Logo for the Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region Logo for the Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region 

Why does the Amazon Merit a Synod?

Why is the Amazon so important that a synod is dedicated to it? What is “integral ecology,” and what might be “new paths” for the Church? Finally, what is a synod really all about?

By Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ and Bishop David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea, OP [1]

The next Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome, October 6-27, 2019, is on the Amazon and has as its theme “New paths for the Church and for integral ecology.” It will examine issues that are important to “every person living on the planet” as Pope Francis wrote in the introduction to his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (3).

The Amazon

A few key facts about the Amazon region:

·         Its size is 7.8 million square kilometers, approximately the same size as Australia.
·         It includes areas of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
·         There are approximately 33 million inhabitants, of whom 3 million are indigenous belonging to 390 diverse groups or peoples.
·         Impact on the planetary ecosystem: the Amazon River basin and the surrounding tropical forests nourish the soil and regulate, through the recycling of moisture, the cycles of water, energy and carbon at the planetary level.

The communities of the Amazon region identified the following problems as critical issues for the Synod through a broad consultation process [2]:

·         criminalization and assassination of leaders and activists who defend the territory
·         appropriation and privatization of natural goods, including water
·         both legal logging concessions and illegal logging
·         predatory hunting and fishing, mainly in rivers
·         infrastructural mega-projects: hydroelectric and forest concessions, logging for monoculture production, construction of roads and railways, or mining and oil projects
·         pollution caused by the entire extractive industry that causes problems and diseases, especially among children and young people
·         drug trafficking
·         the social problems that often accompany such situations, such as alcoholism, violence against women, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, loss of the original culture and identity (language, spiritual practices and customs), and the condition of poverty as a whole to which the peoples of the Amazon are condemned.

Additional critical elements were highlighted by the Instrumentum Laboris (IL) of the Synod:

·         Lack of demarcation of indigenous territory, and lack of recognition of their title to their land. For the Amazon population, “territory” suggests the earth as natural space and place for human reality in all its diversity, relationships and interchanges, whether material, symbolic or spiritual. The people and the ecosystem are dynamically interdependent. For many peoples of the Amazon, the territory is also where their historical roots are, where the spirits of their ancestors dwell, and where they can live all the dimensions of buen vivir or “good living.” These connotations of “territory” are in harmony with Pope Francis’ choice of the term “home” (in “our common home”) to designate the full relationship and responsibility of humans to the planet.
·         The rapid loss of biodiversity (extinction of species of flora and fauna).
·         In some cases, natural assets are abused by the Amazon peoples themselves (IL 31).
·         The consequences for the planet because the Amazon rainforest provides vital “lungs” of the world’s atmosphere.
·         The Amazon cosmovision and the Christian worldview are both in crisis due to the emergence of mercantilism, secularization, the throwaway culture and the idolatry of money (cf. Evangelii Gaudium [EG] 54-55). This crisis especially affects young people and the urban contexts that lose their connection with their traditional roots. Moreover, the migrations of recent years have also increased religious and cultural changes in the region. The new life in the city is not always kind to dreams and aspirations, but often disorients and opens spaces for short-lived, disconnected, alienating and meaningless messianisms (IL 27, 32).

The crisis in the Amazon region is approaching a point of no return, and the Amazon is now a dramatic new subject for attention. The general problematics facing human living and the natural environment of the region are indisputable. Both human and natural life are suffering serious and perhaps irreversible destruction.

In early 2018 the pope addressed the indigenous people of Amazonia in Puerto Maldonado in these terms: “The native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present. Amazonia is being disputed on various fronts. On the one hand, there is neo-extractivism and the pressure being exerted by great business interests that want to lay hands on its petroleum, gas, wood, gold and forms of agro-industrial monocultivation.

