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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 15, 2017
Pope Francis uses incense as he celebrates the canonization Mass of new saints in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 15. The pope canonized groups of martyrs from Mexico and Brazil, an Italian Capuchin priest and a Spanish priest. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In a surprise, important announcement today, Pope Francis said he has decided to convene a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region to be held in Rome on October 2019.

He revealed that he took the decision in response to “the wish of several episcopal conferences of Latin America,” and to “the voice of [various] pastors and faithful from other parts of the world.”

He explained that its main aim is “to identify new ways for the evangelization of that portion of the people of God, and especially the indigenous peoples” in this region of the world “who are often forgotten and without the prospect of a serene future, also because of the crisis of the Amazonian forest, [which is] a lung that is of capital importance for our planet.”

In the Amazon region “life is shown in its mega-diversity as a gift of God for all” but “it is being ever more devastated and threatened.”

Amazonia contains the world’s largest tropical forest (6 million square kilometers), and its biggest river. Geographically the Amazonian region is shared by Guyana, Surinam, French Guyana (0.15 percent), Bolivia (7.7 percent), Venezuela (1 percent), Ecuador (2 percent), Colombia (6 percent), Peru (13 percent) and Brazil (67 percent). It is home to 30 million people, including 2,779,478 indigenous people. They are from 390 indigenous tribes and 137 isolated peoples, speaking over 240 languages.

Pope Francis broke the news at the end of Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday morning, Oct. 15, during which he canonized 35 new saints, 33 of them martyrs from Brazil and Mexico, including two young indigenous Mexican child martyrs aged 12 and 13. He did so in the presence of official delegations from Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Spain and the Sovereign Order of Malta.

He concluded the announcement by asking the new saints to intercede for this ecclesial event “so that, with respect for the beauty of creation, all the peoples of the earth may praise God, the Lord of the universe, and enlightened by him, may walk in the paths of justice and peace.”

The convening of this synod can be seen and understood as directly linked to the ongoing work of the Latin American Church’s transnational network, Red Eclesial PanAmazónica (REPAM), which was set up in Brazil in September of 2014, by the nine churches of the Amazon region. The network was established under the umbrella of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) as a direct response to Pope Francis’ important talk to the CELAM leadership, during his visit to Brazil for World Youth Day in July of 2013. In that talk, he spoke forcefully about the Amazon region and the grave situation there.

Indigenous people of southern Brazil are seen in Brasilia, Brazil, May 16. Archbishop Salvador Pineiro Garcia-Calderon of Ayacucho, president of the Peruvian bishops' conference, said May 16 that Pope Francis is considering dedicating a meeting of the Synod of Bishops to the concerns of the indigenous people of the Amazon region. (CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters)
Indigenous people of southern Brazil are seen in Brasilia, Brazil, May 16. (CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters)

The Pan-Amazonian network involves the Catholic Churches and many of its institutions in the nine countries that are part of the Amazon region: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and French Guyana, Bolivia and Venezuela, as well as lay organizations and the religious orders currently working there.

A key backer of this initiative is Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who is very close to Pope Francis, and is president of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference’s commission for Amazonia. In a message to a March 2015 conference in Rome presenting REPAM, the cardinal explained that through this network the church “wishes to be close to the people of this region, with courage and determination, especially to the poorest, the excluded, the discarded, the forgotten and the wounded.” He said it “aims to unite the efforts of the Church [in the nine countries] in favor of the responsible and sustainable care of this whole Amazon region so as to promote its integral good, human rights, evangelization, as well as the social, cultural and economic development of its people, especially the original indigenous peoples.”

Cardinal Hummes emphasized the fact that in the Amazon region “life is shown in its mega-diversity as a gift of God for all” but “it is being ever more devastated and threatened.” He explained that increasing deforestation, big agricultural projects, hydro-electric plants, the extraction of oil and other rich minerals, as well as monoculture and climate changes “are putting at grave risk” both the natural surroundings and the dignity and self-determination of the populations living there, especially the indigenous peoples, the poor people who live by the rivers, the peasants, the descendants of the Africans brought here and even the poor who live in the local cities.

For all these reasons, the cardinal said, the churches in the region decided to create this network (REPAM) in order to join their forces together, to support and encourage each other and “to have a prophetic and ever more important voice at the international level” whenever the question of Amazonia and its peoples is at stake. He concluded his message with an appeal: “Do not forget Amazonia, it is crucial for the future of humanity!”

Pope Francis is attentive to that call and has long been profoundly concerned about the situation in the Amazon region, as he made clear on several occasions, including in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.” He is sure to highlight his concern when he will visit the city of Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazonian region of Peru, on Jan. 19, 2018. His decision to hold a special synod of bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region is a powerful response to this crisis situation.

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