ROME – During the two-year run-up to the event, Pope Francis’s Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon was expected to generate strong ecological consensus, firm support for indigenous cultures and peoples, and movement toward married priests for the Amazon inside the hall — not to mention, of course, a fair bit of consternation about all those ideas in broader Catholic debate.
The first full working session of the summit Monday afternoon certainly lived up to its billing, on basically every one of those fronts.
According to a news bulletin released by the Vatican late Monday Rome time, climate change and fossil fuels came in for discussion by the roughly 300 participants in the synod, including 184 bishops from the nine South American nations that share a portion of the Amazon rainforest.
“The climate is a global good, it was said, a good which must be cared for and preserved for future generations,” the bulletin quoted participants as saying. “It was suggested to stop using fossil fuels, above all in the most industrialized countries which have the greatest responsibility for pollution.”
As is the Vatican’s practice, the bulletin did not identify which speakers inside the synod made this point or how many of them spoke on the issue. It’s impossible at this stage, therefore, to assess whether the points presented represent a consensus among participants, or are merely indicative of some of the topics touched upon.
The Vatican summary also indicated that protection of the region’s water supply was a concern.
“An appeal was raised to protect aquifers from chemical contamination deriving from multinational productions, so that the indigenous populations may survive,” it said.
“Several times bishops recalled the necessity of respecting both human and environmental rights,” the bulletin said, “because a truly integral ecology requires a new balance between man and nature.”
At another point, the bulletin reported that some in the synod used the example of teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and her “School Strike for Climate” as an example of the “social commitment of youth, capable of pushing the Church to be prophetic in this area.”
Ironically, the praise for Thunberg came on the same day that she was hung in effigy from a Roman bridge, with a sign around the mannequin’s neck reading, in English, “Greta is your God.” A previously unknown group calling itself Gli Svegli, or “The Awake,” took to Twitter and Facebook to claim responsibility.
It doesn’t appear there was any connection between the gesture and the current synod, especially given the bridge’s location seven miles from the Vatican and the lack of any explicit reference to the pontiff or his summit. Nevertheless, the incident does illustrate a broader blowback against the ecological movement that’s also been part of criticism of the pope’s initiatives around the Amazon.
On the issue of married priests – more specifically, proposals to ordain so-called viri probati, or tested married men, to serve the Amazon’s isolated rural communities – the bulletin reported both support and caution.
The viri probati are “a matter of a legitimate necessity, it was said in the hall, but it must not prompt a substantial reconsideration of the nature of the priesthood and its relationship with celibacy as required by the Church of the Latin rite,” the bulletin said, summarizing synod discussion.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea to emerge on day one came in the context of synod conversation about the need to demonstrate respect and appreciation for indigenous cultures. According to the bulletin, someone floated the idea of creating a special form of the Catholic Mass for the Amazon blending in certain native customs and expressions.
“One of the proposals advanced was that of thinking about establishing – ad experimentum, and based on sound theological, liturgical and pastoral discernment – an Amazon Catholic rite for living and celebrating faith in Christ,” the bulletin said.
“At bottom, it was underlined in the hall, just as there’s an ecological ecosystem, there’s also an ecclesiastical ecosystem,” it said.
As for consternation, it could be glimpsed in a variety of ways on Monday, including reaction to what seemed a fairly harmless papal laugh line earlier in the day.
During the morning session, Francis devoted a good chunk of his remarks to urging participants to avoid “ideologies” that tend to disrespect indigenous cultures and religiosity. Along the way, he said that just yesterday he’d heard someone object to a native person wearing a colorful feathered headdress in the Vatican.
“What’s the difference between that and the triangle hat some of the cardinals of our dicasteries wear?” he quipped, referring to the biretta that’s a traditional part of the finery for Princes of the Church.
That brought a barbed response from Radio Spada, a widely-read traditionalist Catholic outlet in Italy.
“We believe that this phrase captures in full the Bergoglio-thought (which is the heart of modernism), according to which one religion is just as good as another,” a staff comment said.
Whatever concern the synod may be eliciting, it clearly doesn’t seem to be cowing Francis, who is missing no opportunity to put the Amazon and Amazonians in the spotlight.
Monday morning began with a procession featuring the pope flocked by 17 indigenous persons from the Amazon, holding aloft a fishing net as well as a canoe and paddles with a statue of the Madonna as an indigenous woman, along with a few typical products of the region. They were singing hymns in both native languages and in Spanish, brandishing images of their heroes – St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador, naturally, as well as Father Rodolfo Lunkenbein, a German missionary in Brazil shot to death at his Salesian mission in 1976, and Galdin Pataxo, an indigenous activist murdered in Brazil’s capital city by five upper-class youth in 1997.
The procession included figures such as Italian father Alex Zanotelli, a famed Comboni missionary in Africa who, early on, was accused of syncretism for his incorporation of native dress and rituals into the Catholic liturgy, and was later removed from the direction of a church-sponsored magazine for allegedly playing fast and loose with Catholic principles.
Clearly, having Zanotelli be part of the scene was another way for the pope to encourage such experimentation.
The group filed down the nave of an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, singing and swaying, then made its way from the front of the basilica through an equally empty St. Peter’s Square to end up at the Vatican’s synod hall for the first working session of the Oct. 6-27 assembly. The square had been completely cleared to accommodate the procession, producing the unusual site of one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations briefly barren.
Altogether, both the choreography and the casting of the procession Monday morning seemed to make a simple point, though the pope likely would never address his critics quite this directly: “Say what you will, we’re moving ahead.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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