VATICAN CITY — A private meeting held to discuss the upcoming Amazonian synod and involving largely German-speaking prelates and experts took place on Tuesday in Rome.

According to Holy See spokesman Alessandro Gisotti, the gathering was a “study meeting” of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM).

Earlier in the day, an official at the Synod of Bishops denied all knowledge of the meeting when asked about it. 

The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network was set up in 2014 by the nine Churches of the Amazon region, in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela, to “bring to the world’s attention the fragile situation of indigenous people in the Amazon and the critical importance of the Amazon biome to the planet — our common home.”

Gisotti told the Register that Tuesday’s meeting was with “ecclesial authorities, experts and representatives of the territory in view of the Synod on the Amazon.” 

But he said he was unable to give details of the participants. “It’s a study meeting, not for the public,” he said, adding: “There will be others before the synod.” 

Sources, however, have told the Register there were 30 invited participants of the study meeting, some of whom were Italian. It took place at a convent and retreat center on the outskirts of Rome run by the Ancelle di Cristo Re Congregation, and included Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the general relator of the synod and president of REPAM.

Others were Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, a close theological adviser to Pope Francis.

Also in attendance was Austrian Bishop Emeritus Erwin Kräutler of the Territorial Prelature of Xingu in Brazil, whom Pope Francis appointed as an expert consultant to the synod. 

Bishop Kräutler has argued for ordaining married men in the Amazon,and voiced his support for women priests. He is thought to have helped write the synod’s controversial working document published last week. 

 

“Point of No Return”

Other participants included Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany, the head of the German bishops’ Latin America commission, which through its aid organization Adveniat provides significant financial and pastoral support to Latin America. 

Last month, Bishop Overbeck said the synod will lead the Church to a “point of no return,” and, thereafter, “nothing will be the same as it was.” 

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, was invited to the meeting but was unable to attend due to surgery for prostate cancer, his press spokesman, Michael Prüller, told the Register. 

Entitled “Amazonia, New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” the Oct. 6-27 synod will be a time of “pastoral reflection, open to recognizing diversity” and “listening to the Amazonian reality with all its cultural and ecclesial facets,” Cardinal Baldisseri told reporters last week. 

He was speaking at the launch of the synod’s controversial instrumentum laboris (working document), which focused on themes such as inculturation, “ecological conversion” and synodality.

But the working document has been criticized for what some see as excessive emphasis on listening to the Amazon cultures and “ecological conversion.” It is serving a pagan agenda, critics have said, instead of taking Revelation, the Word of God, and conversion to Christ as its starting point. 

It also controversially proposes study of ordaining elders (possibly married men) with families to help bring the sacraments to remote Amazonian areas, an “official ministry” for women, and calls on bishops’ conferences with a “healthy decentralization” to “adapt the Eucharistic ritual to their cultures.”

According to papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, one of the purposes of Tuesday's meeting was to prepare for the synod “a briefing on theological implications of ordaining married elders.” 

None of the participants seen on a list of attendees at today’s meeting are noted for their orthodoxy. They included Father Hubert Wolf, a theologian and Church historian, said by one informed source to be “theoretically and practically against clerical celibacy.” An alumnus of the University of Tubingen, he was ordained to the priesthood in his home Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in the 1990s when Cardinal Kasper was the diocesan bishop. 

Considered a moderate theologian during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, he has reputedly become considerably more heterodox under Pope Francis and teaches at the University of Münster, Germany's fifth largest university, one of the foremost centers of German intellectual life, and which one source close to the German Church described to the Register as a “hotbed of heterodoxy.” 

 

Rhine Flowing into the Amazon?

Another attendee was Msgr. Josef Sayer. Well-known in Catholic humanitarian circles, Msgr. Sayer served from 1997 to 2012 as the chief executive of the German Catholic aid organization Misereor, one of the most influential Catholic charities in the world.

Sayer, 77, “built up vast networks of influence and promoted the projects he wanted,” the source close to the Church in Germany told the Register. He was known as a passionate fighter for human rights and against injustice, poverty and climate change, and according to an informed Vatican source to be a fervent defender of Amazonian Indian theology, which figures highly in the synod working document and which some critics call a “cultural recycling of liberation theology.” 

Also attending the meeting was professor Myriam Wijlens, a theologian at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. 

The source close to the Church in Germany said the upcoming synod is “not about rethinking things” as some have wished to portray it, but largely German theologians “activating old material.” The organizers, he said, “are getting old folders out of the cupboard and trying to implement the 1970s thinking within them.”  

