Editor's Note: This interview was first published by ACI Digital, a Portugese-language sister agency of CNA. It has been adapted and translated by CNA.
BELÉM DO PARÁ, Brazil — A long-time missionary bishop of the Amazon River delta has said that the working document for an upcoming synod of bishops on the region does not address the actual problems faced by the Church in the region.
Bishop José Luis Azcona, is the missionary bishop emeritus of Marajó, a diocese that includes dozens of islands in the Amazon River Delta. During his years of service in the region, Bishop Azcona lived under death threats for denouncing human trafficking and for defending the human rights of indigineous people.
In remarks recently offered to ACI Digital, CNA's Portugese-language sister agency, Bishop Azcona criticized the Instrumentum laboris, or working document, for October’s Pan-Amazonian synod of bishops, which he said fails to address the Church’s most pressing challenges: a growing Pentacostal majority; child labor, abuse, and trafficking; and a spiritual crisis.
Bishop Azcona said that synod must address a sobering reality: “the Amazon, at least the Brazilian Amazon, is no longer Catholic.”
He questioned the central points of the synod’s preparatory document, which he said focus unduly on “a distorted vision of the so-called Amazonian face,” “interculturality,” and the ordination of married men.
The Face of the Amazon
According to Bishop Azcona, “the Amazon, at least the Brazilian Amazon, is no longer Catholic.
“This point of departure is crucial for conducting the synod. If the Amazon has a Pentecostal majority, it is necessary to address that reality thoroughly.”
“Any nostalgia for an Amazon that no longer exists is fatal to its integral evangelization. Even in some areas of the Amazon the Pentecostal majority reaches 80%,” he said.
“A Pentecostal penetration into several indigenous ethnic groups, overrunning cultures, ethnic identities, indigenous peoples in the name of the Gospel, is a serious phenomenon in today's Amazon, which with its fundamentalist and proselytizing connotations has a profound impact on the indigenous peoples.”
“This is today's Amazonian face!”
“There's not one word about this point in the Instrument laboris,” Bishop Azcona said.
The bishop added that “the long experience of years confirms that in many Amazonian dioceses the faith is not lived out in society nor in history. The chasm between the confession and celebration of faith in beautiful liturgies and the social, environmental, cultural and political reality has not yet been overcome.”
Bishop Azcona next pointed the pervasive problems of child abuse in the Amazon region.
“Unfortunately, the synod doesn't know, or knowing doesn't understand, the significance, for the present and the future of the Amazon, of the faces of anguished, re-victimized and denigrated children, [abused] by their own parents and relatives, subjected to a slavery that forms an essential part of the abandoned and destroyed face of Jesus in the Amazon.”
“This entire document is straw if it doesn't understand or doesn't commit to the spirit and letter of the Gospel: 'He who receives a little one like this receives Me and he who receives Me, receives the Father who sent Me.”
In that regard he continued, “in Pará alone in one year there were 25,000 reports of crimes of this kind [Editor's note: pedophilia]. According to experts in this area, for every reported case of pedophilia there are four others besides. If during approximately one year there were 100,000 abused children in Pará, isn't this face of destroyed children an essential part of the Amazonian face?”
“Where is the pastoral sensitivity, so evident and so firmly expressed by the Holy Father Pope Francis, expressed by those responsible for the Instrumentum laboris?” Bishop Azcona asked.
“Where is the defense of the Amazon, of its children, in the Instrumentum laboris, and, therefore, in the synod? Let's stop these false projections about the Amazon, and instead make possible new paths for it.”
“What is the Amazonian face? Can a synod next October of this magnitude be built with a presentation so far from reality, from identity, from respect for what is different, when pre-established schemes of interpretation of reality deform what is real?” he questioned.
Inculturation or 'Equalization'?
Bishop Azcona also criticized “the themes around the inculturation of the Gospel in the Amazon and related areas,” which he said “are presented in a context of immanence, Neo-Pelagianism, leveling out the Gospel with Amazonian (indigenous) cultures, ecclesiologically devoid of theological and pastoral foundations, annulling the Gospel of salvation.”
Recalling the Ad gentes decree of the Second Vatican Council, the bishop pointed out that “the words of the Gospel proclaimed by the Church decide the destiny of persons, of peoples, cultures and nations.”
“In no part of the Instrumentum laboris is anything similar explicitly affirmed. On the contrary, the tendency to equalize the indigenous cultures with the Gospel is overwhelming. This is a point of departure which cannot be dispensed with in a synod.”
“Forgetting this fundamental principle renders the synod useless and nullifies the specific and unique power of God in the Gospel, as well as all missionary dynamism in the Amazon and from the Amazon,” he said.
Bishop Azcona pointed out that “in no part of the Instrumenum laboris is the presence of demons spoken of, or their influence, their malice in persons, peoples and cultures, as well as the victory of Christ, his deliverance and the destruction of the power of the Evil One.”
