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Pope's message is about much more than just married priests

Wendy Grace

Pope Francis's Amazon response focuses on loving our neighbours and finding justice for the region


Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Last week Pope Francis issued a document called Querida Amazonia. It translates as 'Beloved Amazon' and his response - known as an apostolic exhortation - is a summary of the Amazonian synod which took place last October.

This synod brought together lay people, bishops, indigenous leaders from the Amazon, and theologians to discuss the diverse issues facing the nine countries in the region.

Synods - meeting of clergy and sometimes the laity -have been around for centuries, but this synod was different in that it was the first of its kind to focus on a distinct region of the world.

Some 185 bishops considered the conclusions of a two-year consultation of 87,000 people from across the Amazon.

While some expected Francis's response to address the issue of ordaining married men in the region, he chose to bypass this issue and focus on social justice and developing the church instead.

Some might be disappointed that he didn't use this as the moment to make his views on married priests known.

However, what is arguably more disappointing is that the vast majority of media discussion has focused on the issue of priestly celibacy while ignoring the true cry of the people from a region experiencing a socio-environmental crisis.

The consequence of getting caught up in headlines such as "no end to priestly celibacy" is that they don't reflect the majority of the contributions both in the consultation before, and the discussions during the synod which highlighted first hand the huge issues of poverty, climate change, displacement, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation faced by the region and its inhabitants.

Pope Francis's response, released last Wednesday, is broken into four parts, which the Pope describes as four "great dreams" - social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial.

In it, he echoed the people's voices in urging the world to see how plights affecting the Amazon require a "prophetic cry" against corruption, crime, and injustice. He highlights the huge imbalance of power when he says: "The needy nations grow more destitute, while the rich nations become even richer.

"I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples, and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced."

It is true that the region faces the challenge of communities being without a priest for months and, in some cases, years.

This needs to be addressed. Francis's answer lies in encouraging vocations, more missionaries (currently more missionaries leave the Amazon for the US and Europe than are sent there), and a leadership that is "distinctively lay".

The Pope was critical of a clericalist mentality. He wants us to stop confusing priesthood with power, and emphasises the huge role the laity - who run the majority of churches in the region - can play in evangelisation.

Francis notes that simply having more priests would be "a very narrow aim". A deeper spiritual revolution is what he is calling for, and if this happens then vocations would naturally flow.

Addressing the role of women and the suggestion of opening the office of deacon to them, Pope Francis gave a definitive no. Instead, he asks us "to broaden our vision, lest we restrict our understanding of the church to her functional structures".

Francis suggests that "only reductionism" would lead us to believe that women would be granted a greater status and participation in the Church if only they were admitted to Holy Orders.

He warned "that approach would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalise women, diminishing the great value of what they have already accomplished".

He calls for public recognition and a commission from their bishop to allow women to have a "real and effective impact on the organisation, the most important decisions and the direction of communities".

His message: women do not need to be clericalised to be empowered or indeed to be given the authority that he wants them to have.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the issue of married priests was the primary occupation of the synod, yet this suggestion formed only one paragraph out of 120 in the final synod document entitled The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and Integral Ecology.

The overwhelming theme was the impact of the destruction of the Amazon and the Church's role in supporting the faithful in delivering and living the Gospel message by being a voice and ally for the people.

However, it is important to note that this is the first time that an apostolic exhortation like Querida Amazona explicitly presents itself as a text that "accompanies" another one, namely, the synod's final document. Pope Francis has urged people to read them together, which effectively means that the discussion on the aforementioned headline-grabbers is by no means closed.

We could see Pope Francis's four "dreams" as a clarion call for governments, industry, and individuals to take stock of what is at stake. Pope Francis asks us when thinking of the Amazon to "love it, not simply use it, with the result that love can awaken a deep and sincere interest".

Ultimately, the heart of the Pope's response is centred on Jesus's message of loving our neighbour, which means working together for the common good and demanding the justice the region deserves.

Sunday Independent