My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region is meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican this month from Oct. 6 to Oct. 27. While it would seem that this meeting should only concern people from that region, nothing in our world of instant global communication remains confined to one geographic area anymore, and so we should be familiar with what is being discussed at this synod.
When people hear that the pope has called a synod of bishops, I am often asked if I will be going. The answer is no, since a synod of bishops does not include all the bishops from around the world, but only selected delegates. A gathering of all the bishops of the church is called an ecumenical council. The last ecumenical council was the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, when I was in grade school. Due to the size, complexity and cost of conducting an ecumenical council, they are not frequently held. The prior ecumenical council was the First Vatican Council, which took place almost 100 years earlier, from Dec. 8, 1869 to Oct. 20, 1870.
In between ecumenical councils, the pope stays in communication with bishops in various ways. Every country has a papal representative or ambassador called an apostolic nuncio. Archbishop Christophe Pierre is the current apostolic nuncio to the United States of America. He lives in Washington, D.C., at the Vatican Embassy, called the Apostolic Nunciature.
Bishops also meet periodically with the pope by country or by regions of a large country, like the United States. This meeting, called an ad limina visit, takes place every few years at the Vatican. Our region includes the bishops of the states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Our region’s last ad limina visit was with Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Our next meeting, in which I will take part, will be with Pope Francis this coming Dec. 12.
The synod of bishops is a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the pope and bishops, to assist the Holy Father with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the church in the world (canon 342).
The synod of bishops can be assembled in a general session, that is, one which treats matters that directly pertain to the good of the universal church; such a session is either ordinary or extraordinary. It can also be assembled in a special session, namely, one which considers affairs that directly pertain to a particular region or regions (canon 345).
The synod of bishops that is taking place this month is a special session, called to consider matters that pertain directly to the countries in the region of the Amazon River. The Amazon River is located in the northern portion of South America, flowing from west to east. The river system originates in the Andes Mountains of Peru and travels through Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly two-thirds of the Amazon’s main stream is within Brazil.
Among the issues that are proposed for discussion include some very pressing and important matters, such as concern for ecology and the environment, migration, family life, corruption, health care and education. On the other hand, there are some problematic proposals in the working document for the synod, such as the “suggestion” in paragraph 98, saying that the “teaching of Pan-Amazon indigenous theology is requested in all educational institutions.” That might sound benign to some, until you find out that some indigenous tribes in Brazil engage in the ritual killing of infants and children — namely, those with a disability, twins, and the children of single mothers, all of whom are considered to be a bad omen.
The working document also says that it “is desirable to deepen existing Amazonian Indian theology, which will allow for a better and greater understanding of indigenous spirituality and thus avoid committing the historical errors that have violated many original cultures.” Perhaps some would say that it was a violation of indigenous original cultures when Christian missionaries brought an end to the practice of the Aztecs and Incas who engaged in ritual human sacrifice, but most civilized people would see the end of the ritual killing of children as a good thing.
Rather than the “teaching of Pan-Amazon indigenous theology,” it would be helpful for the Pan-Amazon Synod to discuss ways to spread the Christian faith and evangelize the local culture more effectively.
The working document also suggests, in paragraph 129, that, “for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of priestly ordination be studied for older people, 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.” This proposal subtly expresses a rather condescending view of indigenous people that suggests that they are not capable of making a commitment to lifelong celibacy, so the only way they will have priests is to ordain married men.
In his new book, Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest, Father Carter Griffin, a graduate of Princeton University and former Navy line officer who is now rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., wrote that optional celibacy would be a “great mistake.” He explained: “The burden of proof … rests on those who would challenge the Church’s longstanding faithfulness to priestly celibacy. There is not only a historical continuity that would be broken by relinquishing the gift; there is also a profound theological and pastoral congruence with the priestly vocation that would be set aside, at least in part, with manifold repercussions for the salvific ministry of the Church.”
As the Pan-Amazon Synod continues this month, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide its deliberations, so that the synod will not lead the church down the wrong path but will instead remain faithful in promoting efficacious and proper ways to work for the salvation of souls.
May God give us this grace. Amen.