‘Querida Amazonia’: Commentary on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation

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Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Free Articles / Published Date:12 February 2020/Last Updated Date:21 February 2020

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.[1]

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.

La Civilta Cattolica

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.”[2]

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 ready-made solutions. The synod opened a process of deepening – as part of a broader reform of the Church[3] – that will have to keep alive the issues that have emerged. This exhortation is a fundamental stage in the post-synodal work of implementation.

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.

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 analyzed 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 proper 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.[4]

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).

A social dream that is indispensable to a true ecological approach

The first dream illustrated by Francis is that of an Amazon that integrates and promotes all its inhabitants so that they can consolidate a “good living” (No. 8), alternative to the modern and efficient “always-better living.”

The analysis of the situation is dramatic. The interests involved in deforestation – illegal or legal – and extractionist industries require a “prophetic cry” against corruption, injustice and crime.

The cry that rises from the forests turns into an urban cry. The Amazon is facing an ecological disaster that threatens both the biome and the Amazon peoples. A central point of Francis’ discourse is the fact that today we can no longer fail to recognize that a true ecological approach is always also a social approach, which “must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (No. 8). Any discussion of the environment cannot be divorced from that of justice and from listening to the cry of indigenous, river and Afro-descendent peoples. “Many are the trees where torture dwelt and vast are the forests purchased with a thousand deaths,” writes the Peruvian poet Ana Varela, quoted in the exhortation (No. 9).

The indigenous peoples were often powerless in the face of the destruction of the natural environment that allowed them to feed, heal, survive and preserve a “good life” and a culture that gave them identity and meaning.

And the cry that rises from the forests turns into an urban cry. Economic interests, in fact, have provoked and encouraged the migratory movements of indigenous peoples toward the suburbs of large cities that are characterized by great inequalities. There, these populations “find no real freedom from their troubles, but rather the worst forms of enslavement, subjection and poverty.” It is precisely in urban contexts that xenophobia, sexual exploitation and human trafficking also grow. “The cry of the Amazon region does not rise up from the depths of the forests alone, but from the streets of its cities as well” (No. 10).

Francis uses this theme to express a profound condemnation of racism and of every form of submission of the indigenous people and to link it to the magisterium of his predecessors, beginning with Paul III who, with his Veritas Ipsa, condemned racist theses and recognized that the natives, whether Christian or not, possess the dignity of the human person, enjoy the right to their possessions and may not be reduced to slavery (cf. note 17).[6]

The Amazon – laments the pope – was presented as “a wild expanse to be domesticated” (No. 12), and the indigenous people were viewed as “intruders or usurpers,” more “an obstacle needing to be eliminated than as human beings with the same dignity as others and possessed of their own acquired rights” (ibid.). This approach is clearly seen as colonialist.

The responsibility of the Church. Rereading history, Francis affirms that not even the Church was immune from colonialism when evangelization and national interests intertwined, and this to the point of falling into the logic and practice of “networks of corruption” (No. 25). The sense of “shame” and the demand for “forgiveness” rise from the pages. The “shame” of which Francis writes is that of which Saint Ignatius speaks in the Spiritual Exercises: not a feeling of a moralistic character, but the acute sense of sin.[7] This shame applies to lived history, to witness: Francis, on the one hand, tells a lived story, yet on the other, he offers a biblical reading of the feelings that arouse the indignation of Moses and Jesus. Moreover, if God’s call needs careful listening to the cry of the poor and the earth at the same time, for us the cry of the Amazon to the Creator is similar to the cry of God’s People in Egypt. It is “a cry of slavery and abandonment pleading for freedom” (No. 52).

Two ways to face the challenge: as protagonists and as community.

The pontiff has at least two important ways of facing the social challenge (and dream).

The first is to be clear that the protagonists are the natives. The defense of those who are victims of the colonialism we have described is not enough. It is necessary to consider them protagonists, to value the “active involvement of local people” (No. 40).

