“The synod is already a success by the very fact that it is happening,” the Peruvian Jesuit cardinal, Pedro Barreto Jimeno, one of the president delegates of the Synod for the Amazon, told America in this interview at the end of the first week of the synod.
As vice president and founding member of REPAM (the ecclesial network for the Amazonian region set up in 2014 to respond to the grave concerns of the pope and the church regarding the deep wounds of the region and its peoples) he worked hard together with Cardinal Claudio Hummes for the synod and is overjoyed that it is being held. He told America he felt there was “an eruption of the Holy Spirit in the synod because the indigenous peoples of Amazonia are happy to feel at home in a house that is outside their normal one, which is Amazonia. This has not happened before.”
Speaking in Spanish in a rather poetic way, the cardinal, who is archbishop of Huancayo in the Central Andes mountains, said: “To enter the synod is to enter already in the Amazon River.” He likened the 18-month preparation for this assembly to the inflow of the 1,100 main tributaries into the 4,000-mile-long mighty river, and said “the Amazon is so wide that at times one cannot see the river bank from one side to the other.”
“Right now, we are in a boat in the Amazon, with a slow but good rhythm,” he said. But aware that some are quite critical of the synod, the cardinal added: “One can hear criticisms from people that are on the river bank, not in the boat, they can shout, they can insult with sophisticated microphones, but they [do not change our course].”
“Right now, we are in a boat in the Amazon, with a slow but good rhythm,” the cardinal said.
“Right now,” he added, “we are in this Amazon, which has its own dynamic and, in the third stage, it will flow into the Atlantic Ocean, the symbol of humanity and of the church.” His reference to the third stage appears to mean the phase when Pope Francis incorporates its recommendations into the post-synodal apostolic exhortation for implementation in the region.
“On entering the boat,” he said, “I perceived an initial experience of dialogue with much liberty, even though there were some attempts to close the conversation, to not touch the theme of viri probati [ordaining as priests mature married men from indigenous communities], to not touch the theme of the woman’s diaconate,” but those attempts were “cut off immediately because Pope Francis asked people to speak with total freedom, and said people should not be afraid to speak ‘even if [their faces] get red.’” Some of the organizers wanted to cut the discussion short, he said, but “the president delegates, and I am one of those, were very faithful to the orientation that Pope Francis had given us.”
The friendly, dynamic cardinal, born in Lima 75 years ago, said that while “there are not tensions” in the synod around the question of the ordination of viri probati as priests, “two visions” have emerged on this question. While “some have spoken against it, and even some indigenous communities do not want married priests” (because, for example, they do not want to confess to someone they know in the community), he believes “the majority” of the synod fathers are in favor of the ordination of viri probati because they are concerned to provide the Eucharist regularly to communities in the vast Amazonian region that otherwise would not have it except with great irregularity, perhaps once a month or even once a year, or less often.
He recognizes the “fear among some” that if the synod advocates the ordination of “persons who are capable of being priests even though they are married” for the Amazonian region, then bishops in other regions such as the Pacific islands may also ask for the same. But for him it is “not a matter of ideology” but of “pastoral conversion,” of which the pope speaks in “The Joy of the Gospel” and “Laudato Si’” so as to respond to the needs of evangelization and providing the Eucharist for communities in areas where there are no priests, or where priests come rarely. He recalled that all the recent popes have emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist for the life of the Christian community.
Some like Cardinal Gerhard Müller have spoken out strongly against any change in the law of celibacy by the pope. His criticism also appeared in a recent interview in La Repubblica, an Italian daily. Cardinal Barreto said he did not wish to enter into an argument with a brother cardinal, but in terms of this synod, he said, “he is on the river bank.” He noted there is much misinformation and misunderstanding about the viri probati question and emphasized: “Pope Francis is not going to change the law, he has never thought of changing the law on celibacy.” He recalled that Francis stated this clearly in a recent airborne press conference when he said, “I would prefer to die than to abolish the law of celibacy.”
The cardinal underlined that “doctrine is one thing, pastoral action is another thing.” He said “the ordination of viri probati is a pastoral change, it is not a doctrinal change.” Celibacy is “a gift” which God gives “in addition to the priestly vocation,” he said, and he recalled that there were married priests in the early centuries of the church. He concluded: “Celibacy remains as a gift of God, and cannot be touched, but it is not a dogma of faith.”
He said that even if the synod recommended the ordination of viri probati people should understand that “the doctrine of the Catholic church does not change,” but they should also recognize that “the doctrine also includes the social doctrine of the church and the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which is an essential part of our commitment with God, with our brothers and sisters and the natural creation.” Aware of the resistance in some quarters to “Laudato Si’” and other aspects of the church’s social teaching, he recalled that St. Jerome once declared “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” and said one could perhaps say today “to ignore the Successor of Peter, in this case Francis, is to ignore Christ and to be outside the church.”
Cardinal Barreto emphasized that although the media is highlighting the two questions of viri probati and women deacons, “these are not the main issues of the synod, though they are important. The main issues are those presented in ‘Laudato Si’.’” Those two questions are on the synod’s agenda because they emerged from the consultations during its preparatory phase. Indeed, he said, “the strength of this synod is in the process of preparation that took place over almost two and a half years. It was a process of listening to people from the local level, from the territory; listening not only with the intelligence, but with the heart and the will.”
