The recently concluded Amazon Synod resulted several recommendations on pastoral solutions to some of the problems faced by the people of God in this isolated and largely disenfranchised region of the world. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell closely examines the final document, pointing out progress in the possibility of ordination for married men, as well as continued frustrations in the role of women in sacramental ministry.
The Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonia region ended on Sunday with a closing mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The final document was voted on paragraph by paragraph on Saturday afternoon. Each paragraph obtained the required two-thirds majority to make it into the final document. The final document, has no binding authority in and of itself. It is in essence the recommendations of the Synod to Pope Francis. He has said that he hopes to write his “pastoral exhortation” or reflections on the Synod by the end of the year.
Gifts: Call to ecological conversion, inculturation, synodality and the possibility of married priests for the Amazonian Region
The Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region has come at a timely moment given the rising global awareness of the climate emergency. The Catholic world was invited to learn from the indigenous people who live closest to the impact of global climate change. Their understanding of the importance of stewarding God’s gift of Creation is one that calls us to repentance and a change of heart.
During the Synod many of the bishops spoke strongly about the need for conversion and for the recognition that the actions of those in the West have a direct impact on the Amazonian region; the destruction of which will have devastating consequences for humanity.
The document includes the following paragraph: “We propose to define ecological sins of commission or omission against God, one’s neighbour, the community and the environment. They are sins against future generations and are manifest in acts and habits of pollution and destruction of the harmony of the environment.” (82)
In a church still largely fixated on sexual sin, it is a big step forward for us to be helped to see the seriousness of our actions with regard to the environment and to name those that harm or do not protect the environment as sin. There is a recognition that everything is connected and that our actions contribute to the well-being or destruction of the earth.
The work of the Synod also resulted in strong recommendations with regard to the protection of the rights of indigenous people in the region. The people of the region are asking the Church to be an ally for them against those who are exploiting the region for its resources. This is done with no care for the devastating impact on the environment.
Another great gift of the Synod was the affirmation of the vital importance of inculturation. A powerful phrase is used in the document – “A Church with an Amazonian Face.” People must be allowed to express their faith in ways which resonate with their cultural experience. According to the document: “We must give an authentically Catholic response to the request of the Amazonian communities to adapt the liturgy by valuing its worldview, traditions, symbols and original rites that include transcendent, community and ecological dimensions.” (116)
In Africa we already have come some way with regard to inculturation. Since 1988 the Congo (formerly Zaire) has had an inculturated rite of the mass. In many of our local South African parishes singing and dancing at the Gloria and the offertory is an expression of our local cultures. I believe it is encouraging to see the Church is affirming a proposal to develop an Amazonian Rite. Such a rite would make it clear that the expression of our faith is not limited to Western or Roman expressions alone. The faith needs to be lived and celebrated in ways that resonate with the lived experience and culture of those believers.
Throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis there has been strong emphasis on the whole Church listening together to the Spirit. The Holy Father has emphasised a way of proceeding that is open to dialogue. This is a move away from a ‘top-down model’. It is something more akin to a process of communal discernment – listening together to the invitation of the Spirit.
The document also recommends opening up priestly ordination within the Amazon Region. This is a region where the people are frequently deprived of access to the Sacraments for long periods due to the lack of priests. The paragraph (111) was passed with a vote of 128 for and 41 against – the most contested of all the votes.
The Synod affirms celibacy as a gift of God but also recognises that this discipline: “is not required by the very nature of priesthood.” (111)
The Synod document states: “We propose to establish criteria and provisions… to ordain as priests suitable and esteemed men of the community, who have a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive adequate formation for the priesthood, having a legally constituted and stable family, to sustain the life of the Christian community.” (111)
This is hopeful for the people of the Region who have long needed a way forward with regard to more frequent access to the sacraments. It is telling that there is also an additional sentence which seems to suggest that some argued in favour of opening this option up beyond the Amazon Region: “In this regard, some were in favour of a more universal approach to the subject.” (111)
In my view the outcome thus far with regard to the issue of women in ministry and the female diaconate in particular is very disappointing. It appears that the issue of ordaining women to the diaconate was raised often during discussions. (According to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who gave an interview to Catholic News Service after the final mass, the majority of bishops present were in favour).
