The Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR) gathered Aug. 24-29 in Medellín with a full agenda, going from a historic celebration to forming a global plan that will guide the next three years.
CLAR is the umbrella organization of the religious conferences from every Latin American and Caribbean country. Though the organization hosts a gathering every year for the leadership of each country's conference, every three years it includes a few more delegates to establish a new global plan to inspire the communities' ministries for the following triennium.
Members also vote on a new six-person presidential team that will oversee the organization throughout the next three years. At the end of the gathering, Sr. Gloria Liliana Franco Echeverri, a Sister of the Company of Mary Our Lady from Colombia, became CLAR's new president.
In the first three days, CLAR participated in the 50th anniversary celebration of the historic 1968 regional gathering in Medellín, at which four organizations — CLAR, the Medellín Archdiocese, CELAM (the Latin American bishops' conference) and Caritas Latin America — called on the church to be closer to people who live in poverty.
The spirit of that reunion carried CLAR into the next three days at its general assembly, held in a seminary tucked away at the top of one of Medellín's rolling mountains.
There, the group continued employing the "see, judge, act" methodology, an approach for addressing injustices born at the 1968 gathering: recognize what's happening, who is affected and why; interpret one's feelings about the situation and how Catholics should respond to it; and take action.
"Some horizons are resonating based on our experiences at the Medellín conference but also based on what we bring as consecrated life: this 'synodality,' which is the ability to foster communion and participation from a relationship in which we all feel responsible and all share our gifts," Sr. Mercedes Casas, a Daughter of the Holy Spirit of Mexico and the outgoing president of CLAR, told GSR.
"We all are united under the ecclesiology of Vatican II, which needs to continue deepening and empowering the people of God."
Offering concrete responses
"CLAR is all of us," Casas said. "So wherever there is a conference living in a situation determined by social circumstances — say, Venezuela, Nicaragua or Honduras lately — the national conferences intervene after reflective discernment to ask, 'What is God asking of us in light of this predicament?' "
Sometimes that means working with a sociologist who can help the men and women religious facilitate concrete, helpful actions for whatever country needs it, she said, with the presidency accompanying the effort in whatever way possible: phone calls, letter writing, joining calls to action when invited, etc.
"CLAR is always trying to offer concrete responses," Casas said, recalling the organized effort following the March wildfires in Chile. CLAR helped form a community that established a house in an area heavily affected by the fires to assist those who had been largely neglected by federal and private aid. "Religious life came to accompany them in the rebuilding of the area and forming projects that required money and time."
In her nine years participating in CLAR, initially serving on her religious conference's leadership team, Casas said she's noticed a stronger connection form between conferences. They've all pursued the same objectives despite each country having its own characteristics and each congregation having its own charisms, she said, with CLAR offering a "horizon" to guide, strengthen and unite them.
"We all walk together from our charisms and ministries, but with everyone responsible for everyone," she said. "There's a dynamic that surprises me when I visit them. I would always leave encouraged by the vitality and organization of their commitments."
In addition to accompanying migrants, one challenge for the conference today is accompanying victims of sexual abuse while working toward its prevention within religious life, Casas said
"These are issues that are touching the essence of our consecration, so we self-critique: What can we do as consecrated life [regarding] the situations that speak to human fragility and inconsistencies? That needs to be carefully observed, and we must put in protocol to solve this situation."
"But more than that," Casas continued, "in our conferences, how do we create concrete spaces for accompanying the victims? That's where our priorities are, which we'll affirm with our global plan and define more closely with the help of ETAP."
ETAP is the Presidency's Team of Advisory Theologians, which currently has seven theologians. The group primarily "picks up what the assembly is feeling at this moment and seeks a theological foundation, proposing an icon and seeing if it resonates," said Benedictine Sr. María del Carmen Bracamontes, a theologian for ETAP from Mexico.
The team, she said, analyzes "what is the historical moment? What is the conjuncture where we are? And we see how we can illuminate that for the path of consecrated life."
The icon for 2015-2018 was of the Visitation, largely inspired by the pope's call to be a church en salida, going forth. Casas said the group would ask themselves: Where are we going, and from where are we going?
"The challenge was to go out to new poverties, and we accomplished simple, concrete steps," she said, particularly by consolidating commissions around certain causes.
Advocacy against human trafficking, for example, became a more organized effort for CLAR members as they merged commissions while expanding its networks and connections to Talitha Kum, the international network in this field for religious life.
CLAR also included migration in this effort even though migration is a different reality from trafficking, Casas said, because the two issues are often intertwined.
