ROME – In the run-up to an Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon that opened today in the Vatican, the world watched with horror as almost 80,000 wildcat fires consumed 3,500 square miles of a rainforest that’s home to at least 10 percent of the world’s known biodiversity and put the lives and livelihoods of millions of indigenous inhabitants at risk.

In response to such fires that destroy, Francis on Sunday called the roughly 300 bishops and other participants in the synod to kindle a different kind of fire, one that saves – a fire of “daring prudence,” the pope called it, fed by the Holy Spirit.

“Jesus did not come to bring a gentle evening breeze, but to light a fire on the earth,” he reminded synod participants Sunday during a Mass to open the month-long event.

Literally, the pope’s synod plan appears to be fighting fire with fire.

“The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel,” he said.

“The fire of God is warmth that attracts and gathers into unity,” Francis said. “It is fed by sharing, not by profits. The fire that destroys, on the other hand, blazes up when people want to promote only their own ideas, form their own group, wipe out differences in the attempt to make everyone and everything uniform.”

Raising the curtain on a synod in which the rights and dignity of the roughly 400 indigenous communities in the Amazon are expected to loom large, Francis issued a clear denunciation of “the greed of new forms of colonialism.”

“How many times has God’s gift been imposed, not offered,” the pope said. “How many times has there been colonization rather than evangelization!”

Indigenous persons from the Amazon were in evidence in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, including several wearing colorful feathered native headdresses.

Calling the bishops gathered this month in Rome to be “shepherds, not bureaucrats,” Francis urged not allowing the fire of the Spirit to be “smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo.”

“If everything stays the same, if the key to reading our days is ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes,” Francis said.

In that key, Francis called the bishops to “fidelity to the newness of the Spirit,” which he defined as “the opposite of letting things take their course without doing anything.”

Going briefly off-script, Francis added that “someone might think that prudence is a virtue … that stops everything in order to avoid making a mistake. No, it’s the virtue of governance,” he said. Francis quoted Benedict XVI to the effect that the Church is essentially missionary, saying “the Church is always to be in movement, reaching out, not closed in on itself.”

Francis also added a reference to martyrs of the Amazon region, quoting a remark of Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, one of the three co-presidents of the synod, to the effect that “they deserve to be canonized.”

Ironically enough, Francis’s fire metaphor could probably be extended in another direction, as a reference to the ecclesiastical and political brushfires this synod has generated since the pontiff announced it two years ago in October 2017.

How much ferment has the gathering set off?

Well, consider that two days ago, Francis presided over a prayer for creation in the Vatican gardens, including an indigenous ceremony performed by natives who’ve come for the synod. Reports of the event stirred anger in some conservative quarters on the grounds that it was tantamount to the pope defiling the Vatican by staging a pagan rite.

Naturally, this being the 21st century, both those outraged, and those outraged by the outrage, swiftly took to social media for a typically pointless-but-entertaining contest of snark.

For another measure, consider that virtually every major news outlet in the world has run curtain-raising features on the synod, including a piece in the venerable Economist with the headline, “A high-noon moment for Pope Francis over the Amazon.”

The Synod of Bishops for the Amazon has become the focus par excellence for broader reactions both to this pope and to his papacy.

Traditionalist critics charge that the Instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the synod flirts with heresy at various points, courting a pagan idolatry of nature and diminishing the uniqueness of the salvation won by Christ through an uncritical celebration of indigenous religiosity.

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, now 90, has been among the most acerbic exponents of this view, comparing the Instrumentum laboris to a German Socialist hymn from the 1910s that was later adopted by the Hitler Youth.

(As it happens, Brandmüller and I typically dine at the same Roman restaurant for lunch on Sundays, so perhaps I’ll have a chance to go over the online rule stating that the first one to make a comparison to Hitler in an Internet discussion loses the argument.)

The fact that the synod is also likely to take up the question of the viri probati, meaning tested married men who could be ordained priests to serve isolated communities, is also driving a truckload of debate.

Knowing the waters are dangerous, some agile prelates are already honing their side-stepping skills. On Friday, I watched freshly-minted Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of the Democratic Republic of Congo field a question from a French reporter on the viri probati, whereupon he launched into a rousing fervorino on the Amazon as a lung of the world facing many of the same challenges as the Congo Basin.

It was articulate, insightful, quotable – and, of course, completely detached from the actual question at hand.

The very last thing one could say about Francis is that he’s out of touch, so he certainly knows the reactions his synod is generating – and equally certainly, that isn’t stopping him.

“So many of our brothers and sisters in Amazonia are bearing heavy crosses and awaiting the liberating consolation of the Gospel, the Church’s caress of love,” Francis said Sunday. “For them, and with them, let us journey together.”

The stage thus appears to be set for compelling drama, composed of both heat and light, over the next three weeks. We’ll have full, real-time coverage on Crux, so stay tuned!

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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