On the other hand, its lands are being threatened by the distortion of certain policies aimed at the ‘conservation’ of nature without taking into account the men and women, specifically you, my Amazonian brothers and sisters, who inhabit it. We know of movements that, under the guise of preserving the forest, hoard great expanses of woodland and negotiate with them, leading to situations of oppression for the native peoples; as a result, they lose access to the land and its natural resources. These problems strangle her peoples and provoke the migration of the young due to the lack of local alternatives. We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.” [3]

This is the right moment, therefore, to listen to the voice of the Amazon “in the light of faith” (IL 147) and “to respond as a prophetic and Samaritan Church” (IL 43).

New paths for integral ecology

The concept of “integral ecology” is commensurate with the problems and opportunities of the Amazon. It serves as both guide and goal for the Synod.

In the title of Laudato Si’, the reference to “care for our common home” is meaningful; it is a striking and beautiful expression. By contrast, the encyclical’s key notion of “integral ecology” is not so obvious, and it might not immediately illuminate, let alone stimulate activity.

Everyone now knows more or less what “ecology” means. Adding the adjective “integral” gives it a challenging, even puzzling, twist. “Integral” usually refers to “wholeness” and the unity of that “whole.” It affirms that all the essential elements are included and present, none is missing, and that these essential elements are connected or mixed together. At the same time, “integral” denies exclusion, reduction or isolation. This adjective is usually meant in a positive or valuable sense. It gives the idea of ecology a greater breadth and weight.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis made the case that the world faces a crisis of survival. “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49). The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor is only one cry, and the Church has to hear it and cry with them. [4]

Here are some of the specific attributes of integral ecology:

·         “An integral ecology … clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (LS 137) as well as nature and economic dimensions (cf. LS 138)
·         “An integral ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics” (LS 156); this “broader vision” includes future generations (LS 159)
·         “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence ‘must not be contrived but found, uncovered’” (LS 225 quoting EG 71)
·         and this includes “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” (LS 230 invoking St. Therese of Lisieux).

Integral ecology represents a new synthesis of Catholic social teaching. To appreciate this point, it is useful to think back to Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical regarded as the starting-point of modern Catholic social thought. Given the excesses of the early industrial revolution, the pope worried that workers were being regarded as things, as mere units of production. To combat this distortion, he insisted that workers be treated as persons with rights and essentially connected in their dignity to family, community and spirituality.

We propose this parallel: Pope Francis observes the excesses of industrial exploitation, narrow technocratic thinking, financial and consumerist greed and social indifference; these lead to gross inequality and cruel marginalization, which are happening in parallel with rapid global warming and despoilment of nature. In response he calls for a new attitude toward nature and the social environment. The goal of integral-ecology thinking and action – the new synthesis – would be successful caring for our common home in its necessary social and material (natural) aspects. The Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod characterizes integral ecology as a “relational paradigm” that provides “the fundamental articulation of the bonds that make true human development possible” (IL 48).

This new synthesis is a wake-up call to the entire world, to all of humanity. But it also suggests a new socio-pastoral orientation and dynamic for the Church, which must understand the challenges faced by individuals and families and groups within these various dimensions. We cannot give spiritual guidance and pastoral care if people are understood in isolation from (i.e. not integrated with) how they live and function within the actual natural, economic and social conditions that they face.

Let us now apply these ideas to the Amazon.

Laudato Si’ came out in June 2015. Over the years, numerous initiatives contributing to integral ecology have begun, many of them Church-based. Meanwhile, according to all indicators, the crisis has worsened significantly. The Amazon Synod is a conscious ecclesial effort to implement Laudato Si’ in this fundamental human and natural environment.

The specific circumstances of the Amazon require “a sincere option for the defense of life, the defense of the land and the defense of cultures”; [5] so integral ecology encompasses integration of life, territory and culture (IL 49). “The Church cannot abandon its concern for the integral salvation of the human person, which entails favoring the culture of indigenous peoples, talking about their vital needs, accompanying their movements and joining forces to struggle for their rights” (IL 143).

