On Sunday morning, a modest number of bishops gathered at the Catacombs of Domatilla to sign a “Pact of the Catacombs”. A considerable number of the 180 bishops participating in the Pan-Amazonian Synod in Rome declined to participate in the event, which carried the subtitle “For a Church with an Amazonian face, poor and servant, prophetic and Samaritan”. It’s unclear from sources if the missing bishops opposed the pact or had other reasons to not attend. (The trek to the outskirts of Rome is not a formal scheduled event by the Vatican for the Synod.) Some bishops may have been saving their energy for the the Mass marking World Missionary Sunday, as October is an Extraordinary Missionary Month.
This Catacomb jaunt, on the surface, mirrors a similar pact signed by a handful of bishops at the close of the Second Vatican Council. The 1965 pact, also at the Catacombs of Domitilla, was a pledge by bishops to live simply, if not poorly, as did many of their parishioners: “…try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.” Bishops promised to discard the formal dress (material and colors) of their offices, and to refuse to be addressed by titles.
The 2019 Pan-Amazonian Synod bishops who attended Sunday’s Catacomb field trip suggest that putting their own signatures to a similar document is to merely to follow the humility and simplicity that Jesus lived.
But the cognoscenti recognize that the new pledge has all the hallmarks of crypto-speak for a return to liberation theology.
That 1965 Pact makes much of “social justice” and “structures” and concern for “proletarian nations.” It promised to “collaborate” with global institutions. The Catacombs Pact of 1965 was led by Dom Hélder Câmara (1909-99), Bishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil. Raised in a middle class home, Câmara’s father an accountant (and a Freemason) and his mother taught school. Câmara was an open advocate of Liberation Theology, “famed for stating, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.” As with most rebellious movements, Câmara and cohorts put strong pressure on “the youth” to rise up against authority.
Câmara’s embrace of liberation theology and dissent against the Church’s teachings have been reincarnated in Bishop Erwin Krautler. Though Austrian born, Krautler serves Xingu, Brazil. As president of CIMI (Indigenous Missionary Council), an arm of the Brazilian Bishop’s Conference, he has already been the subject of controversy at the Pan-Amazonian synod. CIMI receives funds from the Ford Foundation, notorious for its underwriting of abortion and contraception. And why not? His predecessor, Bishop Câmara opposed Pope Paul VI on contraception (although he later recanted) and favored permitting divorced Catholics to receive Holy Communion. Câmara also formed a Women’s Worker Movement and sought ecclesial roles for women. Last week Bishop Krautler followed suit. He favors married priests because “the Indigenous don’t understand celibacy, he admitted to National Catholic Register’s Edward Pentin, stated that he favors women deacons, and then openly admitted that he believes this is a step toward women’s ordination.
It is evident, then, that some South American bishops, such as Kratler, believe that married priests and ecclesial roles for women will be adopted. Perhaps, in part, because the cause for canonization of Bp. Camara Helder was opened in 2015. Pope Francis appointed Krautler to the pre-synod preparation council, and the bishop was a principle author of the Instrumentum Laboris, the controversial working document of the synod.
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The synod process includes break-out sessions for participants grouped by language. These circoli minori (small circles) respond to the proposals and interventions made during the general congregations. It’s within their groups that bishops and lay participants debate, refine, or discard proposals.
At the close of the second week of the Pan-Amazonian Synod summary reports from the discussion groups were released (but not in English). As expected, the groups appear to endorse broad synod themes: ecological conversion, inculturation, ordination of married men, and greater roles for women. The details of when and how these themes become realities are varied.
Among the more intriguing suggestions floating in the midst of the groups is from Venezuelan Bishop Eduardo Reyes. On the lack of priests and access to the sacraments he said the Amazon would collect priests on the streets of Rome and take them back to the forests. “All these priests and religious that we see on TV… It cannot be that they’re all studying in Rome,” he said.
The report of the French and English group began with this statement:
Developed countries have been greatly enriched by colonialism. They ignore this, and hope to continue their comfortable lives. The question is: how to bring conversion to the former colonizers?
Concerns for justice and care for the environment are paramount, they wrote, but cautions were added:
However, we must be careful not to make the Church an NGO to the exclusive service of social justice. Some people trust us in justice, education, health, and yet they go to Pentecostal churches to celebrate, listen to the Word of God, and speak freely of God. The Catholic Church is seen as ritualistic and the word does not circulate. Spirituality is sought elsewhere.
A clear concern for evangelism in the midst of Pentecostal incursions was noted by the French-English group:
Evangelicals propose to believers that they can bear witness in a very personal way of how Jesus has transformed his life. It is a more positive approach than ours, which so often emphasizes our sinfulness rather than the salvation of Jesus.
We have been told the story of two villages in Thailand: one, evangelical, where people spend all Sunday in the church, sharing the Bible, discussing the affairs of the village. In the Catholic village, people listen to the priest, the only one who speaks, and then return to their homes. There’s nothing to share. Clerical Church. We have to learn from each other.
Novelty did not appear to trouble the French-English circle:
The word “priest” has many meanings. The one who offers sacrifice does not need to be the head of the community. You don’t need to be a parish priest. History and theology have united too many things: teaching, sanctifying, governing… We must accept that different situations require different initiatives.
On ecological justice, this circoli minori offered, well, 100 billion answers:
We need to address the issues more directly. The climate will increase over the next twenty years. To avoid further increase, we must suppress CO2. How is that possible? We’ll do it by planting a hundred billion trees. We are two thousand and five hundred million Christians. It’s impossible? It’s very practical. Why don’t you ask for it?
New forests and a New Church from the periphery:
We feel that we are at a profound turning point in our history. A synodal Church is a Church in which there is no longer a center from which all truth comes and that waters the Body in a uniform manner. The only center is Jesus. We are sister churches, walking together and letting the Holy Spirit guide us to the full truth. No national or continental Church can otherwise tell the way forward. It must be synodal in the sense of listening to others and the Holy Ghost.
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Finally, on Saturday an Australian couple stood transfixed as an indigenous party sang and danced its way up the Via Conciliazione. The Catholic couple were celebrating their 25th anniversary in Rome. When asked if they knew of the Synod and its themes they replied, “Only from news at home. Don’t understand it really; why not clear away the sex scandals, clear up financial troubles? That’s enough to do.”
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