Editor’s note: The following essay is by Bishop Marian Eleganti, auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Chur, Switzerland. It was originally posted on kath.net on February 12, 2020, and is re-posted here, in English translation, by kind permission of kath.net. This is the first of a series of CWR pieces on the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia.
In the following pages my purpose is not to comment on the papal statements concerning ecological and economic issues or the questions of social and business ethics that are relevant to Amazonia. Nor do I focus on the suggestions concerning culture and the inculturation of peoples. With reference to these topics, Francis offers a text that to a large extent is balanced, beautifully written and inspiring. I quote: “In the Amazon region, one better understands the words of Benedict XVI when he said that, ‘alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a “human” ecology which in turn demands a “social” ecology. All this means that humanity… must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology.’” (QA, n. 41).
Incidentally, I was struck by the statements: “For those of them [i.e. the indigenous peoples] who are baptized, these roots include the history of the people of Israel and the Church up to our own day. Knowledge of them can bring joy and, above all, a hope capable of inspiring noble and courageous actions.” (n. 33). This means that the roots of these peoples are to be sought not only in their own traditions of nature religion, but also in the universal salvation history of Israel and of the Church. Francis also states surprisingly: “Identity and dialogue are not enemies.” (n. 37).
As for his critique with reference to the exploitation of Amazonia, it can be summarized as follows: “The interest of a few powerful industries should not be considered more important than the good of the Amazon region and of humanity as a whole.” (n. 48). Finally Francis is still concerned also about an “educational dimension”, about the “development of new habits” (n. 58). “The Church, with her broad spiritual experience, her renewed appreciation of the value of creation, her concern for justice, her option for the poor, her educational tradition and her history of becoming incarnate in so many different cultures throughout the world, also desires to contribute to the protection and growth of the Amazon region.” (n. 60).
This preferential option for the least privileged, however, must not be detached from the explicit proclamation of the Gospel: “An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned” means for Francis not only “liberat[ing] them from material poverty and … defend[ing] their rights,” but also and simultaneously “inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them.” (n. 63). Therefore we cannot be content with a social message, without pointing out that Christ inspires it and challenges us to action (n. 63). The indigenous peoples, like all peoples, have a right to the proclamation of the Gospel (n. 64): “It proclaims a God who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives.” (n. 64). For “without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another nongovernmental organization (NGO) and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15).” (n. 64). In this regard Francis recommends a unique holiness (sui generis) that is characteristic for the Amazon region (n. 77).
With that I turn now to the topics which have occupied the Church intensely in recent weeks, making big waves: celibacy and priesthood. It was feared—and I had joined in this apprehension—that the Amazon region would become a laboratory experiment of the Universal Church on new ecclesial ministries for women, married priests and new liturgical forms with an Amazonian face (cf. nn. 85 ff: “Inculturation of forms of ministry”).
Probably in reference to the excitement surrounding the Pachamama figures in the Vatican Gardens and Roman basilicas, Francis says: “It is possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error.” (n. 79). That is true, but then we should not fall down before this symbol or carry it around in procession like monstrance, as was done in the presence of the Pope and of other high-ranking ecclesiastical dignitaries during the Amazon Synod in Rome.
Based on the incarnational character of the Holy Eucharist, according to Francis, “many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature” can be taken up into the liturgy and “native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols” can stimulate devotion. (n. 82). In Number 87 Francis recapitulates with desirable clarity important theological elements and essential characteristics of the ordained priesthood, which belong to the priest exclusively on the basis of his ordination and cannot be delegated: “The first conclusion, then, is that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist.” The most substantial statements of the Pope in this regard deserved to be quoted here in their entirety, for they also give an answer to the burning question about ordination and authority that has been the subject of heated debate:
That is [the priest’s] particular, principal and non-delegable function. There are those who think that what distinguishes the priest is power, the fact that he is the highest authority in the community. Yet Saint John Paul II explained that, although the priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, this function is not meant to be superior to the others, but rather is “totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members” (Mulieris dignitatem, 27). When the priest is said to be a sign of “Christ the head” [of the Mystical Body], this refers principally to the fact that Christ is the source of all grace: he is the head of the Church because “he has the power of pouring out grace upon all the members of the Church”. (Summa theologiae III, q. 8, art. 1, resp.)
