Towards a prophetic shifting of the centre of gravity

Francis is seeking solutions that consider the rights of the original peoples, and that defend the cultural richness and natural beauty of the earth.

Feb 26, 2020

1. Church with a Native face

Splendor, drama, mystery: with these three words Pope Francis offers to the people of God and all persons of goodwill his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia (Beloved Amazon), on the special synod for the Amazon, which took place in Rome, October 6-27, 2019.

With this synod, held at the heart of catholicity in Rome, the Church set out in search of prophecy, shifting its center of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic area and looking to a land full of gigantic political, economic and ecological contradictions.

Francis is seeking solutions that consider the rights of the original peoples, and that defend the cultural richness and natural beauty of the earth. And he seeks to support Christian communities with suitable pastoral solutions. In this regard, the engine of the exhortation – we immediately anticipate – is in the tenth paragraph of the fourth chapter, entitled “Expanding Horizons Beyond Conflicts.” When there are complex issues, the pope asks us to go beyond contradictions. When there are polarities and conflicts, we need to find new solutions, to break the impasse by looking for other better ways, perhaps not imagined before. Transcending dialectic oppositions is one of the fundamental action criteria for the pontiff. It is always good to keep this in mind.

The October synod
The synodal reflections produced a painting, like a great fresco in which everything – the life of the Church, politics, the economy, the care of the common home, the liturgy – is connected, as we read in the encyclical Laudato Si’ (No. 117).

The painting of the fresco actually began on January 19, 2018, when an extraordinary encounter between the pontiff and 22 indigenous peoples took place in Puerto Maldonado during Francis’ apostolic journey to Peru. There, Francis urged everyone “to shape a Church with an Amazonian face, a Church with a native face.”

Never before have indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, fishermen, migrants and other traditional communities in the Amazon been threatened by deforestation, standardization and exploitation. The synod was clearly the result of an intuition of Francis. He perceived a particular need for a land that is in an unbridled race toward death, a land that demands radical changes and a new direction to save it.

The fresco, made of great contrasts, in which there was violence and beauty, robbery and wisdom, was understood and interpreted – the Pope said in his opening address  to the assembly – with the “eyes of a disciple” and a “pastoral heart.” The Church wants to accompany, as an ally, the journey of peoples without providing easy and readymade solutions. The synod opened  a process of deepening – as part of a broader reform of the Church – that will have to keep alive the issues that have emerged. This exhortation is a fundamental stage in the postsynodal work of implementation.

2. A text that accompanies the reception of the synod

Let me say straightaway that Querida Amazonia is a unique text. I will try to highlight why.

This is the first time that a document of such magisterial importance explicitly presents itself as a text that “accompanies” another one, namely, the synod’s Final Document, The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.

The Pope immediately wishes to affirm a posture, that of listening and discernment. He writes that he listened to the interventions during the synod and read with interest the reports of the discussion groups. He states: “In this exhortation, I wish to give an echo of what this process of dialogue and discernment has caused within me. I will not go into all of the issues treated at length in the final document. Nor do I claim to replace that text or to duplicate  it. I wish merely to propose a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the great concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can  help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process” (No. 2).

The exhortation therefore does not go beyond the Final Document, nor does it simply intend to give it its  seal. Francis accepts it entirely and accompanies it, guiding its reception within the synodal journey, which is in progress and certainly cannot be said to be concluded. The Pope has written this because he wants to give an impetus to the synodal process. Indeed, Francis decides this time not to quote the document at all because that would give the impression of a selection of contents. Instead, his aim is to invite a complete reading so that it may enrich, challenge and inspire the Church: these are the very three verbs used by the pontiff.

The Petrine ministry, with this exhortation, is clearly expressed as a ministry of accompaniment and of discernment. The synod affirms itself as a fundamental reality in the life of the Church. It has a time of preparation, a central event and a post-synodal process of implementation, of which the exhortation  is part. Clearly, Francis wants to make a contribution to the reflection on the relationship between primacy and synodality, the need for which is increasingly felt.

The theme of listening is central. The exhortation expresses an awareness that the synod was a place where life stories were discussed as issues, not in a theoretical way, but in the form of experiences shared. The synod, as has been said many times, is neither a conference nor a parliament. The Pope writes that among the participants were “many people who know better than myself or the Roman Curia what the problems and issues of the Amazon are, since they live there, they experience its suffering and they love it passionately” (No. 3). The reverence proper to listening to those who have the wisdom of experience also seems clear.

