By Alessandro De Carolis & Francesco Valiante
"The destiny of the Amazon affects us all, because everything is connected and the salvation of this region and its original peoples is fundamental for the whole world.”
Cardinal Michael Czerny, special secretary of the Synod for the Amazon, in this interview with Vatican Media, presents the main content of Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation:
Q: First of all Your Eminence, a word on the timing of the publication of this text by the Pope, who had said it would be ready by the end of the year. Were there any delays regarding the date he mentioned?
In his speech at the conclusion of the Synod, the Holy Father said: "A word from the Pope on what he experienced during the Synod can do some good. I would like to say it before the end of the year, so that not too much time goes by". In fact, that’s what happened. As promised, Pope Francis delivered the final text of his Post-Synodal Exhortation on 27 December, so before the end of 2019. After that there were the usual essential steps that take time: the document was reviewed, formatted and translated into different languages, and now it is finally published.
Q: What is the heart of the message of the exhortation, in your opinion?
The title of the Exhortation is Querida Amazonia, “Beloved Amazonia”, and its heart is the Pope's love for the Amazon and the consequences of that love: a reversal of the common way of thinking about the relationship between wealth and poverty, between development and custody, between defending cultural roots and openness to the other. The Pope describes for us the "resonances" that the synodal process provoked in him. He does so in the form of four "great dreams". Pope Francis dreams that in the Amazon region there might be a commitment on the part of everyone to defend the rights of the poorest, of the original peoples, of the least. He dreams of an Amazon that preserves its cultural wealth. His ecological dream is of an Amazon that takes care of its abundance of life. Finally, he dreams of Christian communities capable of incarnating themselves in the Amazon and of building a Church with an Amazonian face. Personally, I was struck by the abundance of poetic quotations and of references to previous papal texts.
Q: Isn't there a risk that the "dream" might appear to be an unrealistic perspective projected onto an indefinite future?
Not for Pope Francis. I would like to recall the words he spoke in dialogue with young people at the Circus Maximus on August 11, 2018: "Dreams are important. They keep our view broad; they help us to embrace the horizon, to cultivate hope in every daily action. ... Dreams awaken you; they sweep you away; they are the most luminous stars, those that indicate a different path for humanity.... The Bible tells us that great dreams are those capable of being fruitful". So, to answer your question, I think that this way of looking at it and this perspective are completely unlike an unrealistic or utopian perspective. The dream here is the indication of a path that eventually the whole Church has to take. Its beauty lies precisely in seeing a horizon, not in dictating a series of precepts. No declaration of love takes the form of a contract or a cookbook.
In the first chapter, the one dedicated to the social dream, considering the environmental devastation of the Amazon and the threats to the human dignity of its peoples, which Pope Benedict XVI had already denounced, Pope Francis invites us to be indignant. He says, "We need to feel outrage", because "it is not good for us to become inured to evil". He invites us to build networks of solidarity and development that surpass the various colonial mentalities. He invites us to seek alternatives in several areas such as sustainable breeding and agriculture, forms of energy that do not pollute, and entrepreneurial initiatives that do not involve the destruction of the environment and cultures. In short, these "great dreams" are not meant to anesthetize us but are rather to be nourished by concrete and daily action.
Q: Concretely speaking, what does "promoting" the Amazon mean, as we read in the text of the Exhortation?
As the Pope explains, promoting the Amazon means making sure that from it flows the very best. It means not to colonize it, not to plunder it with massive mining projects that destroy the environment and threaten the indigenous peoples. At the same time, however, it also means to avoid mythologizing the native cultures, excluding any intermingling, or falling into an environmentalism "that is concerned for the biome but ignores the Amazonian peoples". Identity and dialogue are two key words, and Pope Francis explains that they are not at all opposed. Caring about the cultural values of the indigenous peoples concerns us all: we must feel co-responsible for the diversity of their cultures.
From the pages of the Exhortation, the Christian commitment also clearly emerges, which is far from either a closed nativism or an environmentalism that despises human beings as the ruin of the planet. In addition, it proposes a bold missionary spirit – to speak of Jesus and to bring his offer of new life to others – life to the full each one and for everyone, taking care of creation, in relationship with God the Creator and with all our brothers and sisters.
Q: Why should the destiny of a particular region on earth touch us so deeply?
The fate of the Amazon affects us all, because everything is interconnected and the care of this precious "biome", which acts as a filter and helps us to avoid raising the earth’s temperature, is fundamental to the health of the global climate. The Amazon, therefore, concerns us all directly. In that region of the world, we see the importance of an integral ecology which combines respect for nature with care for human dignity. The Amazon’s future and the future of its peoples are decisive for maintaining the balance of our planet. In this perspective, it is important to allow indigenous peoples to remain on their territories and to take care of their lands. The educational aspect is also of primary importance: to promote new behaviours and new attitudes in people. Many people living in that area have assumed the typical customs of the big cities where consumerism and a throw-away culture reign.
