Pope Francis speaks to indigenous groups in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Jan. 19, 2018. Standing with thousands of indigenous Peruvians, Francis declared the Amazon the "heart of the church" and called for a threefold defense of its life, land and cultures. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

As Vatican summit on the Amazon nears, differing camps frame the debate

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — As the Vatican inches closer to a gathering of bishops to discuss the Amazon region, key players vie to frame the main issues likely to emerge at the Oct. 6-27 event, from the need for further involvement of women to the possibility of ordaining married men.

At a news conference near the Vatican on Wednesday (Oct. 2), Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet stated that while he welcomes and encourages an open discussion for allowing ordained married men, known as viri probati, to minister to isolated communities where there are few priests, such as those in the Amazon, he has several misgivings.

“I am not opposed,” Ouellet told reporters, “but I am a skeptic on the possibility of viri probati.”

According to the prelate, alternative solutions for catering to the wide Amazonian region have yet to be exhausted and he underlined the need to increase the number of deacons and catechists in the area before jumping to radical solutions.

“I am a skeptic, and I believe I’m not the only one,” he said. “Above me, also, there is one who is even more skeptical but who authorizes the debate.”

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet at the Vatican on March 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

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While speaking to reporters after the event, Ouellet denied he was referring to the pope during his statement at the conference, but Francis himself has already voiced his concerns around allowing married priests.

“Personally, I think celibacy is a gift for the church,” Francis told journalists aboard the papal flight returning from Panama, adding that he strongly opposed the possibility of priests being able to choose whether they want to be married or unmarried before the diaconate.

“There might only remain a few possibilities in the most remote places,” he added.

Ouellet made his remarks while presenting his new book, “Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy,” where he makes a case for the “incomparable evangelizing potential” of priests' celibacy in an increasingly secularized world.

“The present hour of the Church ‘going out’ would not, in my opinion benefit from reducing requirements of the priesthood in the name of regional cultural and pastoral imperatives,” the cardinal wrote in the introduction.

The book, he said, is meant to serve as a support for the seminarians and priests who feel downtrodden amid the ongoing sexual and financial scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church. Despite his reservations on married priests, Ouellet emphasized that he is grateful for the open discussion that is likely to take place at the synod.

Sister Simone Campbell in Rome on March 7, 2017. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

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While the Vatican considers whether to open the door for yet more men to become priests, religious women at a news conference on Tuesday demanded their right to have an equal voice in the church and at the synod.

According to Sister Simone Campbell, known for her role in organizing the “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2012, there is a risk that “the point of the synod will be missed.”

“The voices of women, the main protagonists in the region, are a small participation and won’t vote,” she said, noting that a significant majority of the missionary activity in the Amazon region is led by women.

At the October summit, 185 male participants will attend and have the right to vote on the proceedings. Another 80 people, including 35 lay and religious women, will be able to participate but without having a possibility to vote.

The “suffragette sisters,” wearing orange scarves calling for women’s representation and voting rights at the Vatican, paraded the streets of Rome in protest of a cause that seems to have already been dismissed at the upcoming synod.

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Additionally, on Wednesday, the Vatican made an important announcement that will shape this synod and the ones to come. At a news conference, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri announced that Bishop Mario Grech of Malta will take over his position as secretary-general of the synod.

Baldisseri was behind the past synods under Pope Francis and the reasons for his discharge remain unclear, though he is pushing 80, an age that even for the Vatican gerontocracy merits stepping down. Grech will accompany Baldisseri in his functions until his resignation is accepted and will attend the Amazon synod.

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