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At the Turning Point

The Amazon Synod passed its mid-point yesterday. And as things now begin to move towards a close, several currents have become more apparent. The pope’s appointment of four new figures [1] to the drafting committee of the final document indicates that the overall line, as might have been predicted, is now set in stone. There will be no drama about the outcome, as in past synods. But there are several particulars worthy of attention.

The first is a clear desire on the part of a number of the participants for some sort of new “structure,” a permanent structure, that would deal with what are perceived to be the common challenges among the nine nations that are, to a greater or lesser extent, part of “Amazonia.”

It’s less clear what that structure would be intended to do. Will it get involved in social and political questions? In one recent discussion, it seemed that the new organization was needed to handle the increased migration within the region. The utter chaos in Venezuela, for example, has driven 150,000 people from that country into the state of Roraima, a remote region of Brazil.

According to Fr. Sidney Dornelas, who heads one of the Catholic groups that track migration, the Brazilian government is not equipped to handle refugee flows like this and it falls to the Church to do what it can. But the migrants – who in other regions come from as far away as Haiti – usually do not then settle down. Many head for the large cities like Boa Vista, Manaus, Brasilia, some with the hope of ultimately reaching Argentina.

[2]

The new structure, then, would seem to function, in one of its roles, as an international body for the movements of various peoples – not only refugees – within and outside Amazonia.

While that may be a worthy activity, depending on how it is handled, the Church’s main business is not politics or relief efforts, but preaching the Gospel to all nations. What of that?

According to Fr. Giacomo Costa, the Secretary of the Commission for Information, there’s been considerable talk in the synod about the permanent structure as a vehicle for implementing the synod’s recommendations. In a flight of enthusiasm during a briefing the other day, he described the goal as opening up a new “rationality” in the Church that would be “interreligious, inter-religious-orders, interdisciplinary, working ‘with and through’ indigenous peoples.”

One person’s momentary account of what has been a prominent theme in the synod hall may not tell us everything we know about the conversation to date. But it accords with other accounts coming from various sources and is probably a generally reliable description of the kind of enthusiasm the synod has generated among its members.

It’s no small worry, however, that after centuries in the region, the representatives of the Church at the synod seem to be fumbling to find new pathways forward. Indeed, inter-religious relationships and the rest of that litany are not particularly new – or likely to produce a new growth of Catholicism in Amazonia.

As the Synod began . . .

One of the hallmarks of the Francis papacy has been to emphasize a Church that “listens.” We know of the open disdain he has shown at what he thinks of as the slightest hint of proselytizing. He believes that accompanying and bearing “witness,” which may later lead to people asking about the Gospel, is the true way of evangelization in our time.

But even this rather narrow and rigid approach to proclaiming the Gospel seems, for some people, too much linked to the old (alleged) cultural imperialism and forced conversions of Latin American colonial history. (Query: where are all those converts now?)

Some involved in missionary work are even reluctant to speak of evangelization [3], preferring to listen and accompany to such an extent that, even allowing for good intentions, seems almost ashamed – not only of the methods of the imperfect men and women who sought to evangelize in the past – but of the Gospel itself when it contradicts indigenous beliefs.

This weakness in boldly proclaiming the truths of revelation is a common feature of the developed world; it’s distressing, to say the least, that Catholic missionaries themselves are bringing that attitude now to remote areas of the Amazon.

The Pentecostals don’t seem to be much bothered by cultural imperialism, and are spreading like wildfire.

An American priest/journalist put a well-formulated question to a panel at a recent press briefing: You’ve talked a lot about inserting some indigenous elements into the liturgy to create a kind of Amazonian “rite.” What exactly would that mean?

Clearly, the scandalous pagan ritual in the Vatican gardens at the opening of the synod, which Francis “witnessed,” has raised questions, even for people who are firm supporters of the pope.

Good questions deserve good answers but the only thing the presenters were able to say is that, of course, the Amazon rite would retain the basic structure of the Mass common to not only the Roman but all the other rites within the Church. A post-synodal commission would have to study how and what to do beyond that.

This all sounds harmless and open-minded, but as another member of the panel had earlier pointed out, indigenous groups differ widely. The famous Yanomami tribe alone contains within it thirty-two different ethnic groups with their own languages and rituals.

Which provoked an American Hispanic journalist to point out that, in the United States, it sometimes creates tensions within a parish when there are different languages used for Mass – Spanish Masses are often relegated to inconvenient hours on Sunday afternoons. Might it not be simpler to avoid such rivalries by using a language that privileges no specific group, namely Latin?

Now there’s a novel, or rather new/old idea, which probably has as good a chance of succeeding as the other proposals now in the air, as the synod turns towards a conclusion.

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.