Pope Francis opened the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon today with an inspiring homily during Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in which he reminded synod participants that “Jesus did not come to bring a gentle evening breeze, but to light a fire on the earth.”
He prayed that the spirit of Jesus “may give us his own daring prudence” and “inspire our synod to renew the paths of the church in Amazonia, so that the fire of mission will continue to burn.” He continued, “God’s fire burns but does not consume. It is the fire of love that illumines, warms and gives life, not a fire that blazes up and devours.”
“God’s fire burns but does not consume. It is the fire of love that illumines, warms and gives life, not a fire that blazes up and devours.”
Speaking specifically of the church’s mission in the Amazon region, he said, “When peoples and cultures are devoured without love and without respect, it is not God’s fire but that of the world. Yet how many times has God’s gift been imposed, not offered; how many times has there been colonization rather than evangelization!
“May God preserve us from the greed of new forms of colonialism,” he said. “The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel. The fire of God is warmth that attracts and gathers into unity. It is fed by sharing, not by profits. The fire that destroys, on the other hand, blazes up when people want to promote only their own ideas, form their own group, wipe out differences in the attempt to make everyone and everything uniform.”
Pope Francis announced this synod exactly two years ago. He sees it as the first child of the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” a concrete realization of that magisterial text because it touches so many of the key issues that are central to it, including “integral ecology,” economic justice, poverty and evangelization. As Francis has pointed out on several occasions, all these issues are interlinked, and one cannot understand the synod without reading “Laudato Si’.”
The synod comes at a critical time for the 34 million inhabitants (including three million indigenous people) of the Amazon region that stretches across nine countries—Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. The region has been called one of the “lungs of the world,” and it provides some 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
As Francis has pointed out on several occasions, one cannot understand the synod without reading “Laudato Si’.”
Pope Francis opened the synod by concelebrating Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica this Sunday morning with the 184 synod fathers (the bishops and some clerics who have the right to vote in it) and the 13 new cardinals that he created yesterday. The pope and concelebrants wore green vestments, the color of the liturgical season, but it could also be said to reflect the “green” issues that are central to this important gathering. The Sistine choir led the singing in Latin, and readings and prayers and were said in many languages, including Chinese, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Lithuanian. Women and men representatives of the Amazon’s indigenous peoples who are participating in the synod brought offertory gifts to the pope.
In his homily, Francis told the synod’s participants (who include 35 women, 20 of whom are women religious) that the Apostle Paul, “the greatest missionary in the church’s history, helps us to make this ‘synod’, this journey together” and “reminds us ‘to rekindle’ the gift that God has given us [as bishops].”
He reminded them: “We are bishops because we have received a gift of God. We did not sign an agreement; we were not handed an employment contract. Rather, hands were laid on our heads so that we in turn might be hands raised to intercede before the Father, helping hands extended to our brothers and sisters. We received a gift so that we might become a gift.
Pope Francis: “Missionary outreach is a clear sign of the maturity of an ecclesial community.”
Gifts are not bought, traded or sold; they are received and given away. If we hold on to them, if we make ourselves the center and not the gift we have received. We become bureaucrats, not shepherds. We turn the gift into a job and its gratuitousness vanishes. We end up serving ourselves and using the church.” He told them that “thanks to the gift we have received, our lives are directed to service.”
Pope Francis told the synod fathers “to be faithful to our calling, our mission. Saint Paul reminds us that our gift has to be rekindled,” and “the image he uses is that of stoking a fire. The gift we have received is a fire, a burning love for God and for our brothers and sisters.”
Then in words that resonated in the context of the synod’s work, he told them, “A fire does not burn by itself; it has to be fed or else it dies; it turns into ashes. If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo.”
He told them in the words of Benedict XVI that “in no way can the church restrict her pastoral work to the ‘ordinary maintenance’ of those who already know the Gospel of Christ. Missionary outreach is a clear sign of the maturity of an ecclesial community.” Francis said this is so “because the church is always on the move, always going out.” He then declared, “Jesus did not come to bring a gentle evening breeze, but to light a fire on the earth.”
Francis praises ‘prudence,’ not ‘timidity’
There has been much discussion about what decisions the synod might take, especially in reference to ordaining as priests mature married men from indigenous communities and giving new ecclesial roles to women, Francis is well aware of this and seemed to allude to it when he reminded the synod fathers, in the words of St. Paul, that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and prudence.” He repeated, “Not a spirit of timidity, but of prudence. Not a spirit of fear that blocks everything” and recalled that “Paul places prudence in opposition to timidity.”
He explained what this “prudence of the spirit” means by quoting from the Catechism of the church approved by St. John Paul II, which states that prudence “is not to be confused with timidity or fear”; rather, it is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (No. 1806). Pope Francis elaborated on this, saying, “prudence is not indecision; it is not a defensive attitude. It is the virtue of the pastor who, in order to serve with wisdom, is able to discern, to be receptive to the newness of the Spirit.”
He told the synod fathers, “rekindling our gift in the fire of the Spirit is the opposite of letting things take their course without doing anything. Fidelity to the newness of the Spirit is a grace that we must ask for in prayer. May the Spirit, who makes all things new, give us his own daring prudence; may he inspire our synod to renew the paths of the church in Amazonia, so that the fire of mission will continue to burn.”
Pope Francis, citing St Paul, called on the synod fathers (among them 113 bishops from the Amazon region) “to bear witness to the Gospel, to suffer for the Gospel, in a word, to live for the Gospel.” He reminded them that “the proclamation of the Gospel is the chief criterion of the church’s life. It is its identity, its mission” and said “to preach the Gospel is to live as an offering, to bear witness to the end, to become all things to all people, to love even to the point of martyrdom.”
Then departing from his written text, Francis thanked God that “there are some in the College of Cardinals who have carried the cross of martyrdom.” One of them is the Lithuanian Jesuit, Sigitas Tamkevicius, who suffered many years of imprisonment and whom he made cardinal yesterday. Francis also recalled that Cardinal Hummes of Brazil had recently visited the graves of missionaries who had died as martyrs in the Brazilian area of the Amazon and suggested that they be declared saints. Francis reminded everyone that St. Paul “makes it quite clear that the Gospel is not served by worldly power, but by the power of God alone: by persevering in humble love, by believing that the only real way to possess life is to lose it through love.”
Pope Francis concluded his homily by urging the synod participants to “look to the crucified Jesus, to his heart pierced for our salvation” and recalling that “so many of our brothers and sisters in Amazonia are bearing heavy crosses and awaiting the liberating consolation of the Gospel, the church’s caress of love. For them, and with them, let us journey together.”
He will join them again tomorrow morning, when the synod begins its work.