1. The title
“Querida Amazonia” is Portuguese / Spanish for “Dear Amazon”–as in somebody’s female beloved, or the salutation of a letter. Oftentimes (not always), a papal document with a title in a vernacular language is meant to speak to an immediate, specific socioeconomic or political problem–see Pius XI’s anti-fascist encyclicals Non abbiamo bisogno (Italian for “we do not need”) and Mit brennender Sorge (German for “with burning concern”), or Francis’s own Laudato Si’ (“Praise to Thee” in the Umbrian dialect of Middle Italian; the first line of Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures). Like Laudato Si’, Querida Amazonia is focused on the problem of environmental degradation and in particular climate change. Unlike Laudato Si’, however, the title is in Francis’s own mother tongue, and the exhortation is the first major document from Francis’s pontificate to focus solely on the gifts and problems of the Pope’s home continent.
2. The rights of indigenous peoples
“I would add that many of these tragic situations were related to a false ‘mystique of the Amazon’. It is well known that, ever since the final decades of the last century, the Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated. None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist, or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them. Even in the education of children and young people, the indigenous were viewed as intruders or usurpers. Their lives, their concerns, their ways of struggling to survive were of no interest. They were considered more an obstacle needing to be eliminated than as human beings with the same dignity as others and possessed of their own acquired rights.” (Paragraph 12)
In many countries around the world, it’s often the case that indigenous people are presented as products of a bygone era or as people of the past with no real present or future. Native Americans are relegated to the “Wild West”; Ainu in Northern Japan are treated as “predecessors” and continuations of Japan’s prehistory; the Pygmy peoples of sub-Saharan Africa have, in the West, been talked about as if they are mythological beings for centuries! Pope Francis calls our attention to the fact that indigenous peoples are real people with real cultures that have, or ought to have, a future as well as a past. (The exhortation has much more to say about the way non-indigenous peoples understand and relate to indigenous peoples. This excerpt barely scratches the surface.)
3. God’s outrage at injustice
We need to feel outrage, as Moses did (cf. Ex 11:8), as Jesus did (cf. Mk 3:5), as God does in the face of injustice (cf. Am 2:4-8; 5:7-12; Ps 106:40). It is not good for us to become inured to evil; it is not good when our social consciousness is dulled before “an exploitation that is leaving destruction and even death throughout our region… jeopardizing the lives of millions of people and especially the habitat of peasants and indigenous peoples”. The incidents of injustice and cruelty that took place in the Amazon region even in the last century ought to provoke profound abhorrence, but they should also make us more sensitive to the need to acknowledge current forms of human exploitation, abuse and killing. (Paragraph 15)
This is the heaviest concentration of Scriptural citations in Querida Amazonia. Pope Francis calls our attention to the spiritual and political virtue of righteous anger. Oftentimes we hear it said that we live in an “outrage culture” that needs to be resisted, and this is true in its way, but actually some amount of outrage is the correct response to injustice. The Anglican writer Dorothy L. Sayers described the vice of wrath as a perversion of one’s attachment to the virtue of justice; this would imply that a proper attachment to the virtue of justice is also inevitably going to involve some anger when that virtue is violated. In an “outrage culture,” the secret, Pope Francis would seem to be saying, is directing our outrage at the right targets and pursuing it in constructive ways.
4. Condemnation of racism
Instrumentum Laboris, 6. Pope Paul III, in his the Brief Veritas Ipsa (2 June 1537), condemned racist theses and recognized that the native peoples, whether Christian or not, possess the dignity of the human person, enjoy the right to their possessions and may not be reduced to slavery. The Pope declared: “as truly men … are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ”. This magisterial teaching was reaffirmed by Popes GREGORY XIV, Bull Cum Sicuti (28 April 1591); URBAN VIII, Bull Commissum Nobis (22 April 1639); BENEDICT XIV, Bull Immensa Pastorum Principis to the Bishops of Brazil (20 December 1741); GREGORY XVI, Brief In Supremo (3 December 1839); LEO XIII, Epistle to the Bishops of Brazil on Slavery (15 May 1888); and SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Message to the Indigenous People of America, Santo Domingo (12 October 1992), 2: Insegnamenti 15/2 (1982), 346. (Footnote 17)
This dense series of citations of previous papal documents, relegated to a footnote, grounds the rejection of racism against indigenous populations firmly in Catholic history. For much of the modern era this tradition within Catholic teaching coexisted uncomfortably with unjust or oppressive political actions taken by Church leadership. (I also invite the reader to turn to paragraph 19 of Querida Amazonia and consider Pope Francis’s apology for the human rights abuses undertaken during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.) The through-line of official magisterial rejection of slavery and racism that Francis follows here was first set out by Leo XIII in the document that Francis cites and then authenticated by both the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II.
