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Musicians call CIMI missionaries to begin another session in their week-long meeting in Manaus. Michael Swan

Synod shows signs of growth for ‘a different Church’

  • November 6, 2019

From coverage that’s been splashed across both Catholic and secular media, you might suppose the Synod on the Amazon was all about long-standing bones of contention between liberal and conservative Catholics – married priests, authoritative roles for women, liturgies that don’t look like a pontifical high Mass. But it wasn’t really about any of that. It was actually about the Amazon.

I was in Manaus, Brazil for a meeting of missionaries in February. They were there getting ready for the synod. As a guitar and drums called us for morning prayer one of my hosts said to me, “It’s a different Church.” 

I was hardly shocked that people in the Amazon might pray in different ways or sing different songs. But his remark about “a different Church” stayed with me. I was indeed witnessing a different Church — one that reaches across cultures, cares for the concrete, every-day troubles of ordinary people and casts a critical eye on its own history.

The missionaries had come to the city from all deepest reaches of the Amazon to build their case for a truly Catholic and truly Amazonian Church. This different Church of the Amazon finally got to visit Rome from Oct. 6-27 to claim its place in the heart of Catholicism.

“You already see a face of the Church you don’t always see,” CIDSE secretary general Josianne Gauthier told The Register in the last days of the synod. “Not the Roman Church, not the Western, northern, European Church, but the Church of everyday in the lives of people in the Amazon. It’s a very courageous Church. It’s a very bold Church that speaks about justice, that’s on the front line, defending human lives and protecting the rights of the Indigenous. It’s a very inspiring Church.”

Gauthier is a Canadian now installed in Brussels running the mostly European network of 25 Catholic donor agencies in the world-wide Caritas system. She cut her teeth working at Canada’s Catholic development agency, Development and Peace.

“If the Pope succeeds in what he was trying to do with this synod, that Church will be a little more visible, a little more present in our every-day lives,” she said.

The Amazon is already present in the lives of Canadian Catholics. Pension plans are invested in mining companies planning new mines there. Hamburgers have gotten cheaper because Brazil’s beef industry has expanded into the Amazon. The synod requires Canadians “to realize where we sit in this puzzle, how we benefit from situations that hurt other people, hurt communities, hurt the planet,” Gauthier said. “Understand that there’s only two or three steps between my iPhone and a community being displaced in the Amazon.”

The Church of the Amazon didn’t go to Rome asking for a handout or for extraordinary concessions from the rest of the Church. Whether it’s ordaining the married men who already lead their communities in worship or asking for help in protecting their lands, languages and cultures, they were asking for us to join them. That begins with recognizing some truths about the world.

“Basically, the north exploits the south,” explained Canadian missionary Fr. Ron MacDonnell as the synod was coming to a close. “It’s the global south versus the global north. So if people in the north decide that they would change international economic laws so that southern countries can have a fairer share of trade, a say in trade, etc., so that the economic situations of so many of these southern countries can be improved…”

MacDonnell was speaking from the northern reaches of the Amazon Basin, in the hot, dry prairie of Raposa Serra do Sol, Brazil. He has spent over 20 years with Indigenous people, learning their languages and preaching the Gospel.

“The actual synod is a culmination point,” he said. “The whole process will continue. A lot of people in the Church are excited about that — catechists, priests, sisters, missionaries, lay people, lay missionaries.” 

MacDonnell sees a synod that’s something like an iceberg – 90 per cent of it under the surface. After two years of preparing for the synod, the people MacDonnell serves were praying for the synod fathers all through October. 

“It will be interesting to see how the follow-up meetings and assemblies will work out over the coming year,” he said.

While his own bishop, Rev. Mario Antonio da Silva, was in Rome acting as one of the synod redactors, MacDonnell was at work in the Church of the Amazon. He spends weeks in remote Indigenous communities putting his skill as a linguist to work in helping these communities preserve and recover their languages.

