Who Is in the Pan-Amazon Synod’s Small Working Groups?

In previous synods during the pontificate of Pope Francis, these working groups have been an instrument for advancing contentious agendas.

The Oct. 14 Pan-Amazon Synod media conference is seen through a smartphone viewfinder
The Oct. 14 Pan-Amazon Synod media conference is seen through a smartphone viewfinder (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — If previous synods can be taken as a guide for future ones, the circoli minori (small working groups), rather than the general congregations, can be where agendas pursued by a minority can be introduced into the synod proceedings.

The German-language group was a particular focus in this regard, both during the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family and at the synod on youth last year.

On these occasions, participants in those German-language groups tabled subtle amendments to synod final reports in an apparent attempt to push through a preset agenda.

During the second synod on the family, this involved including selective parts of John Paul II’s teaching that would effectively soften his explicit teaching against remarried divorcees receiving Holy Communion.

For the youth synod, it entailed submitting amendments using terms such as “new anthropology,” instead of explicitly the loaded LGBT acronym, which some observers saw as an attempt to force gender ideology on the synod and have it adopted by the synod as a whole.

For the current Amazon Synod, the synod secretariat has so far only publicly released details of the relator and moderator of each group, but the Register has obtained a list of members of the 12 language groups, which are divided into five Spanish, four Portuguese, two Italian and one English/French.

Despite the overt wish of some Church leaders from Germany to steer this synod to change teaching on priestly celibacy, and introduce women deacons and other changes, this synod has no German-language group, primarily because the German Church has only one synod father: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference.

He is in the English/French-language group, along with two of three U.S. synod fathers: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. (The third American at the Synod, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, is in Spanish group “C”).

The group also includes bishops from Suriname, Canada and Papua New Guinea along with Cardinal Peter Turkson, the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Development, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, newly elevated Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg who is the group’s moderator, and Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, French Guiana, who is the group’s relator.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who played a pivotal role as moderator of the German small group during the 2015 Synod on the Family, is in Italian group “A” but its relator is Comboni Father Dario Bossi, and its moderator is Brazilian Salesian Father Flavio Giovenale.

Father Miguel Heinz, president of Adveniat, the German bishops’ aid agency for Latin America, is in Spanish group “B,” while Msgr. Permin Spiegel, the director general of Misereor, the German bishops’ largest aid agency, is in Spanish group “D.”

Both agencies have made significant contributions financially or in other ways to the preparation of the synod, although not the running of the synod itself. They have also said the synod would be an “unmistakable signal of departure” for the Church and have "significance for the Church worldwide.” The synod’s working document, they added, called for “a profound change in the Church.”

In an Oct. 13 statement, Father Heinz called for a “new form of economic solidarity” for a Church that “values cultural diversity,” and for a “discussion on women’s access to ministries.” He also said he saw the adoption of ordaining to the priesthood viri probati (married “men of proven virtue”) to minister for the shortage of priests in remote areas of the region, as “conceivable.”

Most of the members of synod’s Spanish groups “B” and “D” are bishops from Spanish-speaking countries of the Amazon, but they also have a number of the 33 papal appointees, including Bolivian Bishops Carlos Bürgler of Reyes, Jesuit Father Alfredo Ferro Medina, the coordinator of the Pan-Amazon project CPAL in Colombia, and Franciscan Father Sebastian Robledo of St. Francis Solano parish in Corrientes, Argentina.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is moderator of Italian group “B” whose other members are Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

That group also includes Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Its relator is Bishop Filippo Santoro of Taranto, Italy.

Bishop emeritus Erwin Kräutler, of Xingu, Brazil, a key figure behind the synod who supports married priests in the region and favors the ordination of women, is in Portuguese group “B.” The Portuguese-language groups are naturally mostly made up of Brazilian bishops, and group “B”’s relator is Franciscan Bishop Evaristo Pascoal Spengler of Marajó. Its moderator is Bishop Brito Guimaraes of Palmas.

In a briefing with reporters Friday, Bishop Giumaraes focused primarily on the ecological threats to his Amazonian region, and spoke of “ecological sins,” which “we must start confessing.” He also spoke of areas devastated by agribusiness, in particular soy production and cattle raising, and said this synod gives “great hope” in tackling these issues.

Papal appointee to the synod Salesian Father Martin Lasarte Topolanski, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the ordination of viri probati, is in Portuguese group “D.” “We can ordain the viri probati and others,” he wrote last week, “but the basic problems will remain: an evangelization without the Gospel, a Christianity without Christ, a spirituality without the Holy Spirit.”

Also in that group is Bishop Meinrad Franz Josef Merkel of Humaita, Brazil, a German-born veteran missionary in the Amazon who, like Father Lasarte, has in the past emphasized the importance of, and need for, evangelization in the region, most notably in an interview for L’Osservatore Romano.

Bishop Wilmar Santin of Itaituba, Brazil, a Carmelite who spoke out last week against reports of continued infanticide among some Amazon peoples and compared it to the “slaughterhouses” of abortion in the West, is relator of that group. Its moderator is Brazilian Bishop Zenildo Pereira da Silva of Borba.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, known to be a population control advocate who contributed to the Pope’s 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si, is a special invitee and a member of Spanish group “A.” Also a special invitee in that language group is Josè Diaz Mirabal, the president of the Congress of Indigenous Amazonian Organizations (COICA). The moderator of that group is Cardinal Carlos Retes of Mexico City.

German climatologist Hans Schellnhuber, an atheist who was also involved in an advisory capacity in Laudato Si, is in Spanish group “E.” Moderator for that group is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the coordinator of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, who has come under fire over his handling of financial and abuse scandals in Honduras. Most of the members of that group are bishops from countries such as Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who is listed as a synod participant, is not placed on any group.

A Vatican official told the Register that experts and other non-synod fathers will not be present for all the working groups as many are not staying for the full duration of the special assembly.

The Vatican said at the beginning of the synod that it would be publishing reports on the discussions taking place in the small groups, although none have appeared yet.