the Romero beatification process is one of many qualities that those long acquainted with him say are core to his character. Other qualities include humility, personal austerity, and a reluctance to condemn, seeking instead to include. He also can be severe with those who fail the church, particularly in cases of sexual abuse.

“He is a man who deeply understands human nature” and has “a very keen political instinct,” said Jose Maria Poirier, editor of the Criterio Catholic magazine in Buenos Aires and an old acquaintance from when Francis was known as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Whether the pontiff can renew a Catholic Church that has lost tens of millions of adherents in Latin America to Protestant groups is up for debate.

“If the question is, ‘Is he going to be able to revitalize the Catholic Church and halt the decline in numbers?’ it is a little too early to know,” said Daniel H. Levine, a political scientist emeritus at the University of Michigan who is an expert on religion in Latin America.

In a recent magazine article, Levine used the term “Francis effect” to tally the signals that the pontiff has offered of a more humble, more inclusive pontificate with strong appeal in Latin America.

They include the pope’s demand for a change in US policy toward migrant children so they’d be “welcomed and protected.”

He’s also taken the stigma away from Liberation Theology, the current that originated in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. It adopted the use of Christianity to fight social injustice, sometimes applying the theory of class struggle.

Detractors viewed the doctrine as Christianized Marxism, and during the 27-year papacy of John Paul II, who rose to prominence battling communists in his native Poland, its proponents were largely silenced.

Francis has taken steps to reverse that. He met with Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who coined the term Liberation Theology, a meeting, Levine said, that “was a surprise to many in Peru.”

In a little noticed action in August, Pope Francis also lifted a nearly three-decade ban on the priestly functions of Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan who became foreign minister in the revolutionary Sandinista government of the 1980s, earning John Paul’s enmity.

Another was Ernesto Cardenal, who literally faced a wagging finger of disapproval when Pope John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983, and Cardenal, an acclaimed poet who’d joined the Sandinista government, tried to kiss the papal ring. The pope shook his index finger in anger. Later, the Vatican defrocked Cardenal.

Cardenal, who later broke with the Sandinistas, never asked to be restored to the priesthood. But D’Escoto had appealed his suspension, several experts said, and restoring him to the priesthood was a compassionate act for an aging man as well as an effort to bridge decades-old divisions in the church.

Pope Francis’ actions, however, face a church hierarchy shaped under John Paul, who in the years he reigned, 1978 to 2005, made 18 trips to Latin America. Under John Paul, the church hierarchy in the region tilted right.

“Every time they had to appoint a new bishop in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, they would appoint a more conservative bishop,” said Jakob Thorsen, an expert on Catholicism in Latin America at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Pope Francis’ also is pressing to find priests who embrace a livelier worship experience to compete with Pentecostal Christians, who’ve made inroads in the last two decades in Brazil, Colombia and Central America with a more emotional approach to religion that includes spirited preaching, popular music and speaking in tongues.

Francis has made it clear that the Vatican doesn’t have doctrinal differences with charismatic Catholics, who also try to emphasize a direct experience of divine power in song and prayer. He met with 50,000 charismatics from 55 nations in Rome’s Olympic Stadium June 1 and knelt on stage as those present prayed for him, some of them speaking in tongues.

“In the early years of the charismatic renewal in Buenos Aires, I did not have much love for charismatics,” the pontiff said.

But his presence at the meeting indicated change of heart.

“He sees them as the possible future of the Catholic Church in Latin America. They are the energizers. They are missionaries who get people who don’t go to church often to come back,” said Thorsen, the Danish academic.

“The church wants to do whatever it can to make the members of the charismatic movement feel that they have a home in Catholicism,” added the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ Coll.

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