The promotion of “integral ecology” and the discernment of “new paths” in evangelization and ministry for a church with an Amazonian face are the two major themes that have emerged in the first week of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, taking place Oct. 6 to Oct. 27 in Rome.
The synod’s participants, which include 184 voting members (mostly bishops) and 80 experts and auditors (including 33 women), have frequently described the deadly consequences of climate change, extractive practices and the loss of biodiversity in the Amazon region. Journalists do not have direct access to discussions that take place within the synod hall, but Vatican News publishes summaries of the contributions after each plenary, and various synod members appear at daily press briefings.
In these briefings, pastoral leaders in the region have told compelling personal stories about how their communities are negatively affected by climate change and the invasive activities of multinational companies.
The retired Bishop Erwin Kräutler, C.Pp.S., of Xingu, Brazil, said on Oct. 9 that his community is against the building of any new power stations in Brazil, an activity he characterized as an “aggression waged against the ecosystem.” He said the community “feels all the consequences of the power station” and that the Xingu River, a 1,000-mile river in northern Brazil, “is no longer the same anymore.”
This “aggression against the Amazon forest” has involved deforestation and led to flooding, and the people have been forced to move into “tiny cement constructions,” he said. A dam was built that prevents the migration of fish, and “tons of fish were killed.” The bishop lamented the use of the term “clean energy” to describe what these power stations produce.
“The indigenous people were promised the blue of the sky, but the opposite has happened,” the bishop told reporters. “The local people were never consulted, not given the chance to express their opinions and doubts.” The projects were “premediated, already decided in Brasília,” the capital of Brazil, he said.
Inside the synod hall on Oct. 12, participants raised concerns about the need to protect indigenous territories “so that they are not expropriated and plundered in the name of mining activities or hydroelectric power plants,” according to a Vatican News summary. “The defense of the earth is equivalent to the defense of life.”
The indigenous people were promised the blue of the sky, but the opposite has happened.
Other topics discussed on Oct. 12 were the need for sustainable development, access to education, “ecological citizenship” and an “economy of solidarity.” Youth unemployment was characterized as “the first and most serious form of exclusion and marginalization of youth.” Participants also addressed human trafficking, prostitution, forced labor and organ trafficking, which were called “crimes against humanity”; and the pastoral care for migrants, which was described as “not only a social work, but above all a spiritual one, capable of bringing hope and promoting the true integration of migrants.”
Within the context of discerning “new paths” for the Amazon church to more effectively proclaim the Gospel—the second major theme of the synod’s first week—proposals to ordain viri probati (proven married men) to the priesthood as well as to enhance the leadership and ministry of women in the Amazon region have been discussed on a daily basis inside the synod hall, according to the Vatican News summaries.
Reflecting on Pastoral Challenges
Bishop Kräutler was equally passionate when describing some of the pastoral challenges related to evangelization and the availability of sacraments in the region. There are thousands of indigenous communities in the Amazon, he said, that “do not celebrate the Eucharist except perhaps one, two or three times a year.”
“The Eucharist, for us Catholics, is the source and summit of our faith,” he told reporters at the briefing on Oct. 9. “For the love of God, these people don’t have it!” The bishops who favor the ordination of married men as priests, he said, “are not against celibacy. We just want these brothers and sisters of ours not to have just a celebration of the word but also the celebration of the Eucharist.”
The bishops who favor the ordination of married men as priests, he said, “are not against celibacy.
In press briefings, at least two bishops and one permanent deacon, each of whom work in the Amazon region, have expressed support for proposals raised within the synod hall to ordain women to the permanent diaconate.
Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of São Félix, Brazil, said on Oct. 12 that his diocese has a formation program that started four years ago and includes both studies in classical theology and a pastoral “insertion” into the community. He said the program is open to both men and women and that the women “know already that if the pope, with this synod, opens the possibility of the diaconate for women, they know I will ordain them, if they are brought forward by the community.”
In an interview with Crux on Sept. 9, Bishop Vasino explained why he supports this possibility: the ministry of women is “already diaconal” in many communities in the region. “Women are already doing the work of ordained deacons in many places, so I don’t see why such a reality can’t be acknowledged. I believe this is only a matter of power,” he said.
