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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 12, 2020
Pope Francis meets indigenous people from the Amazonian region during an encounter in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican Oct. 17, 2019. The meeting took place during the second week of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis has again surprised the world with his long-awaited document (“Apostolic Exhortation”) in response to the deliberations of the Pan-Amazonian synod. He does not address the question of the ordination of mature married men to the priesthood as many had expected. Instead, in the text known as "Querida Amazonia" (“Beloved Amazonia,”) he pitches hard for justice for the region’s 33 million people, of whom 2.5 are indigenous peoples, and for the protection of their lives, their cultures, their lands, the Amazon river and rainforests, against the “crime and injustice” being perpetrated in the region by powerful economic interests, both national and international, that risk destroying the people and the environment.

He declares that the church must stand with these peoples in their struggle but insists that it must also bring the Good News of salvation to them. He devotes almost half of the document to the need for a radical, missionary renewal of the Amazonian church that involves inculturation at all levels, including in the liturgy, church ministries and organization, and the development of “a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay,” that gives a greater role for the laity, and especially for women.    

He emphasizes the central importance of the Eucharist in building the church in the Amazon region but, at the same time, highlights the disturbing fact that this is not regularly available to so many communities; some do not have the Eucharist for months or years, others not “for decades” because of the shortage of priests. However, notwithstanding widespread expectations, Francis does not address the proposal for the priestly ordination of suitable and esteemed married men (deacons) as a solution to this problem, an issue that largely dominated the media reporting of the synod. He does not explicitly reject the synod’s proposal on this matter, approved by more than a two-thirds majority, he simply does not mention it, not even in a footnote.

It should be stated clearly that his decision to not address the question of ordaining “viri probati” was not at all influenced by the Cardinal Sarah book to which Benedict XVI contributed, because as America learned Francis had already completed his exhortation on Dec. 27, weeks before anyone even knew of the existence of that work, except those directly involved. At the same time, Francis knew most of the senior Roman Curia officials at the synod, including Cardinals Ouellet, Filoni and Sarah, opposed any such opening, despite most of the region’s bishops being in favor.

While Francis, on the other hand, did not consider the issue among the truly big ones at the synod, he recognized its potential for division in the church. Nevertheless, aware of the vital importance of the Eucharist for building the church, Francis, in the part of the exhortation devoted to his “ecclesial dream,” appeals to the bishops of the region and of Latin America to pray for vocations and encourage their priests to be more generous in offering to work in the Amazonian region. In a footnote (No. 132), he says, “in some countries of the Amazon basin, more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.”

In a highly significant move, Francis “officially” presents the synod’s final document, which includes the synod’s hot-button issues, to the Catholic Church worldwide.

He calls for the promotion of the married male diaconate in the region (currently there are few) and asks the region’s bishops to give greater role and responsibility to the laity and especially to women, but without opening to the ordination of women deacons—he does not want to “clericalize” women’s role. He devotes five paragraphs (Nos. 99-103) to the important work that women are doing and suggests what more they could do if given “the authority” by the church, something he advocates.

It is important to note that Francis addresses his 15,000-word exhortation “to the whole world” because he believes the main issues being dealt with here are of concern to “the People of God and to All Persons of Good Will” and he wants to “awaken their affection and concern” for Amazonia. He says the church’s concern for the region’s problems “obliges us to discuss” these important issues.

In this context, in a highly significant move, Francis “officially” presents the synod’s final document, which includes the synod’s hot-button issues, to the Catholic Church worldwide. He explains that this text “sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the participation of many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately.” Moreover, he says, “I have preferred not to cite the Final Document in this Exhortation, because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.”

Pope Francis presents all this in a highly original, at times poetic exhortation, which the Vatican released at noon on Feb. 12, as he elaborates on the “four great dreams” that, he says, “the Amazon inspires in me.” The four dreams are “social,” “cultural,” “ecological” and “ecclesial.”

Francis’ Four Dreams for Amazonia

His first dream is a “social” one: “I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.”

Here he comes down firmly on the side of the indigenous peoples. He says the Amazon region “is facing an ecological disaster” and insists that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment.”

He points to the “injustice and crime” that is due to “the colonizing interests that have continued to expand—legally and illegally—the timber and mining industries, and have expelled or marginalized the indigenous peoples, the river people and those of African descent” and recently led to “migrations of the indigenous peoples to the outskirts of the cities” where “they find the worst forms of enslavement, subjection and poverty” as well as “xenophobia, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.”

He pointedly asserts that, “local powers, using the excuse of development, were also party to agreements aimed at razing the forest—together with the life forms that it shelters—with impunity and indiscriminately.” Today, he says “the imbalance of power is enormous; the weak have no means of defending themselves, while the winners take it all.”

His first dream is a “social” one: “I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor.”

Francis declares that “the businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent, should be called for what they are: injustice and crime.” He adds: “We cannot allow globalization to become a new version of colonialism.”

Pope Francis’ words will certainly not please Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro who, on the eve of the exhortation’s publication, sent a proposed law to the Brazilian Congress that would permit mining activities within the reserves of the indigenous peoples, including in the Amazon region, without the people’s consent.