5. Cultural roots and dignity
Prior to the colonial period, the population was concentrated on the shores of the rivers and lakes, but the advance of colonization drove the older inhabitants into the interior of the forest. Today, growing desertification once more drives many of them into the outskirts and sidewalks of the cities, at times in dire poverty but also in an inner fragmentation due to the loss of the values that had previously sustained them. There they usually lack the points of reference and the cultural roots that provided them with an identity and a sense of dignity, and they swell the ranks of the outcast. This disrupts the cultural transmission of a wisdom that had been passed down for centuries from generation to generation. Cities, which should be places of encounter, of mutual enrichment and of exchange between different cultures, become a tragic scenario of discarded lives. (Paragraph 30)
This paragraph is a love letter to tradition. It is concerned with generational cultural transmission and the dislocation and atomization of modernity. It articulates a criticism of the modern world and modern ways of life that would do any conservative or traditionalist intellectual proud. It differs from other traditionalist critiques of modern social systems only in terms of what culture it’s discussing. Francis’s discussion of the cultural crisis facing Amazonian peoples is living proof that one can support an authentic, “rooted” traditionalism without subscribing to a totalizing reactionary monoculture.
6. A right to hear the Gospel
An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them. How sad it would be if they were to receive from us a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation, the missionary appeal that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life. Nor can we be content with a social message. If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father who loves them with boundless love. They have a right to hear the Gospel, and above all that first proclamation, the kerygma, which is “the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another”. It proclaims a God who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives. I would ask that you re-read the brief summary of this “great message” found in Chapter Four of the Exhortation Christus Vivit. That message, expressed in a variety of ways, must constantly resound in the Amazon region. Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). (Paragraphs 63 and 64)
Criticisms of Pope Francis often converge on the idea that he is some sort of political pundit, or a leader who is interested solely in political and social theology to the exclusion of other areas in the life of the Church. In these paragraphs, Francis once again expressly rejects that way of looking at the Church and at the world. The work to address the issues in the Amazon is void of religious significance if it does not flow from a true faith in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of God.
7. The Lord who reigns in creation
Similarly, a relationship with Jesus Christ, true God and true man, liberator and redeemer, is not inimical to the markedly cosmic worldview that characterizes the indigenous peoples, since he is also the Risen Lord who permeates all things. In Christian experience, “all the creatures of the material universe find their true meaning in the incarnate Word, for the Son of God has incorporated in his person part of the material world, planting in it a seed of definitive transformation”. He is present in a glorious and mysterious way in the river, the trees, the fish and the wind, as the Lord who reigns in creation without ever losing his transfigured wounds, while in the Eucharist he takes up the elements of this world and confers on all things the meaning of the paschal gift. (Paragraph 74)
In this passage, Pope Francis develops the theology of creation, rooted in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, that has come to characterize his papacy. But not only Franciscan–one of the two authorities cited in the footnotes to this paragraph is Aquinas, who in Ad Colossenses wrote of “The threefold way that God is in things: one is common, by essence, presence and power; another by grace in his saints; a third in Christ, by union.” The medievals understood the cosmos as a unified whole, one that both reflected and was reflected by human societies and even the human body. Many of the specifics of the medieval world-picture are no longer adhered to today even by the Catholic Church, but the Pope’s image of a cosmos that reflects its Creator in more mirrors than man alone is of a very old vintage.
8. An inculturated spirituality
It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error. Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation. A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality. (Paragraph 79)
Francis sets out a teaching on the human and spiritual virtues contained in the world’s various mythologies and semiotic systems, even those that do not possess Catholicism’s fullness of religious truth. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote of the Classical myths paving the way for the “true myth” of Christianity; Shusaku Endo’s novel Deep River presents characters having Marian experiences via Hindu iconography in India. Here, the Pope seems to reference the “Pachamama” controversy of last autumn and reaffirms that there is a place for indigenous iconographic and ritual forms in an inculturated Christianity, just as there was (for example) a place for sacred wells and hero-tales in the Celtic Christianity of old.
9. The viri probati
- Consequently, it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities. We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness through various kinds of lay service that call for a process of education – biblical, doctrinal, spiritual and practical – and a variety of programmes of ongoing formation. (Paragraph 93)
The majority of the Catholic news coverage of the synod and the vast majority of the secular news coverage centered around the possibility of ordaining the so-called “viri probati,” married deacons in long standing, to the priesthood. Evidently, the viri probati were never the point of the synod.
10. The final prayer to Mary
Francis ends Querida Amazonia with a prayer to the Blessed Mother. It takes the form of a long poem, after several short excerpts from poems by other people elsewhere in the exhortation. (The poets of these other poems range from little-known Amazonian local writers to luminaries of Latin American letters such as Pablo Neruda.) The prayer is well worth reading in full. Francis is a man of deep Marian spirituality; the now-common devotion to Mary Undoer of Knots is a personal favorite of his and was much less widespread before he brought it to South America as a middle-aged priest in the 1980s. “Mother of all creatures,” he calls Mary in this prayer, and “Mother of life.” He calls Mary to reign over the Amazon and touch the hearts of the powerful people and organizations that are exploiting it. “Tenderly care for this explosion of beauty,” he says, and, later in the prayer, “Reign so that no one else can claim lordship over the handiwork of God.” In this exhortation, as in salvation history, it stands to reason that Mary and her Son will have the last word.
This article appears in our coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia. Click here to view the full series.
Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and has a classically Millennial patchwork employment history.