Panama City, Panama — Since the 2016 gathering for the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR), much happened throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America that challenged the women and men religious serving in impoverished communities.
Ecuador suffered a severe earthquake, and many still need to rebuild their homes. Puerto Rico continues to drown in a debt crisis, owing the United States roughly $70 billion. Colombia has seen the failure and success of a peace treaty, ending a 50-year internal war. Venezuela has been rocked with political and economic turmoil, experiencing the world's highest inflation rate. Cuba buried its leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro. And international migration has shaken the needs of nearly every country throughout the continents.
About 50 men and women religious representing 21 countries throughout the Americas gathered March 13-15 in Panama City, Panama, each on behalf of their country's religious conference. The days spent in the retreat center, perched on top of a hill downtown, inspired its Spanish-speaking participants through shared moments of spirituality, presentations of various ministries, and regional meetings intended to set goals before the next annual gathering.
"I hope that we realize that the world is rapidly changing," said Comboni Missionary Fr. Rafael González, president of Ecuador's religious conference. "It's hard to believe that there are already so many different realities and situations since we met last year. ... We have to pay attention so that we can accompany properly, accompany like Jesus. We can't shut ourselves inside the church. We must dive into the challenges, and always with hope."
The confederation, which serves as a sort of mediator between countries and the ministries of their respective religious men and women, "knows the communities and can be the one to say, 'This is how that community can help this one,' " said Sr. Mercedes Casas, a Daughter of the Holy Spirit of Mexico and the president of the confederation.
Every three years, the confederation organizes a global plan in which "we align the horizons" of those in consecrated life in Latin America and the Caribbean, Casas said.
The global plan is intended to guide the following three years and is revisited at the annual gathering, where men and women religious discuss progress they made and obstacles they encountered throughout the year while evaluating projects that are underway.
"We all have within ourselves the desire to be connected, the desire to express the Gospel from the vantage point of our realities," said Carmelite Missionary of St. Teresa Sr. María Esther Guzman, executive secretary of Mexico's religious conference.
"These gatherings are good because you can witness different expressions of the same mission. Sometimes you feel shut in in your own institution or experience," Guzman said. "Not that institutions are bad, of course, but you still need to get out."
Different regions, different challenges
Throughout the three days, each of the four regions gathered to brainstorm ways in which they could network in overlapping areas of concern or learn from a neighboring country.
Speaking for the Caribbean — which includes Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic — Missionary of the Sacred Heart Sr. Patria Fernández noted more organizational challenges than pastoral ones, such as the common need among the islands to refresh younger generations on the 1968 Medellín document on liberation theology.
"They lack context and haven't spent much time with the document, so that's a concrete challenge that we, as the Caribbean region, posed to ourselves as something to take on this year," Fernández said.
"What's nice about the Dominican Republic is the enthusiasm and interest among younger generations of religious life," she said. "They get together often and share their experiences with one another often. So now we're trying to incentivize our region to meet more often, because encounters produce excitement, and we need to continue that pattern."
One way they plan to do that is by aiming to establish regular regional meetings — a goal that was set last year but never actualized.
The Mesoamerican region, however, has been meeting annually for about 30 years. The region spans Mexico to Panama and has "intense challenges in common," said Fr. Mario Alvarado, president of Guatemala's conference.
"It's a region with a lot of violence, with armed conflicts from an era of systemic corruption. They're quite similar with one another," he said, adding that this prompted the region to work toward establishing networks called Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace) for the seven countries, with a contact person in each country.
Migration and drug trafficking are problems for the countries that bridge the two American continents; they have become the established route for drug smugglers and human traffickers alike.
But while those broad issues all fall under the Central American umbrella, each country also faces unique challenges. Religious in southern Mexico, for example, struggle to minister to the country's indigenous Guatemalan people and are seeing extreme poverty on the rise.
Mining has especially afflicted Honduras and Guatemala, while Nicaragua's countryside is currently at odds with an interoceanic canal. Though Nicaragua is probably the least violent country in the region, it is also dealing with a "more totalitarian government, which has an exaggerated reach in various institutions, and adds nuance to their situation," Alvarado said.