He underlines the fact that “colonization has not ended,” indeed, “in many places, it has been changed, disguised and concealed, while losing none of its contempt for the life of the poor and the fragility of the environment.” At the same time, he claims “it is possible to overcome the various colonizing mentalities and to build networks of solidarity and development.”

He recalls “that amid the grave excesses of colonization” many missionaries defended the indigenous peoples, but some did not. Francis repeats what he said in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 2015: “I express my shame and once more I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America, as well as for the terrible crimes that followed throughout the history of the Amazon region.”

Speaking of his second dream, he says, “I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches.”

Speaking of his second dream, “a cultural dream,” he says, “I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.”

Francis says the important thing is “to promote the Amazon region, but this does not imply colonizing it culturally, but instead helping it to bring out the best in itself.” He recalls that the region is “host to many peoples and nationalities and over 110 indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation,” many of whom feel they are “the last bearers of a treasure doomed to disappear.”

He notes that “each of the peoples that has survived in the Amazon region possesses its own cultural identity and unique richness in our multicultural universe, thanks to the close relationship established by the inhabitants with their surroundings... In each land and its features, God manifests himself and reflects something of his inexhaustible beauty.”

Francis notes that “a consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a leveling effect on cultures” and this especially affects the young. He urges the region’s young indigenous people to “take charge of your roots.” Faced with “a colonizing invasion of means of mass communication,” he affirms the need to promote for the original peoples “alternative forms of communication based on their own languages and cultures.”

“I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty.” 

Francis’ third dream is “ecological.” He says, “I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.”

He recalls that “in a cultural reality like the Amazon region, where there is such a close relationship between human beings and nature, daily existence is always cosmic. Setting others free from their forms of bondage surely involves caring for the environment and defending it but, even more, helping the human heart to be open with trust to the God who not only has created all that exists, but has also given us himself in Jesus Christ.”

In a forceful paragraph (No. 48), Francis states that “the equilibrium of our planet also depends on the health of the Amazon region,” but aware of the threat to the region from “the conquest and exploitation of resources,” he declares that “the interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole.”

He rejects the proposal of “internationalizing” the Amazon region and insists that what is required is “a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments.” He praises the work of international agencies and civil society organizations in drawing public attention to these issues.

Francis rejects the proposal of “internationalizing” the Amazon region and insists that what is required is “a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments.”

He emphasizes the urgent need to establish “a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics, but also freedom and justice.”

Speaking of his fourth dream, “an ecclesial dream,” Francis reveals, “I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.”

He says, “the church is called to journey alongside the people of the Amazon region” but if this journey is to develop a church with an Amazonian face, then “the great missionary effort must continue.”

Given all the region’s problems, he says “we can respond” with organizations, technical resources, political programs and so on, but “as Christians we cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel. In our desire to struggle side by side with everyone, we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ.”

Speaking of his fourth dream, “an ecclesial dream,” Francis reveals, “I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region.” 

Francis insists: the Amazonian people “have a right to hear the Gospel, and above all that first proclamation, the kerygma.” But, he says, if the church is to grow in the region, “it needs to be able to engage increasingly in a necessary process of inculturation that rejects nothing of the goodness that already exists in Amazonian cultures but brings it to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel.” He insists, “what is needed is courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ.”

Given the situation of poverty of so many inhabitants of the Amazon region, Francis says, “inculturation will necessarily have a markedly social cast, accompanied by a resolute defence of human rights; in this way it will reveal the face of Christ, who “wished with special tenderness to be identified with the weak and the poor.”

Addressing the inculturation of the liturgy, Francis emphasizes that the Eucharist “joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation.” In this sense, he asserts, “encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature,” rather “it means that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols.” He recalls that “the Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples; over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.” Then, in a footnote (No. 120), he adds, “the synod made a proposal to develop an Amazonian rite.”

Francis calls for “an inculturation of the ways we structure and carry out ecclesial ministries.”

Francis calls for “an inculturation of the ways we structure and carry out ecclesial ministries.” He re-affirms that only the ordained priest can celebrate the Eucharist and administer the sacrament of reconciliation. He says that “in the specific circumstances of the Amazon region, particularly in its forests and more remote places, a way must be found to ensure this priestly ministry.” He calls for “the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures.” In another footnote (No. 133), he recalls that the Synod mentioned “the lack of seminaries for the priestly formation of indigenous people.”

Francis emphasizes that the Amazonian church “requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on everyone.” He says this “requires the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.” Indeed, he asserts that the challenges in the Amazon region “demand of the Church a special effort to be present at every level, and this can only be possible through the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity.”

Pope Francis calls on the “many consecrated persons who have devoted their energies and a good part of their lives in service to the Kingdom of God in Amazonia” to give “a new impetus to inculturation, one that would combine creativity, missionary boldness, sensitivity and the strength typical of community life.”

Pope Francis devotes a section of the exhortation to women. He recalls that in the Amazon region, “there are communities that have long preserved and handed on the faith even though no priest has come their way, even for decades.” He says this, and similar instances involving women, “summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures. Such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders. But that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective.”

He recalls that “the Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary” and says “women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother. As a result, we do not limit ourselves to a functional approach, but enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church.”

Pope Francis says, “the present situation requires us to encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history.” And, so, “in a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs. Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.”

*This article has been updated.

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