Economic justice, corruption, migration, education and civic participation are among the issues that bishops in the region will discuss at the conference, which is expected to draw more than 160 voting bishops and 80 other participants to Aparecida, Brazil, outside Sao Paulo, May 13-31.Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been specially invited as a voting delegate.
Pope Benedict XVI, who will travel to Brazil for a five-day visit May 9-13, will officially open the conference.
In a meeting with papal nuncios from Latin America in Rome Feb. 17, the pope outlined some of the issues church leaders face in Latin America, including the growth of evangelical churches -- still generally referred to as "sects" in this majority-Catholic region -- and "the growing influence of postmodern hedonistic secularism."
In examining the reasons for the lure of Pentecostalism, the bishops will have to take a critical look at the Catholic Church's own practices.
Part of the attraction of other churches lies in "a failure to awaken a missionary commitment in Catholics and a lack of priests and religious," said Cardinal Javier Errazuriz Ossa of Santiago, Chile, who is president of the Latin American bishops' council, or CELAM.
"It's not that people leave the Catholic Church because they oppose it, but in seeking a relationship with God and seeking the Gospel, and having lost a livelier contact with Catholic communities, they go to other pastors who are talking about Jesus Christ," Cardinal Errazuriz said.
The conference's dual emphasis on discipleship and missionary commitment is meant to spur an awakening so that "every Catholic feels called by Jesus Christ to be a disciple and to be sent out to change the world in accordance with the Gospel," he said.
The bishops must grapple with how to educate Catholics to take on that task, he said.
Although Pope John Paul II once called Latin America "the continent of hope," a brighter future remains elusive for nearly half the region's people. More than 40 percent live in poverty, and income distribution is the most unequal in the world. In countries such as Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador and Guatemala, the wealthiest one-fifth of the population receives half the country's income, while the poorest one-fifth take home a scant 3 percent.
"This is poverty born of social and economic inequality, poverty that affects human life and dignity, and poverty that is a form of violence," Bishop Ramazzini said.