Critical conversions of our time — the Big Picture

A lot of the global media coverage of the Amazon Synod focused on sensational issues such as the support for married men in the region becoming priests and the lively conversations about allowing women to serve in the permanent diaconate.

Nov 10, 2019

By Anil Netto
A lot of the global media coverage of the Amazon Synod focused on sensational issues such as the support for married men in the region becoming priests and the lively conversations about allowing women to serve in the permanent diaconate.

But the final document of the synod had a far-reaching central theme running through it that was perhaps not highlighted enough: conversion in five main areas, each with a separate chapter: integral conversion, pastoral conversion, cultural conversion, ecological conversion and new ways of synodal conversion.

In focusing on conversion, the Church in the Amazon especially has recognised that it can longer carry on with business as usual – not when critical problems are confronting the people and their natural environment.

The synod built on the themes that had developed decades earlier, even centuries ago.

Francis of Assisi’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all creation in the 13th Century underpinned much of the conversations taking place at the synod. Even the French philosoper Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the earlier 20th Century would have nodded at themes such as the  single intercommunication between the whole cosmos.

Vatican II in the 1960s paved the way for more collegial and participatory synods, where the people of God have an increasingly large say. This was taken a step further at the synod.

But the big takeaway from the synod was how the concept of the preferential option for the poor first expounded in the 1970s was extended to include the indigenous peoples.

The Church realises it cannot stand as a passive observer as the ecological system was being destroyed. It has to insert itself into the situation in solidarity with the indigenous groups of the Amazon. It has to walk with these people as an ally in defence of their land and way of life.

The Church has to do this without imposing new forms of colonialism, in the process atoning for its sins of the past when it colluded with colonial powers in the op pression of indigenous peoples.

What are some of the challenges facing the communities today?

Today, the Amazon has witnessed the privatisation of the common and new forms of exploitative production, including extractive industries. Pollution from these industries has taken a toll. Massive deforestation has stripped the earth, affecting 17 per cent of the region. The destruction of the ecosystem will worsen climate change.

Alcoholism and drug and other trafficking has spread misery. Community leaders defending their land and activists defending the human rights of the people are criminalised.

As the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical on the environment Laudato Si pointed out, there is a convergence between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. It is the Gospel to take up the task of defending the human rights of those who are oppressed.

So, no, the Church cannot sit idly by. 

These new crises should prompt us to witness the scale of the problem, reflect on the unfolding situation and respond in new and creative ways, inspired by the Spirit.

The conversion theme at the synod involved even the process of the synod, which was ground-breaking. Few could have imagined decades earlier such an influential synod including the voices, cultures and world-views of indigenous groups – even if it provided fodder for conservative groups to lash out at the Church. Few could have imagined such issues as married priests and conversations about women in the permanent diaconate being discussed freely.

Through it all, the Spirit was leading the Church to new ways of responding to the critical challenges of our time.

We in the Malaysian church cannot sit idly by either. Rising sea levels, the destruction of the coastal ecology, deforestation and land grabs afflict our land as well. Some of these problems displace our indigenous peoples as well and lead to a loss in their livelihoods and way of life. They are crying out for solidarity.

And so we have to rise above naval gazing and our tendency to come up with more and more projects that do little to address the real needs of the people. The challenge is formidable, but the Spirit will guide us.

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