Bruce Duncan

Posted 10 March 2020

Many parts of Pope Francis’s response to the recent Amazon Synod could have been written for Australia, especially about European colonisation of the New World, the destruction of indigenous peoples and their cultures, the appropriation of their lands and the despoliation of natural resources.

Francis urges renewed efforts to respect indigenous cultures and to appreciate their values, spirituality and customs, and in particular, to learn from their care and understanding of nature and the environment that has sustained them over thousands of years.

He dreams ‘of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.’ He wants an Amazon with ‘its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth…’ and the ‘overwhelming natural beauty’ and ‘teeming life’ are preserved. He hopes that committed Christian communities give ‘the Church new faces with Amazonian features.’ (#7).

Ecological & social disaster in the Amazon

The Amazon is ‘facing an ecological disaster’, which is also a social one, where its inhabitants – including those of African descent and the river people – cannot be ignored. Many are experiencing ‘the worst forms of enslavement, subjection and poverty’. Francis insists that crimes and injustices against the Amazonian inhabitants continue still, as powerful economic interests occupy indigenous lands for timber or massive mines, and destroy ancient forests to raise cattle and crops for international markets. ‘The imbalance of power is enormous; the weak have no means of defending themselves, while the winners take it all…’ (#13)

‘We need to feel outrage’, as did Moses, Jesus and God in the face of injustice. The cruelty in the colonisation of the Americas should make us more sensitive to ‘current forms of human exploitation, abuse and killing’. Colonisation has not ended, he says, but changed into a disguise, where a minority profit from the unscrupulous plundering of the Amazon. Francis recognises instances when even missionaries failed in the past to protect the indigenous peoples, and he ‘humbly asks forgiveness’. (#19).

Francis encourages a new dialogue in the Amazon, with the indigenous peoples ‘our principal dialogue partners, those from whom we have the most to learn, to whom we need to listen out of a duty of justice, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals.’ (#26).

Global implications

Pope Francis in Philadelphia 2015.

In his response to the October Amazon Synod, Pope Francis reiterates his appeal for the world to address the growing threat from climate change, and to tackle the dominant pattern of globalisation which is despoiling much of our natural world while channeling immense riches into the grasp of tiny elites leaving vast numbers in poverty and hunger. As frequent references in the document indicate, Francis amplifies his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ with specific examples from the Amazon.

The Pope issued his response, Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon) as a 15,000-word exhortation addressed to ‘the People of God and All Persons of Good will’ on 2 February 2020. Indicating the urgency of the issues, Querida Amazonia was actually completed by 27 December, unusually soon after the Synod document itself, which was dated only two months earlier on 26 October 2019.

Learning the process of synodality

In this response, Francis says he does not duplicate the final document from the Amazon Synod but aims to ‘synthesise some of the larger concerns’ to guide a ‘creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process’ (#2). The emphasis on process is critical in his thinking. As he explained in his 2013 document, The Joy of the Gospel, we need good processes of listening, dialoguing and engaging with today’s pressing issues, and discerning how the Holy Spirit is calling for genuine solidarity in our common global home.

The Amazon Synod is unique in focusing so closely on a geographic region. It followed an extensive two-year consultation throughout the nine countries of Amazonia involving more than 60,000 people. Discussions centred on how God’s Holy Spirit was moving hearts and minds, with specific reference to protecting the Amazon forests and their peoples.

There was some confusion about the status of the final Synod document. Though he quotes from the Preparatory Document, Francis does not quote from its final version, which he did ‘officially present’, because, he says, ‘I would encourage everyone to read it in full’. He urges Catholics in the Amazon to apply its conclusions and he hopes it will inspire everyone of good will.

A question of ordaining married men & women deacons, or something ‘not yet even imagined’?

Many commentators were surprised that the Pope did not endorse the ordination of ‘viri probati’ (married lay men who have been leaders in their communities) or of women in ministry as deacons, as requested by over two-thirds of the bishops in the Amazon Synod held in Rome.

According to Austen Ivereigh, Francis was ‘deeply troubled over the issue and couldn’t see an obvious way through’. He felt there was not enough consensus on the issue, and that the Holy Spirit was urging a different resolution, ‘perhaps something not yet even imagined’ (#104). Looking beyond the customary hierarchy of laity, deacons and priests, Francis suggests a new way of structuring the Church in the Amazon, empowering mature lay women and men ‘endowed with authority’ for leadership roles within their cultural communities, roles which were stable, publicly recognised and commissioned by the bishop (#94).

Francis writes that these charisms have ‘already poured out’ in the Amazon. He urges that the Church be ‘open to the Spirit’s boldness’ and help develop ‘the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay’. Almost all the Catholic communities in the Amazon are run by lay people, of whom 60 per cent are women. Francis is gently pushing the Church into a different type of governance and co-responsibility, with lay men and women playing much greater roles.

Francis addresses his appeal to everyone alarmed about the catastrophic effects of global warming and the extreme inequality within and between countries. He sees these as profoundly moral issues which threaten our future as human beings and imperil the life support systems of the planet.

As the crisis in the Amazon shows, and as the recent terrible fires in Australia in 2019-2020 confirm, our remarkable Indigenous Australians have much to teach non-Indigenous peoples about how to care sustainably for the natural world around us, thus ensuring our own future.

Photo Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. Anna & Michal. flickr cc.
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