And despite a strong emphasis on listening to the “voice of the Amazon” in the working document, a significant and common factor in this meeting is the large number of European and particularly German prelates and theologians taking part, and the seemingly few or absent Amazonian voices. 

The strong input from German-speaking prelates and theologians has led concerned observers to believe that the synod is a means of them imposing and implementing their own ideological agenda — especially mystifying to some, given the less-than-robust state of the Catholic Church in German-speaking countries and other Churches in Europe.

Reporting on the Second Vatican Council, the American priest Ralph Witgen wrote the famous book, “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber,” which recorded the German Church’s influence on that meeting. Asked June 21 if the Rhine is now flowing into the Amazon, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told the Register: “We see that it’s not a good influence because the Church is going down in Germany,” 

“They [German Church leaders] are not aware of the real problems [in the Church today] and they are speaking about sexual morality, celibacy and women priests,” he said, “but they don’t speak about God, Jesus Christ, grace, the sacraments, and faith, hope and love, the theological virtues.” 

***

UPDATE June 27: Here below is the full list of invited participants at this week's meeting obtained by the Register. The conference ran from June 24-26. 

Almost a third of the participants were from Germany or German-speaking countries. Over half (16) were from Europe or had European roots, although a good number of them of has spent much or all of their lives living in Latin America. Three of the participants were indigenous people.

Bishop Overbeck’s spokesman told the Register June 26 that “meetings and conversations in preparation for a synod are common” and that “the content of such discussions is generally not public.”

 

Cardinal Claudio Hummes OFM, general relator of Amazonian Synod, President of REPAM (Brazil)

Cardinal Pedro Barreto SJ, archbishop of Huancayo, vice president of REPAM (Peru)

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general, Synod of Bishops (Italy)

Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and close theological adviser to Pope Francis (Germany)

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, close theological adviser to Pope Francis (Austria) (absent for health reasons) 

Bishop Erwin Kräutler, C.PP.S., emeritus of Xingu, Parà, member of pre-synodal council (Austria/Brazil)

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, bishop of Essen, Germany, president of Adveniat, episcopal humanitarian agency for Latin America (Germany)

Father Michael Czerny SJ, co-secretary of Amazonian Synod (Canada)

Patricia Gualinga, human rights activist of the Pueblo Kichwa de Sarayaku indigenous community (Ecuador)

Sr. Alba Teresa Cediel Castillo, general councillor of the Missionary Congregation of Mother Laura, expert on ethics and pedagogy (Colombia)

Sr. Liliana Franco, of the Company of Mary Congregation, president of the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (Colombia)

Fr. Paolo Suess, liberation theology expert (Germany-Brazil)

Fr. Victor Codina SJ, theologian (Spain-Bolivia)

Fr. Fernando Roca Alcazar SJ, social anthropologists and ethnobotanist, Pontifical Catholic University (Peru) 

Fr. Pedro Hughes, Columban missionary, coordinator, REPAM (Ireland)

Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende, Salesian priest of the indigenous Tuyuca people (Brazil)

Fr. Felipe Jaled Ali Modad Aguilar, Rector Parroquia, Bachajón Mission (Mexico)

Fr. Agenor Brighenti, theologian, University of Louvain (Belgium)

Fr. Paolo Garuti OP, professor of biblical theology, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Italy) 

Fr. Hubert Wolf, professor of theology and Church history, University of Munster (Germany)

Prof. Myriam Wijlens, University of Erfurt (Germany)

Prof. Peter Szabó, head of Institute of Canon Law, University of Budapest (Hungary) 

Prof. Serena Noceti, professor of systemic theology, Higher Institute of Religious Studies, Florence (Italy)

Msgr. Josef Sayer, theologian, former chief executive, Misereor (Germany)

Dina Guerra, program manager, Porticus, part of the heterodox Brenninkmeijer philanthropic organization helping to foster “human dignity, social justice and sustainability” (Germany-Netherlands)

Mauricio López, executive secretary, REPAM (Ecuador)

Bishop Eugenio Cotter, vicar apostolic of Pando, titular bishop of Tibiuca, member of pre-synodal council (Bolivia)

Romina Gallegos, national coordinator, REPAM (Ecuador)

Fr. Carlos Galli STD, close theological adviser to Pope Francis (Argentina)

Miguel Cruz Moreno, indigenous peoples activist (Mexico) 

 

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.