The second is the sense of community and social dialogue. After all, one of the great challenges for the Amazon is to be a place of social dialogue, especially among the different indigenous peoples, to find forms of communion and common struggle. Dialogue between different peoples and tribes, often divided among themselves, is by no means to be taken for granted. Within each community there is a strong sense of unity and teamwork that shapes work, rest, human relations, rites and celebrations. The private spaces, so typical of modernity, are minimal and everything is shared for the common good. There is no place for the idea of an individual detached from the community or its territory.

On the other hand, however, the sense of community does not go hand in hand with that of institutions. Various countries in the region are governed at the institutional level in a precarious and corrupt way: thus confidence in the institutions and their representatives is lost, which – as the pope denounces – totally discredits politics and social organizations. There is much work to do here and Francis points to a precise task.[8]

A cultural dream that undermines colonialist logic

If the social dream requires a prophetic voice, a “cultural dream” emerges that is capable of unhinging colonialist logic.

The dialectic between forest and city. In the Amazon region there is a multi-ethnic and multicultural reality. Within each culture, peoples have built and reconstructed their vision of the world and their future. In indigenous cultures and peoples, ancient practices and mythical interpretations coexist with modern technologies and challenges.

Francis expresses the need for the Amazon to be promoted without invasions or uprooting. There are thousands of indigenous communities, Afro-descendants, river and city dwellers, who are very different from one another, and who are the home of great human diversity (cfr no. 32).

People accustomed to having human relationships “steeped in the surrounding nature,” which are felt and perceived as a “reality that integrates society and culture, and a prolongation of their bodies, personal, familial and communal” (No. 20), today end up living in the suburbs in conditions of extreme poverty, “dire poverty but also in an inner fragmentation due to the loss of the values that had previously sustained them. There they usually lack the points of reference and the cultural roots that provided them with an identity and a sense of dignity, and they swell the ranks of the outcast” (No. 30).

The transmission of wisdom. One of the most evident effects is the disruption of “the cultural transmission of a wisdom that had been passed down for centuries from generation to generation” (No. 30). Cities do not facilitate encounter, enrichment or fertilization between different cultures. On the contrary, they become the backdrop of waste.

A cultural dream requires taking care of roots and diversity. For centuries the Amazonian peoples have taken care of their roots by orally transmitting their cultural wisdom, with myths, legends and tales. That is why it is important “to let older people tell their long stories” and “for young people to take the time to drink deeply from that source” (No. 34). Some peoples have begun to write to tell their stories and not lose them, even recovering damaged memories. Roots must be cared for!

Very interesting is the fact that the pope reminds the baptized of the Amazon that their roots “include the history of the people of Israel and the Church up to our own day. Knowledge of them can bring joy and, above all, a hope capable of inspiring noble and courageous actions” (No. 33).

Co-responsible for the diversity of styles and visions. At the same time there is a care for diversity, which from a flag or a border must be transformed into a bridge. The pope does not intend “to propose a completely enclosed, a-historic, static ‘indigenism’ that would reject any kind of blending (mestizaje)” (No. 37). The reason is clear: “A culture can grow barren when it ‘becomes inward-looking and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about human beings’” (No. 37), he writes quoting John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus.

The dialogue between forest and city is therefore indispensable. And also between natives and non-natives, although the risk of being overwhelmed by cultural invasions is strong. But what must prevail is “our sense of co-responsibility for the diversity that embellishes our humanity” (ibid.). And even among the different indigenous peoples, it is possible to develop – writes Francis quoting the Aparecida Document – “intercultural relations where diversity does not mean threat, and does not justify hierarchies of power of some over others, but dialogue between different cultural visions, of celebration, of interrelationship and of revival of hope” (No. 38).

It opens a huge work that concerns “human groupings, their lifestyles and their worldviews, which are as varied as the land itself, since they have had to adapt themselves to geography and its possibilities” (No. 32): the fishing villages, hunting villages, inland gathering villages or those that cultivate alluvial lands… “In each land and its features, God manifests himself and reflects something of his inexhaustible beauty” (No. 32), writes Francis.

Ecological dream

Thus opens the scenario of Francis’ third dream, the ecological one. The description of this dream harbors the deepest harmony with Laudato Si’. And also with the previous Magisterium and in particular, with that of Benedict XVI who said that “alongside the ecology of nature there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology, which in turn requires a ‘social’ ecology” (No. 41).

