Sr. Dorothy Stang was known as a fierce defender of a sustainable development project for the Amazon forest. CNS photo/Reuters

Luke Stocking: Voice of Sr. Dorothy echoes in exhortation

  • February 22, 2020

Fifteen years ago, on Feb. 12, a 73-year-old nun walked along a rural road in the Amazon region of Para state in Brazil. She was followed by two men with guns — Clodoaldo Carlos Batista and Raifran das Neves Sales. Both men worked for a livestock company. They asked her if she had any weapons. In response she showed them her Bible and began to read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit ….” 

The first shot went into the abdomen and sent her to the ground. The second shot was in the back and the final four rounds went into her head. They shot Sr. Dorothy Stang six times. Affectionately known as “Dot,” she was a missionary who worked for one of our long-time Brazilian D&P partners, the Pastoral Land Commission. Her ministry was responding to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. Pope Francis chose the anniversary of her death to release Querida Amazonia, his apostolic exhortation following the synod on the Amazon. 

On Feb. 12, 2020 I was up early and tuned into the live feed from the Vatican for the press conference. Unlike many people, I was not keenly waiting to see what Pope Francis would say regarding married priests or women deacons. While not wanting to diminish the importance of this reflection for the universal Church, it was not for me at the heart of the synod. It saddens me, in fact, that this was what was considered most newsworthy by much of our media — both Catholic and secular. 

We are missing something much deeper that is happening. The Holy Spirit is guiding and shaping our Church in response to an impending ecological apocalypse born of human sin.   

While some were disappointed and others relieved at the news that the status quo prevails on Holy Orders, the truth is that the forces at play are more significant for the Church than this. While these forces may inevitably touch the question of Holy Orders, they are not the endgame. 

Through the movement of the Holy Spirit, like the mighty current beneath the stillness of the surface of the Amazon River itself (an image described by Cardinal Pedro Barreto of Peru), the Church is revealing a face with Amazonian features. Pope Francis asks us to “imagine a holiness with Amazonian features, called to challenge the universal Church.” 

Sr. Dorothy was with me as I watched the press conference. Why else do we choose such anniversaries for these moments if not to invite the presence of the people they commemorate? Her presence was especially strong as I contemplated the Pope’s insistence that as missionaries of the Gospel we must join together the social and the spiritual, “so that the poor do not have to look outside the Church for a spirituality that responds to their deepest yearnings.” 

Dorothy is a witness of this “holiness with an Amazonian face.” It is “a holiness born of encounter and engagement, contemplation and service, receptive solitude and life in community, cheerful sobriety and the struggle for justice.”

This is not an Amazonian face just for the Amazon. It is a face for the universal Church for the times that we live in — apocalyptic times. That is the deep significance of what I believe is happening. That is why so many people are threatened by it. 

For me, the most significant passage of the exhortation is found in point 105 in the fifth chapter. I quote it here at length because it invites us to see this movement of the Holy Spirit as a “greater gift that God is offering.”

“From that new gift, accepted with boldness and generosity, from that unexpected gift which awakens a new and greater creativity, there will pour forth as from an overflowing fountain the answers that contraposition did not allow us to see. In its earliest days, the Christian faith spread remarkably in accordance with this way of thinking, which enabled it, from its Jewish roots, to take shape in the Greco-Roman cultures, and in time to acquire distinctive forms. Similarly, in this historical moment, the Amazon region challenges us to transcend limited perspectives and “pragmatic” solutions mired in partial approaches, in order to seek paths of inculturation that are broader and bolder.” 

Broader and bolder indeed. This “historical moment” is nothing less than a question of the viability of our common home, Mother Earth, beyond the next 100 years. The “distinctive norms” of our faith that were shaped in Greco-Roman culture are no longer enough on their own for the proclamation of the Gospel. New “distinctive forms” are taking shape in non-western cultures that faithfully integrate the cry of our souls with the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. 

If the Church is to remain a relevant instrument of salvation, we must be prepared to enter these uncharted waters of the great river where God is calling us and make the dream of the Querida Amazonia a reality.

(Stocking is is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.)

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