88. The priest is a sign of that head and wellspring of grace above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire Christian life. (Vatican Council II, Presbyterorum ordinis, 5). That is his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders. For this reason, only the priest can say: “This is my body.” There are other words too, that he alone can speak: “I absolve you from your sins.” Because sacramental forgiveness is at the service of a worthy celebration of the Eucharist. These two sacraments lie at the heart of the priest’s exclusive identity. (Cf. the Anointing of the Sick and James 5:15.)
In Number 89 the Pope then speaks about the priest shortage and the proposal to find a way to ensure the priestly ministry even in the remotest places of the Amazon region. For despite the manifold charisms of the laity and the ministries that they can perform, the priest remains indispensable for the administration of the sacraments. Francis, however, does not conclude from this that married viri probati (tested, mature men) should be ordained, but rather challenges the bishops to send out suitably qualified and prepared priest missionaries (cf. nn. 18-19 on missionaries). “This urgent need leads me to urge all bishops, especially those in Latin America, not only to promote prayer for priestly vocations, but also to be more generous in encouraging those who display a missionary vocation to opt for the Amazon region.” (n. 90). Furthermore he is concerned about awakening new life in the Christian communities of Amazonia (n. 93). Here Francis is thinking about expanding the competencies of the laity, and he speaks in n. 94 about lay community leaders endowed with authority. Francis does not appear to be thinking here about the already established conflicts between ordained and non-ordained male or female holders of an ecclesial “ministry” or “office”, which remains a major weakness of his suggestion. For German-speaking countries have had more than enough experience and conflicts in this regard, which to this day cannot be resolved, and they have their origin in the creation of full-time, non-ordained community leaders—male or female—authorized or empowered by the bishops.
As far as women are concerned, Francis warns against a functional reductionism, which assumes “that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church only if they were admitted to Holy Orders.” (n. 100). This, according to Francis, would in reality “lead us to clericalize women” and “diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective” (n. 100).
Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse [i.e. Bridegroom] of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest. This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride, which arises in adoration and sanctifies the community, should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary. Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother. As a result, we do not limit ourselves to a functional approach, but enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church. In this way, we will fundamentally realize why, without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them. This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs. (n. 101).
We can only be grateful to Francis for this unusual and unexpected clarity. It signifies once again a repudiation of priesthood for women. Francis sees the place of women in services or ministries (effective influence on organization and leadership, too) which do not have ordination as a prerequisite (n. 103).
Conflicts should be resolved on a higher plane which “preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (n. 104; cf. 105-110). These paragraphs about the Holy Spirit in situations of conflict are very beautifully written.
In n. 111 Francis introduces Mary as the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of life and Mother of all creatures, as Queen of Creation. I see here the decisive counterpoint to the recent altercation about the Pachamama, a sort of pagan-indigenous divinization and personification of so-called Mother Earth and the cultic veneration thereof. Mary is implicitly introduced and presented here at the end of the Post-Synodal document—this is my impression—as overcoming this pagan notion and veneration. The Apostolic Exhortation ends with a moving prayer to Mary.
In concluding it may be said that the Post-Synodal document did not turn out as many had feared, its writers were probably different, too, from the ones who drew up the preparatory document of the Amazon Synod, and with reference to the hot-button issues in the preceding discussion about celibacy, married viri probati, and a diaconate or priesthood for women, it is unusually clear. Moreover on every page the document has a loving, conciliatory, calm, pleasant and humble tone.
(Translated from German by Michael J. Miller.)
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