Q: Regarding the fourth chapter and the "ecclesial" dream: What struck you about this final part of the Exhortation?
It is half the Exhortation, so when Pope Francis says that the pastoral dimension is the essential, that it includes everything, he clearly means it. I was struck above all by the missionary perspective: without the "impassioned proclamation" of the Gospel, ecclesial projects risk becoming indistinguishable from secular NGOs. The Pope explains that commitment in defence of the poor, the least and the indigenous peoples implies witnessing to Jesus and proposing friendship with Him. The social message includes the proclamation of the Gospel, and its nucleus, the kerygma, includes human life, human dignity, justice, and care of the common home. It proclaims a God who infinitely loves every human being and who sacrificed His Son, Christ crucified, for our salvation.
Q: A recurring word in the chapter is "inculturation"...
By proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel, everything that is good and beautiful produced by every culture is valued, bringing it to fullness in the light of the Christian faith. The Gospel is always proclaimed in a particular place, and thus the seed is sown. At the same time, the Church learns and enriches itself by coming into contact with what the Spirit has already sown in that particular culture. The Pope asks that the voice of the elderly be heard and that the values present in the original communities be recognized. Indeed, indigenous peoples teach us to be sober, content with little, and to sense the need to be immersed in a communal way of living our lives. Inculturation also means knowing how to accept some pre-existing aboriginal symbol without immediately branding it as a pagan error. Symbols, customs and cultures continuously need purification and maturation. But those who truly have the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at heart seek to respond to the aspirations of peoples through an inculturated spirituality.
Q: A topic debated at the Synod concerned the scarcity of priests for such a vast territory as that of the Amazonia and the difficulty for many communities to have Eucharistic celebrations. What directions does the Exhortation suggest in this regard?
The Pope expresses the need for people to make themselves available to serve in order to increase the frequency of Eucharistic celebrations, especially in the remotest areas. The Pope reminds us not to configure the exercise of the priestly ministry in a monolithic manner. However, only the priest can consecrate the Eucharist and can administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This urgent need is at the origin of Pope Francis's appeal to all bishops that, in addition to praying for vocations, they might be more generous in choosing to send to the Amazon those who demonstrate a missionary vocation. It is also necessary to design formation that enables dialogue with native cultures. There should be many more permanent deacons, and the role of women religious and laity needs to be further developed.
Q: The Exhortation, however, contains no openness to the possibility of ordaining married men...
Pope Francis has remained faithful to what he said prior the Synod. The possibility of ordaining married men can be discussed by the Church. It already exists, for example, in the Eastern Churches. This discussion has been going on for many centuries, and the Synod freely addressed it, not in isolation, but in the full context of the Church’s Eucharistic and ministerial life. The Pope states in the Exhortation that the question is not that of numbers, and that a greater presence of priests is not the only requirement. What is needed is new life in the communities, a new missionary impetus, new lay services, ongoing formation, boldness and creativity. What is needed is a presence at the local level of lay people who are animated by a missionary spirit and capable of representing the authentic face of the Amazonian Church. This, he seems to indicate, is the only way that vocations will return. The Amazon challenges us, the Pope writes, to overcome limited perspectives and not to content ourselves with solutions that address only part of the situation. In other words, the great question is a renewed experience of faith and evangelization.
Q: What about the role of women?
The Pope recalls in the text that there are communities in the Amazon that for decades have transmitted the faith without priests, thanks to strong and generous women who, driven by the Holy Spirit, have baptized, taught the catechism and taught people how to pray. We need to broaden our perspective and not think just “functionally” of a more significant role for women only if linked to access to the Holy Orders. It is a perspective that would lead us to clericalize women, ending up impoverishing their fundamental contribution. We must read this within the extensive magisterium of Pope Francis, who stresses the need to separate power from the priestly ministry, since this combination is at the origin of clericalism.
This relationship between ministry and power is what leaves women without a voice, without rights and often without the possibility to decide. So it is not a question of giving them access to an ordained ministry in order to have them gain a voice and a vote, but of separating power from ministry. On the other hand, we must be inspired by their example, which reminds us that power in the Church is that of service, generosity and freedom. The emergence of other services and charisms of women must be stimulated. The Pope says that women should have access to ecclesial functions and services that do not require Holy Orders; and that such functions and services should be stable and publicly recognized with a mandate from the bishop. Perhaps it is time to review the lay ministries already existing in the Church, return to their foundations and update them by reading them in the light of current reality and the inspiration of the Spirit, and at the same time to create other new stable ministries with "public recognition and a commission from the bishop".
Q: One last question: what is the relationship between the Exhortation and the Synod’s Final Document?
In the introduction to the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope explains that he does not want to replace or repeat that document. He presents it officially. He invites us to read it in its entirety. He prays that the whole Church will allow itself to be enriched and challenged by this work. He asks that all pastors, consecrated persons and lay faithful in the Amazon commit themselves to its application, and lastly, that all people of good will be inspired by the Final Document and, certainly, by the beautiful Querida Amazonia.