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Four Criteria to Interpret the Amazon Synod

Antonio Spadaro, SJ - La Civiltá Cattolica - Tue, Oct 22nd 2019


A reading of the synodal process

The Synod the Amazon is called to be an occasion for “conversion.” Ecclesial events need to be reflected upon and a historical reading made to perceive how God breaks into history even in contradictory conditions and to experience this action powerfully in the present ecclesial moment (cf. Evangelii Gaudium no. 25). A wise reading of the signs of the time confirms that the call to conversion often comes from the “peripheries,” including geographical ones. In this case it may come from the peoples of the Amazon. In the Church we are living at a true kairos, that is, a favorable time of the Spirit: the Church is called to listen to its voice and to assume the commitment to conversion.

The face of the Amazonian “periphery” – immense and majestic in its territorial expanse – expresses in a certain way the mystery of God who lives in the Church and opens it to newness. Francis, in his discernment as universal pastor of the Church and as a moral leader with a global impact, speaks to us of a process in which the periphery illuminates the center without pretending to take its place, but contributing to transforming, purifying and renewing it. That is to say, the periphery contributes to the conversion of this center, which has lost in a certain sense some of its capacity to listen and be amazed at the ever new and renewed voice of the Spirit. And the periphery can contribute to the transformation of the center to the extent that it does not lose its identity. It is from that marginal existence that Christ made his way and continues to do so today in our world with all its tensions and contrasts in order to redeem it.

Conversion is undoubtedly to be considered as a call to give substance to the plan of God’s kingdom: that of a world which is more just and more human, of authentic brotherhood and equity where all can have life, and life in its fullness, beginning with the excluded. But what does this conversion mean today, and how can we help it to become more secure in our time?

It is possible to distinguish some essential criteria related to the current ecclesial moment, which can serve as integrated guidelines in the discernment for the Special Synod on the theme “Amazonia: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” We single out four of them: 1) changing personal and community attitudes; 2) the “essential conversions” in the itinerary of Pope Francis; 3) the three substantial tensions in the Amazonian Synod; 4) the Synod as an ecclesial moment and process.

Changing personal and community attitudes

For the kingdom of God to become a closer truth, it is necessary to prepare our hearts in this world, wounded and fragmented as it is diversified and plural. For this reason it is necessary to live in a spirit of profound reconciliation with our origin from the “dust of the earth” (cf. Gen 2:7),: it is essential we integrate with our Sister-Mother Earth as the reality on which our life and our future depend. If God’s dream is the redemption of humanity, today more than ever we are aware that belonging to creation and the relationship of reciprocity with it are part of the journey toward the establishment of the Kingdom. In this sense we need a clear and strong prophetic word.

Today Pope Francis asks us to be courageous (cf. EG 49), to make courageous proposals. In the Amazon there are so many signs of exploitation, deadly violence, modern-day martyrdom and exclusion, that this Synod is called to be profoundly prophetic. The force of parrhesia must be invoked (cf. Gaudete et Exsultate, No. 129) at a time when voices seeking to hinder the path are already rising with particular violence and evident detachment from life as actually lived in the region.

The ‘essential conversions’ in the itinerary of Pope Francis

In the Magisterium of Francis it is possible to recognize a strong commitment to encourage conversion on at least three levels (cf. Instrumentum laboris, No. 5): pastoral conversion (Evangelii Gaudium), ecological conversion (Laudato Si’) and conversion to ecclesial synodality (Episcopalis Communio).

Pastoral conversion. The apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is the call to a true missionary conversion, to go beyond ourselves to experience the joy of the Gospel, which changes everything in those who meet Jesus. It is to let joy be born and reborn with Christ, to give a face to a renewed missionary Church, following the mandate to go out from ourselves with the desire to be evangelizing with the Spirit and recognizing cultural differences.

In this Amazonian Synod the first component is precisely that of the “new paths for the Church.” If we are able to discern honestly and courageously what the Amazon can teach us, it will be possible to discover new paths for that necessary and desired newness. This holds true not only for the Amazon, but also as a sign of the need for the universal Church to follow its unfinished and constant updating (aggiornamento). It is an invitation to recognize ourselves as a people having the desire to experience being close to people’s lives and discovering that this is the source of a superior joy and is the place where the word of God is expressed, alive and active.

Ecological conversion. The encyclical letter Laudato Si’ is the definitive incorporation of the cry of Sister-Mother Earth into the social doctrine of the Church, and therefore the urgent appeal to believers and all those who live on planet Earth to take care of this common home. It is not a complementary element; it is an essential call. It comes directly from social doctrine, which invites us to recognize the failure of society with respect to socio-environmental issues. It is necessary to realize that there is a social and environmental crisis and to make operational the commitment to an integral ecology in all its dimensions: social, political, human, environmental, cultural, in daily life, for justice between generations in the spirituality of care for this world.

