By Christopher White, National Correspondent for The Tablet, and Inés San Martín
NEW YORK – Pope Francis’s highly anticipated document on the Amazon bypasses two hot-button issues looming over its publication – the possibility of married priests and women deacons – while calling for “outrage” over the treatment of the region’s land and its peoples.
Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which marks the pope’s final reflections on the synod for the Amazon last October and which was released Wednesday, outlines four “great dreams” – social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial – in which the pope says he hopes to awaken an “affection and concern” for the Amazon for the whole world.
The 32-page document, the shortest exhortation Francis has penned in his seven-year papacy, he says is meant to serve as a response to the synod’s final document, “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology,” noting that he does not “claim to replace that text or to duplicate it.”
Instead, the pope encourages the final document to be read in full, as he says it is the fruit of those who live in the region and “experience its suffering” and “love it passionately.”
Francis’s open-ended language seems to leave open the possibility that in the future married men who have had a “fruitful permanent diaconate” could be ordained as priests in the region, as outlined in the final Synod document – although he does not address the issue directly, only lamenting that “every effort should be made” to ensure people in the region, some of whom only see a priest once or twice a year, have regular access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession.
During a February 10 conversation with bishops from the United States who were in Rome, Bishop Oscar Solis of Salt Lake City said Francis told the bishops that he “didn’t actually believe in the ordination of married men, but what are you going to do with all those people who are deprived of the Eucharist?”
Speaking with Catholic News Service, the bishop said the pontiff had given them the impression that the issues of ordaining married men and women deacons in far-flung communities would still be a matter for future discussion and discernment.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, who served as special secretary to the Synod, told L’Osservatore Romano on Wednesday that while the possibility of ordaining married men still exists, as it already does in the Eastern Churches, “What is needed is new life in the communities, a new missionary impetus, new lay services, ongoing formation, boldness and creativity… the great question is a renewed experience of faith and evangelization.”
While highlighting the importance of priests in the document, the pope also issues a strong call for leadership that is “distinctively lay.”
“A Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one,” he writes.
“The challenges in the Amazon region demand of the Church a special effort to be present at every level, and this can only be possible through the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity,” he continues.
In a footnote, Francis quotes the Code of Canon law, that says it is possible that, due to priestly shortages, a bishop can entrust “participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish… to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons.”
As for the role of women, Francis highlighted the fact that there are communities in the Amazon where women have been responsible for preserving the faith “even though no priest has come their way, even for decades.”
“This summons us to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the Church to her functional structures,” he writes, going on to warn that the Church cannot risk “clericalizing women” by simply granting them Holy Orders.
Women, he writes, have a “central part to play in Amazonian communities,” including “access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”
“Here it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop. This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood,” he added.
Throughout the October synod and in the lead-up to the exhortation, both Francis and organizers of the synod voiced frustration that debates over married priests and women deacons had dominated the bulk of the discussion outside of the synod – possibly motivating the pope’s decision not to weigh in on those issues directly and front-load the document with a mix of firsthand testimonials and accounts of the region’s needs and aspirations.
The region, he writes is facing an “ecological disaster,” but the response to it cannot separate the land from its people, the pope warns, offering a criticism of environmentalists who are more concerned with the region than its peoples.
“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” he writes, quoting from his 2015 ecological encyclical Laudato si’.
Francis goes on to offer sweeping condemnations of the treatment of indigenous peoples, the imbalance of power that has left “the weak with no means of defending themselves,” the massive deforestation of the land, the long history of colonization and corruption, including the sins of the Church.
“We need to feel outrage as Moses did, as Jesus did, as God does in the face of injustice,” he writes. “The incidents of injustice and cruelty that took place in the Amazon region even in the last century ought to provoke profound abhorrence, but they should also make us more sensitive to the need to acknowledge current forms of human exploitation, abuse and killing.”
In casting his “dream” for the region, the pope issues a clarion call for both individuals and governments to work together to recognize what is at stake, writing that “the equilibrium of our planet also depends on the health of the Amazon region.”
Yet rather than ceding control of the region, the pope calls for collective, shared action on the part of national governments and international agencies, aided and supported by the Church.
In his meditation on “Amazonian holiness,” the pope says the distinctive features of the region serve as an invitation and challenge to the universal Church.
During the October synod, controversy ensued when some of the synod participants brought over small indigenous statuettes of a naked pregnant woman, which were included in several of the synod events.
The “Pachamama” statues, as they were called, were stolen from a Roman church and tossed into the Tiber by traditionalist activists who dubbed them pagan idols.
In his exhortation, the pope offers an extended reflection on inculturation, drawing heavily on Pope St. John Paul II in arguing that “the history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression.”
“It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry,” he writes.
“A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality,” he continues.
“The greatest danger would be to prevent them from encountering Christ by presenting him as an enemy of joy or as someone indifferent to human questions and difficulties,” he warns. “Nowadays, it is essential to show that holiness takes nothing away from our ‘energy, vitality or joy.’”
Inculturation of the gospel, the pope adds, could help spur greater vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the region.
In concluding the document, the pope turns in prayer to Mary in hopes that his dream for the Amazon can be turned into a reality for the region and for the whole Church.
“From the original peoples, we can learn to contemplate the Amazon region and not simply analyze it, and thus appreciate this precious mystery that transcends us. We can love it, not simply use it, with the result that love can awaken a deep and sincere interest,” he writes. “Even more, we can feel intimately a part of it and not only defend it; then the Amazon region will once more become like a mother to us.”