He recalled that 45 territorial assemblies were held “across the entire Amazonian region, with a participation of 90 percent of the indigenous peoples, leaders of communities. More than 80,000 people participated.” There were, moreover, 30 or 40 thematic forums on Amazonia in different parts of the world, including two in Rome and one in Washington D.C., at Georgetown University. The latter was significant because “it put Amazonia at the center of economic power, there where the internationalization of Amazonia was declared 20 years ago and they produced a world authority.” He recalled that 12 cardinals, from every continent, participated in the Georgetown meeting, and commented humorously that some described it as “a kind of mini-conclave.” In actual fact, he said, what was particularly important was the presence there of representatives of indigenous peoples from all continents, each one speaking in their own language. Moreover, “Amazonia is multiethnic, multireligious, a plurality of origins, of cultures, of languages. They did not speak of ideas but of experiences in a fraternal relationship,” he said, and “it was interesting to listen not only with the intelligence, but with the heart and the will.”
Cardinal Barreto emphasized that although the media is highlighting the two questions of viri probati and women deacons, “these are not the main issues of the synod, though they are important. The main issues are those presented in ‘Laudato Si’.’”
The question of ministries for women has featured strongly at the synod, and participants have given a very striking picture of the wide range of ministries they are actually doing in Amazonia. The cardinal recounted that in his archdiocese of Huancayo in the Andes, “there are communities more than seven hours from the city in which women religious (“sisters”) baptize, celebrate para-liturgies of communion, give homilies, distribute communion, and preside at religious weddings. In actual fact it is so throughout Latin America,” he stated. Then referring to synod fathers from Amazonia, he said, “it concerns us a lot that some say no, no, no” to women without properly grasping what they are already doing in the church.
In his own archdiocese, he said, “I authorized a sister, a woman religious consecrated to God, who is in fact a lay person and not part of the hierarchy, to celebrate marriage and the people accepted it. Why? Because there is no priest who could attend.” Then referring to women religious celebrating the para-liturgies of communion he said he explained to the people that “this is not the Eucharist,” nevertheless people tell him, “we prefer the Mass of the sister, to that of the priest who comes and goes rapidly.” Cardinal Barreto reported that many in the synod “insisted much that it’s necessary to pass from ‘a pastoral [ministry] of the visit’ to ‘a pastoral [ministry] of presence.’” The fact is, he said, “the presence [of the church] among the most distant peoples is through the women religious.”
Cardinal Barreto first met the future Pope Francis in Buenos Aires in 1981 at a retreat of The Spiritual Exercises, and when he told him his mother was born and had lived until the age of 9 in Flores—the same district where Bergoglio grew up, before moving to Lima, the Argentinian Jesuit showed him around the borough. They have met on other occasions since then, he said, including in Rome and at Aparecida for the Fifth Plenary Assembly of CELAM in 2007. He recalled the central role Cardinal Bergoglio played at Aparecida as chief editor of its final document and noted how this has impacted his papacy and how after taking the name of Francis on his election as pope, in his homily at the Mass for his inauguration, on March 19, 2013, he made clear that the protection of the created world was one of the priorities of his pontificate.
He noted that Francis spoke about this too in his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” and devoted his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” to the subject. He said the Amazonian synod is “the child of Laudato Si’” and he recalled that in Rio de Janiero, July 2013, Pope Francis told the bishops of Brazil that the Amazon basin is “the litmus test for the church and society in Brazil.” In all this, Cardinal Barreto said, “Francis has heard the cries of the poor and of the indigenous peoples and the screams of Mother Earth and so he convened this synod and invited 16 representatives of the indigenous peoples to participate in it.”
The Peruvian cardinal emphasized that the Amazon synod “has deep waters: the deep water is in the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” which was written for Catholics, for believers and for all the inhabitants of the world, and calls on us to take action “because our Mother Earth screams and the poor are crying because the earth is dying.” He said Francis is aware that “they have already cut 20 percent of the lung of the planet” and “he wants to prevent any further damage.” He described “Laudato Si’” as “the deep strength of the synod” that outlines the real issues. At the synod he said we are exploring “the deep waters of God,” and “what God is asking of us for the evangelization of the Amazon region.”
Long before he joined the Jesuits, Cardinal Barreto was concerned about the plight of indigenous peoples. As bishop, he worked a short time among them in the Apostolic Vicariate of Jaén, in Peru’s northern Amazonian region, and this had a major impact on him. Two and a half years later, he became deeply involved the environmental question soon after being appointed as Archbishop of Huyanco. He supported strong action, in spite of threats to his life, against a smelter and refinery complex in the nearby town of La Oroya that was causing immense pollution and great harm to the local people and the natural environment. His advocacy of “integral ecology” is rooted in these experiences.
He believes, however, that some people are using the media to try to move the attention away from the serious ecological questions at the heart of this synod onto other topics because of the considerable economic interests involved in the Amazon region.
He recognizes too that there is resistance to Pope Francis by some “who do not accept the risk of walking” but instead “want a static church, a church of doctrine, more than one of pastoral action. They want a church that is different to the one Jesus wants, which is a church of solidarity, a church that really responds to the needs of people, and of nature itself.”