The interest of Pope Francis for the indigenous peoples has deepened with time. What is true in general is true for him, too: “Today, we are more aware of the wealth of indigenous peoples. This is true precisely in an era when, both politically and culturally, they tend to be increasingly nullified through globalization understood as a ‘sphere’ concept, or a globalization where everything is standardized.” Pope Francis used these words responding to a question asked of him by a Jesuit during the 36th General Congregation of the Society in November 2016.
The pontiff has the people at the heart of all of his discourses. Indeed, I would say, in general, the people are at the heart of his vision of the Church and of the world; no man, no woman is understood as a person outside of a people. Even the Church is a people, “the faithful people of God on a journey.” For Francis a people is not simply a society: it is an historic and mythical category and cannot be explained by logic alone. An understanding of the history and the myth of a people is required.
In a long paper on popular religiosity as inculturation of the faith given January 19, 2008, then-Archbishop Bergoglio pondered the theme of indigenous populations and recalled the continental conferences of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops. In these conferences – starting with Medellín – the Church in Latin America began with that encounter “to try to understand itself and discover its own mission.”
Archbishop Bergoglio identified in the indigenous populations a necessary point of departure. This affirmation contains an open challenge that responds to a question: As a Church how are we able to understand ourselves? Where must we begin?
Archbishop Bergoglio wrote that at Medellín “a hidden Church was discovered, composed of reminiscences of more than 2,600 native peoples with their countless languages and traditions.” Then the Conference of Santo Domingo discussed the unity and the plurality of the indigenous, Afro-American and mestizo cultures and took steps toward recognizing the Latin American continent as a “multi-ethnic and multicultural” continent, with a “vision of the world of each people.” Not only, then, is cultural and social plurality accepted, but the “uninterrupted action of God” in it is affirmed.
Let us look at four important challenges – among the many – that the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was very clear about and chose to face in order to deepen the understanding of indigenous peoples and their wealth.
1. Beyond an individualistic framework: from the unconscious to the myth. At a conference of the XIII Archdiocesan Day of Social Pastoral Care (October 16, 2010) Archbishop Bergoglio stated: “In today’s life there is an ever more accentuated tendency to exalt the individual. It is the primacy of the individual and his or her rights over the dimension that sees the person as a being in relationship.” The individualistic vision can be traced “to the possessive individualism of 19th-century liberalism.” But, Archbishop Bergoglio wrote, it can “also answer to the early-20th-century psychological perspectives that absolutized the unconscious as the source of explanations and destiny of people.” It is interesting and important then to distinguish between “myth” and the “unconscious,” because when we speak of indigenous populations, the distinction is very important. And it marks the radical overcoming of the individualistic temptation.
In particular, for Archbishop Bergoglio being part of a people means participating in a common identity, but also having a sense of belonging to a collective destiny. Therefore, the people are not only its present, but are also its future. Talking about indigenous populations means not only speaking of “origins” but also of the challenges as we face the future. The people are a process, they are a becoming people, a “slow work,” as the pope defines it.
2. The rhythm of time is formed according to the spirit. A second challenge is well illustrated in Archbishop Bergoglio’s intervention at the Plenary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, held in Rome, January 18, 2007. Here he affirmed another significant point that can generate interesting ethical challenges: “Every culture has its center in time, giving rhythm to life and its expansions and concentrations on the seasons, the climate, and organizing work, feasts and rest in harmony with the beliefs of every people.”
Time is at the heart of a culture. The rhythm that is released by a conception of time is the beating heart and rhythm of the life of an indigenous population. Better yet, Archbishop Bergoglio defined it as part of the “search for a center” and it is spiritual in the sense that “it includes all the human elements, soul and body, person and society, things and values, moments and history … everything.” Therefore, every population transforms not only space but also time, giving it form “according to its spirit, to what it desires, to what it remembers and to what it plans.” The management of time is a spiritual expression of a people that touches its memory and its future.
3. The global vision “God-person-world.” A third challenge is described in the texts cited above from January 19, 2008. There, Archbishop Bergoglio stated that the evangelization of indigenous populations must be inculturated, that is, it needs to respect its “cultural expressions, learning their vision of the world, which makes of the entirety God-person-world a whole that permeates human, spiritual and transcendent relations.” Rhythms, clothes, music, foods are a part of this but also, for example, its healing rites and also “the contributions of the rural environment and the influences of the marginalized urban social strata that come together to preserve their values.” We have lost the vision of the world of the indigenous populations, which speaks of an entirety “God – person – world.”
4. The importance of integration. The indigenous populations are not anonymous and passive masses, but an “active subject,” a “cultural subject.” Their cultures are a positive change for understanding the world. “Latin America burst into the history of the world five hundred years ago, bringing the wealth of the indigenous populations and the contribution borrowed from Europe,” he said in a conference October 16, 2010. This wealth, then, enters into the process of building a broader popular identity. The question therefore is: how can the indigenous populations with their wealth enter into the construction of a shared identity? The key word here is “integration,” one of the main themes of Francis’ pontificate. The challenge of integration of the indigenous populations in a national or continental framework is decisive.
The thought of Pope Francis concerning the indigenous populations has evolved considerably over the years of his pontificate. But the years of his pastoral service as Archbishop of Buenos Aires are what matured his thought on the matter. With Laudato Si’ and the convocation of the Synod for the Amazon this interest has come to give its best fruits.
It is important to reflect on the thought of Francis, and as the Synod begins it is useful to highlight these four elements, fruit of the reflections of the pontiff during his Argentine years: the overcoming of individualism; the importance of the rhythm of time for the indigenous cultures; the integrated and interconnected vision of “God – person – world;” the integration of the indigenous cultures in view of a shared identity.