Amazon synod wraps, opening new pathways for 21st century Catholicism

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Pope Francis accepts a plant during the offertory as he celebrates the concluding Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — A three-week Vatican summit on the pan-Amazon region might feel a long way from the day-to-day experience of Catholics across parishes in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

But last month’s Synod of Bishops is likely to go down as one of the most significant church meetings in 50 years for opening up new, albeit fragile, pathways for Catholicism in the 21st century.

It was an event subject to fierce and unrelenting criticism from some church quarters, yet it offered a model of listening and synthesizing the pastoral needs of a particular geographic area. Yes, the synod was focused on the Amazon, but its effects will be felt much more broadly. Here we saw the periphery reforming the center.

“We are in a boat, and we are moving,” Jesuit Cardinal Pedro Barreto, who serves in the Amazonian Archdiocese of Huancayo, Peru, said afterward. “Those who criticize are on the shore, they are not in the boat.” The boat, he explained, is the church, which is headed for an ocean “of love, justice and the peace of Christ.”

Pope Francis called the synod to focus on the needs of the indigenous people of the Amazon, a part of the world so often forgotten yet so crucial for the future of the planet. The aim was to find ways to support a “prophetic” and “Samaritan” church in the “wounded and deformed beauty” of the Amazon, at risk from mining and deforestation. Francis brought ecological and pastoral concerns together, and “everything is connected” was the phrase repeated time and again at the synod.

Crucially, the event provided an opportunity for the local church to speak freely. The working document of the gathering was produced after an unprecedented consultation involving 87,000 people.

While synods in the past carefully controlled conversation topics, this one saw free-wheeling, open discussion. This included the idea of ordaining married men as priests in a region where some communities only have Mass celebrated once every two years, and recognizing the role of women, without which there would be no church in the Amazon.

The final document recommends ordaining married deacons as priests in remote regions, and calls on the pope to continue with a commission he set up in 2016 to examine the possibility of women deacons. Most assumed that body, which reported inconclusively in 2019, had been parked. Francis announced at the end of the gathering he would be revamping it.

“We recognize the ministry that Jesus reserved for women,” the synod final document boldly wrote. “It is necessary to promote the formation of women in biblical theology, systematic theology, canon law, valuing their presence in organizations and leadership within and outside the ecclesial environment.”

The willingness of the synod to take new steps brought resistance. A chorus of condemnation came when indigenous representatives, a Franciscan friar, the pope and some cardinals took part in a prayer ceremony in the Vatican gardens dedicating the synod to St. Francis of Assisi. Some commentators scoffed, saying that an “eco-ritual” had been permitted to take place, while others became incensed over indigenous wooden statues of a pregnant woman bowed in prayer. All of this, they argued, was pagan worship.

Amid this climate of hostility, the wooden statues of the pregnant woman were removed from a church near St. Peter’s and thrown into the Tiber River. Some of the indigenous people described the statue as “Our Lady of the Amazon.”

The opposition was, however, curiously ahistorical, forgetting that so much of Western Christian ritual and custom have pagan origins. Professor Delio Siticonatzi Camaiteri, a member of the Ashaninca people in Peru said to journalists: “I see you worried, with doubts about this reality that we seek as natives. Do not harden your heart.” He added: “We have our own rites, but these must hinge on the center that is Jesus Christ. There is nothing else to discuss on this issue. The center that unites us in this synod is Jesus Christ.”

The pope, in a new book-length interview with journalist Gianni Valente released Nov. 5, warns against seeing Christianity through a single lens: “In the period we are living, it becomes even more urgent to bear in mind that the revealed message is not identified with a particular culture,” Francis said. “And when meeting new cultures, or cultures that have not accepted the Christian proclamation, we must not try to impose a determined cultural form together with the evangelical proposition.”

The Amazon synod will be remembered for more than just documents. What made it a signal event was the process. The people of the Amazon, so often ignored, spoke, and Rome listened and responded to a local church. The pope says he will issue his response to the synod by the end of the year. But whatever he writes, one thing is certain: the Amazon has flown into the Tiber, and is bringing the church fresh waters.


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