The eyes and minds of Catholics are fixed on Rome, as the much-anticipated Amazon Synod has just concluded its first week. The discussion is centered on the peripheral region of the Amazon and the problems related to the evangelization of that region. But there is of course more to the Amazon Synod than the Amazon: there is a push to turn the pastoral solutions considered to be fit for the Amazon into universal solutions applicable to the entire Church.
But one thing is certain, even if not stated often: there is nothing in the Amazon and in evangelizing the peoples there that the missionary/evangelizing Church has not encountered before. In fact, the Catholic Church and its countless, fearless missionaries have a long and remarkable tenure in missions, both domestic and international. For centuries, Catholic missionaries have traversed deserts and oceans, canoed dangerous rivers and climbed mountains, going out to the most peripheral of the peripherals to spread the Good News. They were fearless men and women filled with evangelistic zeal and verve, accomplishing acts of selfless love and even martyrdom for those peoples living in the periphery and on the margins of society.
The evangelistic demands of the Church and the missionaries in the past were as pressing as they are now in the Amazon and elsewhere in the secularized world; the challenges facing the Catholic missionaries and their missions were as pressing then as they are now. But then the Church came up with innovative solutions which strengthened the faith, either cultivating the seed that other missionaries had sown before them or starting from scratch. Evangelizing did not consist in adjusting or changing doctrine, or in introducing new moral rules. Instead, for these missionaries, the tribes and the aboriginals — whether these of the Amazon or others elsewhere in the world — deserved the best that an evangelizing and missionary Church could offer. As Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium explained:
[M]indful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
As the Son was sent by the Father, so He too sent the Apostles, saying: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world”. The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel”, and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. (pars 16-17)
Why treat the missions in the Amazon differently? Why not work to raise the people up or to find the real causes of lack of native priestly vocations among the Amazonians? Why have Pentecostal and Evangelical Protestant missions been so successful in Brazil, for example, which has seen a drop in the number of Catholics to 64.4%? This downward trend has been ongoing since the 1960s.
Before Vatican II, the Jesuit missionaries sought solutions, which did not break with Church tradition and teaching, to address the dire need for clergy among the unreachable and completely isolated tribes in northern Albania and Kosovo by founding The Jesuit Traveling Mission. The main reason for the establishment of The Jesuit Traveling Mission was the clergy shortage in the vast territory of the Albanian highlands. If “some people [in the Amazon] might not see a priest for a year” as reported by Crux on October 9, 2019, in 1888 the Catholic tribes of Albania and Kosovo had not seen a priest in ten years. And, speaking of distance, this region was not as remote from the center — Rome — as the Amazon is. What the Jesuit missionaries of the Traveling Mission found among the remote and isolated Northern Albanian tribes was not very different from the situation of the indigenous people of the Amazon. They found men and women who had not confessed in twenty years, Catholics who had never confessed in their lives, and youth who had never been baptized or even seen a priest. The moral abuses were also abundant: men co-habitating with multiples wives, arranged marriages, superstitions, animism, and vendettas or blood feuds among families. The Church never thought of changing doctrine or tradition, of ordaining the tribal elders (who were very much respected by the people), or ordaining women deacons to replace the celibate, seminary-trained, mission-designated priests who preached, heard confessions and with their zeal and selfless dedication lifted people up and fostered native-local priestly vocations. In fact, despite many forced conversions to Islam, Catholicism was saved and priestly vocations among the locals followed in the highlands of Albania and Kosovo.
The truth is that the Church then did not opt for the modernist agenda of reform, or the easy way out. The Jesuit Missionaries of the Traveling Mission did not give up, but instead stood up to meet the challenges and difficulties of evangelization. In 1907, Pope Pius X, in his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), warned against the dangers of modernist reform, which aimed to change Catholicism’s philosophy, theology, history, dogma, worship and ecclesiastical celibacy:
Reform of philosophy, especially in the seminaries: the scholastic philosophy is to be relegated to the history of philosophy among obsolete systems, and the young men are to be taught modern philosophy which alone is true and suited to the times in which we live. Reform of theology; rational theology is to have modern philosophy for its foundation, and positive theology is to be founded on the history of dogma. As for history, it must be for the future written and taught only according to their modern methods and principles. Dogmas and their evolution are to be harmonized with science and history. In the Catechism no dogmas are to be inserted except those that have been duly reformed and are within the capacity of the people. Regarding worship, the number of external devotions is to be reduced, or at least steps must be taken to prevent their further increase, though, indeed, some of the admirers of symbolism are disposed to be more indulgent on this head. Ecclesiastical government requires to be reformed in all its branches, but especially in its disciplinary and dogmatic parts. Its spirit with the public conscience, which is not wholly for democracy; a share in ecclesiastical government should therefore be given to the lower ranks of the clergy, and even to the laity, and authority should be decentralized. The Roman Congregations, and especially the index and the Holy Office, are to be reformed. The ecclesiastical authority must change its line of conduct in the social and political world; while keeping outside political and social organization, it must adapt itself to those which exist in order to penetrate them with its spirit. With regard to morals, they adopt the principle of the Americanists, that the active virtues are more important than the passive, both in the estimation in which they must be held and in the exercise of them. The clergy are asked to return to their ancient lowliness and poverty, and in their ideas and action to be guided by the principles of Modernism; and there are some who, echoing the teaching of their Protestant masters, would like the suppression of ecclesiastical celibacy. What is there left in the Church which is not to be reformed according to their principles?
Prophetically, Pope Pius X was foreseeing the post-Vatican II fight to replace locally [in the Amazon] the ecclesiastical celibacy. Indeed, what has been offered as an option for the Amazon is the easy, modernist solution about which Pope Pius X warned the Church in 1907. Making a move toward the suppression of ecclesiastical celibacy and the ordination of the elders to the priesthood, the Pan-Amazon Synod. The Working Document for the Synod of Bishops is proposing the ordination of:
… preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by their community, even if they have an existing and stable family, in order to ensure availability of the Sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.
Has the post-Vatican II Church run out of solutions? Or just run out of evangelistic focus and fervor? Pope Francis, in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, offers a key and solution to fostering local vocations to the priesthood, which is different from the modernist and easy solution of the Pan-Amazon Synod. The Working Document for the Synod of Bishops:
Many places are experiencing a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. This is often due to a lack of contagious apostolic fervor in communities which results in a cooling of enthusiasm and attractiveness. Wherever there is life, fervor and a desire to bring Christ to others, genuine vocations will arise. Even in parishes where priests are not particularly committed or joyful, the fraternal life and fervor of the community can awaken in the young a desire to consecrate themselves completely to God and to the preaching of the Gospel.
According to Pope Francis, the problem is not the lack of vocations; lack of local-native vocations is the result of lack of apostolic fervor and of lack of serious and profound evangelistic processes. A serious, authentic and continuous evangelization will bring genuine, native vocations to the priesthood in the Amazon as elsewhere. The people of the Amazon, just as Catholics elsewhere in the world, need to be evangelized and converted to Christ. (As Paul VI wrote in 1975: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.”) If the synod is trying to find a solution, the ordination of viri probati – tested men – is not a solution. The missionaries ought to pick up the torch and start running the race with fervor and thirst to bring Christ to others, on the road set before them by a great and illustrious host of missionaries. The Church ought not settle for less but bringing back the best of her missionary practices.
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