“I spent two weeks (during the synod) up in the interior villages,” he said. “And I was glad to be there during the synod, because I felt that since the synod is talking about Indigenous peoples and rights, and one of them is language, there I was involved with language speakers, teaching young people in the community. So I felt, for me, the synod was practising what we’re talking about, what the representatives in Rome have been talking about. That was exciting for me.”

It’s all connected. The synod picked up and expanded the language of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology. For MacDonnell and the communities where he works, Indigenous languages are essential to the Amazon’s human ecology. 

In the penultimate paragraph of their final recommendations to Pope Francis, the synod fathers spoke of “an Amazonian rite that expresses the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Amazon.” They are asserting their right to be in the heart of their Church with their culture. And they’re willing to do the work.

“The Church has to change to bring the Gospel to the people... We cannot change the Gospel. We can change our ways.”

- Bishop Lionel Gendron

“The Church has to change to bring the Gospel to the people,” said Saint-Jean Longueuil Bishop Lionel Gendron, who was a delegate at the Synod. “We cannot change the Gospel. We can change our ways.”

Gendron witnessed the angry backlash against the Synod — from throwing Indigenous artwork into the Tiber to wild distortions of the Synod in blogs — from a distance.

“It has not distracted me,” he said.

He was instead concentrating on a traditional and essential Catholic value — conversion.

“Pope Francis is calling for, and this is very strong in the document, is calling for conversion — conversion of the whole society, not only the one in the Amazon, but the whole world,” Gendron said. “There are many people who are not interested in that, there is no doubt.”

Gendron pointed out that the synod’s call for ecological conversion is coming just over a month before COP 25 – the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 2-13. He echoed newly installed Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who said, “You know, later is too late. It’s now or never.”

Political urgency on climate change matters for Canada’s Catholic development agency, said Latin American program officer at Development and Peace Mary Durran.

“The Synod has taken us one step further than Laudato Si’,” she said in an e-mail from Rome. “It’s a step towards implementing this encyclical. It has made it very clear for Catholics that the ecology and an ecological conversion is at the centre of our faith. One can no longer be a Catholic and view care for our common home as optional.”

Development and Peace was given new life and new direction by Laudato Si’ when it came out in 2015. Throughout the synod they’ve seen many of their partners in the Amazon represented both inside the synod and at side events happening around the Vatican.

“The synod encourages us to continue our work,” Durran said. “For several years now, ecological justice has been one of our priority issues.”

For a scholar of Vatican II, the synod was not just about the Amazon. It was also about the Church.

“What we’ve seen ecclesiologically is the shift, a very clear shift with Francis, towards decentralization and giving a voice to the local churches,” said St. Michael’s College Faculty of Theology professor Michael Attridge.

Attridge studies the history and intellectual currents around the Second Vatican Council. He sees in this synod a kind of Latin American reboot of the great, ecumenical council of 1962 to 1965 — particularly in the rededication of Latin American bishops to the Catacombs Pact.

The original Catacombs Pact is an often ignored chapter in the history of Vatican II. It is from that pact that Pope Francis formulated one of his first-ever statements as Pope: “How I would love a Church that is poor and for the poor.” 

Inspired by Dom Helder Camera, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife whose cause for sainthood is now in Rome, it was the Catacombs Pact that first formulated the idea of a Church of the poor, which later became the “preferential option for the poor” declared by the world synod of bishops in 1971.

Attridge has spent his professional life teaching about the Second Vatican Council from a European perspective, digging into the thought of European theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Karl Rahner. Now he thinks the council can’t be completely understood without an Amazon perspective.

“Something could be written like ‘The Amazon Flows into the Tiber.’ That would be an interesting book,” he said.

Vocal critics of Pope Francis and of the synod actually have a lot in common with the Indigenous people of the Amazon, said Gauthier.

“People who want their traditions to be respected, that’s exactly what the Indigenous want. It’s the same desire, the same fundamental desire — to be left to continue being who they are,” she said. “Is that being recognized and embraced? That they are allowed to practice their faith with the colour and the emotions that they know, so they don’t have to comply with what somebody else defines as being Catholic? ... It’s OK, and it’s beautiful actually, to have different cultures in one Church.”

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