The joint care of people and ecosystems. In the Amazon situation, where there is such a close relationship between humanity and nature, “daily existence is always cosmic” (no. 41). Francis says this with the verses of Javier Yglesias: “Make the river your blood… Then plant yourself, blossom and grow: let your roots sink into the ground forever and ever, and then at last become a canoe, a skiff, a raft, soil, a jug, a farmhouse and a man” (No. 31). Hence, “setting others free from their forms of bondage surely involves caring for the environment and defending it, but, even more, helping the human heart to be open with trust to the God who not only has created all that exists, but has also given us himself in Jesus Christ” (No. 41).

The commitment to care for our brothers and sisters and the environment has a deep theological root, writes the pontiff. The care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable. For the Amazonian people “to abuse nature is to abuse our ancestors, our brothers and sisters, creation and the Creator, and to mortgage the future.” The damage to nature and the exploitation of the land hurts. “The land has blood, and it is bleeding; the multinationals have cut the veins of our mother Earth” (No. 42), writes Francis to great effect, with a quote from the document of the synod of the Diocese of San José del Guaviare and the Archdiocese of Villavicencio and Granada, Colombia. If we understand the environment simply as a “resource” we risk endangering the vision of the environment as “home” (cf. No. 48).

Extensive narrative and poetic quotations allow Francis to describe this “dream made of water,” because in the Amazon “water is queen; the rivers and streams are like veins, and water determines every form of life” (No. 43). Francis says this by using the words of Pablo Neruda: “Amazonas, capital of the syllables of water, father and patriarch, you are the hidden eternity of the processes of fertilization; streams alight upon you like birds” (no. 44).

Querida Amazonia expresses the awareness that the planetary balance also depends on the health of the Amazon, as well as biomes such as the Congo and Borneo. This is often ignored when assessing the environmental impact of economic projects in the mining, energy, wood and other industries that destroy and pollute. On the other hand, water, which is abundant in the Amazon, is an essential asset for human survival, but the sources of contamination are increasing.

Manage the land in a sustainable way.

Francis asks not to be naive and be aware that, in addition to the economic interests of local entrepreneurs and politicians, there are also huge international economic interests. Attacks on nature have consequences for people’s lives: from unsustainable mega-projects (hydroelectric projects, forest concessions, massive deforestation, monocultures, road infrastructure, water infrastructure, railways, mining and oil projects) to pollution caused by the mining industry and urban rubbish dumps.

The synod did not intend to say that the Church is against positive and inclusive modernization projects. Certainly, however, the Church has assumed the full awareness that its social doctrine today is concerned with the defense of the planet and that this is on a collision course with political and economic interests, supported by the complicity of some rulers and also of some indigenous authorities.

For Francis the solution to the problem is not to be found in “internationalizing the Amazon.” The responsibility of national governments is becoming more and more serious, while the powerful are never satisfied with their profits, also because the resources of economic power increase with the progress of scientific and technological development (cf. No. 50).

International bodies and civil society organizations are therefore of strategic importance in raising public awareness and taking action. This also means using legitimate pressure mechanisms to push governments to fulfill their duty to preserve the environment and the natural resources of their country, without selling out to local or international interests (cf. ibid.).

Managing the territory in a sustainable way: this is the objective, also by creating, as we read in Laudato Si’, “a legal framework that can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems have become indispensable; otherwise, the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice” (No. 52).

The educational aspect is also fundamental. There will be no healthy and sustainable ecology capable of transforming reality if people are not encouraged to choose a less voracious, more respectful and fraternal lifestyle (cf. No. 58).

The Church, with her educational tradition and her history of incarnation in such diverse cultures throughout the world, also wants to contribute to the care for the growth of the Amazon (cf. No. 60). And precisely from this commitment is born the dream the pontiff intends to share more directly with the Catholic pastors and faithful.

An ecclesial dream

The radical awareness that the Church is called to walk with the people of the Amazon leads Francis to elaborate and describe a dream linked to the life of the Church.

