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The Synod for the Amazon: A fresco for our ‘common home’

Antonio Spadaro, SJ -La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Nov 11th 2019


The Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Panamazon region has just ended. Here we offer some immediate reflections on the value of this synodal assembly – the fourth of the pontificate of Francis, after the two synods on the family and the synod on young people. Already, we can discern some fundamental traits of this assembly that will affect the life of the Church.

A large fresco where everything is connected

When you contemplate the synodal workings you have the impression of being in front of a fresco that reminds us of the quote from Apocalypse at the beginning of the synod’s final document: “And the One who sat on the throne said: ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write this, because these words are certain and true’” (Rev 21:5). Everything is before the eyes of Christ the Lord and everything needs to be renewed: the life of the Church, politics, the economy, the guardianship of our common home, the liturgy.

A large fresco, then, where tudo está interligado, everything is connected, as some members of the synod sometimes sang – and not just said – within the chamber. Sometimes, in order to express themselves, they also resorted to the poetry of their own people.

The assembly opened on October 6th with prayers, songs and dances in a procession that accompanied the Holy Father from the tomb of Peter to the Synod Hall.

The painting of the fresco began on January 19, 2018, when, during Francis’ apostolic journey to Peru, an extraordinary meeting between the pope and 22 indigenous peoples took place in Puerto Maldonado. There, Francis urged everyone to “shape a Church with an Amazonian face and a Church with an indigenous face.” The Amazonian face of the Church was clearly reaffirmed in the final document (Nos. 42, 54, 55, 86, 92, 108, 115, 120).

Many have expressed the clear awareness that everything that happens in the Amazon region has an impact on the world. This region is a global sounding board, in biological, political-economic and socio-religious terms. The Amazon is a litmus test for the world. And the region is on fire: the fire must be extinguished. More than ever before, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, fishermen, migrants and other traditional communities in the Amazon are threatened by deforestation and exploitation.

This fresco, made up of great contrasts, in which there is violence and beauty, robbery and wisdom, is to be looked at, understood and interpreted – as the pope said in his opening speech – with the “eyes of a disciple” and a “pastoral heart.” The hermeneutic of the synod is therefore not neutral, because “our previous option is that of disciples.”

But certainly this was also a profoundly pastoral synod, which reflects a Church that wants to “accompany” as an “ally” those on the journey of peoples. The fact that the issues were addressed by pastors from a specific region of the planet – who share, if not the same answers, certainly the same questions – has avoided questions being asked in abstract terms. On the other hand, the presence of members from other geographical areas or from the Roman Curia made it possible to always have in mind both the local and universal dimensions of the Church. Indeed, it was clear how what is said about the part has an immediate and direct reflection on the whole ecclesial body. We had, then, a strong experience of the Church.

The meeting is clearly the result of an intuition of Francis. It was not linked to a specific objective, but to a “hot potato” need, something that initially seemed too hot to handle and that could not be kneaded into a well-rounded cake. The pope perceived a particular need in a land that is in an unbridled race toward death, which demands radical changes and a new direction to allow it to be saved.

However, the synod was not organized to resolve the great tensions of the region with facile, disciplined and ready-to-use solutions. To reflect on the Amazon it would be a good idea to always keep at hand a copy of L’opposizione polare by Romano Guardini, a volume so dear to the pope. The Amazon is a living land, and therefore has strong “polar oppositions.” The synod has opened a process of deepening that will keep in focus the issues that have emerged and will flow into the post-synodal work of implementation.

Let us say it immediately: the key word of the synod – and therefore of the final document – was “conversion.” And “conversion” at various levels: pastoral, cultural, ecological and synodal. The unique conversion to the Gospel has unfolded in these interconnected dimensions, and requires a willingness to find “new paths” and a change of mentality. 

The peripheries speak from the center

The experience of the Panamazonic region, which covers the territory of nine nations (French Guyana, the Republic of Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru), was convened in Rome, and spoke from Rome. The peripheries spoke from the center, with the awareness that their experience is heard as a prophetic voice for the whole Church. And so, for this very reason, it has been judged by some uncomfortable. This is the point: today the Church has an extraordinary need for prophecy in the face of the great challenges of the present and to discern what future we want to build.

