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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 18, 2023
Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo is pictured at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome Sept. 22, 2021. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

Cardinal Pedro Barreto, 79, the archbishop of Huancayo in the Central Andes mountains of Peru, rejoiced when the synthesis document of the first session of the Synod on Synodality recognized the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon as “an example of synodality,” that is of “a mode of being church that integrates communion, mission and participation.”

In an exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent on Oct. 30, Cardinal Barreto revealed that he had given a brief intervention at the synod on the synodal process that has developed in the church of the Amazon region over the past 10 years. The Jesuit cardinal is president of Ceama, a new ecclesial body created to promote synodality and shape a church with an Amazonian face while seeking new paths for evangelization and for an integral ecology. The synod described Ceama as “a fruit of the synodal missionary process” in the Amazon region.

Unlike an episcopal conference that includes only the bishops of a certain territory, the ecclesial conference of the Amazon includes bishops, priests, women and men religious and the lay faithful from all nine countries of the region. Its statute was approved by Pope Francis in October 2022. “It is the first of its kind in the history of the church, and the first concrete fruit of the Amazonian synod,” Cardinal Barreto told me in an interview shortly before the statute’s approval was announced. He predicted that in the coming years “bishops’ conferences will have to transform themselves into ecclesial conferences.”

Gerard O’Connell: What is the most significant thing that you’re taking away from this synod?

The most important thing is that the synod is a sign confirming that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church, represented by the more than 350 members that have participated in it.

Second, we have experienced that we are the people of God. The very format—all being seated at 35 round tables—indicates that authority in the church is service and that in the center is Jesus Christ, who sends us on mission at this moment in history.

Third, it seems that we have to give back the richness of the synthesis document to the particular churches of the world [to which we belong] to enrich it with the spiritual conversation, so as to have a second session with this new richness of the synodal process.

The synthesis document asks for further study of the theological basis of synodality.

That is one of the proposals because, without a doubt, synodality is not an invention of Pope Francis. Even if the Second Vatican Council does not use the word, nevertheless it speaks of the synod. But synodality, which is a recent word, expresses the identity of the primitive church. Jesus did not leave structures; he left people with his Spirit, who will remember what he announced and the way he announced it.

Which of the 81 proposals in the synthesis document do you consider important?

First, to realize that we are all responsible for the mission of the church. Therefore there is no baptized man or woman who is not called to this mission. Here, we have to be realistic because there are many baptized people who lack formation. For example, if you ask a young man about the Second Vatican Council, he will look at you with a strange face. The same is true if you ask a young priest. Hence, Pope Francis has been very hard with the young priests who care more about [clerical] clothing than about closeness to the people of God. Why? Because they have forgotten or have not heard about or have not assimilated the teachings of Vatican II.

The synthesis document says it is necessary to study the Second Vatican Council again. It seems synod participants are aware that ignorance of Vatican II is widespread in the church.

That is true because you cannot even understand Pope Francis’ magisterium without taking into account the Second Vatican Council. Some say it takes 100 years to apply or implement a council, and we are only 60 years into the springtime dreamed of by John XXIII.

The synthesis document mentions Ceama, which is one of the fruits of the Amazon synod. Could you briefly explain this?

This is a process that started in 2013, in the same month that Francis was elected pope. I was then president of the justice and solidarity committee of Celam [Episcopal Conference of Latin America], and I was invited to participate in [a meeting of] the ecclesiastical network of Amazonia in Ecuador in April 2013. There I saw the force that came from the presence of Indigenous people, women and men religious, priests, bishops and lay people, all gathered in a deeply spiritual experience. Ecuador has 2 percent of the Amazonian territory, and we were all gathered together as a church. So I said, why don’t we try this for all of Amazonia?

Some deemed it impossible, but that same year we convened a meeting in Lima, [Peru], with eight countries of the Amazonian region, which count for 35 percent of the Amazon territory. The meeting was positive, but Brazil, which has 64 percent of the Amazon territory, was absent. So in October 2013, we set out to convince the 115 bishops of Brazil to join us. They agreed, and in 2014, we all gathered in Brazil to see if we could create an ecclesiastical network for the Amazon region of nine countries. We agreed to try, and from there, an enthusiasm developed and we began to see that people who were once dispersed began to join together, and when a problem arose everyone reacted. Pope Francis then surprised us in 2017 by calling a synod for the Amazon region, to be held in 2019.

Whose idea was the Amazon synod?

It was Pope Francis’ idea! He surprised everyone in 2017 by announcing the synod, and in January 2018 he visited Peru, and his first stop was at Puerto Maldonado, “the gateway to the Amazon.” From there the preparation for the synod began. He commissioned Repam, the Amazonian ecclesiastical network, to prepare for it. The synod was held with great diligence in October 2019, and a total of 110 proposals were approved in the final document, and the priority proposal was the creation of the ecclesial body of the Amazon.

