The future of the Amazon is not just a local problem; it is a global issue, one which requires responsibility, a community vision and the attentive and missionary presence of the Church.
The Synod path, which brought bishops to the Vatican (October 6-27, 2019), has now led to Pope Francis’ long awaited Apostolic Exhortation “Querida Amazonía”. It is a document that represents a sort of synthesis of the Holy Father’s concerns, but it is also a map and a precise outline for “a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.”
The Pope’s Exhortation is not regional in character, but global. Taking an environmental point of view, it considers the Amazon’s central role as the green lung of the world and as a habitat of immense biodiversity, one which ensures a global balance. However, this habitat is increasingly at risk of extinction due to prolonged exploitation dictated by international interests.
Therefore, for the Church, it is a question of raising awareness and making the Church incarnate “in a distinctive way in each part of the world”. Preaching, spirituality and ecclesial structures must become incarnate.
Then, there is Pope Francis’ “four great dreams” for the Amazon, for its peoples, its ecosystem, and for the transmission of the faith. They comprise a social dream, a cultural dream, an ecological dream and an ecclesial dream.
His social dream envisions a Church that exists alongside the poor because, particularly in Amazonia, the ecological aspect is closely related to the social aspect, to the disavowal of the rights of local peoples and the progressive theft of their lands. These events in turn have spawned a troubling wave of migration that has increasingly forced them from away from their rivers and lakes and into the forests. Now they are being forced to the outskirts of cities where they are unable to resolve their problems and are subject to forms of marginalization and slavery. The Pope does not mince words about this; he calls it “injustice and crime” and he tells us that we should feel outrage about this because “it is not good for us to become inured to evil; it is not good when our social consciousness is dulled”.
In dealing with this, we must also apologize for the shortcomings and negligence of missionaries who, at times, chose the side of the exploiters over that of the oppressed. Pope Francis continues his denunciation: “Nor can we exclude the possibility that members of the Church have been part of networks of corruption, at times to the point of agreeing to keep silent in exchange for economic assistance for ecclesial works.” For this reason, he invites us to always be attentive to the origin of donations or other benefits being offered.
Faced with the mindset of colonialism, he invites our engagement in social dialogue, “developing forms of fellowship and joint struggle” and “a globalization in solidarity.” He invites us to seek alternatives for “sustainable herding and agriculture, sources of energy that do not pollute, [and] dignified means of employment that do not entail the destruction of the natural environment and of cultures”.
The second chapter of “Querida Amazonía” is about the Pope’s cultural dream. He points out that the Amazonian polyhedron contains more than 110 indigenous peoples who have created civilizations different from “ours” but with a dignity that must be recognized. In his dream, these lands and their peoples are allowed to make the best of themselves, keeping or reappropriating their cultural roots, so often lost when peoples are torn from their land. Finding themselves on the outskirts, they are no longer able to preserve their roots, their identity and dignity. This causes the disruption of “the cultural transmission of a wisdom that had been passed down for centuries from generation to generation”. Thus, their cultural distinctiveness is no longer part of our mutual wealth, but becomes evidence of “discarded lives”. This mechanism of creating cultural homogeneity has proven to be harmful, not only to those peoples, but to the whole of humanity. We end up losing a rich and enriching cultural specificity. This is why Pope Francis stresses that “interest and concern for the cultural values of the indigenous groups should be shared by everyone, for their richness is also our own. If we ourselves do not increase our sense of co-responsibility for the diversity that embellishes our humanity, we can hardly demand that the groups from the interior forest be uncritically open to ‘civilization.” It is essential that we connect cultural identity and dialogue with different realities.
The third chapter is about caring for the environment—the Pope’s ecological dream, which is closely related to human economics and which, as Benedict XVI pointed out, in turn requires social ecology. The protection of our common home resounds forcefully here and is very much in the style of Pope Francis, who states, “As things stand, this way of treating the Amazon territory spells the end for so much life, for so much beauty.” That “green lung” serves as “a great filter of carbon dioxide, which helps avoid the warming of the earth.” It is a complex system, a structure in perfect balance, in which every microorganism plays its part. In our relationship with it, we must remember that exploiting “the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home.’”
Faced with this delicate balance and recognizing that the health of the Amazon is for our common good, the Pope invites us to combine ancestral wisdom with contemporary technical knowledge, avoiding any delay in dealing with an environmental emergency that has already been scientifically proven and about which we can no longer afford the alibi of “deafness” in order to maintain our lifestyles and consumption. Rather, we must feel closely united with the Amazon; we must see it as our mother and, at the same time, as a theological place, “a space where God himself reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters.”
The fourth and final chapter of the document is about Pope Francis’ ecclesial dream. It deals with the call to do missionary work in the Amazon and how that work is entrusted to the consecrated and non-consecrated men and women of the Church. It is a proposal of faith that requires a process of inculturation because, as the document reads, “an authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them.” The transmission of the faith must be done with great sensitivity; when transmitting the new context of the Gospel, we cannot, in addition, impose the culture in which we grew up. Instead, the process of inculturation “rejects nothing of the goodness that already exists in Amazonian cultures, but brings it to fulfilment in the light of the Gospel”. We should take up what is “useful” that emerges from those realities, so different from our models, and allow ourselves to be “‘re-educated’ in the face of frenzied consumerism.”
A Church that has an Amazonian face is not one that functions like a “customs office”. It is not a Church that excludes or keeps itself at a distance. Rather, it reaches out to understand, to listen and to integrate, in spite of the difficulties involved with an extremely vast and complex territory, with places that are difficult to access and with obstacles that are induced by cultural differences.
The priesthood was a much-debated topic at the Synod, and one that has created great expectations for this document. This document reaffirms the priest’s exclusive identity and “his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders.” Ample space, however, must be provided for the laity who “can proclaim God’s word, teach, organize communities, celebrate certain sacraments, [and] seek different ways to express popular devotion.”
Pope Francis next turns to all bishops, especially those in Latin America, asking them to promote prayer for new priestly vocations and, at the same time, to encourage those who show a missionary vocation and guide them towards the Amazon.
The Eucharist and priests are therefore at the heart of the ecclesial presence, along with the great and fundamental support of permanent religious and lay deacons. The laity’s renewed prominence has been sustained by the fundamental presence of “strong and generous” women who have played a major role in the missions. Moreover, these women have not given in to any “clericalism” which would lessen the great value of what they have already provided, or diminish the character of their contribution which is expressive of their womanhood.
Elisabetta LO IACONO, Seraphicum Press Office