The synod on the Amazon will be remembered as the moment that bishops gathered in Rome asked the pope to ordain married men in order better to stand with the wretched and vulnerable in defense of their lives and land. Whatever Pope Francis does now with that request, it is an important moment for the church, a sign that the pastoral and sacramental demands of the people of God in a particular place need not always be sacrificed on the altar of uniformity. Perhaps ecclesiologists will say it was the moment that the great unresolved issue of Vatican II—whether the local or the universal should take precedence—finally settled on a proper balance.
But the three-week gathering of close to 300 people (182 of whom could vote on the final document) was about much more. Francis came closest to expressing the shift it represented in his end-of-synod address, when he urged reporters not to focus only on the who-won-what in “minor disciplinary matters” but to “take time to look at the diagnoses, which is the dense part, the part where the synod expressed itself best.” The Amazon was being stripped, plundered, burned; its native people, guardians of the ecosystem, were desperate for help, looking to the church to stand with them. To come close, the church had to change, to embrace new thinking—especially on what they called ministerialidad, the question of ministries. Grasping the problem didn’t mean more study but conversion. And conversion began with a shift of perspective—with coming to see the world a bit more as God does.
The really exceptional thing, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, of La Civiltà Cattolica said, was the “radically pastoral” nature of the synod. Spadaro, who sat through all three weeks of the speeches and small-group meetings, was struck by how the bishops from Amazonia who made up the bulk of the “synod fathers” (those who can vote) shared the same pastoral challenge: how the church could better serve their hurting people, how it could stand with them against what the final document calls “the predatory extractivism that responds to the logic of greed, typical of the dominant technocratic paradigm.” The beauty of the synod was not only that it asked that question, but that, through frank and honest exchanges, in prayer and in dialogue, it got some answers.
The native peoples’ leaders at the synod were key to its pastoral conversion. Their stories of suffering and of the astonishing violence directed against them formed a constant backdrop, as did their expressions of faith in Jesus and in his church. “The politicians don’t listen to us, but you are listening to us” was the message many of them gave the bishops. José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, a Venezuelan leader from the Curripaco people, said the Catholic Church was “the only institution that is asking the world to wake up to what’s happening, and to save us.” He had asked the pope to “stop the invasions from outside” and to protect his people, because when they stood up for their rights they were imprisoned or even killed. Yesica Patiachi Tayori, a bilingual teacher from the Harakbut people in Peru, stood up to tell the pope: “Brother Francis, you seem alone, but you are not alone. The native peoples of the Amazon are with you!”
The question was how the church could in turn be with them. The ecological question was also the “ministries” question. When almost all the local players in the region—the politicians, the foreign investors, mining companies, cattle ranchers, the prosperity-gospel evangelists—are in thrall to what the pope has called the technocratic paradigm, who but Catholic Amazonians will defend the integral ecology of the Kingdom of God? Yet how, in remote areas where they might be able to celebrate the Eucharist no more than once a year?
To answer that question the synod had to ask what kind of church it would be if it heard the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth as one cry, and responded as Christ would. The way toward an answer was in the final document: a church that is permanently undergoing a fourfold conversion—cultural, pastoral, ecological, and synodal—to become Samaritan, merciful, missionary, “inserted and inculturated,” a servant church, educating and evangelizing, standing with the people in defense of their rights and their land.
The pope asked the synod more than once for un desborde, a Spanish word that means a river breaking its banks in response to a sudden flow of water. He wanted to open up the synod’s thinking like that, so that the Holy Spirit could overflow. What emerged was a vision and a mission. “We may not be able to modify immediately the destructive model of extractivist development, but we do need to know and make clear where we stand, whose side we are on,” the final document reads. The church had to defend the life of the poor: of the people, of creation, of family, of culture. In asking how the church could do so given its paucity of resources, the vast distances involved, and the great powers it must face down, the Amazon synod was doing what synods do best, not just repeating familiar propositions, but searching for new answers to urgent pastoral questions.