12 February 2020, The Tablet

Pope calls on national governments to help save Amazon

Pope calls on national governments to help save Amazon

Pope Francis meets indigenous people from the Amazonian region during the second week of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 17, 2019.
CNS photo/Vatican Media

Pope Francis has set out his vision for Amazon region in a document that places the emphasis on social justice, the environment and the responsibilities of national governments worldwide to help.

In his long-awaited Apostolic exhortation from last year's Pan-Amazon Synod, Querida Amazonía, or "Beloved Amazonia", Pope Francis spells out his dream for the Amazon, and that it should be a region that fights for the rights of the poor and the original people, a region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches and that can preserve its overwhelming natural beauty.

However, his comments on the role of women and his decision not to countenance women deacons came in for criticism from women's groups in the Church. 

The Amazon region is a "multinational and interconnected whole", he writes, a great biome shared by nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, Venezuela and the territory of French Guiana.

"Yet I am addressing the present exhortation to the whole world, he writes, in an attempt to "awaken affection and concern" for the region.

The answer is not to be found in “internationalising” the Amazon but rather in a greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments.

He also writes of "giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features".

He does not directly address or advocate the ordination of women deacons or married priests, but nor does he shut the door on it. Instead, as Austen Ivereigh writes in his analysis for The Tablet, Pope Francis believes that there is no indication that the Holy Spirit is moving in these directions.

Instead, he proposes different strategies to address the shortage of priests, including enhanced roles for women that fall short of clerical ordination.

He writes: "In the Amazon region, there are communities that have long preserved and handed on the faith even though no priest has come their way, even for decades. This could happen because of the presence of strong and generous women who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptised, catechised, prayed and acted as missionaries.

"For centuries, women have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith. Some of them, speaking at the Synod, moved us profoundly by their testimony."

He argues that understanding of the Church should not be restricted to her functional structures "because such a reductionism would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders".

That approach would "clericalise women" and diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, he says.

Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is "properly theirs", by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.

"Without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them. This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs," he writes. "We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society, even though communities now face many new and unprecedented threats."

Instead of ordination, Pope Francis urges "other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history."

This would mean granting women access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders, in roles that entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.

"This would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organisation, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood."

He also argues for an "inculturation of the ways we structure and carry out ecclesial ministries" in a region suffering from a great shortage of priests.

"A specific and courageous response is required of the Church," he says, calling for ministry to be configured in such a way that it is at the service of a more frequent celebration of the Eucharist, even in the remotest and most isolated communities.

He acknowledges "the lament of the many Amazonian communities deprived of the Sunday Eucharist for long periods of time.”

Nevertheless, he affirms that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist.

"In the specific circumstances of the Amazon region, particularly in its forests and more remote places, a way must be found to ensure this priestly ministry," Pope Francis writes. "The laity can proclaim God’s word, teach, organise communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the Spirit pours out in their midst. But they need the celebration of the Eucharist because it makes the Church."

Every effort should be made to ensure that the Amazonian peoples do not lack this food of new life and the sacrament of forgiveness, he writes.

"This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region. At the same time, it is appropriate that the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation be thoroughly revised, so that priests can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures. This formation must be preeminently pastoral and favour the development of priestly mercy."

He also calls for many more permanent deacons, and says that they along with religious women and lay people can assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities.

"It is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities. We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness through various kinds of lay service that call for a process of education – biblical, doctrinal, spiritual and practical – and a variety of programmes of ongoing formation."

Pope Francis also references the so-called "Pachamama" controversy, where there were protests against carved indigenous wooden statues of a pregnant women, including at one point a demonstration where the statues were taken from a church and thrown into the Tiber, to be rescued later by police.

He writes: "Let us not be quick to describe as superstition or paganism certain religious practices that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. Rather, we ought to know how to distinguish the wheat growing alongside the tares." Describing it as "popular piety", he says: :It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.

"Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation. A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality."

The exhortation was welcomed by the Catholic aid agency Cafod.

Clare Dixon, head of Latin America at Cafod, said: “This is another example of a Pope who is prepared to show the leadership we need in a world so lacking in it.