Rome has become a place of profound listening to the experiences of Catholicism considered as peripheral and on the frontier. The missionary dimension has been decisively integrated with an approach that values the Christian experience of the Amazon as significant and prophetic for the universal Church. After missionary action it is necessary, in fact, for the local Church to discover the specific features of her own face for the good of the whole body of the universal Church.

We must therefore distinguish between the “indigenist” Church, which considers indigenous people as an object of pastoral care, and the “indigenous” Church, which considers indigenous people as protagonists of their own experience of faith. It is necessary to focus decisively on an “indigenous” Church as an active agent of evangelization.

The Church seeks prophetic enlightenment by moving the center of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic area and pointing directly to a land of giant political, economic and ecological contradictions. Here the Church experiences a people that clearly does not coincide with a nation state, and that is instead a group of peoples, persecuted and threatened by many forms of violence. They are peoples with an enormous wealth of languages, cultures, rituals and ancestral traditions.

They were given voice to compile the initial text, the Instrumentum laboris, in the drafting of which about 87,000 people in the Amazon were consulted. Bishops and lay people from different cities and cultures, as well as from numerous groups from various ecclesial sectors, along with academics and civil society organizations met for weeks of listening and talking.

Integral ecology between forest and city

In the Amazon, as the final document states, life is inserted, linked and integrated in a territory that, as a vital and nourishing physical space, embraces possibility, sustenance and the limits of life itself. The water and land of this region feeds and sustains the nature, existence and cultures of hundreds of communities that reside on the banks of rivers as well as city dwellers.

But today the Amazon reflects a wounded and deformed beauty, it is a place of pain and violence. Attacks on nature have consequences for people’s lives. These range from: unsustainable mega-projects (hydroelectric projects, forest concessions, massive deforestation, monocultures, road infrastructure, water infrastructure, railways, mining and oil projects) to pollution caused by the extractionist industry and urban landfill.

Never did the synod say that the Church is against positive and inclusive modernization projects. Certainly, the Church has become fully aware that her social doctrine has at heart today the defense of the planet and that this is on a collision course with political and economic interests, which are supported by the complicity of some ruling bodies and some indigenous authorities. The victims are the most vulnerable: children, young people, women and “Sister Mother Earth.”

The final document proposes “as a way of repairing the ecological debt” countries owe to the Amazon, “the creation of a global fund to cover part of the budgets of the communities in the Amazon to promote their integral and self-sustainable development and, therefore, also to protect them from the predatory desire of national and multinational companies to exploit their natural resources” (No. 83).

The Synod for the Amazon is the offspring of the encyclical Laudato Si’. It gave the demands of that text a visible reality, referring to a region and the peoples who inhabit it. The relationship between Christianity and the life of the world has appeared enlivened by a healthy realism, beyond any ideology, finally assuming the traits of a commitment decided by global value, always the fruit of the evangelical impulse that requires an “ecological conversion.” The theological themes in the Synod Hall have always been closely linked to the concrete life of peoples, to geopolitical tensions, to the care of the “common home.”

Ecological issues are to be lived in a perspective of faith, as part of the social doctrine of the Church and in their intimate connections with the desire for justice. This involves listening to the cry of the poor and promoting human rights. For this reason, “ecological sin” was also spoken of. It was understood as “an action or omission against God, one’s neighbor, the community and the environment. It is also a sin against future generations, and is manifested in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment, transgressions against the principles of interdependence which lead to the breaking down of networks of solidarity between creatures (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 340-344) and against the virtue of justice” (No. 82).

From this we can understand why the Final Document (cf. Nos. 79 and 82) calls for the creation of special ministries for the care of the “common home” and the promotion of integral ecology at the parish level and in every ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the Amazon. Their function should be to take care of the land and water in partnership with indigenous communities. It has also been said that a ministry of reception should be created for those who have moved away from their territories toward the cities.

The understanding of “territory” was not limited to the forest, but also concerned the cities and the urban life that characterizes so much of the Amazon region. It has been found that the uprooting from territorial and ancestral constraints can cause the loss of identity, a deep disorientation.

Migration has been discussed at length. The forced displacement of families of the indigenous, of farmers, Afro-descendants, and people living along the banks of the rivers, who have been expelled from their territories or who have left, being frustrated with the lack of opportunity, requires comprehensive pastoral care in the periphery of urban centers. This is why the importance of an “integral ecology” has been reaffirmed.

