Church reform does not just take place through documents, proposals or strategic plans. Reform takes place as word and action. It is word and flesh.
The Second Vatican Council, which set the framework for the contemporary Church, did not achieve its impact through the texts produced by the gathering, but through the event of bringing bishops across the world into one place, and the spirit of renewal it sought to unleash. The moment was as important as the message.
In the same way, the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon will be remembered not simply for its documents or proposals, but for directing the Church’s missionary efforts to a forgotten part of the world, yet so vital for the future of the planet. Like the council, it has sought to discern the spirit by using the experience of the people of God, the sense of the faith on the ground, to inform its decisions. And the questions in the Amazon, like the council, go to the heart of the future of the Church.
Does the Church have the “daring prudence”, as Francis put it, to find new ways to plant the seeds of the Gospel? Is the Church ready to build a future or will it fall back on maintaining the status quo by re-proposing the old styles, disciplines and customs introduced in a different age?
The choice is stark: a museum faith or a living one. This is most pressing for Catholics in the West, where the opposition to the synod has been most fierce.
“The church is tired in the Europe of well-being and in America,” the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said before his death. “Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous.”
For the last three weeks the synod has aimed for the latter, as the river of the Amazon has flowed into the Tiber bringing fresh water and evangelising energy.
Three moments from the October gathering in Rome mark what has been a kairos moment of conversion, a time when the Church was encouraged to listen to the Holy Spirit.
The first touchstone moment was the ceremony in the Vatican gardens on 4 October which dedicated the synod to St Francis of Assisi, on the feast day of the saint of poverty, peace and the natural world. The service, led by the indigenous, was an inculturation of indigenous rites, Christian worship and respect for the natural world. The Amazon had arrived, in the heart of the Vatican.
But the use of wooden indigenous statues of pregnant women – which one lady presented to the Pope as “Our Lady of the Amazon – offended some Catholics, provoking furious condemnations and wild claims that the Vatican had permitted a pagan “eco-ritual” to take place. As the synod drew to a close two men threw the statutes in the River Tiber, posting the video on YouTube. The news delighted a number of Catholic commentators and was even endorsed by a former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the Pope later asked for forgiveness for the act of desecration, emphasising that the statues had been displayed “without idolatry".
The resistance is a sign that the synod process is working. Standing in prophetic solidarity with the indigenous peoples, a group who have faced years of persecution and have few to advocate for them, comes at a cost. The martyrs of the Amazon bear witness to that.
The second crucial event took place at the start of the synod’s working session, when, in front of the tomb of St Peter, barefooted indigenous people, lay Catholic workers and bishops from the Amazon gather in a circle on the marbled floor to pray. Pope Francis then joined them and, after singing the “Veni Creator Spiritus”, the group processed out of the holding up a canoe, the wooden statue of the pregnant woman – also described as “Our Lady of the Amazon” – and holding placards of missionaries and martyrs of central and Latin America.
As they arrived at the Paul VI hall, the procession felt like a walking embodiment of a “synodal” church journeying together, while the scenes of bishops from across the world had echoes of Vatican II.
The 1962-65 council, and the Church’s attempts to return to the spirit of early Christianity, was on display during the third significant moment at the synod. This took place early on Sunday morning, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, when bishops and lay participants of the synod gathered at an ancient Christian burial site to renew the legendary “Catacombs pact” of 1965.
This had been signed in the Domitilla catacombs by 42 bishops as Vatican II was coming to an end, with the council fathers pledging to defend the poor, speak out for the voiceless and seek out lay collaborators in their ministry. They pledged to return to the spirit of the early Christians, renouncing personal possessions along with “names and titles that express prominence and power”.
The new “Pact of the Catacombs for a Common Home” signed on 20 October 2019 saw the synod bishops pledge to defend the Amazon rainforest in the face of global warming and depletion of natural resources, to live more simply and to recognise the "diakonia" of women ministers.
Speaking during a Mass before the signing of the pact, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes said the synod of bishops on the Amazon was a “fruit” of Vatican II. To emphasise the point, the cardinal told the gathering he was wearing the stole of Dom Hélder Câmara, the Brazil’s prophetic bishop of slums who attended every session of the council and signed the 1965 pact.
What Hummes was hinting at was how the council gave institutional expression to a global Church, a moment where bishops on the ground from across the world were included in a universal ecclesial mission. The Amazon synod is a fruit of the council, because Vatican II gave a voice to local churches.
The synod has also been a laboratory for Francis’ reforms. Debates over contentious questions such as married priests and the role of women are being looked at from within a local, pastoral context of severe pastoral need and taken out of the conference centres and television studios favoured by the Pope’s opponents.
At the heart of the synod is how the Church, through humility and dialogue, insert the Gospel into culture. This requires a conciliar Church which believes in John 3:16’s lines that “God so loved the world” rather than a fortress-like institution issuing commands and condemnations.
“Inculturation flows theologically from the Incarnation, when Our Lord became man and took everything from the local culture,” Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias told reporters in answer to a question from The Tablet at a synod press briefing on 23 October.
The same message of the Gospel becomes rooted in vastly different contexts, despite the fear of difference expressed in some quarters about indigenous rites.
“I see you a little restless, perhaps you don't understand what the Amazon needs,” Delio Siticonatzi Camaiteri, one indigenous leader said. “Do not harden your heart, we believe in one God! Do we have our rituals? Yes, but we must integrate them with the heart that is Christ.”
This debate goes right back to the early Church, and the Council of Jerusalem which resolved disagreements over circumcision, at its heart was a debate about the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christian faith.
Francis referenced that council during his Wednesday audience of 23 October, pointing out that the “ecclesial method for resolving conflicts is based on dialogue made up of attentive and patient listening and with discernment carried out with the light of the Spirit.”
This is the spirit he has sought to harness by calling the Amazon synod, and in his wider reform programme.
"The church is not a fortress, but a tent capable of expanding and offering access to everyone," the Pope told the crowd in St Peter’s Square. "The church is 'going out' or it is not [the] Church, either it is walking, always widening its room so that all may enter or else it is not [the] Church.”