This dream has a history. In Latin America, in fact, it was formed and articulated over some significant stages such as in the Episcopal Conference of Medellin (1968) and its application in the Amazon in Santarem (1972); and then in Puebla (1979), Santo Domingo (1992) and Aparecida (2007). The journey continues. And the goal is to “develop a Church with an Amazonian face.”

Many things are important in this process of incarnation and inculturation: social organizations, debates, political programs… But it is necessary that the great missionary and salvific proclamation of Christ resounds more and more. The pope speaks of a “right to hear the Gospel,” especially the first proclamation, the kerygma: the proclamation of a God who loves every human being infinitely, and who has fully manifested that love in Christ crucified for us and risen in our lives. “Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (No. 64). And this was the meaning of the work of the great evangelizers of Latin America such as Saint Turibius of Mongrovejo or Saint Joseph of Anchieta.

The key word is inculturation.

The key word of the ecclesial dream is inculturation. Francis repeats it about twenty times. The Church, while announcing the kerygma again and again, “constantly reshapes her identity through listening and dialogue with the people, the realities and the history of the lands in which she finds herself” (No. 66). Francis clearly references the Second Vatican Council constitution Gaudium et Spes (No. 44). Only an inserted and inculturated missionary Church will lead to the birth of particular native Churches, with an Amazonian face and heart, rooted in the cultures and traditions proper to her peoples, united in the same faith in Christ and different in their way of living it, expressing it and celebrating it.

Francis speaks of the Tradition of the Church in terms of a wealth of wisdom handed down through the centuries, which develops in a necessary process of inculturation that “elevates and fulfills” (No. 73).

Christianity does not have a single cultural mode. There is a dialectical relationship between faith and culture: on the one hand, the Holy Spirit makes cultures fruitful with the transforming power of the Gospel; on the other hand, the Church is enriched by the culture she encounters, by what the Spirit had already sown there.

Listen to the ancestral wisdom.

Inculturating the Gospel in the Amazon therefore means, for Francis, listening to the ancestral wisdom, giving voice to the elderly, recognizing the values present in the way of life of the original communities, recovering over time the rich narratives of the peoples. The narrative combines the witness and power of the symbol.

The pope recognizes that the region has already received the riches that come from pre-Columbian cultures, such as the sense of gratitude for the fruits of the earth, the sacredness of human life and the value of the family, the sense of solidarity and co-responsibility in common work, faith in a life beyond the earthly dimension. But certainly also openness to God’s action, and an “indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life” (No. 73).[9] Francis allows Pedro Casaldáliga to speak through these verses: “Shadows float from me, dead wood. But the star is born without reproach over the expert hands of this child, that conquer the waters and the night. It has to be enough for me to know that you know me completely, from before my days.”

The relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and man, liberator and redeemer, “is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview.” Indeed, Christ is also the Risen One who penetrates all things: “He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds” (No. 74). It is certainly necessary to mature the relationship with God present in the cosmos in a personal relationship with a You who knows and loves us.

Francis also highlights the “joyful sobriety” of the indigenous peoples who know how to be happy with little, enjoying God’s small and simple gifts without the anxiety of accumulation and recognizing a “maternal” sense of the earth, which awakens a “respect and tender love” (No. 71). All these values must be part of evangelization. 

Commitment to the kingdom of justice and ‘Amazonian holiness.’

Given the situation of poverty and abandonment of so many inhabitants of the Amazon, for Francis inculturation must – and he affirms this by quoting the 1979 Puebla Document – have “a markedly social cast, accompanied by a resolute defense of human rights; in this way it will reveal the face of Christ, who ‘wished with special tenderness to be identified with the weak and the poor’” (No. 75).[10]

Thus is affirmed the intimate connection between evangelization and human promotion, as he had already stated in Evangelii Gaudium, No. 178. Evangelization requires and involves a clear commitment to the kingdom of justice in the reaching out to and protecting of social outcasts. There needs to be an integration of the social and spiritual, of contemplation and service. Faith is not alienating and individualistic. On the other hand, a purely horizontal commitment that cuts off the transcendent and spiritual dimension is not acceptable.