The fact that the concern for salvation – the salus animarum – was deeply connected to that of the destiny of the Earth and of all humanity was a proof of the theological and ecclesiological maturity of this synod.

Cultural conversion

In the Amazon region there is a multiethnic and multicultural reality. Within each culture, people have built and reconstructed their vision of the world and of the future. In indigenous cultures and peoples, ancient mythical practices and interpretations coexist with modern technologies and challenges. The Synod Hall reflected all this, and it also revealed a deeply mixed soul.

The very concept of inculturation appeared obsolete. The Church in the Amazon is made up of indigenous pastors and missionaries: the Spanish and Portuguese spoken in the room reflected different accents, sometimes Italian, sometimes Polish, sometimes German; and the indigenous people also used their native languages. The legacy of the conquerors of the past has also penetrated their lives and their devotion. Everything has become mixed and connected, giving life to a living, lively and original organism. This is the Church with an Amazonian face, far from what the pope himself has defined as a “homogenized and homogenizing centralism.”

The synod also recognized that the proclamation of Christ was often made with a colonialist approach and in connivance with powers that exploited resources and oppressed the people. This was already a clear premise made explicit by Francis in his introductory speech to the synod, when he said that we “approach the Amazonian peoples on tiptoe, respecting their history, their cultures, their good way of living.” And, indeed, the Church wants to be an “ally” of the peoples.

In this sense, another clear element was the Church’s desire for a “cultural conversion,” capable of giving an authentically Catholic response to the request to fully immerse the proclamation of the Gospel and the liturgy in a specific culture, valuing the original rites and symbols, traditions and “cosmovision.” But this should be done in such a way that the Gospel purifies and refines the cultures with which it is grafted. Only an inserted and inculturated missionary Church will lead to the birth of particular indigenous Churches, with an Amazonian face and heart, rooted in the cultures and traditions of peoples, united in the same faith in Christ and different in their way of living, expressing and celebrating it.

In particular, it was appreciated that the thinking of indigenous peoples offers an integrated view of reality, capable of understanding the multiple connections that exist between all that is created. And this contrasts with the dominant current of Western thought that, in order to understand reality, tends toward fragmentation and compartmentalization.

The need for inculturation has also led to a reflection on the importance of dialogue with indigenous religions and Afro-descendent cults. In this way the ecclesial debate on local rites and inculturation with very ancient roots matured. The pope himself cited the great missionaries in Asia, such as Roberto De Nobili in India and Matteo Ricci in China, who faced these challenges. It is striking that the first intention of the prayer of the faithful at the Mass for the inauguration of the Synod for the Amazon was in Chinese. 

A Church in discernment, synodal, inculturated, sacramental and entirely ministerial

If we were to summarize the key words on the Church that emerged in the assembly, they could be found in “discernment,” “synodality,” “inculturation,” “sacraments,” and “ministries.”

Discernment. It has been said that the Church in the Amazon is called to walk in the exercise of discernment. This means “to determine and walk as a Church, through the theological interpretation of the signs of the times, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the path to follow in the service of God’s plan. Community discernment allows us to discover a call that God makes us hear in every given historical situation” (No. 90).

Synodality. Discernment is the basis of the synodal “conversion” of the Church. People listened to each other for many hours during the synod. Much was discussed, both in the chamber and in the groups, and with frankness, all within a demanding community discernment for which the presence of the Spirit was invoked. And so the words shared by the synod fathers were open, frank, free, faithful to the Church, driven by an extraordinary and shared pastoral urgency. Every topic has revealed the desire to be faithful to the truth of the Gospel and to build the world according to this Good News.

There were 831 proposals to amend the first draft of the final document. The participation and debate, including in the “minor circles,” were very rich.

This is already a great novelty in our world where democracies often do not listen to citizens and where the polarization of ideological positions is exacerbated to the detriment of dialogue. During the synod, diametrically opposed positions on many issues were discussed, but always with mutual respect and for the good of the Church and the people of the Amazon.

This synod offered the opportunity to reflect on how to structure the local Churches in each region and country, and to proceed with a synodal conversion. There has been talk of creating regional synodal structures, imagining forms of interdiocesan association in each country or between countries in a region, to encourage greater cooperation between the sister Churches. In particular, it was proposed to create a permanent and representative episcopal body, associated with CELAM (Latin American Episcopal Council), with its own structure and simple organization, and also connected with Repam (The Panamazonic Ecclesial Network). It would be the link capable of developing ecclesial and socio-environmental networks and initiatives at the continental and international levels.