In this Amazonian Synod the second component is that of “integral ecology” which involves the conviction that God’s plan for the world is at risk if we do not make a preferential and firm choice to defend life through the protection of this biome.[1] This means recognizing that the Amazon is decisive for the future of the planet and therefore that if the Church fails on this point, it will have failed in fulfilling its integral mission. The Amazon will prove to be a real test for the Church.

Despite the misunderstandings of some, the pope has had the courage to convene a special Synod on a specific biome, which has a direct relationship with the peoples and communities that live in it. It is a vital living space, essential in the global fight against climate change. What happens in the Amazon, or does not happen there, will have serious implications for the future of the whole planet (cf. Instrumentum laboris, No. 40). We are deeply “interconnected,” and to deny this reality as an expression of the social doctrine of the Church would be a grave error.

Conversion to ecclesial synodality. The apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio and the document of the International Theological Commission Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church express well the path to be taken together, literally the “synod” understood as kairos. On the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops (1965-2015), Pope Francis himself affirmed that the way of synodality is the way that God expects of the Church in the third millennium. In fact, synodality is the constitutive dimension of the Church; it reveals a historical process and is a connatural expression of the Church’s way of being and structuring itself. There can be no Church without an authentic synodal element in it.

Since Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and we are all limited, it is necessary to undertake this exercise of dialogue, of mutual listening, of consensus and above all of communal discernment to identify the ways that God traces for us as Church, as People of God. The only antidote to being self-referential, to a verticalism that suffocates the force of the Spirit acting from below is a synodality that arises from discernment.

It is not surprising that some who want to prevent profound changes, or who want to perpetuate their need for control, are so strongly opposed to the very idea of synodality in the Church and its consequences. And this opposition has arisen even though synodalism has been a constitutive part of the following of Christ from the beginning, and is an open expression of the recognition of the sensus fidei of the people of God, a sense that is called, on the basis of good discernment, to illuminate the way in which the Church is organized and structured. It is a question of having new skins suitable for new wine (cf. Matt 9:14-17).

This is the time for sincere prayer to overcome the fundamentalisms of the extremes. We must enter into a synodal discernment, so that the Spirit who blows from the periphery and from below, may help all that is good and has value so that this kairos of God may prevail. 

The three substantial tensions in the Amazonian Synod

The Amazonian Synod is in tension between complementary poles. This is a great challenge, but it is also a real opportunity to encourage the necessary change in the Church. We present here what seem to be the three substantial tensions in the Synod for the Amazon.

Territorial and universal tension. This Synod is two-dimensional. On the one hand it focuses on a specific territorial dimension, with particular problems and characteristics that require from the Church a type of presence and an adequate response to the real situation: the Instrumentum laboris speaks of the emergence of the territory as a theological place and the irruption of a new ecclesial focus from the Amazon. On the other hand, we have the universal dimension of the Church, in which the need is expressed to accompany the itineraries of ecclesial reform that have inspired us since the Second Vatican Council and the stages of its subsequent interpretation and reflection on a regional and global level. The Synod can and must shed light on this universal dimension.

Tension between “kairos” and “chronos.” On the one hand, the theme of the Synod speaks to us of the urgent call to pastoral conversion and to find in this special time – true and proper kairos – “new ways for the Church.” On the other hand, the very theme of the Synod speaks to us of the call to bring about a real, urgent and immediate change, assumed in terms of time as chronos, i.e. in the time that advances irreversibly: if we do not do something effective to change reality now, it may be too late.

Tension between hierarchy and synodality. In the synodal process a tension is expressed between a more hierarchical-vertical style of government of the Church and the attempt to give shape to a more synodal Church, that is, one capable of seeing itself internally in order to change its rhythm and its way of proceeding, and of recognizing the different issues that pose questions to it today, so as to be able to walk in greater harmony with the women and men of today.

A Church that organizes itself by seeking a form of synodal government is a more participatory, collegial Church, characterized by a greater and stronger communion, a Church that establishes new criteria and structures to advance with greater adherence to the rhythm of reality, which cries out and seeks hope. Panamazonia, its peoples and the missionaries who have become seriously involved in it can teach us a lot about other ways and rhythms of being Church and offer a deepening of our understanding of the sacraments and of ministry.

The Synod as a process and ecclesial moment

Bearing in mind the tensions that are innervating the ongoing synodal process, we must also recognize that the Amazonian Synod is not the beginning but the conclusion of a first stage, and that at the same time it is the beginning of a new path. The Synod is much more than the October Assembly, and it is also much more than what was done following its announcement by the pope in October 2017. It is, as its name indicates, a path followed by the Church in the light of the action of the Spirit in her history, at the service of the people of God. More specifically, it is the result of the insights and seeds that emerged as guidelines for the whole Church in the Second Vatican Council, especially in the constitutions Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes and in the decree Ad Gentes which, among other documents particularly illuminate this decisive event for the Church, which took place more than 50 years ago, and that explain how we arrived at this moment.

