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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 662-687

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The First Inter-American Episcopal Conference November 2-4, 1959: Canada and the United States Called to the Rescue of Latin America

James F. Garneau

As with the push for the evangelization of African-Americans, and the subsequent efforts to ordain priests from within the same community for service within the United States, to a great extent, both the initiative and the sustaining momentum for an ecclesial pan-American movement intended to aid the Church in Latin America during the Cold War era came from the Holy See. 1 The first inter-American Episcopal Conference, held at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., November 2-4, 1959, consisting of representatives of the collegial bodies of the Latin American, United States, and Canadian hierarchies, 2 was convoked by the Holy See in order "to broaden the concept of collaboration in solving the problems of South America, transforming it from a Latin American effort . . . [to] build a Pan-American collaboration." 3 [End Page 662]

This gathering was the culmination of a series of papal initiatives that sought to establish a greater degree of co-operation between the churches in North and South America. The Holy See at that time had enormous confidence in the ability of the Church in the United States and in Canada to respond to the principal Cold War-related crises that it had identified in Latin America--the advance of Communism and the spread of Protestantism. These North American churches were judged at the time as being especially capable of providing the necessary personnel and material aid to stem the advancing tide of both movements. 4

During the Washington meetings, bishops from each of the regions expressed their views with regard to the situation and presented proposals for action. Their deliberations provide an opportunity to examine the broad variety of expectations and attitudes in the postwar era within the various national churches represented and the Holy See. This variety made effective long-term collaboration difficult, despite the appearance to many observers of a more monolithic ecclesial unity in the 1950's. The often contrasting perspectives observed at this conference help to explain the more radical and public divisions within the Church in America (North and South) of the following generation.

Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, Archbishop of Boston and founder of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle, whose purpose it was to send English-speaking diocesan priests for periods of missionary service [End Page 663] to Latin America, presided over the meetings, and Archbishop Antonio Samorè, Secretary of the newly-created Pontifical Commission for Latin America, 5 was in attendance. In addition, there were twenty other bishops present, including the apostolic delegates to Canada (Sebastiano Baggio) and the United States (Egidio Vagnozzi), and eighteen prelates from the United States, Canada, and all of South America (six from each of the three regions). 6

The purpose of the meeting, as understood by the Holy See and its representatives, was much broader than that initially envisioned by the majority of the United States bishops. Rather than yet another appeal for financial support of a particular project or local effort within Latin America, to which the United States bishops had become accustomed over the years, this meeting had as its goal the mobilization and co-ordination of efforts from Canada and the United States for the strengthening of the Church in Latin America. 7 The extent of the change and [End Page 664] unprecedented levels of co-operation that were expected by the Holy See became apparent to some of the United States bishops only gradually. In a letter of March 6, 1959, to Monsignor Paul F. Tanner, the General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) at the time, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John O'Hara, wrote that these initiatives of the Holy See "seem to imply a program for the American Bishops that goes far beyond anything we had contemplated." 8

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