It behoves all parties involved to pay attention to the Synod: those in the Amazon now, those close by, those intending to come in, and the rest of the world. And within that worldwide perspective, the Church is attempting to provide a leadership that listens, respects and wants to learn: “The culture of the Amazon, which integrates human beings with nature, constitutes a benchmark for building a new paradigm of integral ecology” (IL 56).

New paths for the Church

Since Vatican II, the Church’s mission in the contemporary world has flourished greatly, but in some circumstances it has failed. It has also been the subject of constant debate, a debate that is constantly evolving. In reaction, as Pope Francis acknowledges, “The Church can be tempted to remain closed in on herself, renouncing her mission of proclaiming the Gospel and of making the Kingdom of God present.” Instead, he urges, “an outgoing Church is a Church that confronts the [not only personal but also social and structural] sins of this world from which it is not alien (cf. EG 20-24)” (IL 100).

This outgoing Church must offer appropriate and meaningful responses to concrete situations. In 2013 Francis challenged the Bishops of Brazil to recognize the Amazon as a real “litmus test” for the Church and society; the Church, he said, is “critical to the area’s future.” [6]

What are “the new paths whereby the Church in the Amazon will announce the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the coming years”? (IL 5).

New paths guide the Church to be for the people, not for itself, and to engage with them fully as active People of God. The decreasing numbers of religious men and women missionaries in recent years is endangering the presence of the Catholic Church among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The Aparecida Conference was courageous in admitting, “on the one hand, many people are losing the transcendent sense of their lives and are giving up religious practices, and on the other hand, significant numbers of Catholics are abandoning the Church and going over to other religious groups.” [7]

Pope Francis’ pontificate has highlighted the challenge of the Amazon for the Church, and this is provoking a rapid response in several religious congregations that are returning, reorganizing and reorienting their mission in the territory. The Synod wants to respond to the Aparecida challenge of relaunching the mission of the Church in the Amazon “with fidelity and boldness.” [8] We must embrace the importance of our presence in this very special territory, and at the same time understand the particular way that this territory needs to be evangelized.

The Church gains an Amazonian face through the participation of the great diversity of peoples that inhabit the territory. Not only those who originally have been living there and caring for it for thousands of years, but also all the other faces who have arrived from elsewhere and stayed. The latter, many of them faithful Catholics, are especially called to feel part of the Amazon, to respect it and to identify with it.

As Pope Francis told us in Puerto Maldonado, “Love this land, realize that it belongs to you. Breathe it in, listen to it, marvel at it. Fall in love with it…, commit yourself to it and care for it and defend it. Do not use this land as a mere disposable object.” [9] The Synod will help everyone – indigenous peoples, river dwellers, Afro-descendants, mestizos, Andean migrants and city dwellers – to make our Amazonian identity our own, and to find an ecclesial structure and statutes appropriate to its specific pastoral requirements.

“New paths for the Church” also means deepening the “process of inculturation” (EG 126) and interculturality (cf. LS 63, 143, 146). And for this it is important that the original peoples make the Church “their own.” They should be active subjects of evangelization (not only its object), thus the process of inculturation is up to them. Being temporary, missionaries must accept a secondary role and give priority to the protagonism proper to the evangelized indigenous community.

It is a great and continuing challenge for the Catholic Church to make the original Amazonian peoples feel part of it and contribute to it with the light of Christ and the spiritual richness that shines in their cultures. This straightforward attitude of the Church does not prevent interreligious dialogue with those who do not accept Jesus Christ.

The Instrumentum Laboris articulates the complexity of the Church’s work in the Amazon. The great distances, cultural diversity and the shortage of priests oblige the Church to give audacious and effective pastoral responses. The Synod Fathers and other participants will have to respond to the challenge of moving from a “ministry of visits” to the “ministry of presence” (IL 128).

