Missionary Congresses in America – Future of our past

The fourth American Missionary Congress will be held in Maracaibo (Venezuela), from 26 November to 1 December. The theme will be “Missionary disciples of Jesus Christ in a secular and multicultural world”, with the slogan “Missionary America, share your faith”. Let’s go back over the main Congresses and their topics. A path of faith and missionary commitment.

The American Missionary Congress (CAM) has its origins in the national missionary conferences held in Mexico. Those national events gradually turned into Latin American Missionary meetings known as Latin American Missionary Congress (COMLA) until the present American Missionary Congress (CAM). These congresses were jointly organized by the Episcopal Commissions for the Missions (CEM) and by the national and diocesan directorate of the Pontifical Missionary Works (PMS), with the collaboration of DEMIS-CELAM (DEPARTMENT of Latin American Episcopal Council).
The aim of these meetings has been and still is: to strengthen commitment among bishops, diocesan clergy, seminaries, missionary institutions and laity in order to project beyond their own “Ad gentes” frontiers.

Commitment and enthusiasm
The Church in Mexico, traditionally characterized by a strong missionary vocation, was the first to organize conferences for missionaries. Six national missionary congresses, inspired by the Conciliar Document “Ad Gentes” (To the nations), were organized before the first Latin American Congress COMLA of 1977, which took place in Coahuila, in the northern part of the country. The topic debated was “The Church as universal sacrament of salvation” and the slogan was “Universal salvation, Mexico’s commitment”. As the country had long experience in organizing these events, the second COMLA was also held in Mexico, in the city of Tlaxcala in 1983. The congress was successful thanks to the great enthusiasm of the Catholics, and to the commitment of the Pontifical Missionary Works, of bishops (among them Luis Munive, the host), and missionary institutions. The topic of the congress was “Missionary Church: the answer to the man of today”, while the slogan was “With Mary, missionaries of Christ”. Some of the main results achieved were: the sending of “Ad gentes” missionaries, the establishment of the first Latin American Missionary formation centre and scheduling COMLAs every four years.
cam1In 1987 it was Bogota’s turn, in Colombia, to host the third Latin-American Mission Congress. Its theme and slogan were respectively “America wants to share its faith”, and “America, the time for you to evangelize has come”. The meeting focused especially on the famous text of the Conferencia de Puebla that incites churches to “give in poverty” and to “project beyond their own frontiers” (cf. Puebla 368).
In February 1991, a few months after the publication of John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio Encyclical, the fourth Latin-American Mission Congress took place in Lima (Peru). The topic of the meeting was “The Latin-American Church and the pastoral challenges of the new evangelization in the third millennium” with the slogan “Latin America, send missionaries with your faith”.
Four years later, the fifth COMLA took place in Belo Horizonte (Brazil). On this occasion the topic and the slogan were respectively “The Gospel in cultures. Path of life and hope”, “Come, see, and announce”.
The sixth Latin-American Mission Congress and first American Mission Congress COMLA-6 – CAM-1, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”, was held in Panama (Argentina) in 1999. This edition was marked by the important participation of the delegations of Canada, the United States and the Caribbean, who attended the event for the first time. Since then the acronym COMLA became CAM.
In 2002 Guatemala, a country that was gradually overcoming a situation of generalized violence, hosted COMLA-7 and CAM-2, focused on poverty and martyrdom. The topic was “Announcing the Gospel of life” and the slogan “Church in America, your life is mission”.
In 2008, it was the turn of Quito, Ecuador, to host CAM-3.
cam2There was great enthusiasm, at the time, following the fifth Conference of Aparecida, held the previous year. The conference’s general purpose was “promoting, especially among American churches, the impending Pentecost event in order to turn discipleship into active mission and drive the New Evangelization process and the Ad gentes mission forward.” CAM-3’s theme was “Church in missionary discipleship” and the slogan “America with Christ, listens, learns, and announces”.
A new Pentecost
It can’t be denied that this extraordinary adventure suffered from limitations. Among them, the rigid controls by the Holy See, especially with regard to liturgical celebrations and “basic theology”. Extreme forms of clericalism have also often had a negative impact. Several cardinals, heralds, bishops, priests, not infrequently slowed down the congress’ preparation or tried to limit freedom of expression. Most stick to rigid doctrine or a sort of radical orthodoxy. One must also underline that laity was not given sufficient prominence.
On some occasions, superficial enthusiasm, lists of good intentions, or “too many statements” prevented from deepening important issues. Sometimes it seemed as if some initiatives were the result of temporary commitment and enthusiasm, rather than a systematic development of a new Pentecost. Missionary congresses, however, have encouraged local churches to take important steps in the mission field. The hope of Catholics is that, over the next CAM-4/COMLA-9, a further step can be taken towards what Pope Francis calls “existential peripheries” to which to communicate God’s universal love, who loves us all, but in particular the poorest – “Christ’s flesh”.
Jorge Garcia Castillo


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