Cardinal Urosa: Some Pastoral Suggestions for the Pan-Amazon Synod

COMMENTARY: The Synod for Amazonia: Comments Concerning the Instrumentum Laboris; Part 3 of a Series

(photo: 2006 photo, Andrew Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images)

This third installment of my commentaries upon the instrumentum laboris, or working document, for the Pan-Amazonian Synod, analyzes the third part of the text, which is “The Prophetic Church in Amazonia, Challenges and Hopes.” I will center it mainly on some of its pastoral proposals, not all of them.

One important observation to start: It is quite astonishing that the replies and facts supplied by the faithful consulted in Amazonia deal very little with the specifically religious, pastoral or ecclesial reality of the Amazonian missions.

Also astounding is that the majority of the recent comments I have read about the synod made by the ecclesiastics close to its preparation, touch only, or mainly, on the ecological aspects and the social and economic problems of the Amazonian peoples. Sure, it is fine they touch them. But they hardly mention the religious and spiritual aspects of the mission of the Church, to announce the words of life of our Lord Jesus Christ. The working document gives the same impression. Is that okay? Can we leave that in a second level? Is it not the main mission of the Church?

During the synod itself, this third part should be corrected, focusing on the centrality of evangelization and pastoral action in the mission, in order to revitalize the Church in Amazonia, which should be the main goal of the synod — so we hope.

Another special remark: The instrumentum laboris (IL) seems to think that all of the population of Amazonia is indigenous, Indians or “originary.” In Venezuela that is true only in the apostolic vicariates, not in the dioceses established in our Amazonian region, where the majority of the population live in cities like Ciudad Bolivar and Ciudad Guayana and are criollas, that is, white or mestizo (mixed race) Venezuelans, or Afro-Venezuelans, not Indians. Not all of the Amazonian people are original Indians.


Preferential Option for the Poor and Inculturation

The document quite rightly reminds us of the option for the poor as a line of action and a real requirement of the Latin American Church and Amazonia. Benedict XVI said in Aparecida that “the preferential option for the poor is implicit in Christological faith, in the God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty” (see 2 Corinthians 8:9). (His Holiness’ speech at the inauguration of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, 3).

Sure enough, the working document reminds us that the evangelical mission of the Church is something that was done through the centuries and is valid and urgent in our time (IL, 115). It also indicates that to maintain it today in Amazonia, a pastoral and missionary conversion is now necessary (IL, 119). This, among other things —  and it is a novelty — implies to “understand what the Holy Spirit has taught these peoples … faith in the Father-Mother Creator … the living relationship with nature and Mother Earth (making a distinction between them?) the rites and religious expressions, and the sacral sense of the territory (IL, 121). It also proposes to recognize indigenous spirituality as a source of riches for the Christian experience (IL, 123 b).

These are expressions that for those of us who are not familiar with them seem extremely strange and utterly foreign to Catholic beliefs about the created world and its relation with human beings. They do, in fact, bring to mind a sort of Christian-animist syncretism. That is unacceptable. In this sense we certainly hope that the Synod Fathers will clarify this and use profound discernment about possible recommendations.

Along the same lines of pastoral conversion, the text speaks of the inculturation of the faith, giving an almost absolute value to the original cultures, without valuing, or proposing, the evangelization of the culture. This latter is the transformation of human existence and the religious, social, cultural and family life of peoples through the Gospel of Christ, and through biblical and Christian and Catholic morality. And again, let us remember that — except in the apostolic vicariates — the majority of the population are not Indians; take, for instance, Manaus and Belem in Brazil.

These proposals of the instrumentum laboris also lead on to the suggestions of inculturated liturgy, which is to say, a liturgy adapted to the mentality and traditions of the people, as is suggested in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican Council II (37-40). In this area it remains to be seen what could actually be proposed during the synod for that “healthy decentralization of the Church” (IL, 126 d). Of course this adaptation would have to assure the preservation of the integrity of the faith, as well as the moral and spiritual conditions and prerequisites for a lively and fruitful participation in the sacred liturgy.


Organization, Pastoral Service and the Priesthood

In its search for new paths for the life of the Church, the instrumentum laboris examines the organization of the community and the pastoral service (IL, 127). Along these lines it proposes leaving out the idea that the exercise of jurisdiction — power of governance — should always be connected in the various areas, sacramental, judicial, administrative, in a permanent way with the sacrament of holy orders. It would seem to be proposing, in other words, that these functions could be performed by diverse persons, not sacramentally ordained. Here, once again, one would have to understand exactly what is meant by this proposal.

But we know that the religious, spiritual and pastoral faculties of bishops and priests are not like various functions of some pastoral staff, of “functionaries” or employees. These faculties are the expression of the priestly service of bishop and priest, men configured to Christ, the High and Eternal Priest, by the sacrament of holy orders. These are actions of Christ, who makes himself present in the bishop and priest through sacramental ordination. These are faculties conferred and assigned in solidum, as a whole, through the sacrament of holy orders. These faculties are not activities attributed collectively or separately to a person through a document nor through a legal or administrative action, an assignment … like any other appointment or job. These pastoral, sacramental, legal and magisterial faculties are the actions of the sacramental representative of Christ, Priest, Prophet and King.

