ROME – When the bishops from the Amazon region gather in Rome next October, they will discuss the ordination of “elderly people,” preferably indigenous, to guarantee that the remote communities in the region have access to the sacraments.
“Affirming that celibacy is a gift for the Church, it is requested that, for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of priestly ordination for elderly people is studied,” says a document preparing the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.
The document goes on to say that the elderly people ordained in remote areas should “preferably [be] indigenous people, respected and accepted by their community, even if they already have a family that is established and stable, in order to ensure the Sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.”
Though the three language versions of the document speak of “people” and not men, it is referring to the ordination of what are known as the viri probati, married men of proven virtue, many of whom already serve as permanent deacons.
The shortage of priests in the Amazon region has long been at the center of debate, as has been the possibility of ordaining the viri probati. However, whenever he’s been approached about the issue, Pope Francis is clear that priestly celibacy is not up for grabs, despite the fact that it is a discipline and not doctrine.
History’s first Latin American pope has been particularly attentive to the argument in favor of the viri probati in the Amazon or the Pacific Islands, where the mostly indigenous faithful can go months without seeing a priest.
As the debate over the ordination of “proven men” in remote areas reignites, it is worth noting that many eastern rite Catholic Churches allow married men to be ordained. In addition, the Catholic Church allows some married Protestant clergy who convert to remain in priestly ministry.
The document released by the Vatican on Monday, known as the instrumentum laboris, will set the ground work for the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, that will take place in Rome Oct. 6-27.
Also in the same section where the ordination of married men of proven character is mentioned, “New ministries to respond more effectively to the needs of the Amazonian people.” The document also urges the promotion of indigenous vocations for men and women, in response to the pastoral and sacramental needs.
“Their decisive contribution is in the impulse to an authentic evangelization from the indigenous perspective, according to its uses and customs,” the document says, referring to both men and women. “These are indigenous people who preach to indigenous people from a deep knowledge of their culture and language, capable of communicating the message of the Gospel with the strength and effectiveness that their cultural baggage has.”
This, the document says, will allow for a transition from a “Church that visits” to a “Church that remains,” that “accompanies and is present through ministers that arise from their very inhabitants.”
A region at risk
Seeing that Francis, author of the first encyclical dedicated to the environment, Laudato Si’, has referred to the Amazon as one of the “lungs of the world,” it comes as no surprise that in various sections the document refers to the “care of our common home.”
As the instrumentum notes, the Amazon river and the rain forests in the region regulate the humidity, the water cycles and carbon emissions at a global level. However, it says, “according to international experts, the Amazon region is the second most vulnerable area in the planet, after the arctic.”
Life is threatened by “environmental destruction and exploitation” and “the systematic violation of the basic human rights of the Amazonian population.”
The document lists a series of rights of indigenous peoples that are threatened, such as the right to territory, self-determination and the demarcation of territories.
“According to the communities participating in this synodal listening, the threat to life comes from economic and political interests of the dominant sectors of current society, especially extractive companies, often in connivance, or with the permissiveness of local and national governments and traditional authorities (of the indigenous themselves),” the instrumentum says.
Those consulted through the Vatican questionnaire gave many examples of what threatens life in the Amazonian region: The criminalization and murder of leaders and defenders of the territory; appropriation and privatization of natural resources such as water; predatory hunting and fishing; mega-projects such as hydroelectric plants, forest concessions, logging to produce monocultures, roads and railways, mining and oil projects; pollution caused by the extractive industry that produces problems and diseases; drug trafficking; the consequent social problems associated with these threats such as alcoholism, violence against women, sex work and trafficking in persons.
The instrumentum also claims that climate change and the increase of human intervention in the Amazon region are driving it to a “point of no return” with high rates of deforestation, the forced displacement of the population and pollution. If the global warming threat continues, it will lead the “Amazonian biome towards desertification.”
“The Amazon region today is a wounded and deformed beauty, a place of suffering and violence,” the document says. “The multiple destruction of human life and the environment, the illnesses and the contamination of rivers and lands, the deforestation and burning of trees, the massive loss of biodiversity and the extinction of [animal and plant] species questions us all.”
