Podcast: An Intergenerational Conversation on ‘Querida Amazonia’

Deacon Shainkiam Yampik Wananch prays in a chapel in Wijint, a village in the Peruvian Amazon, Aug. 20, 2019. In Pope Francis' postsynodal apostolic exhortation, "Querida Amazonia," released Feb. 12, 2020, the pontiff acknowledged the serious shortage of priests in remote areas of the Amazon, but he insisted not all avenues have been exhausted to address the issue. (CNS photo/Maria Cervantes, Reuters)

Pope Francis’ highly-anticipated exhortation “Querida Amazonia” or “Beloved Amazon” came out last week, sparking more conversation about what the document did not say, that is, anything on ordaining married men as priests, than what it did say. Last week, Pope Francis expressed to a group of American bishops his discontent with the media’s fixation on married priests.

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This week on the “Inside the Vatican” podcast, America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell and I take a deep dive into “Querida Amazonia,” beginning with its calls for environmental, cultural and economic justice. We unpack the hostile reception the document has received from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and examine what kind of impact the Catholic Church could have by siding with the poor and marginalized in the region.

Then, we turn to the hot-topic questions of married priests and women deacons. We try to contextualize Francis’ decisions on the topics within his broader vision of the church as lay-led, and we discuss frankly the challenges that have appeared on the road to actualizing that vision.

Read a transcript of our conversation below.

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Transcript

Colleen Dulle: Good morning from New York, Gerry.

Gerard O’Connell: Good afternoon from Rome, Colleen. We've had little rain for two months.

CD: We finally got our first taste of spring this past weekend, so that was really nice. All right, Gerry, we have a big story this week, which is the document “Querida Amazonia.” It's Pope Francis’ follow-up document from the Amazon Synod. It came out last week. I posted a little update in the podcast feed about some of the hot button issues and what Francis said since people were wondering about that, but this week let's go into some depth about this document. I was thinking the first place we could start was that Pope Francis met with a group of American bishops. They've been in Rome for their ‘ad limina’ visits. He met with them the day after the document came out and he told them that he was not happy with the way that the media latched onto these hot-button issues like married priests. So let's talk about why.

GO: Well, it's very, it's obvious, I think. He had this concern even before the synod started. He felt, as had happened also in the Synod on the Family, that the media would get locked onto one issue, which certainly wasn't the only issue, not even the main issue of the document. He felt very strongly here that the central issue here was an issue that touched the Amazon but also had an impact on the whole of humanity: the question of what is going to happen to the Amazon and its peoples.

CD: Right. I was watching the press conference that I know that you attended at the Holy See Press Office when they launched this document, and it was very striking the difference between, you know, there was this panel of five people presenting the document, and they all were talking about so many different aspects of this, all of the environmental concerns we talked about, women in leadership and so on. And then almost every single reporter who got up asked the same question over and over about married priests. Part of that was because there was a question about clarity, but it was just very striking to see the big difference in the focus areas here.

GO: Yes. But that doesn't mean that the press was right and the panel was wrong.

CD: No, no, absolutely not. It was just a big difference. So let's talk about these big issues that we wanted to talk about. The primary issues of the Synod, like you were saying, really were the protection of the environment, of indigenous people, indigenous culture especially, along with the growth of the church in the Amazon region. We've talked before on the show, especially in our preparation for this synod, about how these are extremely urgent issues right now in this region because these economic interests continue to drive corporations to deforest the Amazon. They're driving young people out of their native places into cities, and those can be places where then they lose touch with their cultures, but they're also subject to poverty. They're subject to, possibly, cycles of crime. I think that one way for us to get into a good conversation about the importance of this document when it comes to these urgent issues would be to talk about the response from the people who hold power in the region who were broadly not very happy with this document. Can you tell us about some of the reactions from those people?

GO: Well for one, the president of Brazil, Bolsonaro. He said the pope is speaking as if he owned the planet and as if the planet wasn't ours. He clearly hadn't read the document, because the document made very clear that the pope is against the internationalization of the Amazon. He says the responsibility for the Amazon is with the governments of each country, and he makes clear that groups, economic groups both inside and outside the country, take advantage of the situation there just for economic interests.