The press briefing on Oct. 12 also featured one of two permanent deacons who are participating in the synod as auditors. “The face of the Amazonian church is also a female face,” said Deacon Francisco Andrade de Lima, the executive secretary of North Region 1 of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil. “There are many women who lead communities and make sure faith continues to be alive in those communities.”
“There are many women who lead communities and make sure faith continues to be alive in those communities.”
The deacon, who is married and has two daughters, said, “I don’t see problems concerning the fact of having women carry out this ministry” of the permanent diaconate. “We must always, however, think of the ministerial nature of the church of the Amazon, from the aspect of vocation, not just solving problems” because we “don’t have enough people.” We “must start from vocations, the history of the Amazon church” and “from women” themselves, he said.
Bishop Kräutler, who was appointed by Pope Francis as one of the 18 members of the pre-synod council, said at the press briefing on Oct. 9 that two-thirds of the communities in the Amazon are “coordinated and directed by women,” and “we need concrete solutions” concerning the role of women in the region. “I’m thinking of the women’s diaconate,” he said.
The bishop told journalists after the briefing that while he was not sure how many bishops supported this proposal, he believed that “many of the bishops are in favor of the ordination of female deacons.”
Women at the Synod
The role of women in the church was raised in the synod hall by both female auditors and synod fathers at the morning plenary on Oct. 12, said Paolo Ruffini, head of Vatican communications, at a press briefing the same day. He reported that one of the female auditors quoted Pope Paul VI’s message to women at the close of the Second Vatican Council, in which the pope said “the hour has come” when the vocation of women “is being achieved in its fullness,” and women who are “imbued with the spirit of the Gospel” are acquiring “an influence, an effect and a power never before achieved.”
The enhanced presence of women “lays the foundations for a less clerical church.”
Mr. Ruffini added that some synod participants said the topic of women in the church should be dealt with by a general synod.
In the afternoon plenary on Oct. 12, participants continued to speak about the need to discern “the establishment of the female diaconate in the region,” according to a Vatican News summary. “Women today have in fact acquired more and more space in the life of the community not only as a catechist or a mother, but also as a possible subject of new ministries.” Further, in the context of a clericalism that “hinders service, fraternity and solidarity,” synod participants argued that the enhanced presence of women “lays the foundations for a less clerical church.”
Other sights and sounds from week one at the Amazon synod:
• Before directing a question to a synod member at the Vatican press briefing on Oct. 9, Christopher Lamb, the Rome correspondent for The Tablet, said he first wanted to speak in a “personal capacity” in order to “offer an apology to some of the indigenous people in the Amazon” for some of the “demeaning, xenophobic and, at times, racist” remarks that have appeared in “parts of the media, the Catholic media.”
• The atmosphere inside the synod hall is markedly different from past synods. On the first morning of the synod, the bishops were told that they did not need to wear cassocks but that a simple clerical shirt and jacket would suffice. During a break inside the synod hall on Oct. 9, a participant from Brazil offered fresh-made mate or chimarrão, a traditional South American drink, to other members. Pope Francis was one of those who accepted the gift, and he sipped on mate as various members visited with him.
The atmosphere inside the synod hall is markedly different from past synods.
• Over the course of the synod, each participant has an opportunity to give a four-minute speech inside the synod hall. At this synod, some of the contributions have been sung, according to the Vatican communications team. Also, on Oct. 12, the day the church remembers Our Lady of Aparecida, synod members sang a song in honor of the patroness of Brazil, and entrusted to her the work of the synod.
• Now that the first round of small group discussions have taken place, the usual plenary sessions, called “general congregations,” will continue. After the small language groups convene for a second time, they will present reports to the synod assembly on Oct. 17, and the last week of the synod will be devoted to receiving the draft document and discussing it at different levels (including in the small groups) so that amendments can improve the text. The synod members will vote on the document on Oct. 26.
• At this moment, 184 synod members—comprised mostly of bishops but also including some priests and one non-ordained religious brother—have the right to vote on the final document. Some group have petitioned that the right to vote also be extended to at least some women in the synod who are presently serving as non-voting auditors.
Birgit Weiler, a Medical Missionary Sister and a member of the Peruvian bishops’ pastoral ministry for the care of creation, told journalists at a Vatican news briefing on Oct. 11 that women should be included among the synod’s voting members.
“When you have participated fully in the whole process of sharing faith, of discerning together,” the German theologian said, then the vote is a natural expression of wanting to participate fully in the decision-making phase of the synod.