Vatican City — In his latest apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis calls for “authentic” inculturation in the Amazon, so as to allow for the creation of a Church which truly bears the features of the region and the culture of its people.
In the Pope’s latest document, published 12 February, Francis sets out a “brief framework” for the Church’s presence in the region. In reflecting on the synod that took place in October 2019, the Latin American pontiff urges the Church to take seriously the reality and “call” of the Amazon region, and not resort to a “new version of colonialism.”
“We believers encounter in the Amazon region a theological locus,” writes Pope Francis, “a space where God himself reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters.”
At the beginning of the letter, Francis stresses that he will not “replace” or “duplicate” the final document of the synod of October 2019, but instead “would like to officially present it.” This makes Querida Amazonia the first ever papal document to recognize the inherent authoritative teaching—that is, magisterial nature—of the synodal process.
The final document of the Synod on the Amazon called for the Church in the region to bear an “Amazonian face” and sought to reinvigorate its “preferential option for the poor.”
The document also proposed to allow married deacons to be ordained—the so-called viri probati—a point which was passed by a two-thirds majority of the synod fathers.
Despite the expectations of many, Querida Amazonia does not deal with the question of celibacy, even though Francis’ silence on the issue should not be seen as providing a definitive answer — or, for that matter, an answer at all.
However, the document does make steps towards widening the purview of lay ministries in the region. “A Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders,” Francis writes, “endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places.”
In language reminiscent of the Pope’s criticisms of clericalism, he calls “to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.”
The increased presence and deepened role of the laity within the Church’s Amazonian mission is also to be extended to women. Francis acknowledges the participation of women within the region, one of the key themes of the Synod on the Amazon: “We must keep encouraging those simple and straightforward gifts that enabled women in the Amazon region to play so active a role in society.”
Francis adds that this presence of women requires “the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women,” and writes that “it should be noted that these services entail stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”
This implies a laying on of hands on behalf of the region’s bishops, sending lay women to further serve the region and the Amazonian church in an institutionally-recognized manner.
However, the heart of the Pope’s letter is its call for greater inculturation, which was extensively discussed by the synod fathers in October 2019.
The message of the Church “must constantly resound in the Amazon,” Francis writes, “through listening and dialogue with the people, the realities and the history of the lands in which she finds herself.”
“For the Church to achieve a renewed inculturation of the Gospel in the Amazon region,” the Pope further stresses, “she needs to listen to its ancestral wisdom, listen once more to the voice of its elders, recognise the values present in the way of life of the original communities, and recover the rich stories of its people.”
Querida Amazonia places inculturation, and the desire of the Church, at the core of its missionary role in the region. “Inculturation elevates and fulfils,” the letter reads, “we should esteem the indigenous mysticism that sees the interconnection and interdependence of the whole of creation, the mysticism of gratuitousness that loves life as a gift, the mysticism of a sacred wonder before nature and all its forms of life.”
During the Synod on the Amazon, many who took part—and the final document itself—mentioned the importance of tapping into the sensus fidei, the instinct of faith, already present within the region’s traditions. In the synod’s final document, it was written that “we must give an authentically Catholic response to the request of the Amazonian communities to adapt the liturgy by valuing its worldview, traditions, symbols and original rites that include transcendent, community and ecological dimensions.”
The understanding of sensus fidei the synod fathers were working with is based on the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium, which defines it as a “supernatural sense of faith,” one that is to be then guided by the Church and its ministers.
The call, borne by the Second Vatican Council, is picked up by Francis in Querida Amazonia when he writes: “The Second Vatican Council called for this effort to inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples; over fifty years have passed and we still have far to go along these lines.”
But the pastoral transformation Francis is calling for does not only stop at questions of ecclesiology. The state of the Amazon region calls for us to have a “healthy sense of indignation” for the harm done to it.
“Businesses, national and international,” Francis writes, “fail to respect the right of the original peoples to the land and its boundaries, and to self-determination and prior consent.” Acts of disrespect towards the region “should be called for what they are: injustice and crime.”
The political responsibility of those with control over the region—which include nine Latin American states, with about 60% of the rainforest falling within the borders of Brazil—is also called to the fore in Querida Amazonia.
There must be a “greater sense of responsibility on the part of national governments,” many of which have been largely culpable for deforesting the region.
Under Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation has soared in the Amazon, with critics saying that his policies and rhetoric also encourage illegal activities in the region.
Back in October 2019, Bolsonaro accused the Vatican, and the Synod on the Amazon in particular, of seeking to “internationalize” the region, thus subtracting it from the “sovereign control” of Brazil. Despite officials in the Vatican repeatedly denying the allegation, and no evidence of such a plan ever surfacing, critics and figures close to Bolsonaro at the Church’s summit didn’t relent.
In Querida Amazonia, Francis explicitly mentions this point: “The answer is not to be found, then, in ‘internationalizing’ the Amazon region.”
But Francis also warns of a greater culture of “corruption” that surrounds the region, and is the source of many of its problems. “The powerful are never satisfied with the profits they make, and the resources of economic power greatly increase as a result of scientific and technological advances,” Francis writes. Moreover, he warns that globalization cannot risk becoming “a new version of colonialism.”
What surfaces from Querida Amazonia is Francis’ call to provide a pastoral approach to the Amazon region that does away with the simplifications and exploitative behaviors inherent in “colonialism,” and instead “learn to contemplate the Amazon region” so as to “love it, not simply use it, with the result that love can awaken a deep and sincere interest.”
Francis then quotes from Laudato Si’, his 2015 encyclical on ecology, calling for the Church to “not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.”
Only this way “we can feel intimately a part of it and not only defend it; then the Amazon region will once more become like a mother to us,” Francis goes on to add in Querida Amazonia.
This article appears in our coverage of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia. Click here to view the full series.
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Daniele Palmer is a freelance journalist. He studied history in London and is preparing a PhD on French Political Thought. He currently works from Rome as the Vatican correspondent for Where Peter Is.