CD: Right. And Bolsonaro has been in favor of those kinds of policies within his government in Brazil, right? He's introduced a few laws about this.

GO: Well, he's introduced legislation which hasn't yet gotten through the congress, which would change the present situation of the indigenous peoples. At present, the legislation says, an outside group cannot go into the indigenous peoples’ reserves without their consent. Bolsonaro’s legislation suggests that there's an overriding interest and consent is not necessary in many places. Remember, on the panel [that presented “Querida Amazonia” at the Vatican] you had a prize-winning scientist from Brazil.

CD: Right, a Nobel Prize winner.

GO: Exactly. He made very clear that we're at a tipping point. He says we're very near the edge. It's very clear around the world that the climate is heating, and this is going to have disastrous effects. If the forest is destroyed and if the extract of mining continues as it's doing, then that will certainly have negative effects on the climate and will help to raise the temperature of the world to the detriment of everybody.

 

CD: But as we've talked about before, there's this opposition between the desire to preserve the rainforest and a lot of these countries’ desires for profit now, which involves deforesting the rainforest. Gerry, I wanted to ask you about, we talked during the Synod about the importance of the church standing with the marginalized in the Amazon. This was a big theme, and it's a big theme in this document, too. I wanted to ask you, whenever Francis speaks out about political matters, my question is always whether it's going to make a difference, like whether the church throwing its power behind marginalized people is going to help or not.

GO: For sure. This is the reason why there's such resistance in certain quarters, because right now, as Francis states clearly in the document, the indigenous peoples are powerless. The inhabitants of the region are powerless and the winner takes all. Francis is effectively, in the document, calling for the church to stand with the people, to itself get organized within the Amazon region. He wants the nine churches in the nine countries to get together and to cooperate with the organizations of civil society and nongovernmental organizations, people of good will who see the great danger, not only locally, but also globally. He says, together you can change. He said before, when he spoke in Santa Cruz in Bolivia to the popular movements, don't leave it all to the politicians and to the leaders. Start at the grassroots. You can change because you are a force that can change history.

CD: It sounds a lot like what he says to young people all the time.

GO: Absolutely. He appeals to young people in this document too, because the young people are more sensitive to these issues. He calls in the document for the young people of the indigenous peoples to defend your culture, also to take up the cause of justice in your homelands. This is the reason that some people think that the push to focus on married priests or women deacons is, in a way, a distraction from this even more important issue, more central issue, and plays into the hands of the economic interests.

CD: Right. I saw that analysis, too, that said the married priests thing being touted in the media is mostly a concern of folks in the English-speaking West who have a lot of economic resources. And when you talk to folks in the Amazon region itself, this receives a different perspective. I talked to a young woman, Leah Casimero, who was a synod auditor. She's only a couple years older than me, I think she's 27, and she runs a bilingual indigenous language and English-speaking school and creates curricula that focus on preserving indigenous culture. She didn't even bring up married priests. She said, I'd like to see more lay people in ministry, mostly because the people who were trained the last time a priest came around to our part of Guyana were trained a long time ago, and now these people are dying out or are no longer able to do their ministry. So in that way, she would like to see more lay people. There have been mixed reactions across the region to married priests, so maybe we can talk about that now.

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GO: The central question is not married priests. The central question is: Can the communities, the believing communities, have the Eucharist regularly? And Francis’ answer to this, there are three answers he gives. First of all, he says, we have already got a lot of priests in the region, but many of them have gone off to Europe or North America. We're talking about thousands, he said. They don't want to work in the Amazon zone. And also, priests who are living in these countries don't want to work in the Amazon zone. So, he says, we must change formation and the ongoing formation of priests so that they're sensitive to these issues. That's his first solution. Secondly, he says, we've got to pray for vocations. He says the bishops have to do this. He called on the Latin American bishops especially to provide missionaries. And thirdly, he has insisted so much on developing a lay culture.

