by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA 2023 Teacher of Peace
As we move through the Season of Creation 2023 and approach the Synod on Synodality, it will be helpful to look back to the 2019 Synod “Querida Amazonia,” the celebration of that wondrous region, a gift from Creator God. That dramatic event was a localized metaphor for the global issues of the Season of Creation. It also anticipated Pope Francis’s current synodal initiative. Hindsight shows clearly that those weeks in October 2019, when realities of the Amazon were front and center at the Vatican, were Pope Francis’s dress rehearsal for what will happen beginning on October 4, 2023.
The post-Amazon Synod Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis is a blueprint for what he (and we) may expect now. The Exhortation is directed to “the People of God and to all persons of good will.”
“During the Synod, I listened to the presentations and read with interest the reports of the discussion groups… I wish… to propose a brief framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region… and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.” [Emphasis mine]
Francis spoke of his “four great dreams” for the Church in the Amazon: a Church that “fights for the rights of the poor, that preserves its distinctive cultural riches, jealously preserves its overwhelming natural beauty and is capable of generous commitment incarnate in the Amazon region.”
And by way of conclusion to his letter he said: “How sad it would be if they [the Indigenous people [of Amazonia] were to receive from us [the Church] a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation… that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life.”
As with the run-up to the current Synod, there were both criticisms and expectations related to
Querida Amazonia from conservative as well as progressive sectors of Catholic people – often
exaggerated by secular media, but no less real.
To the ultra-conservative critics and their dismissal of any attempt at inculturation, the pope had this strong reaction: He warned against those “who think they are so righteous they wind up worshiping themselves.” To progressives looking for specific changes, for example in mandatory priestly celibacy and even more fundamental, fullest participation of women in Catholic practice, his tone was more conciliatory. Francis and his closest collaborators generally accepted these issues as valid but “left them on the table” at the end of Amazonia. If Amazonia is an indication of what might be expected from Synod 2023-2024, there may well be much that is “left on the table.”
To this point, it seems important both to understand the dynamics of Pope Francis’s theology/ecclesiology and what he is striving to do with the institutional Catholic Church. His theology/ecclesiology is both deductive and inductive. He is a traditionalist firmly rooted in Catholic tradition, but one who reads the signs of the times and responds to them. In his view, this means the broadest consultation possible with the People of God and all others of good will.
What this pope is attempting, to paraphrase a wonderful image from theologian Karl Rahner, is
to remove the “shroud” around enclosed teachings of Catholic faith and practice.
A fitting conclusion to these reflections is advice to seminarians following Querida Amazonia from Fr. Michael Johnson, Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: “Instead of allowing the rancor surrounding the Synod to discourage us… The fruit of the Synod will not be the words that were said in Rome last month, the handwringing they caused, or changes to Church discipline, but the proclamation of the Gospel in the arched nave of a cathedral painted green with leaves deep in the Amazon.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the 2023 Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.