VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A new document by Pope Francis slams countries and companies exploiting the Amazon region and calls on the Catholic Church to find new paths and methods to minister to its indigenous people.
But those new paths do not include the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the region.
The document, called “Querida Amazonia” (Beloved Amazon), is born from the discussions of over 180 bishops from all over the world who gathered at the Vatican last fall (Oct. 6-27) to address the social, environmental and spiritual needs of the indigenous people of the Amazon and their habitat.
During their meeting, bishops had suggested in their final document that the pope consider the ordination of tested married men to minister to the remote areas of the Amazon forest sprawled over nine Latin American countries.
Bishops had also voted to further discussions on female deacons, which would allow women to preach, distribute the Eucharist and officiate at weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Pope Francis’ document doesn’t make any mention of the ordination of married men and of women, which is consistent with the efforts made by the Vatican to downplay expectations ahead of its publication. In January, former Pope Benedict XVI published a book with Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican department for liturgy, making a case for the importance of celibacy in the priesthood.
“Querida Amazonia” is divided into four chapters, each corresponding to a “dream” of the pope on the social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial aspects of the Amazon. It includes numerous poems by indigenous people detailing the beauty — and destruction — of the Amazon.
The papal document encourages Catholics and all people of goodwill to protect the environment, accompany the diaspora of indigenous peoples and stand up against injustice and reckless exploitation.
During colonization, the people of the Amazon forest “were considered more an obstacle needing to be eliminated than as human beings with the same dignity as others and possessed of their own acquired rights,” Francis wrote.
“The businesses, national or international, which harm the Amazon and fail to respect the right of the original peoples,” he wrote, “should be called for what they are: injustice and crime.”
Colonization has left tremendous wounds in the Amazon, the pope said, but colonization continues today even though it is “changed, disguised.”
“The interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region or humanity as a whole,” he warned.
Francis admitted that while missionaries were among the few who stood up to defend the rights of the Amazon and its peoples, the Catholic Church also bears its responsibility and its members were “part of a network of corruption.”
“I express my shame and once more I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America as well as for the terrible crimes that followed throughout the history of the Amazon region,” he said.
In a section addressing forms of ministry, the pope called for “a specific and courageous response” to the shortage of priests in the Amazon. Though ordaining married men is out of the question, at least in this document, the pope encouraged bishops to take matters into their own hands.
“This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region,” he wrote, putting an emphasis on the need to overhaul priestly formation.
A large role is played and continues to be played by “mature and lay leaders,” who must be promoted and encouraged by the Catholic clergy, Francis wrote. Women especially, he said, “have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith.”
But ordaining women as deacons, he said, could be harmful.
“It would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective,” he said.
Instead, he said that women should have positions of authority within the church “that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”
As a starting point, Francis referred to Mary as a source of inspiration for furthering the role of women.
“Perhaps it is time to review the lay ministries already existing in the Church, return to their foundations and update them by reading them in the light of current reality and the inspiration of the Spirit, and at the same time to create other new stable ministries with public recognition and a commission from the bishop,” Cardinal Michael Czerny said in an interview published by the Vatican alongside the papal document. Czerny was a special secretary to the synod of bishops on the Amazon.
Francis called for a fruitful dialogue between the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the Catholic Church in order to give the church “new faces with Amazonian features.” The culture, traditions and history of the tribes living in the Amazon must be protected and respected, without “unfair generalizations, simplistic arguments and conclusions drawn only from the basis of our own mindset and experiences,” he said.
Indigenous people should not be insulated from a respectful dialogue, Francis wrote, just as the Catholic Church should allow the gospel to be permeated by the customs and culture of the peoples living in the Amazon.
“The Pope asks that the voice of the elderly be heard and that the values present in the original communities be recognized,” Czerny said. “Indigenous peoples teach us to be sober, content with little, and to sense the need to be immersed in a communal way of living our lives.”
The bishops had asked the pope to consider the possibility of an Amazonian Rite, which in the Catholic tradition would have its own bishops and specific liturgies while still being in communion with the Catholic Church.
Francis encouraged “native forms of expression in song, rituals, gestures and symbols” but made no mention of a specific rite or a commission created to consider it.
Francis also seemed to passingly address the Pachamama debacle, when vandals broke into a church in Rome at the height of the synod, dumped a wooden carving of an Amazonian fertility goddess into the Tiber River and posted it on YouTube. The vandals justified their actions at the time, stating that they were angered by a ceremony in the Vatican gardens where indigenous people knelt before the statues before the pontiff.
“It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry,” the pope wrote. “A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.”
The pope’s final words amid highly divisive times within and beyond the Catholic Church are to promote dialogue “at a higher level, where each group can join the other in a new reality, while remaining faithful to itself.”