Though still active, CELAM took a step back during the 1980s and '90s under St. John Paul II, who preferred a greater emphasis on bishops as shepherds of their local Church.
The last major conference CELAM held before the 2007 gathering in Aparecida was their 4th General Conference in Santo Domingo of the Dominican Republic in 1992.
However, when Benedict XVI was elected, he offered his full support and empowerment to CELAM, and personally inaugurated the 2007 gathering in Aparecida.
When asked on the flight there how Brazil had impacted his personal formation, Benedict said that while he was no expert, "I am convinced that it is here, at least in part – and a fundamental part – that the future of the Catholic Church is being decided. This has always been evident to me."
And indeed it was during that gathering for CELAM in Aparecida that Cardinal Bergoglio would take the lead role in drafting a document that has become one of the most quoted and footnoted in his magisterial publications as Pope Francis.
Pope Francis and Aparecida
During his first international appointment as Pope, attending the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis made headlines for his vibrant style of communicating, his closeness to the people, and for dropping lines like the famous appeal for Argentine youth to get on the streets and "make a mess" with their love for Christ in spreading the Gospel.
But in addition to his official WYD commitments, he also met with CELAM leaders, telling them to embrace a "missionary spirit," and referred them back to the 2007 concluding document from Aparecida, which he said launched a continent-wide mission aimed at Christ-centered service.
The document itself was a regional preview of what have become Francis' top priorities for the universal Church. Among other things, it places strong emphasis on popular religiosity and included an introduction on how to approach contemporary reality as "missionary disciples."
It also focuses on giving thanks, and the "joy of being disciples and missionaries" of God, and places a strong emphasis on the Church's mission to evangelize.
The document is read through the lens of what it means to be a "missionary disciple" and how this should be the lens through which we read reality and its current challenges, including cultural trends and threats to the family and the environment.
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Other topics mentioned that have come up frequently in Francis' pontificate are: indigenous peoples, technology, the role and dignity of women, the importance of fostering community amid the diversity of the Church's various charisms and spiritualities, interreligious dialogue, the role of the Holy Spirit, human dignity, and the need to go out of ourselves.
The document also dwells on marriage, the elderly, migrants, the poor, the need for solidarity and issues of social justice, emphasizing the Beatitudes, as Francis often does, as a road-map for how the Church's social teaching out to be lived out.
In his speech to CELAM leaders in Colombia this week, Pope Francis again referred back to the "pastoral legacy" of the 2007 Aparecida document, telling them it is "a treasure yet to be fully exploited."
"I am certain that each of you has seen how its richness has taken root in the Churches you hold in your hearts," he said, and outlined the signs of hope found in the region. Namely, he said hope in Latin America is found primarily in the youth, in women – who "keep patiently kindling the flame of faith" – and in the laity.
These are all issues brought up at some point in the Aparecida document, and which that have become familiar to the eyes of Vatican-watchers throughout the world.
While the Pope certainly doesn't shy away from these topics when conversing in other forums and with other demographics, he understandably feels more at home among his fellow Latin Americans, especially since he understands their reality so well.