ROME— A recently-announced Synod of Bishops from the Pan-Amazon region is a “real kairos,” a Church leader in the area said, using a Greek New Testament term referring to a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation.

The synod isn’t so much a novelty but a consequence of the work done to date by the Church in the region, and a “hope for what’s to come,” said Mauricio López, Executive Secretary of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network.

According to López, the synod recently announced by Pope Francis draws on the 50 years of experience in Latin America since the Second Vatican Council, as well as 45 years of reflection in the region focusing on the particular challenges of the Amazon Basin, considered one of the world’s two “lungs.”

López, a Mexican layman and a member of the movement “Community of Christian Life CVX,” moved with his wife to Ecuador over a decade ago. He spoke with Crux on Oct. 18 about his hopes for the synod and the challenges the region faces.

Among other things, López said:

  • Life in the Pan-Amazonian region is at risk, threatened by mining and oil companies producing “environmental disasters” with the complicity of local governments.
  • The voice of the laity, particularly indigenous people and peasants, must be heard at the synod.
  • Priestly celibacy “is not for us to discuss, or even comment on,” but added that there are several “hopeful experiences” of permanent deacons.
  • The challenges of the region can be divided according to two of Pope Francis’s recent documents: Evangeli Gaudium, meaning the challenge of pastoral conversion, and Laudato Si,’ meaning the challenge of an ecological conversion.
  • “We need to understand that the synodal call is embedded in a greater kairos. Therefore, we have to be careful not to put all our expectations, energies and forces in the synod.”

What follows are excerpts of the 45-minute phone conversation López had with Crux.

Crux: As coordinator of REPAM, did you know that Pope Francis was planning a Pan-Amazonian Synod?

López: Pope Francis had previously mentioned it on some occasions. He did so during the ad limina visit of the bishops of Peru earlier this year. He mentioned it again during his visit to Colombia last month, and then again during the ad limina of the bishops of Bolivia and Ecuador. We knew nothing officially, but because of these occasions, we knew that the ball was rolling.

However, we did know that the pope was paying special attention to the region because of his concern and special closeness to the territorial reality of the Pan-Amazon, the peoples who live there and the mission of the Church.

In addition, the REPAM had conveyed to the pope many of the processes and reflections that were taking place with the wider view of the Pan-Amazon territory, and also asking him to possibly visit the Pan-Amazon region. We also asked him not for a synod, because that doesn’t depend on us, but about the possibility of holding a great assembly of the Church in the Pan-Amazonia, which would have included a visit by him to the region.

The pope has already visited several Pan-Amazonian countries. Why this distinction of inviting him to visit the Pan-Amazon region?

One thing that is very important is the document of Aparecida, written as conclusion of the fifth assembly of CELAM in 2007, of which the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio [today Pope Francis] was the main redactor. In it, the bishops of Brazil, with the echo of the others who were present, established the profound importance of the Pan-Amazonian territoriality as a biome, that is, as a living organism, as a system of flora and fauna, but above all by deference to the local, indigenous or peasant peoples themselves, the ecclesial reflection already appeared in Aparecida.

If we go further back, the bishops of the Brazilian Amazon, which is 65 percent of the total territory, met for the first time in 1972. Meaning that the need for a differentiated reflection of the challenges of the region, with elements more appropriate for this reality, was first acknowledged 45 years ago.

Although it is maybe too early for this question, what expectations do you have regarding the topics to be discussed in the synod?

I believe that we have to understand the synod as a consequence and as hope. Not so much as a novelty, which it is, and as such it fills us with illusion, but we should look at it as a consequence of the reflections done so far, and also as a hope for what’s to come. Therefore, I think it is valid to speak of expectations.

We are drawing 50 years from the Second Vatican Council, which gave us Ad gentes, the Council’s Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, which speaks of the decree for the missions, and Gaudium et spes, the constitution that gives us the pastoral model for a Church that wants to respond to a changing reality.

So expectations, I think, must be understood in the framework of a Kairos. It is a propitious moment in which the Spirit, God, is revealed, going beyond our temporal limitation and understanding. We feel that there is as a novelty, a breath of the Spirit that began blowing 50 years ago. Pope Francis brings a breath of fresh air, but the novelty of it is the renewal and updating of what was already fluttering.

