Will the Pan-Amazon Synod Abandon Pope Francis’ Aparecida Approach?

COMMENTARY: As the synod comes to the end of its first week, the central outcome is still in the balance.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, in Aparecida, São Paulo, Brazil.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, in Aparecida, São Paulo, Brazil. (photo: HVL/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

ROME — Aparecida is in danger: The “great continental mission” called for by the Latin American bishops in 2007 may die in Rome this month, with long-term consequences for the vitality of the Church in South America.

As the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region comes to the end of its first week, the central outcome is still in the balance. 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?

Both cannot survive. And if the favored vision of the synod is its working document, then Aparecida is dead, and the synod fathers will have proved themselves betrayers of the pastoral vision of Pope Francis.

The stakes are that high. The “missionary discipleship” that goes out to the “peripheries” has been the Holy Father’s constant refrain from the beginning. Yet at the synod to date, it does not look good for Aparecida, as the apparent consensus of the deliberations thus far has not sharply challenged the working document, which retreats from the mission and is rather light on discipleship.

The working document, released in June, has been subject to withering criticism for months.

“Copious in the text are cultural, ecological and socioeconomic themes,” wrote Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, emeritus of Caracas, in a three-part series for the Register that exposed the profound weaknesses of the text. “Less plentiful, but extremely more important, are the proposals for evangelization and pastoral action.”

So vehement was the criticism that by the time the synod opened, few voices bothered to defend it substantively. The preferred line — repeated by Pope Francis and by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldiserri, head of the synod secretariat — was that it was a “martyr text.” As the basis for discussion, it is meant to “die,” giving way to a new text that expresses the fullness of the synod deliberations.

If so, someone will have to kill it. Who might that be?

The most likely candidate is the Holy Father himself, who made the Aparecida vision of missionary urgency the dominant theme of his pastoral program in Evangelii Gaudium. Yet out of respect for the synod deliberations, Pope Francis is unlikely to take the initiative. After all, if the synod backs away from the missionary drive of Aparecida, the subsequent papal apostolic exhortation can correct it. As was seen with the two family synods of 2014 and 2015, the subsequent Amoris Laetitia departed in significant ways from the synod consensus itself.

Aparecida was the latest in the occasional gatherings of all the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, known as CELAM by its Spanish acronym. The first CELAM plenary, at Medellin in 1968, determined the pastoral priorities for the Church in Latin America for a generation. After meetings in Puebla, Mexico (1979), and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (1992), the most recent meeting was held in Aparecida, the principal Marian shrine of Brazil, in 2007.

Aparecida produced a radical document, understood as going to the roots of Christian proclamation and discipleship. It rejected the idea that the Church could coast along, depending on state favor or cultural inertia to hand on the faith.

It placed instead primary proclamation of the Gospel as its priority, aimed at personal conversion and intentional discipleship. To propose anew Jesus Christ, the bishops called for a massive “continental mission” in which evangelization would be given top priority. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was the principal drafter of the Aparecida document.

When in Evangelii Gaudium (2013), Pope Francis asked that all of the Church’s activities — from parish schedules to budgets to sacramental preparation to the corporal works of mercy — be recast with an eye to missionary proclamation, he was proposing the Aparecida message to the universal Church.

The synod’s working document is a testament to the failure of the CELAM to live out Aparecida.

Most of the Amazon region is in Brazil. The disconsolate laments about the lack of priests to serve in the Amazon, suggesting that it might simply be impossible to get priests into the remote areas, confirm that, far from spurring a dozen years of continental mission, Aparecida has not been adequately lived out even in its home country. The synod working document does not conduct an examination of conscience on why the Church in Latin America has not, after nearly five centuries, been able to get missionaries into the remote areas. It simply accepts the premise that the mission is impossible, so that the very best the peoples of the Amazon can hope for is a few ill-trained, elderly married priests who could celebrate the Eucharist, but not lead parishes, and may not even preach or hear confessions.

Apologists for the synod preparatory approach avoid entirely the question why the failure of the local Churches has been so complete. Austen Ivereigh, the author of two biographies of Pope Francis, argues that the synod will “reject” any “approach that is colonialist, ideological or exploitative.”

“Whenever the church has had this mindset, Francis warned, it has failed utterly to evangelize,” writes Ivereigh. “The Jesuit pope reminded the synod’s participants of the ill-fated sixteenth-century missions of the Jesuits Roberto Di Nobili, SJ, and Matteo Ricci, SJ, whose bold attempts at inculturation, in India and China respectively, were quashed by the pettiness and colonialist mindsets of church leaders at the time.”

But why go searching 500 years ago for reasons to explain failure today?

Aparecida is in Brazil, not India or China, and the idea that CELAM bishops in 2007 were infected by colonialist attitudes is absurd. The failure is closer to home, and some of those who have failed are now arguing there is there is no hope for any other outcome.

A key role in preparing for the synod was given to the Pan-Amazonian Church Ecclesial Network (REPAM). Mauricio López is its executive secretary, and is blunt about his abandonment of the Aparecida vision.

“There are no vocations,” says López, a Mexican who now lives in Ecuador. “The vocations that you have here do not have the missionary drive. The international missionaries, who were here in the past and sent people here — in Europe they don’t have any more people to send or resources.”

Aparecida did not envision Latin America as the responsibility of Europe, nor did simply accept as given that local vocations lack a “missionary drive.” But the Aparecida vision — the vision of Pope Francis — has completely failed to capture the vision of the synod’s preparatory officials.

In 2007, confirmed in 2013 with the election of Pope Francis, it appeared that Aparecida was CELAM’s gift to the universal Church. Twelve years later, the synod in Rome needs to serve as a reminder of just that. Otherwise, Aparecida will be the true martyr text of this synod.

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

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