Inculturation. We have already mentioned “cultural conversion” and how this has an impact on the liturgy, which must respond to the culture so that it may be the source and summit of Christian life and so that it may feel linked to the sufferings and joys of the people. We must give an authentically Catholic response to the request of the Amazonian communities to adapt the liturgy by valuing the original rites and symbols, traditions and worldviews. For this reason, many have proposed to study the possibility of “elaborating an Amazonian rite that expresses the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Amazon, with particular reference to what is stated in Lumen Gentium for the Eastern Churches (cf. LG 23).”

One could also study and propose how to enrich ecclesial rites with the way in which these peoples take care of their territory and relate to its waters.

Sacramentality. In addition, a very strong pastoral urgency and a convinced passion for the sacramentality of Catholicism, which has the Eucharist at its center, were felt. Beyond the possible solutions discussed, there was always an awareness of the difficulty that communities have in regularly celebrating the Eucharist because of the lack of priests. The right of the faithful not to be left without the Eucharist and the obligation of the pastors to provide for spiritual bread were clearly spoken of, because it is not possible to form a Christian community except by taking as its root and as its hinge the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Ministries. Bishops and priests recounted their experiences. They do what they can, crossing great distances. But communities often live thanks to the commitment of the lay men and women. An entirely ministerial Church unfolded before the Fathers, on which questions were asked about what it means for the Church to be founded on baptism.

In this sense, it was said that the bishop may entrust, with a fixed-term mandate, in the absence of priests, the exercise of pastoral care of the communities to a person not invested with the priestly character, who is a member of the community itself. The bishop may also establish this ministry with an official mandate by means of a ritual act, so that the person in charge of the community is also recognized at the civil and local levels.

The synod recognized the ministry that Jesus reserved for women. For this reason, the revision of the Motu Proprio Ministeria quaedam of Saint Paul VI was requested, so that adequately trained and prepared women may exercise the ministries of lector and acolyte, among others. In particular, considering the decisive role of women in the Amazon communities, it was requested that an instituted ministry of “community leader” be created for them, giving them full recognition (cf. Nos. 96 and 102).

The importance of permanent deacons has been reiterated. The question of the so-called viri probati was in no way based on the questioning of celibacy, but precisely by listening to the perceived drama of the absence of the sacraments in the ordinary life of so many faithful. The proposal was affirmed to “establish criteria and dispositions by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium, No. 26, to ordain to the priesthood men who are suitable and recognized by the community, who exercise a permanent diaconate and receive adequate formation for the priesthood, being able to have a legitimately constituted and stable family, to support the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.”

All these proposals are to be found in a broad and mature vision of the Church, alien to clericalism, aware of the fact that the laity already have in fact in many situations the task of teaching and supporting ecclesial communities.

* * *

There were 184 synod fathers in all. Among these, 113 came from the different ecclesiastical Panamazonic areas. Six fraternal delegates attended the synod, representing other Churches and Ecclesial Communities present in the Amazon territory, as well as 12 special guests and 25 experts, chosen for their scientific competence. There were 55 auditors, male and female, most of whom came from the Panamazonian region, even from the most remote places, and they brought their voices and living witness to the traditions, culture and faith of their people.

We want to close this presentation of the synod’s work with the answer that one auditor, Professor Delio Siticonatzi Camaiteri, a member of the Ashaninca people – an ethnic Amazon group in Peru – gave to a question from a journalist during one of the daily briefings at the Press Office of the Holy See: “I see you a little restless as if you were not able to understand what the Amazon needs. We have our vision of the cosmos, our way of looking at the world around us. Nature brings us closer to God. It brings us closer to looking at the face of God in our culture, in our living. We as natives live in harmony with all living beings. I see you’re not clear about the idea you have of us natives. I see you worried, with doubts about this reality that we seek as natives. Do not harden your heart, you must sweeten your heart. This is Jesus’ invitation. He invites us to live united. We believe in one God. We need to stick together. This is what we desire as natives. We have our own rites, but these must hinge on the center that is Jesus Christ. There is nothing else to discuss on this issue. The center that unites us in this synod is Jesus Christ.”

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ participated in the Synod by pontifical nomination
and as a member of the commission for information.

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