In ‘Querida Amazonia,’ Does ‘Mission’ of Aparecida Live Again?

COMMENTARY: Despite Pope Francis’ revival of the great vision the Latin American bishops set forth in 2007, there is little evidence that it will be truly be put into practice.

Pope Francis holds the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida at Brazil’s National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida on July 24, 2013.
Pope Francis holds the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida at Brazil’s National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida on July 24, 2013. (photo: Luca Zennaro/AFP Via Getty Images)

Does Aparecida live again?

Now that the Amazon synod process has been completed with the publication of Querida Amazonia, the apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, what is the status of the Aparecida vision most dear to him?

At the Latin American bishops’ plenary meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, the bishops committed themselves to a great vision of a continent filled with missionary disciples. The final document was drafted under the leadership of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, and the vision of Aparecida — outward-looking, bold and missionary — is part of the reason that he was elected pope.

During the synod last October, I wrote the following:

“Aparecida is in danger. The ‘great continental mission’ called for by the Latin American bishops in 2007 may die in Rome this month. … The synod must kill one of two documents. They propose competing visions of the Church’s presence in South America, and one must prevail. The other will die.

“What document will the synod kill? The much-maligned synod working document, which downplays evangelization in favor of ecology and a certain romantic primitivism? Or will they kill Aparecida, in the presence of the very pope who was its principal drafter 12 years ago?”

To continue the medical analogy, does Aparecida now live? It was dealt a mortal blow by the synod’s working document. The synod itself neither killed Aparecida definitively, nor did it restore its health. Rather, it left it in intensive care, awaiting a decision by the next of kin, Pope Francis, about whether more aggressive treatment should be attempted, or whether it should be left to die.

In reading Querida Amazonia, one first thinks that it is time to call the undertakers for Aparecida. The ecological section contains language and concepts from the working document that are dangerously close to a kind of pagan environmentalism that is far from Christian stewardship of the environment.

“The forest is not a resource to be exploited; it is a being, or various beings, with which we have to relate. ... We are water, air, earth and life of the environment created by God,” writes Pope Francis (42). “For this reason, we demand an end to the mistreatment and destruction of mother Earth. The land has blood, and it is bleeding.”

And certain ambiguous echoes of nature worship, rather far from biblical revelation, also survived into the papal exhortation: “For all these reasons, we believers encounter in the Amazon region a theological locus, a space where God himself reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters.”

God reveals himself in the whole of his creation; that is standard Christian teaching. But that the Amazon is a special place of “theological” significance? It is hard to know what that might mean.

Yet when Pope Francis turns his attention to his “ecclesial dream,” it is clear that whatever ground he may have conceded to the synod deliberations on eco-spirituality, he firmly rejects their abandonment of the Aparecida vision.

“We can respond beginning with organizations, technical resources, opportunities for discussion and political programs: All these can be part of the solution,” writes Pope Francis at the beginning of the ecclesial section. “Yet as Christians, we cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel. In our desire to struggle side by side with everyone, we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ. … ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!’ (1 Corinthians 9:16).”

The Holy Father then hammers home the primacy of evangelization over social concern, important as the latter remains. His language is strong, and two key paragraphs are worth quoting at length, as Pope Francis essentially summarizes Aparecida:

“An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them. How sad it would be if they were to receive from us a body of teachings or a moral code, but not the great message of salvation, the missionary appeal that speaks to the heart and gives meaning to everything else in life. Nor can we be content with a social message. … We cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them …” (63).

“They have a right to hear the Gospel. … Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO and we would not follow the command given us by Christ: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15)” (64).

A papal document needs to be diplomatic, but those paragraphs constitute a fulsome rebuke to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Amazon synod. The synod’s working document was an abandonment of the Great Commission of Christ himself. The synod, in not forcefully rejecting that working document, risked turning the Church into just another NGO in favor of biodiversity and indigenous advocacy.

Pope Francis thus steps into the breach here to save the Church in the Amazon — and in other parts of South America — from betraying her fundamental identity. The synod, which — perhaps unwittingly — had left Aparecida for burial, is here thwarted in its abandonment of the missionary discipleship that is at the heart of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

So does the “great continental mission” of Aparecida live again?

That would be too strong a conclusion. Clearly, Pope Francis returns to the vision in order to revive it. But the Pope alone cannot see to it that the “great continental mission” will be undertaken. And there is precious little evidence, even if Aparecida formally lives, thanks to Pope Francis, that it will truly be put into practice.

The Holy Father concedes as much in an important footnote (132): “It is noteworthy that, in some countries of the Amazon Basin, more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.”

Missionaries from the Amazon Basin would rather work in more comfortable Europe or America than in the Amazon itself. The Amazon may well be maltreated by “multinationals,” which come in for a vigorous thrashing in Querida Amazonia, but the primary neglect is from its own. The question is painful to ask: How can the universal Church effectively care about the Amazon if its own neighbors do not?

Upon his election in 2013, Pope Francis was convinced that the vision of Aparecida was a gift from Latin America to the entire Church. His programmatic first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, was essentially Aparecida translated from a continental to a universal context. Six years later, Aparecida needed to be rescued at home. That’s the task Pope Francis set for himself in Querida Amazonia.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.