Disappointingly, what made it into the proposal was not a paragraph recommending the ordination of women deacons, but only, yet again, a call for further study of the issue. Paragraph 103 passed by 137 votes to 30 reads:
“In the many consultations carried out in the Amazon, the fundamental role of religious and lay women in the church of the Amazon and its communities was recognised and emphasised, given the multiple services they provide. In a large number of these consultations, the permanent diaconate for women was requested. For this reason the theme was important during the Synod. Already in 2016, Pope Francis had created a ‘Study Commission on the Diaconate of Women’, which, as a commission arrived at a partial result based on what the diaconate of women was like in the early centuries of the Church and its implications for today. We would therefore like to share our experiences with the commission and await the results.”
I was moved by one of the religious sisters, Sr Alna Teresa Cediel Castillo, working in the Amazon region who shared her experience early in the Synod. When asked what women ministering in the Amazon do, she said: “We are present everywhere and we do what a woman can do by virtue of her Baptism: we accompany the indigenous people, and when priests cannot be present, we perform baptisms. If someone wants to get married, we are present and we witness to the love of the couple. We have often had to listen to confessions, but we have not given absolution. In the depths of our hearts though, we have said that with the humility with which this man or woman approached us because of illness, or because they were close to death – we believe God the Father intervenes there.”
Women in many places (and especially in areas like the Amazon) are at the pastoral front-lines. In many cases they have as much or more theological and pastoral training as the ordained men but they are unable to fully live their call to ministry solely because of their gender. For some women in our church the pain of exclusion in decision-making, and the sacramental ministry, which is the heart of our tradition, is becoming unbearable.
Another concerning factor is that with the likelihood of married men of proven virtue being ordained, those who oppose the ordination of women to the diaconate may claim that this reduces the need for women’s ministry then to be formally recognised. This could make things even more difficult for those women who, in practice, already play key roles in ministry in the Amazon.
It is true that the church has always moved slowly. But nothing moves slowly these days. Most of the religious and lay women who feel called to sacramental ministry may choose to stay despite the pain of their vocation being unrecognised. However, many young women of the next generation will not. Those I encounter who are committed to their faith are asking why women cannot be ordained. And the answers currently being offered by the church do not make sense to them.
Perhaps it is a sign of hope that the Pope chose to emphasise that that he would accept the challenge of the Synod to continue taking up the issue of exploring the possibility of a female diaconate in his closing remarks Given the intensity of feeling and opinion on both sides of this issue, and its divisiveness in an already polarised church, one may have some sympathy with the fact that Francis wants the recommendation to be made clearly by a commission and not to be a decision that he makes for the church. It is also possible that the Synod did not want to be seen to be undermining the commission whose members were asked in May to continue researching the issue.
Nonetheless, the constant delays have a huge cost. The negative impact of not affirming and giving official recognition to the critical pastoral work being carried out by women in the church is perhaps not fully appreciated by many of those not excluded from decision-making in the church by virtue of their gender. That cost is one that the community carries, as well as those women who feel called to sacramental ministry. Even the fact that of the 185 voting members (including a non-ordained man), not one was a woman. The message seems clear: the broader issue of women and their role in the church is one where we seem to be making very little headway.
The Synod leaves us with many challenges. We need to now live the profound gifts of the call to ecological conversion; to the protection of rights of indigenous people; and inculturation.
This feels like a time of immense labour pains for the church. Many who are more ‘traditionalist’ in their views are deeply fearful that what they hold so precious in their faith could be diluted or changed. Many who have a more ‘progressive’ approach fear that the church is not being responsive to the Spirit and the signs of the times. They fear that if we don’t allow the Spirit to blow through the church, life may be stifled and the church become more marginalised and irrelevant to people today.
In the midst of strong differences of opinion and beliefs in our church, we need to treat each other with respect and dignity. As core issues of faith these matters touch us all deeply, each one differently depending on our temperament and our history. Alongside the hope that many feel, this Synod has stirred deep emotion on both sides of the theological spectrum. May the emotions of grief, anger and fear not spill over in vitriol and attack. Surely we all can agree that this cannot be of God! Robust but respectful debate? Yes. This is a necessary part of the journey.
I think St Ignatius of Loyola offers us consolation when he reminds us that God is constantly at work ‘labouring’ for us. Our faith is not so fragile that it needs to be protected in a glass box or in a museum. God is alive and active. In our time. In our diverse cultures. In our deepest experience. In both women and men. We need not be afraid.