VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said he dreams of an Amazon region where the rights of the poor and indigenous are respected, local cultures are preserved, nature is protected, and the Catholic Church is present and active with “Amazonian features.”
In his apostolic exhortation “Querida Amazonia” (Beloved Amazonia), Pope Francis made no mention of the idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood so that far-flung Catholic communities would have regular access to the Eucharist.
Instead, he said “every effort should be made to ensure that the Amazonian people do not lack this food of new life and the sacrament of forgiveness.”
“A specific and courageous response is required of the Church” to meet the needs of Catholics, he said, without dictating what that response would be.
However, Pope Francis opened the document saying he wanted “to officially present the final document” of October’s Synod of Bishops for the Amazon. The final document asked for criteria to be drawn up “to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region.”
Having a Church with “Amazonian features,” he said, also will require greater efforts to evangelize, official recognition of the role women have and continue to play in the region’s Catholic communities, a respect for popular forms of piety and greater efforts to inculturate the Catholic faith in Amazonian cultures.
The pope devoted several long passages to the theme of “inculturation,” the process by which the faith becomes “incarnate” in a local culture, taking on local characteristics that are in harmony with the faith and giving the local culture values and traits that come from the universal Church.
“There is a risk,” he said, “that evangelizers who come to a particular area may think that they must not only communicate the Gospel but also the culture in which they grew up.”
Instead, he said, “what is needed is courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ.”
One of the characteristics of many Catholic communities in the Amazon, he wrote, is that, in the absence of priests, they are led and sustained by “strong and generous women, who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptized, catechized, prayed and acted as missionaries.”
While the idea of ordaining women deacons was mentioned at the synod, it was not included in the bishops’ final document.
Peppered with poetry praising the region’s beauty or lamenting its destruction, much of the document looks at the exploitation of the Amazon region’s indigenous communities and poor inhabitants and the destruction of natural resources.
“The Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw materials to be developed (and) a wild expanse to be domesticated,” the pope wrote. “None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them.”
The destruction of the forest, the polluting of the Amazon River and its tributaries and the disruption and contamination of the land by mining industries, he said, further impoverish the region’s poor, increase the chances that they will become victims of trafficking and destroy their communities and cultures, which are based on a close and care-filled relationship with nature.
“The inescapable truth is that, as things stand, this way of treating the Amazon territory spells the end for so much life, for so much beauty, even though people would like to keep thinking that nothing is happening,” Pope Francis wrote.
No quick fix
Pope Francis acknowledged the serious shortage of priests in remote areas of the Amazon, but he insisted not all avenues have been exhausted to address the issue.
In his apostolic exhortation, the pope said that confronting the priest shortage simply by “facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist” would be “a very narrow aim.”
The members of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in October asked Pope Francis to open the way for the priestly ordination of married permanent deacons so that Catholics in the region could go to Mass and receive the sacraments regularly.
In response, Pope Francis wrote in his new document that the priest shortage must be seen as an opportunity for the Catholic Church to “awaken new life in communities.”
The pope devoted an entire section of the document to praising the way women — lay and religious — have kept the faith alive in the Amazon region. But he flatly rejects a request made by several synod participants to consider ordaining women deacons; the request did not receive enough support to be included in the synod’s final document.
“We have not yet realized what women mean in the Church,” but instead “we focus on the functional aspect” — what offices they are permitted to hold — “which is important,” but is not everything, the pope said at the end of the synod in October.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has acknowledged the essential and irreplaceable contribution of women to the Church, their equal dignity and the importance of having their voices and talents contribute to decision-making.
But the pope understands that in the way the Catholic Church operates in most places today, the traditional Catholic tie between ordination and power has meant that sometimes women are consulted and sometimes they aren’t.
Action rooted in conversion
Like so many of Pope Francis’ teachings and major documents, his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon is built on a call for conversion — a new way of seeing, thinking and doing.
“We need to feel outrage,” he wrote, underlining his concern that the world has become too indifferent, too numb or too much in denial about what is happening to the environment, the world and the people in it.
In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis urged people to recognize how much injustice and cruelty has taken place in the Amazon region, and he pleaded for attention to “current forms of human exploitation, abuse and killing.”
He called on political leaders and governments in the Amazon region to take more seriously their responsibility to preserve the environment and resources and to protect rights and cultures of citizens.
An unusual suggestion Pope Francis made in the document was that people turn to poetry and delve into Amazonian stories to discover how unique the region is and to feel more deeply its importance.