3. Contemplation and poetic ‘logos’ in the pontifical magisterium

Another important note: the exhortation has a specific contemplative slant. This call to contemplation and to have an aesthetic gaze resounds seven times in the document. In one section Francis speaks of the “prophecy of contemplation.” He asks, in particular, to learn from the indigenous peoples and to take on this gaze in order to avoid considering the Amazon only a case to be analysed or a theme to be engaged with.

There is a precise recognition of a “mystery” that translates into a “relation” of respect and love, which is proper to contemplation. The Amazon as a land is a “mother” with whom to enter into communion. Thus “our voices will easily blend with its voice and become a prayer: ‘as we rest in the shade of an ancient eucalyptus, our prayer for light joins in the song of the eternal foliage’” (No. 56). The quote is from Sui Yun (Katie Wong Loo), an Amazonian poetess of Chinese origin.

This is how the contemplative  gaze is translated: into poetry. This exhortation is intertwined with poetic quotations because poetry preserves meaning and draws it – especially in this case – in a peculiar way from experience. The Pope considers it indispensable and thus mentions in his exhortation as many as 17 writers and poets, most of them Amazonian and popular: Ana Varela, Jorge Vega Márquez, Alberto Araújo, Ramón Iribertegui, Yana Lucila Lema, Evaristo de Miranda, Juan Carlos Galeano, Javier Yglesias, Ciro Alegría, Mario Vargas Llosa, Euclides de Cunha, Pablo Neruda, Amadeu Thiago de Mello, Vinicius de Moraes, Harald Sioli, Sui Yun, Pedro Casaldaliga.

In this sense, alongside the stories and testimonies, the Pope includes the poetic and symbolic logos as an integral part of the magisterial text. Between reality, thought and poetic vision, there seems to be no caesuras. In fact, some things – for example, the notion of “quality of life” – can only be understood “within the world of symbols and customs prop er to each human group” (No. 40), which have the capacity to connect. The Amazon, on the other hand, “has become a source of artistic, literary, musical and cultural inspiration” (No. 35). The various arts, and especially poetry, have been inspired by water, the jungle, life, as well as cultural diversity and ecological and social challenges.

Popular poets, in particular, are the guardians of this wisdom because, the Pope writes, they fell in love with the beauty of the earth and water, and tried to express the life it  gives them as in a dance.[5] But they “lament the dangers that menace it. Those poets, contemplatives and prophets, help free us from the technocratic and consumerist paradigm that destroys nature and robs us of a truly dignified existence” (No. 46).

The operation carried out by Francis is stronger than it may appear. Giving voice to the poets, he challenges the technocratic, consumerist and “efficiency-ist” approach to the Amazon and its great questions.

Consequently, Francis presents his arguments by articulating them not  in four themes or arguments, but in four dreams, which correspond to the five conversions in the Final Document.

A dream combines a warm, affective and inner connotation with issues that are sometimes thorny and complex. He writes:

“I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.

"I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.

“I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests. “I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features” (No. 7).

4. The Inculturation of the Liturgy

Inculturation has, in the sacraments, a path of particular importance: in them the divine and the cosmic, grace and creation are united. The sacraments are the fullness of creation: nature is elevated to be a place and instrument of grace.

In particular, writing about the Eucharist, Francis refers to what he had written in Laudato Si’: “Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: ‘Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always, in some  way, celebrated on the altar of the world.’ The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration.” Thus, the Eucharist is also “a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation” (No. 236).

This approach “means that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their con tact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols” (No. 82).

Given their importance, the discipline of the sacraments must not transform the Church into a “tollhouse.” The sacraments must be accessible. Referring to Amoris Laetitia, the Pope reiterates that in “difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules” (No. 49).

5. Ministers: distinguish between priesthood and power

The question of the ministers of the sacraments arises: pastoral care has a precarious presence in the Amazon. The immense territorial extension, great cultural diversity, serious social problems and isolation are all factors that make it difficult to care for Christian communities and evangelisation. This, writes Francis, cannot leave us indifferent, it demands a specific and courageous response (cf. No. 85).

In this regard, the Pope echoes two issues in his exhortation, without wishing to cancel the whole broad synodal debate that is etched into the Final Document: The “lament of the many Amazonian communities ‘deprived of the Sunday Eucharist for long periods of time.’” And the “need for ministers who can understand Amazonian sensibilities and cultures from within” (No. 86).

