Bishop Discusses the Catholic Church’s ‘Ministry of Presence’ in the Amazon

‘What has been a major theme — and this gets tied not just [to] the Eucharist, but the larger sacramental life — is how can the Church have a ministry of ‘presence’ rather than a ministry of ‘visit’?” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego said.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego (photo: 2017 AP photo/Andrew Medichini)

VATICAN CITY — Arguments for and against ordaining married men in the Amazon, calls to avoid syncretism, and a balanced approach to inculturation were just some of Bishop Robert McElroy’s early observations of the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region, which he shared with the Register on Thursday.

Speaking after the first meeting of small groups, the bishop of San Diego — one of three U.S. bishops taking part in this special international assembly of bishops — said it was too early to give more than general impressions, but he noted a “unifying theme” has been how the Church can be pastorally present, rather than merely visitors, to the Amazon people.

The synod will continue through Oct. 27.

Bishop McElroy said he welcomed the fact that various other solutions have been proposed as an alternative to ordaining viri probati (“men of proven virtue”) to the Catholic priesthood to help resolve a regional priest shortage, acknowledged that some may see women deacons as a step towards women priests but has not heard that as an overt wish, and said that before giving his intervention (talk), he wanted to listen to what participants from the region had to say.


Your Excellency, what particular issues have been the most important to you, so far?

What has been at the center of the debate and discussions has been the pastoral situations in the vast expanses and how the Church can effectively be present [in those]. What has been a major theme — and this gets tied not just [to] the Eucharist, but the larger sacramental life — is how can the Church have a ministry of “presence” rather than a ministry of “visit”?

There’s not a set of specific solutions that has emerged, there are ones that have been composed, of course, but there’s great variety to the proposed solutions because people have different views of what is most necessary, because part of it is there’s already a presence in so many communities of the faith who are there.

Christ is present and the Church is present, and, often, you’ll have a catechist present, and so there is some degree of lay leadership already there in the community, so there’s presence. But then you have the sacramental presence, and not just the Eucharist, of course, but that there’s the baptisms, the marriages, and all these different questions.

So those have been very powerful and moving, and I’d also just say that this theme of presence is tied to how to be with the people when they’re being victimized, which brings all the other questions, of course, of the criminalization of indigenous leaders trying to protect their lands and martyrdom.

At the front of the hall each day are the names of various martyrs, lay, priests, women religious, who in very recent times have all been murdered. So there’s the mystery of the presence in that way, too — how to be with the people when they’re being victimized, either by internal groups in the country, or globalization interests, which come in to cause deforestation. Then it gets to the question of ecology. So I’d say those have been the main issues. The pastoral one has been dominant, so far.


What about the issue of viri probati (the ordination to the priesthood of mature, married “men of proven virtue”)?

I can’t tell where that’s going to go.


Has it been discussed a lot?

A number of people have proposed that, a number of important points, but it hasn’t reached a state yet where it’s clear what exactly the parameters are.


Other options are also being put forward?

Yes, that’s what I mean; the viri probati are one of many options, tied to that broader question of presence: How can the Church be present in this community? One of the bishops was saying he has a vast region and that if the per capita number of priests in his diocese were applied to Italy, there would be 64 priests in Italy. Well, that’s a way of bringing home what the situation is, but there’s a much more wide-ranging set of options on the table that I thought were going to be the focus, and I think that’s a good thing.


Many concerns have been raised about this synod — what do you think about these, not only viri probati, but also, for example, a women’s diaconate, which some, including Bishop Erwin Kräutler, a key figure of the synod, believe may be a step towards women priests?

There are some people who do see it as a means to bringing about women priests, but I don’t hear that as dominant. Even the voices I have heard have been proposing women as permanent deacons; that’s what they’re suggesting — they’re not suggesting it’s a step all the way to the ordination of women to priesthood. I don’t mean they’re not, but that’s not what I’m hearing, even from those who are suggesting that.

[Other topics concern] economic and justice questions within the region itself and then what the implications are for the wider Church in this synod. It’s not clear how those pieces, to me, are going to fit together. So I have to say it’s a much more fluid situation than I would have thought. Where we’re going to come out at the end, I don’t have a sense of that, at this point. But there’s a lot more diversity to the options being suggested than had been expected, or at least than what I had been discerning.


The instrumentum laboris, the synod working document, was, of course, a concern. Have you seen those issues being brought up?

Viri probati has been brought up, but, again, that’s among a menu of different options being proposed. The unifying theme is: How can the Church be pastorally present? How can the sacramental life of the Church take place in these communities?


What have been the discussions regarding inculturation?

We’ll have to see how it goes, but it seems, to me, the questions of inculturation, as they have been proposed, in general — now there are a few outliers — are genuinely in keeping with the traditional approach of inculturation.


It’s more about bringing the faith to them, would you say, rather than an overemphasis on listening?

It involves both, of course, but it isn’t so much that we’re bringing it to them. It’s Christ brings the faith — the Church brings the Gospel faith. It’s developed in the Latin Church, and that becomes the seed; but then they interact with the local culture. Particularly within the liturgical life, say, or the social life of the community, certain cultural forms are helpful in doing that, and then you have to be very careful not to tip the balance of that. There’s a point at which, and several mentioned this — that we want to avoid syncretism.


They did mention that?

Oh, yeah; people said we want to avoid syncretism.


Was the controversial prayer event in the Vatican Gardens on Saturday brought up?

That has not been mentioned. The Pope mentioned the question of the headdress, people who mocked that, but that event has not come up.

I have to say I have found the inculturation discussions to be sober, in keeping with the tradition — you know, of the last 50 years — and to be aware that there are dangers of unfocused inculturation, and yet there’s a necessity for inculturation. So my ideas have been to talk about how, within the liturgy, can we have a meaningful set of rituals that complement the core liturgical life of the Church, that are consistent with it, yet reach deep into the culture and traditions?


Were you a little disturbed by that event on Saturday?

I saw it alluded to, but I’m not clear what exactly happened, so I’d hate to comment because that one I don’t know. I was, of course, at the ceremony here [in St. Peter’s Basilica] at the beginning; but that, of course, is not what people are talking about.


You spoke out strongly recently about combating climate change and on environmental issues. Is this something you have mentioned or will mention at the synod?

I haven’t spoken yet, it will come into it, but won’t be the centerpiece of what I’m going to focus on. I wanted to listen first a lot, because I’m not from the region, so I want to see first what the people from the region, the leaders, are saying and then draw from that.

For me to come in from California and say: “Here’s how things should be done,” or even: “Here are the implications of what you wrestle with here for the rest of us in the world,” that would not be proper.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.