Also, in the Latin American Church there has been a journey through its magisterium, identified in the various Conferences of the Continental and Caribbean Bishops: Rio de Janeiro, 1955; Medellín, 1968; Puebla, 1979; Santo Domingo, 1992; Aparecida, 2007. In this regional journey it is evident that the Synod has been progressively intertwined with the hearts of the Amazonian peoples themselves and in the ecclesial presences that, coherently and tirelessly, have asked for a thorough examination and a concrete response to this reality. As a result of all this, the “Panamazonian Ecclesial Network” (Red eclesial panamazónica, Repam) was created. Born on the outskirts of the Amazon, in Ecuador in April 2013, and formalized in Brazil in September 2014, it is the result of a long journey of service and movement of many people who have experienced a profound incarnation and inculturation in this territory of contrasts and megabiodiversity.[2] This entire ecclesial process has given Pope Francis the strength of the Spirit to take the decision to convene a special Synod in times of resistance, but also in times of irreversible reforms.

Church event and structure

In addition to what we have said so far, it should be stressed that the Synod of Bishops is also a formal ecclesial body. This means that the Synodal Assembly has a structure, regulations, limits and scope. It is a consultative body, linked to the pope as pastor of the universal Church, which has a general secretariat and a series of structures that shape its functioning.

While inspired by the synodal and conciliar experiences of the first communities and their subsequent expressions in the history of the Church, the Synod of Bishops has a formal structure that derives from the Second Vatican Council. It was created to promote greater collegiality in the leadership of the Church. Pope Francis is giving this structure a sense of greater participation in the framework of his pontificate. Its members – as the very name of the body says – are above all bishops, even if in the Synod for the Amazon there will be representatives of the territory, with the participation of the original peoples and communities, in addition to non-episcopal synod fathers and also auditors, experts and special guests.

It is necessary to know and study the apostolic constitution Episcopalis communio in order to understand the precise space in which the Synod will move. The collaboration of the People of God with the Synodal Assembly implies an understanding of how it works. What is truly essential in the Amazonian Synod, according to Episcopalis communio, is to seek the consent or moral unanimity of the synod fathers in the final vote. In order for the pope to promote magisterial orientations, he needs this consensus. It is important to recognize and defend the essential points in order to promote from below and from the periphery some of the essential reforms that the Synod is trying to achieve.

It should be pointed out that this Synod formally began in the Amazon during the pontiff’s visit to Puerto Maldonado (January 2018), and the whole process of synodal listening conducted by Repam and the Episcopal Conferences in the countries directly involved and also in other regions was a formal part of it. The assembly phase, however, has to take place in Rome so that the president of the Synod, the pope, can actively accompany it and bring its light into the process of general reforms of the Church.

It is fundamental to recognize in the Synod a privileged means that the pope has put at the service of the Church to undertake a sincere and profound discernment. Being an instrument, the Synod is the space to sow in the good land and then continue to promote new ecclesial paths in the territory. Understanding the mediating function of the Synod should help to counter the fundamentalisms of both poles that attack the synodal kairos: both the fundamentalism of those who want to oppose any change and remain in a sterile conservatism, and that of those who, at the other extreme, see any change as insufficient.

Hopes and challenges

The countries of the Panamazonic region, which has about 33 million inhabitants and almost 3 million indigenous people coming from about 390 peoples and nationalities, represent a great cultural, political and social diversity. The Church which, though encountering obstacles, lives with “prudence and boldness” (EG 47) and “courage” (EG 33), is called to move away from schemes that have not borne fruit and look for new ways.

An essential moment will therefore be the post-synodal process. The implementation phase must accompany the new perspectives offered by the Synod and continue to deepen the processes already underway. If we truly believe that we are living an ecclesial kairos, we can discern both what now requires concrete and achievable changes, and what must be proposed so that it can then gradually develop, and what, even if it cannot be concretized in the present moment, it is right to propose as a long-term possibility.

[1]. Biomes are complex environmental systems, spread over a wide geographical area, made up of a set of ecosystems, whose animal and plant communities have reached, in a given area of the earth’s surface, a relative stability in relation to the environmental conditions. Each biome is characterized mainly by the climatic conditions of the region and by a particular vegetation that hosts a typical fauna (set of animal species).

[2]. In this synodal process Repam actively collaborated with the service of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, and for its preparation directly involved about 87,000 people from all over the Panamazonia region: 22,000 in assemblies and forums and 65,000 in preparatory work.

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