ROME – Though it is only day two of this month’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, participants have nearly unanimously flagged a regional priest shortage and the need for a clear ministerial role for women as key issues up for discussion, yet while the questions seem to be clear, the answers are far from it.
Speaking to journalists during an Oct. 8 press briefing at the close of Tuesday’s morning session, Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s communications department, said both ordained ministry and the need to find “new paths” for women’s ministry in regional communities has been “underlined a lot” in the speeches thus far.
On these two issues, he said, “everyone says there is a question and a need to find an answer, but the answers aren’t the same.”
Ruffini explained that these topics primarily came up under the heading for the need of greater formation on the part of laypeople, since priests are few and cannot provide answers or help to everyone.
Running Oct. 6-27, the synod is titled “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” and is divided into morning and afternoon sessions. For the first two days, participants are giving 4-minute speeches. Later in the week they will divide into small groups for actual discussion of key topics in the gathering’s working text.
According to Ruffini, the roughly 40 prelates have focused on a few core issues, including environmental degradation due to predatory mining practices and a chronic priest shortage in a region in which some rural indigenous communities see a priest once a year or less.
Many synod participants stressed the need to move from a “pastoral visit” to a “pastoral presence,” Ruffini said.
Agreeing that priestly celibacy, which has been mandatory for the Roman Catholic Church since the 11th century, is a “great gift of the Holy Spirit,” some synod participants still suggested the long-debated possibility of ordaining viri probati, or mature married men, to help curb the regional shortage, evaluating the outcome over time to gauge its effectiveness.
However, others, Ruffini said, argued against the proposal, saying it would turn priests into “a simple functionary” for Masses, “and not a pastor of the community.”
Also brought up as a key question was the need to establish a formal ministry for women in the Amazon, since it is women who often play a leading role not only in their indigenous communities, but also the liturgy.
When it came to this issue, participants were also in agreement on the need, but not on how to solve it, Ruffini said, explaining that the women’s diaconate was suggested as a solution, while others resisted the idea.
In 2016 Pope Francis established a commission to study the women’s diaconate. That commission later produced a report but without reaching consensus. In May, Francis said the commission would continue to study the topic since members had such drastically diverging opinions.
During Monday’s opening session, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, appointed by Francis to serve as the relator, or chair, of the synod, drew thunderous applause from participants when he brought up the need to find a “suitable ministry” for the women who lead these communities.
Lacking a clear solution in the speeches given thus far, Ruffini stressed that “It’s a developing process,” and voiced his belief that clearer solutions will begin to take shape when small group deliberations begin Oct. 9.
Both a ministerial role for women and ordination of the viri probati are among the most contentious issues in the lead-up to the synod, with critics charging that it would open the door to eliminating priestly celibacy altogether.
Cardinal Pedro Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru, one of three president-delegates to the synod and the vice-president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), which is playing a leading role in organizing the synod, insisted that they are just making suggestions, and the discussion is nothing to fear.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of different opinions, this has always happened,” he said, noting that in the early Christian community “Saints Peter and Paul had different opinions about circumcision, which often led to lively debates between the two.”
“What is important is spirituality,” Barreto said, stressing that “the synod is not a parliament” where definitive decisions are made, but “we will make proposals” at the invitation of the pope, who will make the ultimate decision.
Other topics raised were the presence of young people in the Amazon; destructive forms of mining; migration out of the Amazon due to hazardous environmental projects; the “martyrs” who have given their lives serving and defending the Amazon territory; and the need for the Church to carve out new paths of evangelization that are both respectful of the indigenous culture and healing of past grievances.
Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and an observer at the synod, spoke to journalists about the need to protect indigenous rights.
Having visited various countries that form part of the Pan-Amazonian region, Tauli-Corpuz said “the picture that I’ve seen is also what is reflected in the (synod’s) instrumentum laboris,” referring to the synod’s formal working document.
Indigenous communities, she said, are often “criminalized” and subjects of both “violence and impunity,” suffering from intrusive mining projects that infringe on their land with no prior consultation.
Recalling stories of children with high levels of mercury in their blood, toxic oil extraction projects and rivers that have dried up due to hyper-electric dams, Tauli-Corpuz called the Amazon synod “very timely,” saying she respects the Catholic Church for convening the discussion.
“The Church has a very large moral and spiritual authority to speak out when such violations are taking place,” she said.
It is important that an “intercultural dialogue take place” she said, voicing her belief that the synod “will have a very long-lasting effect in protecting indigenous peoples and in stopping the destruction of the Amazon.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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