The final document approved by the necessary two-thirds majority of the voting members of the synod for the Pan-Amazonian region was focused on four calls for conversion: pastoral, cultural, ecological and synodal. But how will those calls be heard in the church, given the intense focus on the synod’s endorsement of ordaining married men in order to make the Eucharist more available in Amazonian communities?
In fact, those calls for conversion might not even make a list of the top five issues that have dominated coverage of the synod. The synod’s closing week was dominated by news of the theft of wooden statues depicting a pregnant Amazonian woman, which had been used along with other symbols, including the cross, in prayer services during the synod. The thieves recorded and publicized video of themselves dumping the statues off a bridge into the Tiber River, celebrating their vandalism as a blow against “idolatry.” (The statues were later recovered by the Italian police.)
Calls for conversion might not even make a list of the top five issues that have dominated coverage of the synod.
The theft set off a social media frenzy fueled by breathless “breaking news” coverage in a number of media outlets that frequently drum up opposition to Pope Francis—the same outlets that had spent the months leading up to the synod fomenting fear about its working document and the people chosen to serve on its organizing committee. These media reports drew in many cases on quotes from and interviews with prelates, priests and laypeople who literally presented themselves as “more Catholic than the pope” regarding the topics under discussion at the synod.
Because of this determined effort to scandalize the faithful, the synod appeared to be divisive, when in fact it was an instance of profound ecclesial communion. The church gathered together a wide range of participants to consider the needs of a complex and vital region, unique in its ecological importance, that includes nine countries and an enormous number of cultures. Even the most contentious question—on married priests—was approved by more than three-quarters of those voting. Of the 120 total paragraphs in the final document, 113 were approved by more than 90 percent of the voters.
Among the themes that received such overwhelming support were: the opportunity for the church “to differentiate itself from new colonizing powers by listening to the Amazonian peoples”; greater pastoral efforts to assist migrants and oppose human trafficking; the establishment of an Amazonian Catholic university; and the recognition of an integral link between preserving the ecology of the Amazon and protecting the rights of its indigenous communities.
One of the most significant questions we now face in the church is how to commit to the path of “synodal conversion,” as this synod has put it, overcoming fear and distrust.
One of the most significant questions we now face in the church is how to commit to the path of “synodal conversion,” as this synod has put it, overcoming fear and distrust. The synod called for strengthening “a culture of dialogue, reciprocal listening, spiritual discernment, consensus and communion” and said that “it is not possible to be the church without recognizing an effective exercise of the sensus fidei of the whole people of God.”
Throughout much of Francis’ papacy, but particularly during synod meetings, the church’s commitment to listening, discernment and communion has been opposed by a sort of “heckler’s veto” exercised by the most fearful and intolerant voices in the church. They presume that their cramped vision of the tradition has already answered and foreclosed any question that might be considered. Those voices speak from desolation, not from the action of the Holy Spirit, and they risk crowding out the honest and faithful critique that Francis has said he desires.
The church must, therefore, embrace the challenge of amplifying the voices present in the synod hall and among the local communities of the Amazon. We need, as Pope Francis said in his homily at the synod’s closing Mass, to remember that “the cry of the poor...is the cry of hope of the church.” The whole body of Christ needs to hear God speaking to us there.