“The shout of pain of the Amazon region is an echo of the scream of the enslaved people in Egypt that God doesn’t abandon,” it says.
A Church with an Amazonian face
“The Amazonian face of the Church finds its expression in the plurality of its peoples, cultures and ecosystems,” the document says at the beginning of the third chapter. “This diversity needs an option for an outgoing and missionary Church, embodied in all its activities, expressions and languages.”
To listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the appeal of the Amazon people and following the magisterium of Francis, calls for a process of pastoral and missionary conversion, the insrumentum says, before listing a series of suggestions.
Among the suggestions, there’s a call to avoid a “cultural homogenization”; the rejection of an “alliance with the dominant culture and the political and economic power” to instead promote the cultures and rights of the indigenous peoples, the poor and the land; to overcome clericalism and instead live “at the service of the Gospel”; and overcome “rigid positions” that don’t take into account the concrete reality of the people.
At the liturgical level, the document also suggests the bishops evaluate the possibility of incorporating elements of the local cultures, including the local music and language, and even dress, into the celebration of the sacraments, particularly baptism and marriage.
“The sacraments must be a source of life and a remedy accessible to all, especially the poor,” the document says. “It’s asked that the rigidity of a discipline that excludes and distances is overcome by a pastoral sensitivity that accompanies and integrates.”
The instrumentum laboris
The document is the result of a previous document, also in preparation of the synod, and of the compilation of the answers to a questionnaire the Vatican sent to the bishops’ conferences in the region.
Even though Brazil is home to the largest section of the Amazon basin, it also touches Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.
The 60-page document is divided into three subsections: “The voice of the Amazonia,” that gives a glimpse on the reality of the territory and its people, “Integral ecology: the clamor of the earth and of the poor,” that describes the environmental and pastoral challenges, and “Prophetic Church in the Amazon: challenges and hopes.”
“The listening of the peoples and of the earth by a Church called to be increasingly synodal, begins by making contact with the contrasting reality of an Amazon full of life and wisdom,” the instrumentum says. “It continues with the clamor caused by deforestation and the extractive destruction that demands an integral ecological conversion. And it concludes with the encounter with the cultures that inspire new paths, challenges and hopes for a Church that wants to be Samaritan and prophetic through pastoral conversion.”
Odds and ends
Many issues are touched upon through the 60 pages of the document, the original language of which is Portuguese, but which was released by the Vatican also in Italian and Spanish. Among them is the call for the creation of an “economic fund” to support evangelization, promote human rights and an integral ecology.
Though acknowledging that it wasn’t without flaws, the document also calls the evangelization of Latin America a “gift of Providence,” that calls everyone to salvation in Christ.
“Despite military, political and cultural colonization, and beyond the greed and the ambition of the colonizers, there were many missionaries who gave their lives to transmit the Gospel,” the document says. “The missionary sense not only inspired the formation of Christian communities, but also legislation such as the Laws of the Indies that protected the dignity of the indigenous people against the abuses of their towns and territories.”
These abuses produced wounds in the community and overshadowed the message the missionaries wanted to give, among other reasons because the announcement of Christ was made “in connivance” with the powers that exploited the resources and oppressed populations.
Referring to the Indigenous Peoples in Voluntary Isolation, the document calls for their protection, noting that they are increasingly at risk due to the increase of mining and deforestation projects. In addition, the instrumentum claims that 90 percent of the indigenous violently killed in the region are women.
Speaking about the “urbanization” of the Amazon region, that has led an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the population to abandon rural areas to live in cities within the region, the Vatican document says that instead of integration, it has led to the “urbanization of poverty” and further exclusion.
According to those who answered the questionnaire, urbanization has introduced many problems to the region, from sexual exploitation and human trafficking, to drug dealing and consumption. In addition, it’s led to the destruction of family life and cultural conflicts that lead to a “lack of sense of life.”
The document also touches on education, the key role families play in the sharing of indigenous traditions, and calls for the reform of Catholic seminaries in the region, so that the candidates to the priesthood can be inserted in the communities they will minister.
It also urges the incorporation of indigenous theology and the region’s “eco-theology” into pastoral plans and calls on the Church to have an active role in guaranteeing access to formal education and healthcare for the local population.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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