That became a reality in the middle of the pandemic, on June 29, 2020, with the creation of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (Ceama), with Cardinal Claudio Humes of Brazil as its president. In March 2022, Cardinal Claudio, in failing health, asked me to assume the presidency of Ceama in order to consolidate it; he died in July 2022. Pope Francis approved its statute in October 2022.

We held the first assembly last August, with the presence and participation of Indigenous people, lay people who were not born in the Amazon but who live there, religious priests and bishops. It has been wonderful, and the great gift for me is that in the synthesis document, Ceama is presented as a mature fruit of the synodal experience.

This recognition in the synthesis document appears to suggest that Ceama could be a model for the synodal journey of the church.

I believe Pope Francis had the intuition to start real and effective processes of synodality, and he began with the Amazon synod. Now we can say that the Amazon region, with its 7.5 million square miles, its biodiversity, is important for humanity because it regulates the world’s climate, and yet it remained invisible to so many in the world. The Amazon’s original peoples, who were guardians of nature and include many martyrs in defense of the creation, were invisible too. They were on the periphery of the world, as the pope said. But Pope Francis insisted we must take care of the Amazon. In that sense, we can say that the Ceama is now a model for the entire, universal church and shows how a process to realize the dream of God can be possible for all churches.

The Latin American church gave us a pope, as well as the experience and documents of Aparecida that offer guidance for the church. The church of Latin America has come to the center of the universal church, and now with Ceama, one might say it has given it a second wave of renewal.

I am more convinced now than before starting this synodal experience in Rome that this synodal way is the path for the church in the years ahead, and this way of being church includes everyone.Pope Francis insisted on this in Lisbon when he said todos, todos, todos—“everyone, everyone, everyone.”Not only the baptized but all people. Here is the great challenge: We have an experience that we must deepen even more to be able to be an authentic expression of that synodal, missionary spirituality.

One of the things that impressed me in the synthesis document is the space it gives to the role and place of women in the church. As you know, this is already happening in the church of Latin America, but this document envisages it becoming a reality in the universal church.

It envisages a space for women that is much wider than we have today. This document has opened up space because none of its parts were rejected in the voting. None! This means that what is included there are open topics for the universal church that we hope will be enriched for the second session.

In this context, I want to highlight the fact that in Ceama, the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon, the leaders of the Christian communities are women. The representatives of the original peoples in their great majority are women, and they participated in the August assembly. At this moment, the presidency of Ceama is composed of five people: an Indigenous woman from Ecuador, a religious woman born in an Indigenous people’s town of Brazil, an Afro-descendant priest born in the Amazon, a lay person and myself. I am the president of the five of us, who form the presidency. Three of the five are from the Amazon, but we hope that in next year’s assembly, all five members of the presidency will be from the Amazon.

As I understand it, your presence here at the synod, and the recognition of Ceama in the final text, is a confirmation of the direction of the synodal path that started many years ago in the Latin American church. It is also a confirmation that Latin America, not Europe, is forming the new center of the universal church.

In the past the Catholic Church was eurocentric, but since the election of Pope Francis this is no longer the case. Francis comes from Latin America, where the church on this continent decided, at the Celam conference in Medellín in 1968, to implement the teachings and the orientations of the Second Vatican Council, and continued doing so right up to the Celam conference at Aparecida in 2007. The first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon, can be seen as some of the fruits of the processes that have taken place in the church in this continent since the Second Vatican Council, which are today contributing to a new age in the universal church. They are the fruits of processes more than of ideas.

What can be done from now until the second session in October 2024?

We need to transmit the enthusiasm for the process of synodality. The church is in movement. It is a movement of the Spirit. And we are like in a river, in a boat, the symbol of the church. In the river the water flows; it does not stagnate. Where the church has lived stagnated for a while, the water smells bad. In a church that stagnates, there are problems. On the other hand, we are now in that movement of the Spirit, and it is necessary to deepen our experience and enrich the synthesis document that we deliver to the entire universal church.

Many people say that the synodality is a project of Pope Francis. When the pope passes, will it continue?

I am convinced that it is the Holy Spirit that guides the church. Now [synodality] has become an experience. And when there is the experience of the Spirit, it continues. There are going to be difficult moments, as there were after the Second Vatican Council, but now we have the advantage of a communitarian experience of synodality.

I can say this from the Archdiocese of Huancayo where I have been bishop for 19 years. There is great interest in understanding the synthesis document so as to enrich the process [of synodality] in our church. I think the bishops at the synod are like the apostles at Pentecost; they have experienced what being a synodal church is, and now they must share it with their people.

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