What comes out very strongly is Francis' vision of communities, call them parishes if you wish, throughout the Amazon region where the lay people are actually running the parishes, and where you might have an itinerant priest, missionary priests, coming. He also envisages the possibility of an Amazonian rite, in which, of course, it's possible that the liturgy takes up popular piety in a way, but also in that Amazonian rite, you could well have married priests. He doesn't say that, but it came up in the synod.

CD: You touched on a lot of the important things to consider here. I think that we should go through and talk a little more about each one of them individually.

As I was hearing about these different things that Francis would like to see the church do, I was also reminded of the reason that we're talking about the possibility of ordaining married men to begin with, which is that the church is low on human resources right now in terms of ordained people. It was surprising to me that he was asking the church to do more when it seems like they are struggling with diminishing resources. Were you surprised by this decision not to directly address the question of married priests?

GO: I didn't expect him to endorse married priests like that. Remember, Francis has said here that he's putting the final document of the synod, which includes that question, before the whole church. He doesn't just want it studied by the people in the Amazon. He says “before the whole church,” and he's asking them to apply that document.

CD: Right. We should clarify what we're talking about here. This was a big question in the press conference too, which is why all those reporters got up and asked about it. Francis officially presented the synod bishops’ document of recommendations alongside his own document and people were not sure what that meant. That's what they kept asking about, because the recommendation document did suggest ordaining married men, and Francis’ document didn't. So the question here was, what weight do we give those [bishops’] recommendations?

GO: Well, Francis takes that [bishops’] document very seriously, and he wants the whole church, the church in North America, in South America, the church in Asia and the church in Africa and Europe, to read that document, read all the proposals. He said to apply them, so they have to see, some of which can be applied quite quickly, others which may take a long reflection.

People wanted a black and white answer, he says yes or he says no to married priests. He doesn't give a black and white answer.

CD: Yeah, he kind of punts it back to the local church.

GO: Francis watched the synod. He saw that there were two blocs in the synod. There was the group who totally opposed this idea, and that included most of the senior officials of the Roman Curia, and there was a bloc which was really enthusiastic, pushing for it. That was especially from the Brazilians, but also some of the other countries. And he saw some were not so sure. He saw a kind of polarization. And he told the American bishops, I didn't see the spirit working in that polarization.

CD: Right. That's a really important comment, because I've seen people saying, well, the vote on the proposal for married priests had the most no votes in the synod, but was still supported by an overwhelming majority. So if you were just playing a numbers game here, if you were just deciding this based on the democratic process of the synod, then it would have passed. But the real question here, and what's revealing about Francis’ decision making process, is this part about the Holy Spirit and where he's seeing that working.

GO: Yes, and there’s a second point. The proposal as it came from the synod was for the ordination of married deacons, not mature, married men, just married deacons. Francis points out very clearly in his document that there are not very many of those in the region.

CD: No. Bishop [Robert] Flock is an American who works in Bolivia. He’s a bishop in Bolivia. He said that that would have been a nonstarter anyway because he doesn't have any permanent deacons in his diocese.

GO: Absolutely. The net result wouldn't have brought an enormous number of priests into the Amazon. The problem would still be there.

So Francis saw within the synod that there wasn't this, let’s say, discernment going on. There were positions being taken, I wouldn't say like a football team, but one group against another. He felt the time is not yet right for this. I don't detect the spirit at work. And so, what has he done? He hasn't said yes. He hasn't said no. He hasn't thrown the proposal in the dustbin. He said, take all these proposals back to the whole church. Let it be discussed in the whole church, all of the proposals, not just this single one, but all of the proposals, and then let's see what happens. It's part of the synodal process.

CD: So, I was trying to imagine how this would play out if the church wanted to go forward with proposing married priests officially to Francis, and I was thinking that it would look something like REPAM, which is the Amazonian bishops’ kind of bishops’ conference, bishops’ group, getting together and hammering out exactly what this would look like, and then making a formal proposal to Francis. Is that how it would work?

GO: Well, I think he envisages something different from REPAM. As Cardinal Czerny explained, I think to you, or else to me in an interview—

CD: We did both interview him the same day.