Francis speaks of an “Amazonian holiness.” The expression is striking. There is no standard holiness that is valid always and everywhere. Holiness too is inculturated, that is, incarnated in the life of a particular people.

We note that within this reflection the pontiff asks us not to qualify as superstition or paganism those religious expressions that arise spontaneously from the life of peoples. A discernment must be made because, as Francis had written in Evangelii Gaudium, “popular piety enables us to see how the faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on” (No. 78). Thus, it is possible to find oneself before an indigenous symbol without necessarily being in a context of idolatry. There are myths charged with a spiritual sense that can be shared without hastily considering them “a pagan error” (No. 79).

And Francis offers a very important criterion for pastoral discernment which we report here in full: “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” (ibid.).

And he continues with precision: “Such a spirituality will certainly be centered on the one God and Lord, while at the same time in contact with the daily needs of people who strive for a dignified life, who want to enjoy life’s blessings, to find peace and harmony, to resolve family problems, to care for their illnesses, and to see their children grow up happy. The greatest danger would be to prevent them from encountering Christ by presenting him as an enemy of joy or as someone indifferent to human questions and difficulties. Nowadays, it is essential to show that holiness takes nothing away from our ‘energy, vitality or joy’” (No. 80). 

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 contact 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 “toll-house.” 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).

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 evangelization. This, writes Francis, cannot leave us indifferent and 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).[11] 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 organize 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 recognizing the fundamental role of catechists.

Clearly – and the pope knows this – “no Christian community, however, is built up unless it has its basis and center in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist” (Presbyterorum 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 post-synodal reflection to further the considerations and to make proposals.

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 defense of social rights with missionary proclamation and spirituality. In this way he encourages the deepening of the joint task being carried out through REPAM[12] 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).

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 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 consumerist 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).

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, baptized, catechized, 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 organization, 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.

Expanding horizons beyond conflicts

The exhortation has one very important paragraph entitled “Expanding Horizons Beyond Conflicts.” It could even be considered as a focal point of inspiration for the text. Certainly, reading it clarifies Francis’ approach to the Amazon question, and much more too.

He starts from the observation that “in particular places pastoral workers envisage very different solutions to the problems they face, and consequently propose apparently opposed forms of ecclesial organization” (No. 104). This is the principle that guides Francis in his discernment of whether or not to ordain married men as priests. But the principle extends to all pastoral areas. The pontiff makes no explicit reference to one problem or another. But he does record the fact that there are pastoral situations that claim opposite solutions.

What, then, should happen, for example, when two solutions appear to be opposite? The pope replies, quoting his Evangelii Gaudium, that “When this occurs, it is probable that the real response to the challenges of evangelization lies in transcending the two approaches and finding other, better ways, perhaps not yet even imagined. Conflict is overcome at a higher level, where each group can join the other in a new reality, while remaining faithful to itself. Everything is resolved ‘on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.’ Otherwise, conflict traps us; ‘we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart’”(No. 104).

This dialectical approach to reality is a criterion of action for Francis, a fundamental element for pastoral discernment: not to annul one dialectical pole in favor of the other, but to find a superior solution that does not lose the energy and strength of the elements that are in opposition.

Francis specifies that “in no way does this mean relativizing problems, fleeing from them or letting things stay as they are.” It means instead desbordar – that is, to overflow, to rise above – “transcending the contraposition that limits our vision and recognizing a greater gift that God is offering.” Only in this way is it possible to awaken “a new and greater creativity,” and in this way “there will pour forth as from an overflowing fountain the answers that contraposition did not allow us to see” (No. 105).

Francis’ criterion is truly fundamental and makes explicit his way of proceeding, which is not to annul the conflict, but to assume it and overcome it in a superior synthesis. The pontiff sees this active dynamic at the beginning of the Christian faith. It is precisely this logic that allowed it to incarnate itself in Greek-Roman culture. This is the criterion of inculturation. The pontiff believes that today in Amazonia we live a similar situation: “the Amazon region challenges us to transcend limited perspectives and ‘pragmatic’ solutions mired in partial approaches, in order to seek paths of inculturation that are broader and bolder” (No. 105).