“As he did ahead of the Paris climate talks in 2015, the Holy Father is calling on the world to act urgently in the run-up to the vital meetings taking place on biodiversity and COP26 this year.

“The pope is pointing to the Amazon as a microcosm of the crisis we are facing – with the fires, pollution and displacement we’ve seen in the region showing the deadly interaction of poverty and the destruction of nature.

“But Francis is also imploring us to listen to the wisdom of the people of the Amazon, insisting that we learn from the way they live with the environment rather than in competition with it. We must ensure that these communities are at the conference tables alongside world leaders this year.”

Picking up the Pope's plea for more missionaries for the Amazon, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin said: "Despite the challenges we have here in Ireland with finding enough priests and religious to serve our parishes, we should not forget that Ireland has always been a country which has responded to the Church’s call to mission. I recently visited mission and development projects in Ecuador, Peru and Nicaragua and was humbled to see the immense contribution that Irish missionaries, religious and Trócaire workers are making there. It would be wonderful if some Irish priests, religious and lay missionaries today were to consider offering even a five year period of ministry to the Amazon."

Others however rejected the pope's vision of the role of women.

The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research said: "The Pope’s refusal to consider the ordination of women rejects the explicit recommendation of the synod on the Amazon, where more than 250 bishops recognised the reality on the ground that 'the majority of Catholic communities are led by women' and that 'in a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for women was requested'.

"Pope Francis justified such a unilateral decision on the grounds that he does not want 'to clericalise women'. This is a dereliction of his duty as a leader with the power to make positive change and challenge discrimination and his position cannot be justified unless and until the Pope also declares that no more men should be recruited for the ministry so as not to 'clericalise' them.

"This post-synodal document is a betrayal of women by denying them the grace of holy orders to do a ministry they are already carrying out. Moreover, women have been ordained deacons in the past. The Wijngaards Institute’s own research, conducted over the past 30 years, shows that tens of thousands of women served as ordained deacons during the first millennium of the Church and received a full ‘sacramental’ ordination, in today’s theological language.

"Our documented appeal for the reinstatement of women deacons, published in September 2015, was signed by leading theologians and prominent Catholics from around the world. It was also sent to Pope Francis and his office acknowledged receiving it: Wijngaards Institute on the reinstatement of women deacons. We are calling on Pope Francis to read this evidence and to establish anew commission that is comprised of truly independent scholars recommended by international Catholic theological associations. We caution against allowing the Curia to handpick a group of academics known for their traditional views and hostility to women to decide on a new, restricted role for women that ensures they remain second class citizens.

"The post-synodal document means that thousands of women, among them many women religious, will now continue to do the work to sustain the Church behind the scenes, still lacking official recognition, still denied the authority to act without the supervision of men. Pope Francis’ decision perpetuates gender discrimination that denies women the dignity and respect to live out their vocations and be recognised as critical to the equal leadership of Church communities as the peers of, not servants of men."

The Women's Ordination group also criticised the Pope for "leaving women and their dreams to the footnotes of the document" and his papacy.

"With Querida Amazonia, the Pope is willfully turning his back on the calls of women for recognition of the sacramental ministries they offer the people of the Amazon and the global Church," the group said. "Pope Francis writes that we need 'courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new ... Let us be fearless; let us not clip the wings of the Holy Spirit', but despite the testimonies of women from the Amazon and the overwhelming discussion of their bishops throughout the month-long synod process, the Pope again relies on outdated spousal metaphors to deny women their fullness in Christ."

Accusing him of complementarianism, the group says the Pope seemingly ignores the synod's request for more study on the possibility of women deacons, and instead, in the face of sacramental scarcity, calls for prayer for male vocations to priesthood.

"Recognising women's work with diaconal ordination would be the first, most basic step towards righting the wrong of institutional sexism that hobbles our Church as it attempts to respond to the moral crises of our time. While the Women's Ordination Conference applauds the Pope's sincere concern for the global climate catastrophe and its particular threats within the Amazonian region, we find it problematic that the Pope fails to connect the degradation of the earth with the degradation of women in his own Church, and the similar power structures at play."  

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