The possibility of ordaining married men as priests for the Pan-Amazonian region is presented in the working document for the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region that will take place in the Vatican Oct. 6 to Oct. 27. But while this proposal may draw most media attention, it should not be allowed to eclipse other significant aspects in the document, including the church’s strong commitment to work for justice for the region’s peoples and the protection of its environment against the devastating onslaught of major economic forces.
The document introduces the ordination of married men when it notes that in the Pan-Amazonian region “communities have difficulty in celebrating frequently the Eucharist for lack of priests.” It then adds that “since the church lives from the Eucharist and the Eucharist builds the church,” rather than “leaving the community without the Eucharist, change is requested in the criteria for selecting and preparing ministers authorized to celebrate the Eucharist.”
“The church lives from the Eucharist and the Eucharist builds the church.”
Speaking about the need to promote native vocations and “affirming that celibacy is a gift for the church,” the working document says “it is requested that, for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of the priestly ordination should be studied for older people, preferably indigenous, [who are] respected and accepted by their communities, even if they have an existing and stable family, in order to ensure the availability of the sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.”
The text also calls for the synod to “identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role they play today in the church in Amazonia.” But in presenting the text, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary general of the synod, made clear that this did not include the women’s diaconate since, as the pope told the plenary assembly of the Union of Superiors Generals, there is no agreement on this question.
The document also requested that women’s voices “be heard, that they be consulted and participate in decision-making, and thus be able to contribute with their sensitivity to ecclesial synodality.”
The Rev. Miguel Yanez, the Argentinean-born professor of moral theology at the Gregorian University, presented the document alongside Cardinal Baldisseri. Speaking to journalists after the press conference, he said that the question of ordaining married men and giving a greater role to women should be seen within the context of “inculturation,” the tradition of rooting the Gospel and the church’s teaching within local culture.
He called inculturation “the great novelty of this document” and the ordination of married men “a suggestion” to be discussed by the synod. He explained that regarding the ordination of older married men, the text refers to people “with a journey of committed Christian life and who have a leadership role in the community.”
The synod should “identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role they play today in the church in Amazonia.”
At the synod, he said, “the bishops could dismiss this idea, or they could propose it to the pope who could, in his turn, also dismiss it. We’re in a phase of the process, and it is a sacramental question.”
Asked why the document does not use the term “viri probati,” a term that popularly is understood to refer to married men of proven virtue who are suitable for ordination, Cardinal Baldisseri said it was a term that is “much abused” But Father Yanez explained that the document contains what has come from “listening” to the people and since the indigenous peoples do not speak Latin, that term did not arise. Father Yanez also said it is the first time that the suggestion to ordain married men has come out of a synodal process of listening to the people. He pointed out that there are already ordained married men in the Catholic Church from the Eastern Rite and Greek Catholic church too, so the pope could make another exception without abolishing the rule of celibacy in the Latin-rite church.
The 64-page synod document was originally written in Spanish but has been translated into other languages, including English, and is divided into three main parts.
Part I, titled “The Voice of the Amazon” looks at the region as a whole: its life, the territory, the time which is seen as a “kairos” or a God-given moment and the way of dialogue.
Part II, called “Integral Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and of the Poor” is rooted within the vision of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,’” but applied to the Amazon region. It provides a searing focus on the terrible damage being done in the region by economic interests linked to petroleum, gas, lumber, gold and agricultural industries whose main goal is to “maximum profit” irrespective of the damage to peoples and the environment. It emphasizes the urgent need for ecological conversion. It is divided into nine chapters that deal with topics such as urbanization, family and community, corruption, the question of integral health (intimately linked to clean air and water), integral education and ecological conversion.
Part III bears the significant title: “A prophetic church in the Amazon: challenges and hopes.” It reminds us that the Amazon is not just forests but also cities in which the indigenous peoples are forced to seek education or employment. While uprooted from their natural habitats, they are often reached by Pentecostal groups that are very active in the periphery, and the document emphasizes the need for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue here.
This third part of the text is divided into eight chapters, which look at the challenges of inculturation and interculturality, the celebration of faith with an enculturated liturgy, the organization of the communities, evangelization in the cities, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, mission of the media and communications and the prophetic role of the church and integral human promotion.
The Amazon region, which is the focus of the document and the forthcoming synod, is spread over nine countries—Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Surinam, Guyana and French Guyana—and involves seven episcopal conferences. More than 100 participants at the synod will come from these conferences, but representatives of the continental conferences of bishops will also be invited from, together with members of the Panamazon Ecclesial Network and some 32 men and women auditors, including 20 representatives of the indigenous peoples of the region.
Correction, June 17, 2019; 2:25 p.m. EDT: Missing text added.