Poverty, priest shortages, Christian hope form backdrop for Pope's Latin American journey

In 2014, Aid to the Church in Need listed Ecuador as a country "of concern," given these signs of the deterioration of religious freedom.

By Antonia von Alten

NEW YORK—Pope Francis’ visit to Latin America July 5-13, 2015 affords the Pontiff a unique opportunity to carry his signature message of concern for the poor and wariness of capitalism to his home turf.

With stops in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pope continues to reach out to what he refers to as the “victims of this throwaway culture”—especially “the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, [and] the poor.”

Ecuador is the smallest of the three countries. About 20 percent of the citizenry of almost 3 million live and work abroad, mostly in the US, Spain and Italy. Foreign currency earnings are key to the economy, but family life is often disrupted, as wives live apart from their husbands, and children don’t live with their parents. Then there is the influx of migrants into the country, many of whom live in squalid conditions in slums surrounding the larger cities. The local Church does its utmost to provide them with pastoral care.

The relationship between Church and state in Ecuador is tense. Three years ago, the health ministry ordered all religious images removed from a number of regional hospitals. In addition, a number of priests were dismissed from hospital positions. In 2014, Aid to the Church in Need listed Ecuador as a country “of concern,” given these signs of the deterioration of religious freedom.

In Bolivia, the Pope’s meetings with priests, men and women religious, as well as seminarians will be an important boost for the local Church. Among those working with the very poor are Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, who minister to migrants in the west of the country. Their work and that of other men and women religious allow the Bolivian Church to operate many more parishes than it could on its own power, given the shortage of indigenous priests. Aid to the Church in Need has pledged $100,000 to the sisters, funds earmarked for the construction of a house for migrants.

A scene from Bolivia.jpg

The third country the Pope will visit is Paraguay, where 90 percent of the population of 7 million inhabitants are baptized Catholics. Pope Francis has a special relationship with Paraguay. During his years as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, he worked closely with Paraguyan migrant workers.

Priests are held in high esteem in Paraguayan society; today, some 300 men are preparing for the priesthood. Once ordained, they will bring relief to a Church also suffering from a shortage of priests, given the country’s huge parishes, which are often divided up into smaller so-called sub-parishes.

According to a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, every second inhabitant of Paraguay lives in poverty, and one-third has to cope with extreme poverty. The Catholic Church is fighting poverty, in part through its educational facilities, providing general education for the laity as well as theological and pastoral formation for laity working for the Church.

In 2014, Aid to the Church in Need supported the work of the Catholic Church in these three countries with more than $1.2M. More than 300 priests in Ecuador, Bolivia und Paraguay receive support through Mass intentions; in Bolivia, the organization also supports the training of catechists and seminarians, funds construction projects and provides subsistence aid to sisters. In Ecuador, Aid to the Church in Need in particular helps the Church minister to migrants.

Sisters working with children in Bolivia; ACN photo

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