Bishops from across the Amazon will rub shoulders with a former United Nations’ chief and the world’s leading climate change scientists during next month’s synod as they address how the Church can respond to the ecological and pastoral emergencies in the region.
On 21 September, the Vatican released the list of participants for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region which is taking place on 6-27 October 2019, an event shaping up to be one of the most dramatic moments of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
It will see the Church of the Amazon descend on Rome with all the diocesan bishops from the region attending the event along with leaders of indigenous communities and church workers.
They are to be joined by special guests including Ban Ki-Moon, the former United Nations’ secretary-general, and Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian scientist who was the lead author of the IPCC report into climate change that won the 2007 Nobel peace prize.
Jeffrey Sachs, a professor focussing on sustainable development at Columbia University, in the United States, and Hans J Schellnhuber, a professor of atmospheric physics and climate change expert, have also been invited.
The synod comes as the Amazon faces wildfires raging through the region, which has seen international criticism levelled at Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. Experts say his policies, which have removed environmental protections from the rainforest, have fuelled the fires which they claim were caused by land speculators and ranchers designed to expand their pastures.
Bolsonaro is worried about the synod, having sent a military and diplomatic delegation to the Vatican to lobby organisers, while Brazil’s intelligence agency has reportedly been monitoring preparations. The synod is likely to present an alternative strategy for the Amazon than the one pursued by the populist-nationalist president.
The vast majority of the 185 voting members of the synod come from the nine Amazon countries with the biggest bloc - 58 - coming from Brazil, while the “relator general” of the synod is the Emeritus Archbishop of Sao Paolo, Cardinal Claudio Hummes. Fifteen of the bishops are from Colombia and 12 from Bolivia. Also attending, and voting, are the dozen most senior officials in the Roman Curia.
The list of voting participants includes the Pope’s personal nominations. These include members of his cardinal advisory body: Cardinals Sean O’Malley (United States), Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras) Reinhard Marx (Germany), Oswald Gracias (India) and Giusseppe Bertello (Italy). Francis also selected Cardinals Christoph Schönborn (Austria), Angelo Bagnasco (Italy and President of the Conferences of European Bishops), Jean-Claude Hollerich (Luxembourg) and US Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, whose ministry has focussed on the Church’s social teaching.
Taking part in the gathering are dozens of non-voting participants, including 20 women religious, half of which represent the International Union of Superiors General, and 13 laywomen. The synod is due to discuss the role of women in the Amazon region, where female figures lead a significant number of communities.
Participants will also examine whether the ordination of married elders can be ordained as priests given that some parishes and communities wait many months for a Mass to be said.
Much of the discussions will be focused on how the Church can become a prophetic voice standing with the marginalised and protecting the environment. It will underscore that ecological concerns and social justice concerns are inseparable.
The Amazon synod discussions will hear from a range of prophetic voices in the Church including Víctor Codina, a Jesuit theology professor who worked in Bolivia for 36 years, and Fr Peter Hughes and Irish Columban missionary who has spent five decades in Latin America working mainly in Peru.
Cardinal Hummes will be assisted by two special secretaries, the Jesuit priest Michael Czerny, who will be made a cardinal next month and works in the Holy See’s migrants section, and Bishop David Martinez de Aguirre Guinea, a Dominican from Peru.
The Pope has also chosen Cardinals Baltazar Porras Cardozo (Venezuela), Pedro Barreto Jimeno, (Peru), and Joao Braz de Aviz, the Brazilian prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for religious, as “president-delegates” meaning they will oversee some of the synod discussions.