The opening days of the Amazon Synod have been marked by the familiar polar tensions at the heart of the Catholic Church: between center and periphery, universal and local; between the demands of the law and the pastoral needs of a particular people. But now there is something new, something that is tilting the balance in favor of the peripheral, the local, and the particular.
You could see it happening in the gentle battle over liturgical space in the run-up to the synod’s opening. On October 4 in the Vatican Gardens and on the following night at a church not far from St Peter’s, dozens of indigenous leaders and church workers led offerings and prayers, using objects and forms of worship from the region: a canoe, a mandorla, the image of a pregnant woman, as well as placards of Amazon martrys such as Sr. Dorothy Stang. It was joyful, generous, and unmistakably Amazonian: the faithful People of God speaking and praying and dancing in their own way.
Yet at the big papal Mass in St Peter’s the next morning, Amazonia was all but banished. If the pope in his zinger homily hadn’t invoked the Holy Spirit to “renew the paths of the Church in Amazonia, so that the fire of mission will continue to burn,” you would have had no idea the synod was even taking place. Indigenous leaders sat at the front and brought up the gifts but were silent: there were no intercessions for the region, no readings in an Amerindian language, and almost everything was Italian and solemn. The center was back in charge.
But not for long. The next morning the Amazonian people were in St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Francis, along with the canoe and the martyrs and Our Lady of the Amazon. In a remarkable move, unprecedented at previous synods, the pope processed from the Basilica with the indigenous peoples, in their midst—el pastor con su pueblo—as they joyfully chanted, “The sons and daughters of the Forest, we praise you, Lord.”
As they left St. Peter’s and crossed the square to the synod hall, I thought of Jeremy Irons in Roland Joffé’s film The Mission, the Jesuit who walks with his people into a hail of colonialist bullets. There had been no shortage of rhetorical bullets in the run-up to the synod: superannuated cardinals telling Amazonian Catholics they were heretics for proposing to ordain married men; a panel of traditionalists (Cardinal Burke in the front row) claiming the synod would not “civilize the savages” but would instead “make the civilized savages”; and an EWTN-owned news outlet reporting that the ceremony in the Vatican Gardens—in which native peoples honored God’s creation—was an essentially pagan, pantheistic affair. In his speech opening the synod, the pope spoke of his pain at overhearing someone at the previous day’s Mass mock the feather headdress of the leader who brought the gifts to the altar. “Tell me,” the pope asked the 300-odd participants, “what difference is there between wearing feathers on your head and the three-cornered hat used by some officials in our curial departments?”
In that opening address Francis was clear about where he and the synod would stand. They would look at the Amazon region with the eyes of disciples and missionaries, respectful of the ancestral wisdom and culture of its peoples, and rejecting any approach that was colonialist, ideological, or exploitative. They would not try to “discipline” the locals. For whenever the church has had this mindset, Francis warned, it has failed utterly to evangelize. The Jesuit pope reminded the synod’s participants of the ill-fated sixteenth-century missions of the Jesuits Roberto Di Nobili, SJ, and Matteo Ricci, SJ, whose bold attempts at inculturation, in India and China respectively, were quashed by the pettiness and colonialist mindsets of church leaders at the time. Without being planted in the local culture, the Gospel cannot take root: “homogenizing centralism,” said Francis, is the enemy of “the authenticity of the culture of the peoples.” This synod would go the other way. “We come to contemplate, to understand, to serve the peoples.”
What matters, then, is the people of Amazonia, and especially the 3 million or so indigenous gathered in 390 peoples who, for the first time, are the central concern of a synod. It is their welfare, their pastoral needs, that are at the heart of this gathering, as well as the natural world to which they are deeply, symbiotically connected. Both are threatened with destruction as never before. This life-or-death urgency demands, in turn, that the church examine the nature of its presence, how it can be embedded and inculturated, how it can it stand with, and promote the life of, its peoples in an area where one “regional vicariate” might be the size of half of Italy yet have just a handful of priests.
The issue is one of agency. The synod is a test of the church’s ability to implement the vision of Laudato si’ in a region that almost daily dramatizes that encyclical’s call to conversion. Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ—a key drafter of Laudato si’ who will also be drawing up the final document on which the synod will vote on October 26—told Commonweal that because “the Amazon region exemplifies the inextricable connection between the social and natural environments, the fate of people there and of their natural surroundings” there could be “no more concrete manner than this [synod] to lift Laudato si’ off the page and put it into action.”