To take this important step requires a focus on ministries and services in the communities. On the one hand, it will be an opportunity to continue implementing Vatican II and exploiting the possibilities it opens for pastors to respond effectively to the needs of their local Churches. On the other hand, it remains to be seen what pastoral innovations will arise in order to ensure the presence of the sacraments in each community. In this sense, the ministry of the Eucharist acquires a special relevance in as much as “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist and the Eucharist builds up the Church.” [10]

All this demands “brave” proposals of the Church in the Amazon, which in turn presupposes courage and passion, as Pope Francis asks of us (cf. IL 106). He has given a variety of suggestions for bold engagement with contemporary conditions – very specifically in Laudato Si’, more broadly in Evangelii Gaudium and Gaudete et Exsultate, and with particular sensitivity to human yearnings in Amoris Laetitia. These documents help to clarify what is pastoral for Church leaders, the faithful and others in the Amazon.

The grandeur and reassuring stability of the magisterium must not distract the Church from addressing unique needs in an appropriate manner. One size does not fit all and, in this region at this time, the challenge is to be a Church with an Amazonian and indigenous face (cf IL 107-111, 115-116).

This then is the purpose of the upcoming synod, to “seek out new, prophetic pathways in the Amazon” (IL 147) for the Church and for integral ecology.

A Synod of new paths

Catholics and others may be surprised by the Church’s current use of the term “synod.” Until recently the notion of a synod has been more familiar in eastern Christianity; and it is the name of a structure in some non-Catholic Christian churches.

The Greek roots of the term mean journeying together. From the beginning, the disciples of Jesus have been making their way through history, guided by the Holy Spirit and led by their pastors with the primacy of Peter. Then in 1965, appreciating the benefits of close collaboration between the Holy Father and the bishops during Vatican II, St Pope Paul VI decided to “permanently establish a special Council of bishops” in order to increase this “great abundance of benefits.” [11]

Successive popes have made frequent use of synods, which fall into three types: the “ordinary general assembly” for matters pertaining to the universal Church, the “extraordinary general assembly” for particularly urgent matters pertaining to the universal Church, and the “special assembly” for matters pertaining to a particular continent or region. The upcoming Amazon Synod is the 11th synod in the “special” category.

This is an evolving practice. The most recent instruction is the Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio that Pope Francis issued on September 15, 2018. Without changing their formal status as a representative group of bishops providing consultative or deliberative assistance to the supreme pontiff, Pope Francis has guided synods to become something richer than simply bishops journeying together. More and more, they are becoming gatherings of the entire People of God in the Church.

One way for encouraging synods to be more inclusive has been surveys in the preparatory stage that gather questions, information and concerns from the lay faithful and from religious, not just from bishops. Such surveys were conducted before the Family, Youth and Amazon synods.

Another way has been to increase the range and number of participants representing aspects of the topic. This was a notable feature of the Youth Synod, where sharing daily life with the young auditors enlightened and influenced the voting delegates.

Its final document recognized in the synod experience

a fruit of the Spirit which continually renews the Church and calls her to practice synodality as a way of being and acting, promoting the participation of all the baptized and of people of good will, each according to his or her age, state of life and vocation. In this Synod, we have experienced how the collegiality that unites the bishops cum Petro et sub Petro in care for the people of God is called to express itself and enrich itself through the practice of synodality at all levels. [12]

Everyone became aware of the importance of a synodal form of the Church for the proclamation and transmission of the faith. The participation of the young helped to “reawaken” synodality, which is a “constitutive element of the Church… as Saint John Chrysostom says, ‘Church and Synod are synonymous’ – inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the ‘journeying together’ of God’s flock along the paths of history toward the encounter with Christ the Lord.” Synodality characterizes both the life and the mission of the Church, which is the People of God formed of young and old, men and women of every culture and horizon, and the Body of Christ, in which we are members one of another, beginning with those who are pushed to the margins and trampled upon. [13]

For the sake of mission, too, the Church is called to adopt a relational manner that places emphasis on listening, welcoming, dialogue and communal discernment in a process that transforms the lives of those taking part. “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing.’ It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).” [14]

Indeed, mutual listening, welcoming, dialogue, communal discernment and consensus to identify the ways that God traces for us as the Church, the people of God: these are fundamental to “a Church called to be ever more synodal” (IL 5). They are fundamental as well to the difficult path away from clericalism, away from an excessive stress on centralization in the Church, and toward real subsidiarity. A Church that is ever more synodal will walk diverse paths in different regions and situations, and will be more comfortable with variety – it will manifest different characteristics among different peoples, not a one-size-fits-all prescription.