This is another reason why the Amazon region has a message that “inspires” the universal Church, as is stated in the exhortation from the beginning. And the special synod, as it turned its attention to a “discarded” area of the planet and the ecclesial community living there, has also turned a light on the whole Church, showing the riches and challenges that come from “Dear Amazon.”

***

 In the Amazon, the Church experiences a people that clearly does not coincide with a nation-state, but rather is a group of peoples, persecuted and threatened by many forms of violence. They are peoples carrying an enormous wealth of languages, cultures, rites and ancestral traditions.

For the drafting of the Instrumentum laboris the Church had listened deeply to bishops and lay people from different cities and cultures, as well as belonging to numerous groups from various ecclesial sectors together with academics and civil society organizations. The Final Document took stock of the synodal debate and is rich in the discernment lived by the assembly. Now the apostolic exhortation accompanies and guides the reception of those conclusions so that they may enrich, challenge and inspire not only the Church in the Amazon but the universal Church.[13]


[1] A. Spadaro, “The Synod for the Amazon: A fresco for our ‘common home’” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-synod-for-the-amazon-a-fresco-for-our-common-home/

[2] Cf. Id., “Preparing for the Synod on Amazonia: An interview with Cardinal Claudio Hummes” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/preparing-for-the-synod-on-amazonia-an-interview-with-cardinal-claudio-hummes/; M. Czerny – D. Martínez de Aguirre Guinea O.P., “Why the Amazon Merits a Synod” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/why-the-amazon-merits-a-synod/

[3] Cf. A. Spadaro – M. López Oropeza, “Four criteria to interpret the Amazon Synod” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/four-criteria-to-interpret-the-amazon-synod

[4] Cf. J.-P. Sonnet, “The Whisper of the World. In the margins of the Amazon Synod” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/the-tree-world-in-the-margins-of-the-amazon-synod

[5] Since 2013 there has been a regular Coloquio Internacional De Literaturas Amazónicas. The Acts of the first meeting are here: in http://www.letras.ufmg.br/padrao_cms/documentos/profs/romulo/VocesdeLaSelvaVirhuez.pdf. The next meeting, the eighth one, is due to take place July 17-19, 2020, at Tingo María (Perú). Cf. https://cilaperu.wordpress.com.

[6] Teaching reaffirmed by Gregory XIV, Urban VIII, Benedict XIV, Gregory XVI, Leo XIII, John Paul II.

[7] “feel ashamed of our shortcomings and sins so as to be humble in his eyes and in those of our brethren […] feel ashamed at our own inadequacy before the treasure entrusted to us.” These are the words of Francis in his homily on the feast of St. Ignatius on July 31, 2013.

[8] Cf. P. R. Barreto, “Synod for the Amazonia and Human Rights: Peoples, Communities and States in Dialogue” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/synod-for-the-amazonia-and-human-rights-peoples-communities-and-states-in-dialogue/

[9] Cf. A. Araújo dos Santos, “Amazonian Indigenous Spirituality and Care for the ‘Common Home’” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/amazonian-indigenous-spirituality-and-care-for-the-common-home/

[10] Cf. A. Peraza, “Human Rights in Amazonia” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/human-rights-in-amazonia/

[11] Here Francis quotes John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, (No. 27).

[12] REPAM is a reality co-founded by the regional institutions of the Catholic Church: CELAM (Council of the Latin-American Bishops), CLAR (Confederation of Religious Men and Religious Women of Latin America), Pastoral Social Caritas of Latin America, the CNBB (Episcopal Commission for Amazonia of the bishops conference of Brazil), with the support of the Vatican Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development. It brings together all the different reference points for the Catholic Church working in the pastoral accompaniment and integral defense of vulnerable groups (with special attention to the indigenous peoples and other minorities) and their rights, and the promotion of the existential alternatives for the peoples and communities that live in this land.

[13] Cf. V. Codina, “From the Amazon River to the Tiber: Notes from a Special Synod” in www.laciviltacattolica.com/from-the-amazon-river-to-the-tiber-notes-from-a-special-synod/