A priest is a sacrament-person of Jesus, a man configured through the sacramental ordination to Christ, the Good Shepherd and High and Eternal Priest, in the service and for the benefit of the holy People of God. These faculties, apart from the material administration, are not functions that can be delegated individually. They are conferred only through sacramental ordination. This proposal implies a false, functionalist idea of the priesthood and does not consider their connection with the three munera Christi: prophet, priest and king.


Ordination of Married Elders

In the very necessary and desirable wish to have a greater pastoral presence, that is to say, a pastoral presence rather than just visits (128), the text proposes priestly ordination of married older people (IL, 129 a, 2). Notice a detail here: The text does not use the well-known and popular term viri probati, or “men of proven virtue.” It uses the expression “older persons,” leaving open the possibility of sacramental ordination of women. Let us not enter now into discussion about this second possibility. It has already explicitly been rejected many times by St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, as well as recently by Pope Francis. For now, let us listen to St. John Paul II:

“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (see Luke 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (St. John Paul II, apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994).

The text affirms very clearly the valid discipline of priestly celibacy as a gift to the Church. This is correct. In effect, in imitation of Christ, celibate and spouse of the Church, priests of the Latin Rite and many of the Oriental Churches, freely elect to consecrate our lives to God and to the Church. For this we renounce marriage, and we commit ourselves religiously before God to a life of perfect chastity. This is something which corresponds perfectly with the nature of the priesthood, which is configuration with Christ, High and Eternal Priest and Good Shepherd.

Sure enough, the issue of ordaining older, married men is a matter of discipline, of religious and pastoral convenience. Priestly celibacy is not a dogma fidei and admits weighing the pros and cons. Of course they could be ordained. But we must think about what kind of priests they would be. Some second-class priests? Won’t they perhaps be like the famous “Mass and meal priests” of the past? What kind of preparation would they have? Permanent deacons require a rigorous preparation, generally of at least four years. And once ordained, they are not on their own; they generally work closely with some bishop or some priest. And what would their ministry be, simply celebrating the sacraments? From whom would they depend, that is to say, who would be their immediate superiors? Would there not be conflicts between these older sacraments-only priests and the parish priests and episcopal vicars? How would their economic and administrative regimen be set up, that is, who would support them in the extremely poor dioceses and missionary vicariates?

And another thing: Ordaining older married priests in mission territory would not mean placing them in a kind of isolated territory. These missionary lands are neighbors of established dioceses. And the older married priests would move around. How could married priests in the missions combine with the celibate priest of the neighboring diocese? And then, this opening in the discipline: Would it be limited to Amazonia? Would it not debilitate the celibate priesthood in the rest of the world? There are many serious questions about the ordination of good married elders. And it would perhaps not solve the problem that we are facing. I do not think it suitable nor useful.

I believe that the solution to attending to these communities lies in an ever greater activity of evangelization and sanctification, so as to strengthen the faith in those Christian communities that have no priest. Evangelization and vocations produce fruits in the long run. We have seen that happen in many dioceses of Venezuela.

Certainly the labor of our beloved missionaries has been, and is, magnificent, of great sacrifice and worthy of all respect, recognition and praise. That is why we must study the reasons why preaching the Gospel and all the missionary work there has not produced more fruits, such as native vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. Now: Would the ordination of some older men to the priesthood, good only for liturgical functions, really inject the necessary energy into the Church? There are many questions that need answers. And, finally, the subject of married elders ordained to the priesthood is too important and serious to be decided for the universal Church by a regional synod.


Other Ministries

We find in the text another proposal to strengthen the pastoral activity in Amazonia: an official ministry for women (IL, 126 a,3). Today, all over the Church, women already serve in many ministries: lectors, altar servers for the Eucharist, extraordinary ministers of Communion, catechists. And they perform so many other functions of great importance in the schools, in diocesan or parish administration, in ecclesial communications media and in the health centers of the Church, not forgetting as social workers, and so on. We would have to see what those who are proposing this new official ministry have in mind. Pope Francis has already made a pronouncement against a female diaconate. We will see what happens during the synod.

Consecrated life is, fittingly, very well presented in the working document (IL, 129 d). It is with enormous self-donation and dedication that the sisters and brothers of consecrated life are accomplishing a beautiful labor in Amazonia. May they continue to reinforce the specifically evangelical and religious aspects of their work to stimulate and revitalize the life of the Church in those lands!



Now, during the synod, we raise our prayers to the Lord, that he may pour out his Holy Spirit abundantly upon the Synod Fathers. They have the task of showing the new paths for the revitalization of the Church, as well as to protecting the peoples of Amazonia and its territory, and for an ecological conversion.

This synod, then, must welcome all the strengths of the working document and must necessarily overcome its faults and omissions, so as to give impetus to an ever greater work of evangelization of the Church, not only in Amazonia, but in the whole world.

May the Most Holy Virgin Mary, mother of God and our Mother, bless and inspire all those beloved and assiduous missionaries of Amazonia: bishops and priests, deacons, consecrated men and women and lay apostles. Thanks for their beautiful work and lives offered up to the Lord and to the Church!

May they continue their wonderful apostolic work of announcing Jesus Christ to all the Amazonian people. He is the only One in whose name we have “redemption and the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:14). Amen.

Go here to read Part 1 and Part 2 of Cardinal Urosa’s analysis of the Pan-Amazon Synod’s working document.

Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino is the archbishop emeritus of Caracas, Venezuela.