In historic first, Pope Francis approves an ‘ecclesial conference’ with lay people instead of a bishops-only leadership body
“We are living a ‘kairos,’ a propitious time of God in the history of the church,” Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno, S.J., told America in an exclusive interview in Rome on Sept. 6 in which he revealed for the first time that Pope Francis has approved the statute of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA), giving it formal recognition in the church.
Cardinal Barreto, 78, the archbishop of Huancayo in the Central Andes mountains of Peru, was elected president of the Amazon conference on March 27, succeeding Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, who resigned because of ill health and has since died.
Speaking in Spanish, he explained that the now officially recognized body “involves bishops, priests, women and men religious and the lay faithful from the nine countries of the Amazon region,” namely Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Guiana and French Guiana. (An episcopal conference, in contrast, includes only the bishops of a certain territory.) “lt is the first of its kind in the history of the church,” he stated, and “the first concrete fruit of the Amazonian synod.” The cardinal was one of the three president-delegates of that synod.
Cardinal Barreto explained that the now officially recognized body “involves bishops, priests, women and men religious and the lay faithful from the nine countries of the Amazon region.”
CEAMA, he said, can be compared “to the small mustard seed that grows little by little and spreads its branches to welcome the entire universal church.” He expects similar ecclesial conferences to emerge on other continents in the coming years, including Africa and Asia, as bishops from those continents have already shown great interest in the structural developments in the Amazon region.
He predicted that in the coming years “bishops’ conferences will have to transform themselves into ecclesial conferences.” He believes that future synods will be “ecclesial synods,” as has been signaled by the fact that “Predicate Evangelium,” the constitution for the reform of the Roman Curia, has strategically dropped the phrase “of bishops.” No longerd “the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops,” it is now called “the General Secretariat of the Synod.”
The Peruvian Jesuit recalled that the final document of the synod on the Amazon was “approved by the pope.” He saw this as “a revolution in the church” because prior to that, each synod presented its recommendations or proposals (usually around 50) to the pope, who would incorporate them into his post-synodal exhortation.
Pope Francis, however, did not follow this model for the Amazon synod; instead, he presented the synod’s final document to the whole church when he published his exhortation “Querida Amazonia,” saying, “I have preferred not to cite the final document in this exhortation because I would encourage everyone to read it in full.”
“lt is the first of its kind in the history of the church,” he stated, and “the first concrete fruit of the Amazonian synod.”
Cardinal Barreto said that final document emphasized the need for a new ecclesial body to promote synodality and shape a church with “an Amazonian face,” while seeking new paths for evangelization and for an integral ecology. The new Amazon ecclesial conference is that body.
It was officially created on June 29, 2020, as “an effective instrument” for implementing the proposals that emerged from the 2019 Synod on the Amazon and for giving life to “four great dreams” for the region expressed by Pope Francis in “Querida Amazonia,”his post-synodal exhortation.
Cardinal Barreto said that by choosing the title “Querida Amazonia” for his post-synodal exhortation, Pope Francis was “putting a name on a creature that is a biome in which 30 million people and three million communities of Indigenous peoples live.” The choice of name, he said, “indicates an attitude of the church, which also corresponds to the desire of the Indigenous peoples, that the church be an ally of these peoples who have historically only been beaten in their lives and today suffer deforestation and the exploitation of the resources of their lands.”
He cited as an example of their suffering the fact that while Brazil has 63 percent of the Amazonian territory, it has a lower population of Indigenous peoples than the other eight countries of the region that comprise 45 percent of the territory. He said, “this shows that the Indigenous peoples had historically suffered genocide in Brazil and in other countries like Peru.”
Cardinal Barreto predicted that in the coming years “bishops’ conferences will have to transform themselves into ecclesial conferences.”
“‘Querida Amazonia,’ he said, “manifests the desire of Pope Francis to seek new paths for the church and new paths for an integral ecology.”
“I was struck by the fact that while being a synod for Amazonia it laid out new paths for the whole church, and not only for Amazonia,” he added. “Therefore, the pope was thinking of the universal church, but starting from the existential periphery of the culture of Amazonia.”
The cardinal sees “a relation” between “Querida Amazonia,” the synod’s final document and the newly recognized church body: “One could say the Ecclesial Conference of Amazonia is the best gift that Pope Francis has given not only to Amazonia but also to the universal church. Why? Because up to now there have been episcopal conferences, but the ecclesial conference of Amazonia is the first [of its kind] in the history of the church.