“The document forgets the luminous and guiding pages that speak of the Evil One and his presence in history, to which Pope Francis devotes numbers 158-164 in last year's apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exultate.”
He also warned that “the Pelagianism spread throughout the document, leads to attributing to the Amazonian man, to his ethnic and cultural groups, more than what belongs to them, because they are realities created and marked by sin, and it supplants the solid conciliar doctrine about the Gospel and the mission of the Church in the power of the Risen One, as found in Lumen gentium 16.
“Finally, the utopian ideo to revitalize the pre-Colombian religions, separating them from Christ and the universal Church, would not be progress but regression,” he said.
Addressing the question of ecological conversion, the bishop argued that “the need for repentance for the forgiveness of sins is the fundamental challenge that the Church has to face in the Amazon. Without this absolute priority of the being and action of the Church there is no future for the Amazon, because we thus forget the presence of the Kingdom of God in the world.”
“In the absence of the repentance that 'makes exist that which does not exist' for the generation of the new Amazonian man, the document does not experience the hunger, the thirst for the Holy Spirit.”
According to the bishop “the document, forgetting the New Pentecost encouraged by Pope Saint John XXIII in the preparatory prayer for the Council, sets aside the nucleus of the mission in the Amazon. Is this mission in the Amazon like a land and water mission? Or is it the missionary dimension which, as the Church in the Amazon, is called and sent out to the world? Let us be guided by the inspired teaching of Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium.”
“What the Holy Father proposes is evangelization and therefore an Amazon very different from a set of tasks carried out, projects, pastoral plans, inculturation, ecology.”
“Why doesn't the document cry out this truth, the only truth that can save the Amazon?” he asked.
Bishop Azcona said that “the ordination of “viri probati” is going to be useless,” since “it's placing a piece of new cloth on an old fabric. The tear is bigger!"
On the other hand, he observed, “the clergy in the Amazon need, as does the entire Church, repentance, conversion, the faith that saves in the strict sense. Experience offers this evidence. The meaning of the priestly ministry and specifically in the Amazon, is lost or is dead in the lives or in the authentic pastoral conversion of priests.”
“Why ordain viri probati within a priesthood in crisis?” he asked
“The perfect and perpetual continence of the Kingdom of Heaven will continue being, a sign of encouragement of pastoral charity and the original source of spiritual fruitfulness- within the Amazon,” he said.
“We may ask: Does this attitude of prayer exist for the gift of celibacy in the priests of the Amazon? “Does the entire Church pray that this sublime gift be poured out on the whole Body of Christ? The facts answer: 'No'!'”
“And also, and principally, deciding this issue is something completely inopportune in a context in which the current trends of large groups of Catholics, the so-called conservatives, are questioning the Magisterium of the Church, specifically in the Supreme Pontiff himself. Some are publicly calling him a heretic demanding his immediate resignation. Others are demanding his resignation for the lack of consistency on the issue of pedophilia in the Church! Let's not entertain a discussion on the legitimacy of these questions. What is certain is than an affirmative response would open up the risk of a division, of a real schism in the Church.”
He thus stressed that “it's not about the victory of the so called 'conservatives' or the 'progressives.' It's about what is greatest in the Church: charity. In the face of charity, any concept or sociological label ought to pale.”
“Recognizing that the venerable institution of priestly celibacy belongs to the disciplinary area of the Church and therefore subject to changes, I considerate it disadvantageous, even dangerous at this time for ecclesial unity, to open up the possibility that the document is asking for,” Azcona said.
“It's not an exclusively indigenous ministry problem. It's a situation of the widespread shortage of priests in the Church. The same reasons that can be invoked for this recognition asked for by the document are the same ones that can be applied to the entire Church, or to much of it.”
According to the bishop, “the problem is not just the lack of enough priests, but the examination, discernment of this great shortage for a realistic solution. The fundamental root of this shortage of vocations in the Church and also in the Amazon, including the evangelized indigenous peoples, is due to an alarming lack of faith or the absence of faith that works in practice through love and necessarily in history and society.”
Thus, he explained, “even though it's a disciplinary issue, this becomes an ethical imperative beginning with the absolute instruction: Christ died for the unenlightened brother; your freedom is not something absolute; it is against Christ they sin, wounding the conscience of the brother; the only absolute is love; this love is that of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit”
“Is this the love of the Church in the Amazon? Is this the love of God that sufficiently pervades the criteria for pastoral care, the ecclesial criteria, the praxis as the supreme reality or is it gnosis or Pelagius which commands the ship of the Church in the Amazon?”
“This danger of schism is not imaginary! Nor in the Amazon!” Azcona concluded.
Bishop Azcona, 79, is a native of Pamplona, Spain. He was appointed a missionary bishop in the Amazon in 1987, and retired from his post in 2016.