So, I think it’s valid to talk about expectations for a synod that will hopefully include the path walked during the past 50 years, under the guidance of the Spirit.

Another expectation is that it can include the many central themes that have already been discussed in Latin America regarding the Pan-Amazonian region in the last 45 years. There are several institutions, such as the Indigenous Missionary Council of Brazil, the Specialized Center for Applied Anthropology of the bishops of Peru, itinerant teams, religious congregations, and also bishops who have given their lives, that speak of the reality of the Church in the area.

We are therefore very interested in the synod being able to recapitulate these living testimonies of this ecclesial presence. We must recognize its shadows, as has been the case before. As a Church, we must ask for forgiveness, as Pope Francis did when addressing the popular movements in Bolivia. And we must also recognize the lights, the meaning of strength of the witness given.

We also believe that the synod has to have a territorial dimension. It is a synod where the bishops are the main actors. It’s a synod that will take place in Rome, and as such it is a structure, and it’s very important to maintain it. What matters is for Pope Francis to be able to turn this synodal process into a path of conversion and reform that can be sustained in time. But we also have a very great expectation regarding the participation of the people, especially the indigenous or peasant peoples, who are living in this reality, and who have seen and are seeing their rights being violated, affected and forced to displace.

There is a lot of violence in these times. The extractivist interests, sometimes with the complicity of the governments, with an absolute lack of respect for international agreements and human rights, are really affecting life in the region. At the ecclesial level, the body and flesh of Christ is at risk, the crucified of our times live in this reality, and I believe that for this reason they must be heard.

But also because they are the ones who have lived in the territory, because in their cultural identity, in their own spiritual and harmonious relationship with it they have much to tell us in order to establish future perspectives. Fundamentally, this is the category of cultural ecology, which is within the encyclical Laudato Si’. Within the framework of an integral ecology, the pope speaks of a cultural ecology, and this has to do with the original peoples, with their identity, culture, spirituality. Their relationship with the territory and how they are being affected. Consistent with Laudato Si’, they are not dynamisms alien to the Church. Consistent with Laudato Si’ they have to be heard.

And then it seems to me, as an expectation, that the vertebrate entity of a synod on the Pan-Amazon region must be the two appeals made by Pope Francis recently. Evangelii Gaudium, a call for a pastoral conversion, a change in the way of responding as a Church, a call to become an outgoing Church, which also recognizes its limitations, learns, sees the signs of the Spirit and comes out, which is also at the service of the more urgent reality. And then Laudao Si’, which is an appeal for an ecological conversion, to respond to a socio-environmental crisis, facing the danger of the planet entering an irreversible phase where life can even face extinction. In his encyclical, the pope speaks of the two lungs of the planet: The Amazon, and the Congo Basin.

I think that this expectation also has to do with the synod’s drive for long-term initiatives.

And the last expectation is that it can be a synod in two phases. We say this very carefully because it does not depend on us. But we believe that it would be good to have a first phase in the territory, where the REPAM and the Church as a whole makes a path of listening, articulation and dialogue, asking what the current attitude of the Church should be considering the present situation. The material collected in this phase can reach the bishops, and eventually the delegates who will participate in the “traditional” phase of the synod, with the bishops in Rome. Here, we yearn for the participation of the native peoples and peasants, so that we can have an adequate understanding of the reality on the ground.

One of the arguments the Vatican makes when answering the question of the presence of the laity in the synod is that it is, in fact, a synod of bishops, and therefore it is for the bishops …

It seems to me that existing structures, such as CELAM itself; CLAR, the Latin American Confederation of Religious men and women; Caritas Latin America and the Caribbean, and the different episcopal conferences are already making a very deep path of presence, listening, and accompaniment. The REPAM’s job is to articulate them.

What we are asking for is the recapitulation of various voices, including the native peoples, lay people and the Church in the territory. I think they must have a leading role.

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who is the president of the REPAM, says that the Church will not have fulfilled its mission in the Amazon until the peoples, especially indigenous peoples, are subjects of their own history. This does not imply that the synod is anything other than what it is called to be. It is a space with a structure and with a perspective and objectives already given. Hopefully there can be creativity to expand it.

