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What the Pan-Amazon Synod should learn from the Church’s missionary past

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.

Pope Francis attends a prayer service at the start of the first session Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican Oct. 7, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 12 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.

12 Comments

  1. “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.”

    They know, and “they” have known for quite some time. Which makes the current Amazon Synod all the more perverse.

    Because a Brazilian “Catholic” Bible (as many Brazilian sermons I have heard) are abundantly footnoted with Marxist interpretations of Scripture, the Gospels in particular. I read and speak fluent Portuguese BTW.

    Ironically, with so much Catholic concern for the economic development? of the people the more conservative Evangelicals/Pentecostals while unambiguously proclaiming Christ as Savior have also encouraged higher moral standards (regarding drinking, gambling, theft, adultery) and this has contributed to better work ethics/honesty and better economic outcomes for these converts to Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches.

    But let’s face it, Marxists and liberation theologians and someone like Bergoglio have no regard for “capitalist” notions of economic development except for equalizing the misery among “God’s people” (the “dummies”) while remaining elites themselves…just like bishops and cardinals around the world and “vow of poverty” social justice Jesuits who extensively travel, make it to “retreats” all over and study all over and inevitably arrive at museums, country sides and the houses of got-bucks world wide friend networks…swimming pools, glasses of wine, actual European vineyards, “better beer” than lousy working class American macrobrews…and “discerned” “God’s will” collections of CDs and enviable personal libraries…

    Yes, they leave the Catholic Church, Brazilians, knowing about the Catholic priest/pastor’s boyfriend as well…knowing the “good deal” many of those in Catholic religious orders have in an economically challenged nation.

    Post- Amazon Synod, even more Brazilians will leave the Catholic Church.

  2. Thank you Dr. Murzaku, I love your articles.

    A week ago, I was thinking the same thing: how come the Catholic missionaries of the past didn’t need much of what the progressive “fathers” of this Synod want?

    Just to set an example for the rest of us, I believe most of the fathers, headed by our beloved pope, should be equipped with their demands and sent deep in the amazon jungle for a year or so.

    This is the best missionary lesson that they can do for us.

    May God bless you and your family.

  3. I was watching a travel video about Chiapas, Mexico over the weekend & was amazed to learn about a church in Chamula where chickens are ritually sacrificed by Indian worshippers. The American couple filming the video were marveling about how sacred the atmosphere felt inside the church & especially so since cameras were forbidden. If you can’t film it, it must be something really special, etc.

    I guess the Indians were simply doing what they’ve been doing for centuries & right or wrong, they have enough reverence to keep tourists from filming their sacred space. But it certainly sounds like some serious, old school missionaries are needed back in Chiapas.

  4. Amen…. the lack of priests and the fervor of missionary work to “to spread the word” is the result of the insidious acceptance of worldly secularism in the church. In the formation of priests since at least the 50’s or 60’s.

    Before that time missionaries and parish priests alike spread the joyful Word of God. That deep belief and joy was the contagious element of the Word of God.

    But since at least Vanican ll. The church has lost that spiritual fervor.

    But to be clear, Vatican ll is the result of the infiltration of the church by various evil elements, resulting in the loss of believing, practicing Catholics worldwide. The church can not evangelize what it no longer has…

    Now, instead of believing in the truth, joy, love of God’s word and preaching it to the people, the church leaders have steadily worked to bring the secular world into the church, rather than the church to the secular world… the result is we recently witnessed a Franciscan Priest participate in a pagan tree planting ritual, in the Vatican garden !… praising “Mother Earth” ( I capitalized mother because that’s how it has been reported in print, just as God is capitalized) praising Mother earth as Creator. I could go on listing things that have stolen the joy of the word of God, and weakened Christ’s Church but this is not the place, space limited.

    Remember Bishop Fulton J. Sheen? He was a beacon, a voice preaching in the wilderness on the 50’s. His talks are still relevant and needed more today than in the 50’s, because what he prophesied then is here today. Sadly, his talks are still available today but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain for a fee, or subscription cost. How I wish some organization would sponsor his talks making them again free, to reach the people who need to desperately to hear them again and for those who have never heard them… someone please make these available to the world which needs them so very very much…

    • Totally on board with your argument of bringing Archbishop Sheen’s sermons back. I think EWTN broadcasts them once in a while. 50 and 60 changed the Catholic landscape in Brazil, and the trend has been downward. Thank so much Deborah for your comments.

  5. Ines Angeli Murzaku [a lovely name for like person should be given in full] hits all the right buttons for successful missionary evangelization. Except how to when an Amazonia bishop boasts of refrain from conversion and a Pontiff who belittles a happy conversion as boast of “trophyism”. So we’re cut off at the pass. My claim to relevance on missionary conversion is my experience as a missionary. And having experienced real life Noble Savages not endeared to cult savagery rather hunger for Christ’s truth the harvest is there. Unlike the image of intellectually spiritually deformed modernist prelates who now abound. There remain devoted men as was my experience at Kachabere Major Seminary Malawi and Spiritan Missionary Seminary Tanzania from which African students went on to become heroic witnesses to Christ emulating the missionary European [mainly] devoted missionaries who also taught. A Kenyan Msgr urging a traditional no liberal nonsense approach to lecturing indicated that was not being done universally. That was then prior to 2013. The large issue presently was indicated by Benedict XVI as a conflated idea of salvation outside the Church dampening missionary zeal and the immense sacrifice entailed. The other is “presently” Amazonia clime and the Pontiff. Few except Fr Weinandy, Cardinals Burke and Sarah speak of a divided Church. Sicily and Malta hierarchy are sanctioning priests who teach communion for D&R is prohibition, priests who hold to Apostolic Tradition. Told they must conform to the Pontiff. Which implies his suggestions are binding which they are not. The Pontiff does not intervene indicating approbation of hierarchy faith oppressive policy. If I may note here the world knows that Raymond Arroyo was threatened by new paradigm intellectual gangster Fr Spadaro SJ that his honest questioning deserved that he be banned [intellectual gangster coined by William Shirer regarding Nazis]. So Ines the whirlwind of adversity to proclaiming the truth is the inhibitor. Can we wait for a new hopefully faithful pontiff? [the cardinals deck is stacked against that]. Or should we recognize we are at odds though not divisive, certainly not schismatic but remain true to Christ and each one obliged to address the truth come hell or high water? With discretion, prudence, respect nonetheless with fearless conviction.

  6. Pope Francis was duly chosen Pope by 120 Cardinals in a prayerful process guided by the Holy Spirit. Prompted by the same Holy Spirit in 1959, St. Pope John XXIII called for the ecumenical council Vatican II. God Bless Pope Francis and Viva Vatican II.

  7. Being a priest or a consecrated person does not require ordination or vows. It only requires the presence of Christ’s Spirit with us. The sacraments associated with this are Baptism and Confirmation. We walk in the Spirit in order to bring us into the fullness of holiness (Galatians 5:16-25).
    Grace comes to us by humility toward God which is best described in 1Peter 5:5-7 which says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” See also James 4:6.
    Inner peace and strength from God come by casting all of our care on Him. This is the basic Christianity that we need to get back to.

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