Francis wants, above all, to clarify what is specific to the priest, what therefore cannot be done by others:  presiding at the Eucharist and giving sacramental forgiveness, the absolution of sins. This is his specific, primary and non-delegable function. And so he distinguishes between priesthood and power. To be the highest authority of the community, the hierarchical dimension, therefore,  does not mean “to be superior to the others but, rather, is ‘totally ordered’ to the holiness of Christ’s members.” (No. 87). When we affirm that the priest is a sign of “Christ the Head,” the main meaning is that Christ is the source of grace. This is his great “power”: only he can say: “This is  my body” and “I absolve you from your sins.”

What does all this mean in the specific circumstances of the Amazon, especially in its jungles and remote places? It means, first of all, that we must give air and space to the laity. This is a key point of the exhortation, which follows a precise option. The pastoral problem is not solved by dreaming of having more priests but by making room for the laity who can – as they already do – proclaim the Word of God, teach and organise communities in leadership roles, and also by celebrating certain sacraments, giving life to popular piety (cf. No. 89). This perspective is encouraged on the basis of what is already happening and recognising the fundamental role of catechists.

Clearly – and the Pope knows this – “no Christian community, however, is built up unless it has its basis and centre in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist” (Presbytero rum Ordinis 6). Hence three appeals are made to the bishops: “promote prayer for priestly vocations”; be “more generous in directing those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon”; and finally, to thoroughly revise “the structure and content of both initial and ongoing priestly formation” so that they “can acquire the attitudes and abilities demanded by dialogue with Amazonian cultures” (No. 90). The synod had also clearly spoken of the lack of seminaries for the priestly formation of indigenous people.

The call for further reflection remains: “every effort should be made to ensure that the Amazonian peoples do not lack this food of new life and the sacrament of forgiveness” (No. 89). No recipes are offered. The Pope accepts the synodal document and its demands by offering various options for reflection, but leaves it to postsynodal reflection to further the considerations and to make proposals.

6. Develop a distinctively lay ecclesial culture

Francis intends to put into focus the broad ministerial nature of the Church. He also writes about permanent deacons and believes that there should be many more in the Amazon. But the religious and the laity are also called to take on important responsibilities for the growth of communities. Indeed,  he reiterates that, as the Code of Canon Law (517) states, it is possible for the bishop to entrust participation in the exercise of pastoral care in the parish to a deacon or to another person who is not a priest.

He therefore calls for “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay,” with  “the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity.” In this sense, the exhortation praises the journey of Base Communities, when they have been able to integrate the defence of social rights with missionary proclamation and spirituality. In this way, he encourages the deepening of the joint task being carried out through REPAM and other associations, in order to establish a joint pastoral network among the local Churches of various South American countries in the Amazon region.

Finally, Francis recalls that in the Amazon, there is great internal mobility, a constant and often changing migration. This phenomenon requires pastoral elaboration. For this reason, he asks the Amazonian churches to think about “itinerant missionary teams” (No. 98).

7. The ecumenical and interreligious dimension

In the exhortation, Francis inserts a specific paragraph on the ecumenical and interreligious dimension. He asks to find spaces to converse and act together for the common good and for the promotion of the poorest. What unites us, in fact, is what allows us not to be devoured by immanence, by arid spiritual emptiness, by convenient egocentricity, by con sumerist individualism. With other Christians, then, “we are united by the conviction that not everything ends with this life, but that we are called to the heavenly banquet where God will wipe away every tear and take up all that we did for those who suffer” (No. 109).

There must be no fear of losing one’s identity in this regard. Indeed,  “If we believe that the Holy Spirit can work amid differences, then we will try to let ourselves be enriched by that insight while embracing it from the core of our own convictions and our own identity. For the deeper, stronger and richer that identity is, the more we will be capable of enriching others with our own proper contribution” (No. 106).

8. The strength and gift of women

A specific paragraph of Francis’ dream for the Church in the Amazon concerns women. In fact, during the synod, it became clear from the stories that there are communities in the Amazon that have shared the faith for a long time without any priest participating, even for decades. And this happened thanks to 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” (No. 99). This reveals the kind of power that is typically of  women in the Christian community.

In this sense they should “have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.” And these services imply “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” (No. 103).

The figure of Mary remains the model and inspiration (cf. No. 101). And to the “Mother of the Amazon” is dedicated the last chapter of the exhortation, which ends with an invocation.-- By Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Lacivilta Cattolica

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