PUYO, Ecuador – As the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon nears, critics are wondering aloud why the event is being held in the first place, and all signs suggest it may constitute another chapter in the ongoing battle between progressives emboldened under Pope Francis and conservatives disgruntled by him.

For anyone inclined to question the need for the synod, or to politicize it, layman Mauricio Lopez in Ecuador has a simple message: “Come live in one of these remote communities for a year.”

One of the organizers for the looming synod, Lopez argues the case for a synod willing to think outside the box in stark terms.

If the Catholic Church can’t change the form with which it approaches new challenges – “not the dogma,” he emphasizes – “then we have to acknowledge to people that we’re unable to respond to the challenges reality poses and their right to receive the sacraments, and we have to thank them for their presence and give them our blessing to leave the Church.”

In particular, Lopez backed calls for the ordination of married men, the so-called viri probati, as a solution to chronic priest shortages in the Amazon, saying it’s a “proposal coming directly from the people of God who are in the territory.”

Archbishop Rafel Cob, a missionary from Spain who’s been in Ecuador since 1998 agreed, calling the ordination of married men part of a shift from a “clerical” Church to a “ministerial one.”

RELATED: Amazon archbishop backs ordination of married priests

The remote communities Lopez has in mind include some 4,500 small villages spread throughout the Amazon, parts of which are found in nine countries including Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia and the Guianas.

In total, there are some 500 different indigenous peoples in the Amazon region, and more than 80 that still live in voluntary isolation.

In 2017, Pope Francis announced his plan for a Synod of Bishops to address the challenges the Catholic Church faces in the evangelization of these people, but also in preserving the rainforest itself, which the scientific community sees as key to maintaining the world’s biodiversity which they say is currently under threat from oil and mining industries as well as deforestation.

“The vision of many who are fearful of the synod would change dramatically if they came here to live for a year … All the ideological or doctrinal questions would come to an end,” Lopez said.

Lopez is the executive secretary of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network. He’s also one of two of the 18 members of the pre-synod council who aren’t bishops. The other is Sister Maria Irene Lopes de los Santos, a Brazilian nun nicknamed the “Princess of the Amazon.”

Speaking with journalists in Quito, Lopez said REPAM coordinated and conducted about 300 listening sessions throughout the region, involving all nine countries. This led to some 87,000 people from the Amazon being heard either through territorial assemblies or parish groups.

According to the layman, born in Mexico but who lives in Ecuador, the synod is designed to elicit three fundamental conversions.

The first is towards a Church that “goes out,” that evangelizes through its social efforts and that comes “into contact with reality with joy, not imposing (the faith) but making it contagious.”

He underlined Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as the prime document, saying it’s a call from the pope to a “conversion of the heart.”

Lopez also said the synod calls for an “ecological conversion,” arguing that it’s “sad that a few representatives at the highest level of the Church cannot recognize that Catholic social doctrine is as much doctrine as the rest.”

Here he used the pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ as a call from the pope “to all the planet,” which doesn’t undermine the Church’s identity but “prioritizes those who have been key in the protection of Mother Earth.”

The third and final conversion, according to Lopez, is toward “synodality of the Church,” which Francis urged in his apostolic constitution Episcopalis Comunio.

By convoking a synod on the Amazon, Lopez said, Francis is “telling us that the periphery is the center. The Amazon was always conceived by governments, private companies and the people themselves as a periphery, as a space to colonize and exploit.”

In a meeting between the pope and those organizing the synod, Francis reportedly told REPAM to “pay attention to the most important thing: the periphery is the center.”

“The periphery, considered as disposable and worthless, can illuminate and purify the center,” the layman said. “Nothing is more evangelical than that.”

During that meeting, the pope also allegedly praised the “joy” experienced in the pre-synod council. According to Lopez, this is because most of the bishops who are part of the commission are missionary prelates working on the ground, who understand the reality they’re talking about.

Lopez didn’t name names in terms of who’s objecting to the synod, but he did note there are some cardinals among them, such as American Raymond Burke and German Walter Brandmüller.

“You have to ask yourself if those who are against the synodal process aren’t also against the Church and the pope,” he said. “We must see if they are against any change and reform that may be necessary.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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