The pope is going to go to Puerto Maldonado, Peru, in January. And the local bishop has already said, with great clarity and generosity, that the pope is not going to the Peruvian Amazon, but to the Pan-Amazon. And that is a very beautiful sign. We have to understand the visit of the pope as a confirmation that the listening is to occur in the territories, with participation in broad forums, with the collaboration of the REPAM, and then the synod, hopefully with creative spaces that may include a multiplicity of voices.

Based on your experience, what are the challenges facing the Pan-Amazon region today?

Let’s divide them according to Evangeli Gaudium, meaning the challenge of pastoral conversion, and Laudato Si,’ meaning the challenge of an ecological conversion.

I believe that at the pastoral level, we would have to see what is the evangelizing model in the territory. This is a great call, opportunity and hope. We are asked to have bold proposals. Some see this with fear, but we interpret this call to creativity with hope.

Without losing the deep and essential roots of our being as Christian Catholic believers, we’re called to exploring new, creative paths, in communion with the proper structure of our Church, in order to generate a proposal that is more fitting for the reality of these territories.

Let me give you an example. At REPAM we like the experience of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, which has taken some 60, 70 years. Here today there are some very hopeful experiences of permanent deacons. We’re not talking about the suppression of celibacy, that it is not for us to discuss or even to comment on. But it sounds negative, “suppress.”

In Chiapas, you have a very constructive experience of permanent deacons, with a man being ordained a deacon, but with the whole support of his family and the community.  He prepares for six years to be ordained, but the whole community accompanies his ecclesial service. No one from outside chooses it: The community estimates the value of a person and his ability to serve.

And it is a service that is associated with pastoral accompaniment. The priest accompanies in what is exclusive to him, the priestly magisterial part, and the liturgical celebrations. But daily life is accompanied by the very well-formed deacons, who have the support and accompaniment of the diocese. And they fit within the cultural identity, capable of speaking the same language and understanding the organizational system of the community.

The pope also calls for a Church with an Amazonian face: One that has these deacons, but also priests who are from the region, who don’t feel like they must be removed from their surroundings to receive a formation that’s not always compatible with their realities, a reason why many never go back. It’s also time for bishops who come from the Amazonian reality.

And on the ecological conversion level?

The challenge is to counter the deep aggression against those who inhabit these territories. The model of the throwaway culture, associated with the desire for endless accumulation, and the model of development that Pope Francis has defined as a system that kills, is literally killing in the Amazon.

It is killing those who defend their original territories. It is killing the peoples who are still in isolation, who we sometimes don’t even know who they are or where they live. The extractive model is putting them in a corner, and in some cases, as was recently the case in Brazil, even if they do not want to officially confirm it, the illegal miners have killed the indigenous people who live in isolation. There are many legal instances that protect the territories in cases of sighting, so they are killed to protect the mining.

The agricultural frontier of monoculture and livestock is being expanded, and not to feed poorest, but to continue this system of consumption and accumulation that serves very few. And then we have the damage being made by the mining and oil companies that leave environmental disasters behind, sometimes in the sacred territory of indigenous peoples. In addition, we see governments that are often shy, sometimes permissive and perhaps even accomplices in this destruction.

And it is a system that cannot hold. Not only must we protect those who live there, which would be reason enough to act, but also because it’s putting the entire planet at risk. At least 20 percent of the world’s non-frozen, drinkable water is in this region. And at least 20 percent, though some say much more, of the planet’s oxygen comes from there.

The Church has the challenge of understanding the signs of death but also of hope, and of continuing its prophetic action. I think the synod can pick up on what’s been done so far, and translate it into a long-term vision.

Anything else you want to share in the face of the 2019 synod?

I would like to highlight this as a period of deep discernment. We need to understand that the synodal call is embedded in a greater Kairos. Therefore, we have to be careful not to put all our expectations, energies and forces in the synod. We must read the historical walk of the past 50 years, the life of the people themselves.

We must understand the synod as a call to conversion, change, which the pope is doing, but also look beyond.

Pope Francis is doing things that require great courage, collecting many of the voices that have been speaking on this issue, but giving them the voice of the pope. But it is not enough to thank the pope: He lays the essential elements, but from that comes a deep commitment of fraternity, discernment and ecclesial articulation, involving also people of good will, so that what gives us so much hope today, is sustainable in time and becomes something that can last for a lifetime. If not, the synod will remain as an opportunity, a place for great ideas that never came to fruition.