GO: Yeah. He envisages a church organism, it’s not clear yet, which would take on board some of these issues, for example the Amazonian rite. But it will take time to create a rite. I think a more, let's say more reflective, read of the document of “Querida Amazonia” and the final document of the synod will open up new horizons that are still not evident to people today.

CD: Right. That was a big thing that Francis said in this document. He said it after he said his part about women's leadership, which was that he would not approve of ordaining women to the diaconate. But he called for—and I thought this was meant to be read as a reflection of the whole document and all of the solutions that need to be found—he called for creative solutions to be found that aren't in line with one side or the other. He says that the way to overcome those [divisions] is to come up with new solutions that haven't yet been thought of that transcend the divides. And that's the ideal that I think he's holding out for here.

GO: Exactly, Colleen. He wants to go beyond the polarization. He wants to find a new synthesis.

CD: I guess a critique of that could be, that's a nice idea, but we need solutions now. What would you say to that?

GO: Well this is the problem. These are questions [for which] you're not going to get instant solutions. There is a certain kind of industrial productive mentality, which we've all absorbed in some ways, that we must resolve the problem now. What Francis is saying is, it's not a mature question yet. We have to see the bigger dimensions. Maybe there will be much bigger dimensions than anybody had thought of when they proposed that he ordained married deacons. Maybe the church will move in in a much bigger way than has been anticipated. I think this is what he's talking about. He wants a wide church discussion, reflection, on the final document of the synod.

And in terms of the question you mentioned earlier about, he didn't want to give the green light to the ordination of women deacons. He fears that this is what he calls an attempt to “clericalize.” In the document, he tries to separate ministry from power. So his vision of a parish, is where the lay people have the power in running the parish, and the priest, the ordained minister, is celebrating the Eucharist, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation and perhaps the Anointing of the Sick. Francis is trying to slowly, slowly get the Catholic world to understand that power is not linked to ordination as such.

CD: Yeah. We've talked a lot about clericalism and its connotations of power before. I think that is very much the perception of a large part of the church, but it's also true that the way that most parishes in the Amazon, especially in the rainforest interior region, function, is that they're run by lay people, and that priests just come in every once in awhile to celebrate these sacraments. I think the thing that struck me about this was, he's calling for women to continue doing much of the good work that they've been doing to keep the church alive, and many of those seem to overlap with the responsibilities that a deacon would have. But he doesn't want to clericalize them, and he doesn't want to ordain them to the diaconate. What he does say is he wants them to have different forms of power which is what we talked about just a second ago. He wants them to have stable roles that are given with a commission from the bishop and have an official standing in the parish.

I did have a really concrete question about this for you, because I wasn't able to find this out. Francis had talked about reopening the research commission into women deacons that he had started years ago that kind of, not stalled, but we didn't hear about it for awhile. And then at the end of the Synod, correct me if I'm wrong, I think he said that he was going to reopen that [commission], but then he says in this document that he wouldn't have women deacons. So I'm wondering where that stands.

GO: That commission did not come up with a unanimous position on some of the issues. He has said that he will reconvene that commission, but it's not in the document as such. What's in the document, and I think this is the point that Francis wants to make clear, he wants the development in the Amazonian church of a lay culture, and he wants the bishops to recognize lay people, to give them authoritative roles recognized publicly for a period of time, including both men and women.

Francis is not into the business of maintenance, keeping the parishes going as they were today. He wants to shake them up. You remember in July 2013 when he went to the World Youth Day in Rio.

CD: That was right at the beginning of his papacy.

GO: Absolutely. He came and he met the young Argentinians. There were hundreds, thousands. He came down there and met them and he said, “Hagan leo!” and some translated, “Create a mess.” No, no. He meant shake it up, go back home and shake up your parishes. And that's what he as pope is trying to do.

CD: All right, Gerry, I think that's probably a great place for us to wrap up that story. If our listeners want to find the full document “Querida Amazonia” along with our many different analyses of this document, I will link to those in the show notes. Gerry, I’m looking forward to talking to you next week.

GO: Thank you, Colleen. There's a lot to discuss, and I hope our listeners are enjoying it.

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