“The difference is immense because up to now the church has united bishops and cardinals in [episcopal] conferences of the different countries, and even in organisms like CELAM [the Conference of Latin American Bishops], whereas the ecclesial conference…is centered on the people of God in accordance with the Second Vatican Council,” he explained.
He recalled that the second chapter of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” is devoted to “the People of God,” whereas its third chapter speaks of “the bishops at the service of the people of Jesus.” Cardinal Barreto recalled that “the Second Vatican Council saw the eruption of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of the universal church.”
“The the ecclesial conference…is centered on the people of God in accordance with the Second Vatican Council,” he explained.
Asked if the new Amazonian body could be considered “one of the great novelties of this pontificate,” the cardinal emphasized that “this is not something new from Francis; it really stems from the Second Vatican Council,” and “Francis is implementing that council.”
This ecclesial conference is “very much linked to REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network,” a 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 recalled that “REPAM includes a unit that focuses on human rights in the Amazonian territory and reports rapidly to the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights when these rights are being violated, thereby making the voices of the region heard.”
Another significant development will be the creation of a Catholic Amazonian University, thanks to a foundation established by the Catholic University of Quito but independent from it, he said. This new university is important because of the low level of participation of students from Indigenous communities in higher education; a mere 3.2 percent are currently studying at university.
The cardinal explained that the conference is developing an Amazonian rite as called for by the synod and is reflecting on “the experiences with Amazonian rites, liturgical expressions and spirituality.” He revealed that during this visit to Rome he, together with other members of the conference leadership, visited the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on Sept. 1.
“We are in a process of dialogue with the Dicastery for Divine Worship and with Cardinal [Arthur] Roche, and this is the first time ever that we have been able to dialogue with this dicastery in a fraternal way, in an attitude of listening,” he said.
“The Amazon conference are “also discussing the question of ministries…their service in the church and, more specifically, the ministry of women.”
The Peruvian cardinal emphasized that “from the very beginning, the church has sought to inculturate the Gospel in every way possible, and Pope Francis has clearly affirmed that this has to be done.” The cardinal recalled that Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Italian-born Jesuit missionary to China, was one who really went down the path of inculturation, but “Roman centralism” soon blocked this effort through its decision on the question of the Chinese rites, with consequences that we still see today.
He expressed joy, however, at finding that now a different mentality prevails in Rome at the Dicastery of Divine Worship where “we had an experience of welcome, listening, and accompaniment.” Consequently, he said, “we are on a good path, we have begun a dialogue, and we are not going it alone.” He expressed gratitude to the bishops of the dicastery.
He revealed that the members of the Amazon conference are “also discussing the question of ministries…their service in the church and, more specifically, the ministry of women and the service women are already giving in Amazonia.” He reported “that inside Amazonia, but also outside the region, women religious celebrate baptisms, weddings, liturgies and some even hear confessions for people who confide personal problems to them although they cannot give [sacramental] absolution.”
He recalled that CLAR—the acronym for the Latin American conference of women and men religious—is one of the founding entities of both the newly formed ecclesial conference and REPAM.
“Because of this, we are discovering the very important figures of Indigenous women…and the roles they have in the communities.” He mentioned, for example, that the leadership of REPAM consists of a president and three vice presidents, and two of the latter are women, including an Indigenous woman. Likewise, the leadership of the Amazon ecclesial conference consists of a president and four vice presidents, and again the latter includes not only a lay man but also a woman religious and an Indigenous woman.
Cardinal Barreto revealed the Dicastery for Bishops at first felt disconcerted by the new eccesial group. “They didn’t know how to relate to the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon,” he said. But then Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the dicastery, wrote a letter to Cardinal Hummes, president of the Amazon conference, “communicating the canonical approval of CEAMA but at the same time asking us for modification of the statute.” The revised statute, which emphasized better the ecclesial nature of the conference, has been approved and ratified by Pope Francis and “will be published in the coming days,” the cardinal said.
He concluded the interview with these words, “We are living in a very special moment of the grace of God. It is a time of hope in the midst of a desperate, aimless humanity.”
Correction 10/3/2022: This article has been updated to correct a spelling error in the cardinal's last name.