ROME – Two of the heaviest-hitting cardinals with a hand in organizing the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon have voiced concern about a priest shortage in the region, but shied away from offering concrete proposals for how to fix the problem such as the controversial idea of ordaining viri probati, meaning tested married men.
Speaking to journalists at a May 16 conference in Rome titled “The Amazon: Challenges and perspectives for the common home,” Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes echoed Pope Francis’s insistence that the Church in the Amazon “must be a Church with an Amazonian face.”
“Not a European Church transplanted in the Amazon,” he said, but “an Amazon face and also an indigenous face…it must be an inculturated Church.”
Practically what this means, Hummes said, is that the Church must have local clergy “who are born there, an indigenous church. How can we think of an indigenous church for the indigenous if there are no indigenous clergy?”
This reflection, he said, “opens the door to a series of studies on how to make it possible for indigenous clergy who can begin this future of an indigenous church.”
The prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, Hummes is General Relator for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon and is president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), which is playing a leading role in organizing the gathering.
Voicing concern over the shortage of priests in the Amazon, Hummes said “there are very few times they have a priest with them, above all Catholic communities.”
What they want from the Church, he said, is that “the Church is closer to them, lives with them, shares with them daily, not just every now and then like a parenthesis in the Church, but that the Church is with them in their territory and communities.”
The ordination of so-called viri probati, meaning mature, married men who are strong in their faith and who would usually be considered as candidates to be ordained deacons, has long been rumored as a possible solution to the priest shortage in the Amazon, and many have speculated that the topic will also come up during the synod.
Set to take place Oct. 6-27, the synod will address the topic of “The Amazon: New paths for the Church and for an integral ecology,” and will discuss issues related to the Pan-Amazonian region of South America, which includes parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname.
On his return flight from World Youth Day in Panama, Francis voiced openness to ordaining viri probati, telling journalists that while he believes priestly celibacy “is a gift to the Church” and is “not in agreement” with making this optional, it could be considered a possibility in areas with large priest shortages.
Giving the Pacific Islands as an example, Francis said, “It’s something to think about when there’s a pastoral need,” and that in these cases, “the shepherd has to think about the faithful,” meaning it would be up to the local bishop to make the decision based on the needs in his diocese.
During a February conference on the Amazon organized by the office of the Synod of Bishops, Jesuit Father Francisco Taborda, a professor of theology at the Jesuit university in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and author of numerous books on the sacraments, told Crux the priest shortage in the region is a big problem that can open the door “to a re-thinking of how it can be done so that every community…can have the Sunday Eucharist.”
Asked if this “re-thinking” included the ordination of viri probati, Taborda was affirmative, saying, “That’s what this is about.”
Speaking to the press during the May 16 conference, Jesuit Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto, vice president of REPAM, who oversees the Archdiocese of Huancayo, Peru, said the shortage of priests is a concern not just in the Amazon “but in the world.”
Barreto said the issue is a major area of focus for the Church in the Amazon, but he stopped short of offering a solution. Instead, he said, “We must wait to see how the synod develops.”
He also stressed the importance of the eco-agenda in the Amazon synod, saying organizers “want to make visible the great gift of God as a marvelous creation that we must take care of for the life and hope of the world.”
“The Amazon produces 20 percent of the oxygen in the world. It is the greatest source of sweet water on the planet, and because of this, on a physical, natural level, it is a great wealth,” he said, adding, “the greatest wealth are the people.”
According to Hummes, what indigenous communities in the Amazon want from the Church is not only to be closer to them, but also greater access to healthcare and schools and for their voices to be heard.
Rather than having people speak for them, including the Church, he said it’s important that indigenous communities make their own decisions and are able to contribute to key discussions.
Recalling a recent assembly with indigenous communities in Ecuador, Hummes said, he recalled one leader saying, “Today we are here not to hear your proposals, but we have proposals to make to you.”
“They have the right to be consulted, listened to,” not only for show, “but seriously,” Hummes said, adding that whether it be ecclesial or social matters such as land rights, indigenous people deserve “the ability to be consulted before there are projects and decisions either from the government or from companies who come with their projects into their territory.”
Hummes also spoke on the Catholic Church’s at-times tenuous relationship with Brazil’s right-wing government, led by President Jair Bolsonaro. Roughly 60 percent of the Amazon is located in Brazil.
In February, military officials accused the bishops attending the synod of pushing a “leftist agenda.” According to a Feb. 10 article published in Brazilian paper O Estado de S. Paulo, the military sees the Church “as a potential opponent” and wants to “neutralize” any criticism of the government that might come out of the synod.
In comments to the press, Hummes said the initial criticism of the synod, which he called “very shocking” and which was largely due to concerns over the “internationalization” of the Amazon, has since been “overcome,” though there is still suspicion in some areas.
“Little by little, there has also been a dialogue with some of them,” he said, noting that while initial criticisms have been abated, there is still concern for the government about the Church’s approach to preserving the biodiversity and aboriginal presence in the Amazon region.