He added that Costa Rica, which lacks its own military, is going through a more complex identity crisis, while Panama has become a hotspot for migrants from Nicaragua and Venezuela. El Salvador, which deals particularly with gang violence and extortion, joins Honduras and Guatemala as "the most violent triangle in the Americas," he said.
"There's a danger in only looking within your region when there are other realities — Syria, South Sudan, for example — that are still challenging us," Alvarado said. "We need to come out of this CLAR conference motivated and reminded that things are happening outside our borders."
Discussions among the Andean region — Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia — centered on communication issues between the conferences, as well as a need to inspire and form religious life.
"The question is, 'How do we create the space to communicate? How do we put forth a common proposal that can benefit every conference and be in line with CLAR?' " asked Fr. Francisco Méndez, speaking for the region. Méndez, a Salesian of Don Bosco, is the president of Venezuela's conference.
There are internal obstacles within each conference as well, he said. "How can each conference articulate themselves better or network their religious better? If Venezuela struggles to organize regular convocations for its own religious, then you can see how organizing a two-day reunion among all of us would be hard."
"This isn't just a problem for Venezuela: It's also common in Haiti or Cuba, which deal with questions more related to survival."
To address their lack of communication, the region began to set the foundations for an official platform so the various countries have a space to express their issues and the states of their conferences. Though this same goal fell through since last year, Méndez is encouraged it will come to fruition this year since the region already appointed him as the coordinator, showing early initiative to formalize the plan and not procrastinate.
Missionary of Crucified Jesus Sr. Susana Reguerín, general secretary of the religious conference in Bolivia, noted that her country struggles to motivate its consecrated life.
"Every time we gather, we seem to be smaller and smaller in our congregations, so we should try to join forces, live intercongregationally, unite charisms, share in our spirituality and our preference for the poor," she said.
The idea of intercongregational living was a constant throughout the conference, as well as in the regional meeting for the Southern Cone, which includes Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil.
"For the most part, the challenges in each country seemed shared as a region, as consecrated life, because we're constantly being challenged to redefine, rethink, restructure ourselves," said Sr. Daniela Cannavina, president of Uruguay's conference and a Capucina Sister of Mother Rubatto.
"One thing that was especially brought to our attention was the possible reconfiguration of conferences. It's not about what's mine or yours or defending what's ours simply because it's ours. We have to help each other, unite each other and inspire each other."
'We need to listen to everybody'
Casas said a recurring challenge for the Latin American and Caribbean confederation is everything that pertains to the "inter-": the interreligious, intercongregational, and intergenerational.
"How do you work toward that so that it's not just living among the other, but complementing the other?" she said. "Sometimes we think that from congregation to congregation, our charisms are what divide us, but we need to strengthen the unity of our charisms."
Rather than organize a common network that encompasses all the countries and regions, the confederation encourages each conference to form its own network — one that focuses on combating human trafficking, for example — while the larger organization helps each network get connected with another by holding seminars and events that bring them together.
But transcending the organizational challenges, Casas said, is the need to "maintain Jesus at the center of all we do."
"It might seem obvious, because we're consecrated life, but we need to create that space for silence, for reflection, for sharing the Word and bringing others in, and returning our gaze to the Trinity, and to keep rethink our encounters with him and with our communities," she said.
"We need to pay attention to our disappointments, too, because there are those who are disappointed. There's the reality that in religious life in some regions, they are disenchanted because they don't know where they're going, or they're frustrated in their mission, or their hope has been diminished. But we're all consecrated life — the enthused and the disenchanted — so we need to listen to everybody, to hear what's being asked of us."
At the start of the conference, Casas told attendees that amid hard times, they must look to the horizon to refill their hope and optimism. She recalled her childhood home perched atop a hill in Mexico and how every morning, the fog was so thick she couldn't see the houses next door. To walk down the hill, she had to look toward the sea and let the horizon guide her down.
"Sometimes the horizon is blurry, but it's always there, and we mustn't lose sight of our own horizon — our global plan — that slowly clears up where we want to go, but not how," she said. "The path is a constant search ... We always say we need to 'get out,' but we need to know where we are coming from and where we're going."
[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]