What did Amazon Deliver?

11-03-2019Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Many of you have asked me about my thoughts, impressions or indigestion on the recently completed Vatican Synod on Amazonia. Well to start with, I thought it was a bit peculiar to hold a Synod for such a small subset of a much larger population. Why not have a Synod for Brazil, where most Amazonians live? Or even all of Latin America as the Church there is experiencing its share of challenges. That being said, still the people of the Amazon deserve to hear the Gospel and have the sacraments made available to them. But since the focus was so small it seemed the Synod might be used to push things that have to do with climate change for the rest of us to implement but nothing to do with evangelizing the Amazon. Though climate issues were definitely part of the final recommendations of the Synod to the Holy Father they were overshadowed by other issues.

One of the concerns of the Synod, really any Synod was how to make the Gospel and the Sacraments available to the people. After all it is the obligation and the duty of the Bishops to ensure that the people have access to the sacraments of the Church. A point that was made repeatedly at the Synod was that there is a lack of indigenous clergy in the Amazon. Therefore, one of the proposals is to admit mature married men to the priesthood. Here it is important to remember that priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church and not a doctrine. Whereas a discipline can be changed a doctrine can not change. The thinking of the Synod participants is that allowing for the admittance of married priests in the Amazon would greatly help to make the sacraments more available then they presently are in that area of the world.

The rationale for changing the discipline of priestly celibacy for the Amazon region, namely that there are not enough indigenous clergy, can also be applied to the larger Church. Both the US and Western Europe have an increasing lack of native-born clergy. In the Diocese of Phoenix, for example, about 45% of its priests are now international priests imported from other countries to help supply the needs of this local Church. So, if you stick with that rationale, I am not sure how you can limit married priests just to the Amazon. I am not sure if Pope Francis is ready to take the larger Church in that direction but even a small incremental change would eventually affect the larger Church.

Another recommendation that the Synod made was to consider ordaining women as deacons. Again, this is with the view that more deacons can help with some sacraments, namely baptism and marriage. The issue of women deacons was studied extensively under Pope Benedict and again under Pope Francis and there is little historical evidence that women were admitted to Holy Orders in the early Church. This despite “deaconesses” being mentioned in early Church writings. The problem here is that there is no evidence or theological development that supports these deaconesses as ordained clergy. So, I doubt Pope Francis will do much here other than forming another commission to study the issue, again.

One of the happenings at the Synod that caused a lot of indigestion was the presence of some pagan symbols, particularly the Pachamama, or Amazonian fertility goddess. They first appeared at a tree planting ceremony in the Vatican Gardens. It seemed to me that the Pope was caught off guard as he had a prepared text but did not read it and rather prayed the Our Father and left. But then the images were displayed in a Church in the city of Rome where they were taken by some Romans who pitched them into the Tiber River. The Pope apologized for this incident and the images were fished out of the Tiber. The Vatican spokesperson said that the images brought to the Synod and placed in the Church were not there for “Idolatrous” purposes but rather part of the Amazon culture or something.

The problem here is that if the images meant nothing to the Vatican, just wood carved cultural artifacts then it was condescending to the owners to even have them since the images mean something to them. On the other hand, no concern for the faithful who were scandalized by seeing pagan images in a Christian Church, especially in light of our history of martyrs who surrendered their lives rather than worship an idol. Cultural accommodation can only go so far before it crosses a line and belies the faith of the Church. Yes, the Church does accommodate the cultures of peoples all over the globe but there is a line that once you cross it, worship is no longer in “spirit and truth” but idolatrous. All in all, not a good moment for the Vatican.

What happens next is that the Pope takes the recommendations and issues a document in which he accepts or rejects all or some parts of the recommendations or issues his own pastoral directives to assist the Church in Amazonia.

Even with all that, there was still a rich beauty on display in seeing how the Church can operate even in a place as diverse as the Amazon and how important the Gospel message is to the people there. So, pray that the Body of Christ in Amazonia will be strengthened to serve the one true Lord.


Fr. John B.