"All of this has motivated many congregations, and while the realities already motivated them, I think it helped to have CLAR be a concrete presence where our brothers and sisters walk," she said. "And there have been beautiful steps: Congregations have opened shelters, adapting some structures to take in migrants and deportees. These are simple steps but in the day-to-day starts to form a path."
The icon the group voted on to inspire the next three years is the wedding at Cana.
"The emphasis was out of the necessity that in this moment of the church, which is in crisis, we contribute to the transformation, like in the wedding at Cana," said Franco, the new president of CLAR.
"In concrete terms, that would be to learn a new way to be a church, a great emphasis we want to explore in the next three years, working on things we already have worked on: the need to reconfigure consecrated life, working for human beings and the planet, the conservation of resources," she said.
Continuity and disruption
Throughout the general assembly, attendees broke out into groups according to their regions: Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, the Andes and the Southern Cone. This was an opportunity for conferences to share their challenges, feats and contacts with their neighboring countries.
Men and women religious are constantly dependent on what happens socio-politically in their countries, said Fr. Francisco Méndez, a Salesian of Don Bosco and president of Venezuela's religious conference. For example, with its economy in freefall, millions of Venezuelans are forced to flee their home country largely because of hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages.
"The country is collapsed. But we still have a certain level of communication that allows us to address certain challenges, and among those is accompanying people in their suffering and pain," he said.
Congregations have worked to import medicines from other countries and distribute them among the poorest, especially, he said. And by continuing to celebrate Mass, they recognize the need to listen, spread God's word, and make themselves available to the pain of the people, said Méndez, who became CLAR's vice president at the gathering.
"With inequality on the rise, we need to figure out a way to be present in the situations happening in each of our countries, which are very particular but deep down have their similarities," he said of the Andean region, which includes Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
Sr. Silvia Rojas Santiesteban, vice president of Bolivia's conference and a sister from the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, said the region also shares an interest in working more closely with their bishops and in working on ecology, both in care for creation and in "personal ecology."
"If one doesn't feel harmony in oneself, logically, they also won't have harmonious relationships with others or with God."
Floating in the Caribbean are a handful of islands — Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti and the Dominican Republic — that, though diverse in language and cultures, coincide in their desire to encounter one another more, said St. Joseph Sr. Yaquelín Casales Santos, a delegate from Cuba's conference.
Facing ecological and migration problems, as well as unstable governments, she said, the Antilles all face similar issues yet feel like they share an ignorance of their neighboring islands.
"We need a structure that sustains us as a larger Caribbean network," she said. "It has been a very good experience, to identify ourselves as a region and to provoke us to intentionally meet with each other."
Challenges for the Southern Cone (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil) are more logistical, particularly for the larger countries that struggle to have consolidated organizations within a diverse landscape, said Merciful Love Sr. Sandra San Martín Sanhueza, a delegate to CLAR for Chile's conference.
"There are a lot of challenges that clearly have to do with the intercongregational theme," she said. "Some countries, such as mine, expanded on the issue of abuse, to promote and defend the child. Other countries have their own dynamics that have more to do with integration and want to promote teamwork and the participation of all."
Sanhueza also said as a group, there was concern among men and women alike that women should have more responsibility within the church.
The Mesoamerican group spans from Mexico to Panama. Sr. Deysi Nohemy Ordóñez, president of Honduras' religious conference and a Daughter of Jesus, said one challenge this region stressed in their meeting was in regard to ecclesial communion, an issue most regions mentioned as a challenge and priority.
Ordóñez said this included communion with bishops as well as between men's and women's congregations. "That is one of the great challenges because the participation of congregations is very weak, very fragile, and we have to acquire the involvement and commitment of all the congregations."
For example, her home country of Honduras, she said, "has gone through difficult situations, and I can say that perhaps as a religious life, we have been a little distant. Perhaps the division within religious life has not helped us have a stronger, more forceful commitment. But the population is also divided, and sometimes it is there where you need to serve as a link of dialogue, of unity, of being a prophetic voice."
With new leadership, emerging challenges and an original global plan (to be published at a later date once all input and edits have been finalized), the next three years for CLAR will be a combination of "continuity and disruption," Casas said: "Continuity because as religious life, we know that some issues are constant, as are horizons that are essential to the light we need to walk toward. Disruption — and by that, I mean change and the new — because with new leadership comes new charisms, and with [Franco] comes a new set of experiences and support."
Still, the assembly decides which challenges to address, she said, and the presidency orients the inspiration that turns into concrete projects.
"But I think there's always a novelty that helps everyone involved. The fact that we've selected a new icon, the wedding at Cana, that's a novelty. So even if we address similar or central challenges, this will already allow us to do so from a different approach and maybe wake us up to new attitudes and perspectives."