In Roland Joffé’s film, The Mission, Jesuits in South America battled with a powerful Vatican cardinal who, after much agonising, decides to shut down their ministry to the Guarani people.
The movie came to mind when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, launched a book defending the “traditional teaching” on clerical celibacy on the eve of the Amazon synod.
The Canadian prelate, like the cardinal in the film, is struggling over where he stands. Speaking to reporters at the launch of “Friends of the Bridegroom” he said he is “open” to the debate which will take place at the synod on ordaining married men to the priesthood, but is “sceptical.”
The curial cardinal, who is also President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, offers in his book a “path forward” which is “sensitive to the missionary duties” but also steeped “in her incomparable and irreplaceable” tradition.
Cardinal Ouellet is acting as a brake on what Amazon synod organisers hope will be bold “new paths” coming out of the gathering, designed to bolster a local Church which has a prophetic but patchy presence in the region.
He represents a part of the Roman Curia, and other small but loud groups in the Church, whose prime focus for the synod is the preservation of mandatory celibacy for priests, even though the synod is not debating the 12th-century discipline (a rule which the Pope says he won’t change).
What is being discussed at the synod is an exception to ordain married “elders” as priests in the Amazon as a way to bolster the fragile communities in the area. Other exceptions exist, including for married former Anglican priests.
At a Vatican press conference on Thursday 3 October, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the synod’s relator-general, laid out some facts of the pastoral reality on the ground, which the synod critics, largely in the Rome and the United States, are playing catch up over. They feel very negatively, for example about the synod’s working document, despite it being compiled following a listening exercise in the area which heard from 87,000 people.
Around 70 to 80 per cent of the Catholic communities in the region, Cardinal Hummes told reporters, have “limited” access to the sacraments, with many going months on end without a priest saying Mass or hearing confessions.
“The Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” the cardinal said quoting Pope St John Paul II’s 2003 document “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” adding that without the sacraments the Church is prevented from growing. It is from this context, and not a book, that the synod will debate ordaining married men priests.
Critics of the synod are also strangely silent about the fires raving through the Amazon, and the ecological crisis facing the region and its exploitation.
Indigenous representatives coming to Rome for the synod say they want the help of the Church in standing against the plundering of the Amazon by outside economic interests, and in helping to protect the rainforest.
“We want the Pope, with his spirituality, his bravery and wisdom, and with this great call to action, to make the world react, act and most importantly, to call out those responsible for what is happening on indigenous lands,” Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin, said in a phone call during a press briefing with journalists on 2 October.
“We will be going to Rome so that the Catholic Church and its allies hear us and join us and our proposed actions, and we want for the Catholic Church to fuse itself to become part of the forests, integrating itself into the forests because the Catholic Church is very diverse”.
But a prophetic local church requires sacraments and people. Along with ordaining married men, the synod will also look at what official role can be given to women who minister in the region.
Cardinal Hummes said women “carry out a great and extraordinary job” in the region and are leading communities. Some, he added, have been killed. They are now asking “for the Church to recognise this extraordinary work” so it can be “more institutionalised” and have more authority.
“If it weren’t for the presence of women at all in those territories, there would be no presence of the Catholic Church,” Mauricio Lopez, Executive Director of Red Ecclesial Pan Amazónica (Repam) and a synod organiser said. “The indigenous communities call for a more permanent presence.”
Lopez said it is "not about ordaining women or making them deacons” but finding the “proper ministry for them.” He added: “unless the Church changes some of the structures, and acknowledges this reality, there might not be a future for the Church.”
Sitting on the fence is not an option for the 185 synod fathers when they gather in the Paul VI Hall for the 6-27 October meeting. Cardinal Hummes says that action is needed on the Amazon now, and not in 20 years.
“The grandeur and reassuring stability of the Magisterium must not distract the Church from addressing unique needs in an appropriate manner,” new Cardinal Michael Czerny, a special secretary to the synod, wrote last month in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. “One size does not fit all…In this region at this time, the challenge is to be a Church with an Amazonian and indigenous face.”
Like the cardinal in The Mission, the synod is faced with a choice about how to ensure the Church has a future in a region, so often forgotten, but so vital to the world.