Jesus spoke of the need for new wine in new wineskins for a reason: sometimes we don’t see and hear the new thing happening because we’re looking out for the old thing. Nowhere has that been truer than in the reception of Pope Francis’s latest apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia. As the dust begins to settle on the reaction to Pope Francis’s response to the Amazon synod, we have only begun to see what his move really consists of, and the future he is opening up: a truly global Catholicism in which lay people assume their responsibility for evangelization, and exercise real authority in a church that is embedded in local, not just Western, clerical culture.
We didn’t see it coming because we were conditioned to wait for what has always come before. We were expecting a ruling from the supreme legislator of the Catholic Church on a disputed ecclesial question; we were looking for a decision. What we got was a dream, a vision, and a prophecy. What we were waiting for was a solution to a pressing problem—the lack of clergy in the Amazon and therefore of access to the Eucharist. What Francis gave us was an answer to a deeper problem: a response to the agonized cry of the people of the region, and God’s dream for their fullness of life.
We are used to post-synodal apostolic exhortations that subsume and replace the synod’s concluding report. What we got instead was something quite new: a papal response that complements the synod report with what has resonated in his discernment. We were expecting an old wineskin to carry the wine we were used to, and when we were given a new wineskin we failed to taste the new wine in it. But it’s not too late to look again, and taste.
The pope said he intended neither to duplicate nor to replace the synod final report; ergo, what is not replaced is not refused. Nothing in that report, endorsed by two-thirds of the synod, is rejected; indeed, everything in it is affirmed, endorsed, and given papal recognition. Contrary to almost every news story or reaction to Querida Amazonia, the pope did not rule against the possibility of ordaining married men, or of women deacons, or of anything else the synod agreed to propose. Instead, he said something quite astonishing: that the synod final report was the fruit of a collaboration by people “who know better than I and the Roman curia the problems and issues of the Amazon region.” And he went on to urge pastors, religious, and lay leaders to “strive to apply” the report in Amazonia, while inviting us all—the whole church—to be enriched and challenged by studying it in its integrity. Because, as we shall see, Querida Amazonia is about much more than Amazonia.
Francis prefigured the new thing in Evangelii gaudium, when he said he did not think it “advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory.” The pope, in short, defers to the discernment of the local church. A Vatican official close to Francis has helped me to understand this. “It’s a complete reversal,” he writes. “Before, the hierarchical scheme needed the validation of the Holy Father, but here the Holy Father places himself in a position of listening to the action of the Spirit in the Synod.” It’s not easy for people to grasp what is going on, he explains, because it involves a category inversion typical of the Gospel’s subversive ways. “Many see in this exhortation a conclusion but it’s the opposite: it values all the proposals of the synod and treats them as a point of departure.”
The bishops have discerned; the pope respects their discernment; now it is they who must act. Far from reacting with disappointment or fury—as so many American and European progressives have—Catholics in Amazonia saw the exhortation as the pope inviting them to take the initiative. Cardinal Cláudio Hummes,the Amazon synod’s relator (chair), told journalists that the question of the ordination of married men would now be dealt with directly by the bishops of the region in dialogue with the pope and the Vatican. The bishop of Juína in the Brazilian region of Mato Grosso, Neri José, who spoke to me regularly during the synod, was one of those strongly urging the ordination of married men and women deacons. “He’s thrown the ball right back in our court,” he told me after reading the exhortation. “Now is the time for courage.”
How will the Amazonian church respond? The pope himself points to the doors waiting to be pushed open: in favorably noting the proposal for an Amazonian rite, and for a territorial episcopal council that would allow the bishops of the region to act together across national boundaries. Dom Neri is among those urging his fellow bishops to form this Amazon-specific “strong synodal body” alongside Celam—the transcontinental episcopal conference—to push these proposals forward. “If [Celam] doesn’t take the initiative,” Dom Neri tells me, “the bishops of the dioceses can seek the competent authority to proceed.” In other words, they can apply diocese by diocese for permission from Rome to ordain viri probati.
But given that this is a decision that would affect the whole Latin-rite church, most observers believe that the ordination of viri probati will be the result of a regional synodal process that creates a new Amazonian rite. “The pope is asking the bishops to come up with concrete proposals,” another Vatican official involved with the synod process told me. “He thinks the time wasn’t yet ripe for any kind of decision by him: there’s too much anxiety, too little clarity. But he expects the bishops to move forward with it.” Cardinal Hummes, who heads the trans-Amazonian church network REPAM, says the future “ecclesial organism” for Amazonia “will have an important role in discussions in the Vatican about how to bring about the ordination of married men in areas of scarcity.” Mauricio López, the executive secretary of REPAM, sees the exhortation as “an invitation to continue exploring ways and channels which will perhaps lead to relaxing the rule [of celibacy].”
Another door has meanwhile opened to a female diaconate. At the end of the synod, Francis promised to reopen and reconstitute the commission looking into women deacons that ended last year in disagreement. That will now happen, says the official involved with the synod. “But he wants the study to go beyond the diaconate, to incorporate a deeper understanding of ministries in the early church.” Because for Francis, to consider the question of ministries only through the lens of the clergy is to get stuck with the old wineskins and to miss the new wine the Spirit is offering.