Pope Francis was elected to bring about a missionary metamorphosis of the Church.
The “next pope,” Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, told his brother cardinals during their pre-conclave meetings in 2013, had to be a “man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out of herself to the existential peripheries, who helps her to bear fruit living off the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.” The cardinals not only agreed with his assessment but deemed that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was the one to lead that transformation.
In his programmatic apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” written eight months later, Pope Francis articulated his “dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything,” so that all the Church’s resources “can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
He warned consistently of a self-referential Church, “living within herself, of herself and by herself,” focused on internal issues rather than on all those still waiting to receive the Gospel at the depth at which Jesus wishes it to penetrate. He spoke of the danger of the Church’s preaching becoming obsessed with “secondary” issues — applications of the Gospel to particularly moral themes — rather than on the primary proclamation of what God has done and continues to do out of love for us.
Nevertheless prior to, during and after last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region dedicated to “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” most of the oxygen has been spent self-referentially and on such secondary issues: the troubles, inalienable human rights and needs of the indigenous people of the region, the exploitation and destruction of the Amazon biome within the context of global environmental concerns, and the push, due to the region’s dearth of clergy, for married men to be ordained priests and women to be considered for transitional deacons.
The foremost ecclesial issue of the evangelization of the Amazon — five centuries after missionaries first arrived — was largely underemphasized. Some of the leading participants explicitly gave the impression that sharing the Gospel in the existential peripheries of the Amazon was not a priority. One bishop, a chief contributor to the synod’s working document, scandalously bragged that in nearly two decades, he had not baptized anyone.
Various other protagonists, in the midst of describing how desperate the region was for clergy, suggested that foreign missionaries need not apply. They wanted rather an “Amazonian Church with an Amazonian face,” which, if tried in any other part of the world — for example, “An Aryan Church with an Aryan face” or “a Tutsi Church with a Tutsi face” — would immediately be recognized as un-Catholic xenophobia.
This is why Pope Francis’ February 12 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia is such an important missionary reset. The Holy Father certainly didn’t ignore the fight for the dignity and rights of the indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultural riches, and the jealous conservation of its natural beauty and its sylvan and aquatic life. He indeed dedicated the first three chapters, respectively, to his social, cultural, and ecological dreams for the region.
But the true lynchpin of the exhortation was the fourth chapter on Pope Francis’ “ecclesial dream,” which takes up his original “dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything” and applies it to the Amazon.
The pope passionately declares that we cannot respond to the problems and needs of the Amazon only with “organizations, technical resources, opportunities for discussion and political programs” designed to help lift them out of poverty and defend their rights.
As Christians, he writes, “we cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel. An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned 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, he continues, “with a social message. If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father Who loves them with boundless love.” This message, “expressed in a variety of ways, must constantly resound in the Amazon region. Without that impassioned proclamation, every ecclesial structure would become just another NGO.”
He suggests, with paternal tenderness, that in some places the Church has not integrated the “social and Spiritual” adequately, focusing too much on material development and too little on Jesus Christ. The result has been that many of the people of the region have felt the need “to look outside the Church for a Spirituality that responds to their deepest yearnings,” as they have recently done in huge numbers toward Protestant churches.
The pope insists that the indigenous peoples “have a right to hear the Gospel, and above all that first proclamation, the kerygma,” the message that God “infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives.” This kerygma, he wrote in 2018, involves three truths: God loves you, Christ saves you, and Christ is alive and can be present in our life at every moment to fill it with light and take away sorrow and solitude. This is the message, he emphasizes, that must be “proclaimed unceasingly” in the Amazon and is the starting point for the Church’s care for the Amazon’s people, culture and environment.
He confronts head on the ideology that claims that sharing the Gospel is a violent foreign intrusion against the people, culture and religious traditions of the region and that what the indigenous really need is primarily social workers and development aid, not Jesus and His Church. “In our desire to struggle side-by-side with everyone,” he states, “we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ” and do not “scorn the richness of Christian wisdom handed down through the centuries, presuming to ignore the history in which God has worked in many ways.” Rather, the Church is proud of what God has done.
At the same time, he says, the Church must properly inculturate the Gospel. He implies that in previous centuries, missionaries sometimes thought that in proclaiming the faith, they also had to communicate “the culture in which they grew up.” The Gospel, however, is not “monocultural,” but is capable of becoming incarnate in every culture.
Inculturation, he says, involves a “double movement,” in which the Gospel takes root and enriches a culture with its transforming power while at the same time receives from the culture what the Holy Spirit has already mysteriously placed there. In the Amazon, he notes that the Holy Spirit has sown openness to God’s action of God, a responsible and grateful care for Creation that preserves resources for future generations, esteem for the family and for the Sacred character of human life, the importance of worship, a communitarian approach to existence, solidarity and shared responsibility, an austere and simple life, and belief in a life beyond this earth.
Nothing of this goodness that exists in Amazonian cultures should be rejected, he underlines, but all of these things should be “taken up in the process of evangelization,” as shown to be “brought to fulfillment in the light of the Gospel.”
As for evangelizers in this missionary transformation of the Amazon, the solution, he implies, is not ordaining married men as priests or investigating whether women might be ordained permanent deacons. It begins with praying insistently for vocations in the Amazon and ensuring that priests with missionary vocations from the region do not “go to Europe or the United States” but stay to help out “their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.” It involves more permanent deacons in the Amazon, he states, suggesting that it makes no sense to talk about ordaining married men to the priesthood if married men aren’t even stepping forward for the diaconate. He also calls on religious women and lay leaders to take on a much larger responsibility in passing on the faith.
He concludes the exhortation with a prayer to Mary as “Mother of the Amazon,” asking her to “bring your Son to birth in [Amazonian] hearts, so that He can shine forth in the Amazon region, in its peoples and in its cultures, by the light of His Word, by His consoling love, by His message of fraternity and justice.”
That’s a prayer born from the heart of a most profound papal dream and from the desires of the cardinals who elected him.
It’s also one that corresponds to the Amazon’s greatest need.
Anchor columnist Father Roger Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.