The IL concludes with the hope “that this Synod will be a concrete expression of the synodality of the Church reaching outward, so that the full life that Jesus came to bring to the world (John 10:10) may reach everyone, especially the poor” (IL 147).

This Synod, this “walking together,” does not end with the concluding Mass, nor with the presentation of its Final Document to the pope, nor with his subsequent apostolic exhortation probably in the first half of 2020. It will point to an eventual implementation, by the People of God and others, of actions to safeguard a specific part of the great common home that we all live in as well as new pastoral paths for the Church.

The Synod will be the Amazon bishops walking together with each other, with the inhabitants of those lands, with the youth and with the Holy Spirit.


This is why, during the October Synod, the entire world should walk with the people of the Amazon – not to expand or divert the agenda, but to help the Synod to make a difference.

The Amazon region is huge and its challenges are immense. If destroyed, the impacts will be felt worldwide.

For the people of that territory, the Amazon is their home in the fullest sense of the term; so “it is necessary to work to make the Amazon a home for all and deserving the care of all” (IL 129).

For Earth and humanity as a whole, the Amazon is a vital part of our common home. If the Amazon is further despoiled, the air may become too foul and hot to sustain life.

The young and the not-yet-born have the greatest stake in this crisis. How will the youth of the Amazon join with youth all over the world in ensuring that, as they mature, everyone will be able to breathe, to live fully and to pass life-supporting conditions to their children?

And how can the Church help to find the necessary new paths? “The Amazon world asks the Church to be its ally” (IL 144).

About the authors: Cardinal-designate Michael Czerny, SJ and Dominican Msgr David Martínez de Aguirre provides an introduction to the next Synod for the Amazon to be held in Rome in October. Martínez de Aguirre was a missionary in Peru for 18 years and, since 2015, has been Apostolic Vicar of Puerto Maldonado. Fr Michael Czerny – who has already written 4 articles for La Civiltà Cattolica – coordinated the social apostolate of the Society of Jesus and worked for seven years at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Since December 2016 he has been undersecretary of the section of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development that deals specifically with refugees and migrants. On 1 September Pope Francis appointed him cardinal.             Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Director, La Civiltà Cattolica


[1] With gratitude to Hernán Quezada, SJ (Mexico) and Robert Czerny (Canada) for assistance in drafting and editing this article.
[2] About 87,000 people participated in the consultation process. Roughly 22,000 took part in Assemblies, Forums and Discussion Groups, and at least another 65,000 in the preparatory processes in the nine countries of the Amazon region. Ninety percent of the Amazonian Bishops or their Vicars were involved. Besides, some Episcopal Conferences carried out their own consultations.
[3] Pope Francis, Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018.
[4]  David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea, “Hoy la Amazonía se puede sentar en la mesa del Planeta Tierra y alzar su voz” in Religion Digital,
[5] Pope Francis, Meeting with Indigenous People of Amazonia, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018.
[6]  Address of Pope Francis, Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, July 27, 2013).
[7] Document of the V General Conference of CELAM, Aparecida, Brazil, 2007.
[8]  Ibid.
[9]  Pope Francis, Meeting with the Population in the Instituto “Jorge Basadre”, Puerto Maldonado, January 19, 2018.
[10]  John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), n. 1 and Ch. II.
[11] Paul VI, Apostolica Sollicitudo: Establishing the Synod of Bishops for the Universal Church, September 15, 1965.
[12]  Synod for Young People, Final Document, October 27, 2018, 119.
[13]  Ibid.,121, quoting Pope Francis, Address for the Commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, October 17, 2015.
[14]  Ibid., 122.

04 October 2019, 19:25