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50 Years of Medellin: A Crucial Event for the Whole Church to be Updated

In August and September 1968, the Bishops of Latin America met to discern the “signs of the times” in the Colombian city of Medellin, under the auspices of Pope Paul VI.

They did so in a particularly troubled international context, with all kind of manifestations calling for a freer and more just world, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). They renewed their commitment to the cause of the lower classes, which would then be reflected in the principle of the “preferential option for the poor”.

The conference of the Episcopate took place in the midst of profound transformations, which the Church itself did not escape from. Catholicism knew a promising “spring time” that, like other initiatives, advocated to revitalize the respective “worlds”[1]. These renewing “winds” have reached our current days, brought by the hand of Pope Francis.

The Medellin Conference was a crucial event for the Latin American Church and the universal Church. Bishops tried to enlighten and respond to situations of injustice in our continent – from a reality and originality rooted in our history and culture – and promote the commitment of all believers.

But Medellin was not an isolated event; it has been part of the historical development that motivates the Church to constantly elaborate specific and significant answers, which find expression in its social teaching[2]. It is not a unidirectional relationship, because that teaching is also being elaborated and reworked as a response, in a communitarian way and according to the diversity of charism that are expressed in the Church[3].

Bishops in Medellin understood that solutions should emerge from that history, its diversity and specific values, in spite of sharing similar problems (cfr. Medellin n° 6).

The tragic sign of underdevelopment appeared as a serious obstacle, conjugated with hunger and misery, endemic diseases and infant mortality, illiteracy and marginality, deep inequalities in income and tensions between social classes, outbreaks of violence and scarce participation of the people in the management of the common good, which sometimes led to violent choices[4].

Paul VI in the opening message of Medellin denounced the origin of these evils: “we cannot be in solidarity with systems and structures that conceal and favor serious and oppressive inequalities among classes and citizens of the same country, without implementing an effective plan to remedy the unbearable conditions of inferiority that the less affluent population frequently suffer”.

“This man and his community go through” a situation of dependence on inhuman economic systems and institutions, a situation that, for many of them, borders on slavery, not only physical but also professional, cultural, civic and spiritual (Medellin n° 3), whose crystallization turns evident in the unjust structures that characterize the situation in Latin America” (Medellin 1 n° 2).

It is very important the criticism of the “international structures of domination that decisively condition the underdevelopment of peripheral peoples” (Medellin 10 n° 3.15) and the “structures of economic, political and cultural dependence” (Medellin 10 n° 1.2), they are “oppressive structures, that come from the abuse of having and abuse of power, of the exploitations of the workers or the injustice of commerce” (Medellin n° 6).

In this view, poverty is not the random result of history or fatality, but a true social sin that affects the whole community of men, as an “injustice that cries out to heaven” (Medellin n° 1) and that must lead to “denounce injustice and oppression, and the intolerable situation that the Poor often supports” and, even more, demands “the willingness to dialogue with the groups responsible for that situation” (Medellin 3 n° 10).

Our Bishops assumed a clear and preferential option, to become one and in solidarity with each poor man and each people (cfr. Medellin 3 n° 14) “we want to commit ourselves to the life of all our peoples in the anguished search for adequate solutions for their multiple problems. Our mission is to contribute to the integral promotion of man and the communities of the continent”.[5]

Medellin tried to respond, from the Gospel, to the “deaf cry … of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that does not come from anywhere” (Medellin 14 n° 1.2). It meant for the Latin American Church, the maturation of its own reflection, which allowed it not only to be a “reflection” teaching of the universal magisterium, but also to become its “source”. Therefore, Medellin deserves indeed to be remembered, celebrated and updated as a permanent gift of the Latin American Church to the whole Church.

We perceive this gift, in three traces of the Pope Francis pastoral lines, which we can assume as a primary legacy of Medellin. On the one hand, the synodal style[6] that he is imprinting to the Church and the emphasis on collegiality among the Bishops[7] as a testimony of Unity. On the other hand, the denounce of the unjust economic structures that condemn millions of people to poverty and put at risk the very survival of all species in our planet.

Last but not least, the need of the Church to be poor and for the poor, far from the spiritual mundanity and princely frivolity[8]. It is a challenge that requires an honest conversion and an update of the Church’s discernment, as Medellin inspired.

50 years after this historic event in our continent, we can conclude with the words of Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, one of the Argentine bishops who attended the meeting, to summarize the current challenges towards the future: “Being faithful to Medellin requires interpreting and assuming its spirit (…) facing it with the daily novelties of history (…) we should not remain on an incomplete or literal interpretation of its writings, discernment needs to be continued and completed along the path of conversion and commitment”[9].


[1] We mean the spheres of laity commitment: economy, politics, science, education, etc.

[2]“The teaching and dissemination of this social doctrine is part of the evangelizing mission of the Church” (John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, nº 41).

[3] Lumen Gentium n° 12.

[4] Medellin conclusions nº 4.

[5] Medellin conclusions nº 4.

[6] We can mention the 2014’s Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops; the 2015’s Synod on the Family; the 2018’s Synod on Young People and the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region (to be hold in October 2019).

[7] The hope expressed by the Council of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. We are still on the way (Address of His Holiness Pope Francis, Saturday 17 th. October 2015).

[9] Eduardo PIRONIO, En el espíritu de Medellín (In the spirit of Medellín), 49-50.