The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region has begun in Rome with some 260 participants, mostly bishops, but including 35 women, with the theme, “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology.” The focus of the gathering is for the participants to deliberate and vote (only the male clerical participants) on various topics affecting the church in the Amazon region which includes, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Surinam.
When Pope Francis announced the calling of the synod two years ago he said it would “identify new paths for the evangelization of God’s people in that region.” It was to have a focus on the indigenous peoples who are “often forgotten and without the prospect of a serene future.”
One of the particular challenges to the work of evangelization is that some the people live in remote areas that are hard to get to. The different languages, some 240, are spoken by over 400 tribes included in a population of over 2.8 million people.
Pope Francis, a son of South America, said during a visit to Brazil in 2013, that “the church’s presence in the Amazon Basin is not that of someone with bags packed and ready to leave after having exploited everything possible. The church has been present in the Amazon Basin from the beginning, in her missionaries, religious congregations, priests, laity and bishops, and she is still present and critical to the area’s future.”
He believes it is part of the church’s duty to defend the poor of this area of the world and to protect their natural environment from exploitation by landowners and business interests.
The preparatory document released last year zeroed in on such topics as the role of women in the church, the rights and traditions of indigenous people and the need to provide greater access to the Eucharist. The topic of greater access to the Eucharist has sparked a tempest over the possibility of ordaining married men in that region to bring the Eucharist more frequently to especially remote areas. In fact, while globally there are 3,130 Catholics for every Catholic priest, in South America the average priest serves 7,203 Catholics, according to Vatican statistics. In the United States and Canada there are 1,916 Catholics per priest.
I was happy to read that another topic incorporated into the working document published on June 17, 2019, was “Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue.” Even though the Amazon Basin is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, there are people of other denominations and faiths living in those countries. This section begins by grounding ecumenical dialogue in Jesus Christ and the Gospel. It speaks of the need for interreligious dialogue so that believers “who share their lives, their struggles, their concerns and their experience of God, making their differences a stimulus to grow and deepen their own faith.” It warns against those who preach “a theology of prosperity and well-being based on their own reading of the Bible. There are also fatalistic orientations that seek to unsettle their hearers: then, answering the negative view of the world, they offer a bridge to certain salvation. These tendencies have a negative impact on groups in the Amazon, some through fear and others by way of the search for success.”
It speaks well of some Protestant missionaries who, “in the midst of the Amazon rainforest alongside the poorest, other groups are present, evangelizing and educating; they hold a great attraction for the people despite not valuing their cultures positively. Their presence has allowed them to disseminate and teach the Bible translated into the original languages. In large part these movements have spread due to the absence of Catholic ministers. Their pastors have formed small communities with a human face, where people feel personally valued. Another positive factor is the local, close and concrete presence of the pastors who visit, accompany, comfort, know and pray for the specific needs of the families. They are people like the others, easy to meet, who live the same problems and become ‘closer to’ and less ‘different from’ the rest of the community. They are showing us another way of being church where the people feel that they are the protagonists and where the faithful can express themselves freely without censorship or dogmatism or ritual disciplines.”
Powerful and thought provoking words and concepts for all who would minister on behalf of Jesus Christ!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.