Shocked by stories of atrocities against Amazonian natives at the height of the early-twentieth-century rubber boom, Pope Pius X’s first encyclical in 1912 was called Lacrimabili statu indorum (“On the deplorable state of the Indians”). Pius asked the church to make use of every means “to deliver the Indians, where their need is greatest, from the slavery of Satan and of wicked men” and added the hope that, since missionaries had long labored to spread the Gospel in the region, “at length a fair harvest of Christian kindness shall spring forth from their great labors and bear abundant fruit.”
Pius might have been a little nonplussed by some of the language in the working document for October’s synod on Amazonia, with its warnings of “neo-extractivism” and the “technocratic paradigm” and its call for “inculturation” and “interculturality.” But he would surely see in it the “fair harvest” he hoped for: a massive effort by the Catholic Church in the region to rethink and boost its pastoral presence there, first by listening carefully to the Amazonian peoples’ needs and desires, and second by being willing to “reconfigure” itself, even to the point of ordaining elders in remote areas, in order to enable a “Samaritan Church,” a “Church with an Amazonian face” that is with and of the people, that stands with them to defend their lives and their lands.
While the headlines following the document’s release have focused, inevitably, on the possibility that the “Vatican will allow married priests in the Amazon,” the bigger story is the ecclesiological reimagining that allows such a possibility to be considered, one that sets out purposefully to hear from the periphery.
The synod’s instrumentum laboris, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology,” draws on a huge listening exercise conducted by the church’s pan-Amazonian network, REPAM, following Pope Francis’s announcement of the synod back in 2017 and his visit to the Peruvian Amazon in January 2018. Since then, according to REPAM’s executive secretary Mauricio López, there have been at least 260 “listening moments” with communities spread across the nine nations (and seven bishops’ conferences) that include the Amazon basin within their borders.
On a recent visit to London, López explained what the consultation involved: “territorial assemblies,” meetings of between 80 and 200 people, drawn from 150 indigenous nationalities; surveys and discussions around 40 “thematic forums”; and countless meetings with leaders and pastoral agents. López, a Mexican layman who lives in Ecuador, reckons that in all some 64,000 people were consulted, including almost all the bishops in Amazonia. It may be only a fraction of the total number of indigenous people in the area—between 3 and 20 million, depending on your definition—but by the Catholic Church’s standards of consultation, it is remarkable.
In any event, more listening would only have reinforced the messages that have come through loud and clear. What the people of God in the Amazon want and need is the church: its presence, its sacraments, its prophetic witness. It needs the church to be present 24/7, not just to pass through once a year. In an age of secularization, when Catholics are finding their way to the exit doors, this is a message that cannot be ignored.
The scarcity of the sacraments is a problem the bishops have long been grappling with. “This is about the church’s presence,” López tells me, “but it’s also about keeping the ministry of the Word and the Eucharist together. Without the Eucharist, what makes us different from evangelicals?” The instrumentum laboris refers only to “the vertiginous growth of new evangelical Churches of Pentecostal origin, especially in the peripheries” without further comment, but it is one of the synod’s big underlying concerns: that the people of the Amazon drift away from the church because it fails to be present. When there are no sacraments to accompany birth, marriage, and death, no Confession or Eucharist, how is the church Catholic? Little wonder that priests visiting communities once a year often find they have been “converted” by Pentecostals.