Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vatican "Prime" – Pope Calls Synod for the Amazon (The Forest, That Is)

At the Angelus which wrapped up this morning's canonization of 35 saints – all but two martyrs from indigenous communities in Mexico and Brazil – the Pope took the liberty of making a fitting, yet (another) surprise announcement, here translated into English:
Welcoming the desire of some Episcopal Conferences of Latin America, as well as the voices of pastors and faithful from other parts of the world, I have decided to convoke a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, which will take place in Rome in October 2019. The principal scope of this gathering is to set out new ways for the evangelization of that portion of God's People, especially its indigenous communities, often forgotten and without the chance for a serene living, as well as the crisis of the Amazon forest, a critically important lung for our planet. May the new saints [canonized today] intercede for this ecclesial event, that, in respect for the beauty of creation, all the peoples of the earth might praise God, Lord of the universe [Ed. reference to Laudato si'] and so be enlightened by him to follow the paths of justice and peace.
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To be sure, this development brings numerous ramifications, merely the first of which is a confirmation that the Synod on Young People and Vocational Discernment, slated to take place a year from now, will not be a two-part process, unlike the 2014-5 assemblies on the family which birthed Amoris Laetitia. From another angle, meanwhile, given Francis' keen familiarity with the region encompassing Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela – not to mention, as the Synod's president, his personal choice of the event's timeframe – today's announcement marks the 80 year-old pontiff's clearest signal to date that he has every intention of remaining at the wheel well into the mid-range future.

In June, Francis told the bishops of Peru during their ad limina conversation that he was considering a Synod for the Amazon, with one of the prelates reporting that significant obstacles to travel within the region made ministry very difficult, as a sparse number of clergy has long been a matter of local concern.

On the procedural front, as opposed to the Synod's topic-based "Ordinary" gatherings – comprised of roughly 200 bishops proportionally elected from across the global church, in addition to the heads of Curial offices and a handful of appointed advisers and experts – a "Special" assembly is focused on one specific area of the Catholic world, from which the bulk of its membership is likewise chosen. To represent the wider church, Special Synods see just a small number of prelates invited by the Pope from outside the region in question, their specific experience being deemed useful for the discussions.

In the device's most prominent use, now-St John Paul II called Special Synods for each of the five super-continents in the immediate run-up to the year 2000; the four-week meeting for "America" – the entire landmass, both north and south – was opened 20 years ago next month. The last Special assembly, however, came in 2010, when Benedict XVI convened one for the Middle East, following a second gathering for Africa a year prior.

As for the dramatis personae of the Amazonian event, a familiar face on the Roman scene again stands out: despite being 83 – that is, supposedly "retired" – the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes OFM is certain to play a critical role in the preparations given his ongoing role as head of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network, the multi-national coordinating body of the region's bishops, founded in 2014 at Francis' behest.

While the group lacks the juridic standing of an episcopal conference per se, the void is more than compensated for by direct papal imprimatur: seated next to Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio by seniority at the 2013 Conclave, the former archbishop of Sao Paulo famously urged the Pope-to-be "Don't forget the poor!" as the votes piled up in his favor – a word that, he later admitted, would lead the first American on Peter's Chair to shatter even more precedent by taking the name Francis upon accepting his election.

In a gesture that brought their closeness into the spotlight, the new pontiff upended yet another custom (remember: all this took place within the first 15 minutes) by plucking Hummes out from the Sistine Chapel rows to join him on the central balcony of St Peter's for his appearance before the world – a perk traditionally enjoyed solely by the senior cardinal from each of the College's three orders.

Yet what made the moment even more extraordinary was its rich backstory: on his arrival in Rome in late 2006 as Benedict's choice to head the Congregation for the Clergy, Hummes was promptly slapped down within the Vatican for comments he made just before departing Brazil that, in terms of mandatory priestly celibacy, "the majority of the apostles were married," then punctuating the point by saying "the church has to observe these things... [and] advance with history."

By bringing his "good friend" with him on his debut in white, Francis was sending a signal to the Curia he inherited – namely, that the Brazilian behind his shoulder was back at the center of things. As for what that means from here, with both Papa Bergoglio and Hummes stating since that the Amazon's church "must" have an "Amazonian face," with an "indigenous clergy" – and the region's unique culture and challenges having spurred calls from its bishops for the possibility of married priests – at first blush, the 2019 gathering has the prospect of being the most charged moment of Francis' push for an enhanced synodality in the church (...let alone the import of the already-stated environmental focus).

If you've been around here long enough, you already knew that the Synod was the key to everything else, and how a mandate for "the inculturation of the Gospel" is the oft-forgotten "bomb" in this pontificate's programmatic text. 

Even for said awareness, though, today's news just made both a bit more real – indeed, as Hummes himself mapped out during his own 2015 visit to the US, the process ahead will entail "the harmonization of the Catholic Church with the native culture of the Amazon"...

In other words, not the other way around.

Yet again, these are interesting times. As always, stay tuned.