Pope’s Amazon message is to empower lay people and avoid clericalism

Pope’s Amazon message is to empower lay people and avoid clericalism A wooden cross is seen in front of a Catholic church as a fire burns a tract of the Amazon jungle being cleared by loggers and farmers. Photo: CNS

A few years ago I was invited by Fr Seán Deegan, a Kiltegan priest, to conduct workshops in the Diocese of Juina in the Mato Grosso, Brazil.  This Amazonian diocese has 140,000 Catholics scattered over a region one and a half times the size of Ireland. It has 19 priests, some of whom are on loan.

Sean’s parish, one of 11 in the diocese, has 30 pastoral communities most of which are far flung and reachable only by extremely difficult unsurfaced roads. We visited a number of these communities.

Visits by priests are unavoidably few. The sense of welcome, excitement and joy among parishioners at the arrival of their priest was beyond description. In his absence lay catechists, usually women, get on with building up and nurturing the community. Every so often a parishioner makes the arduous journey to the parish church to bring back Holy Communion for the community.

The communities I met seemed vibrant and hungry for anything that would nourish their Faith and relationship with God.

I was struck by the ingenuity of the clergy in making scant resources of personnel and materials stretch across vast areas. I met young lay Catholics who managed the diocese’s simple but effective communications structure, making full use of YouTube channels and other social media as well as local radio to maintain communications with remote parishes and pastoral communities.


I also visited indigenous communities that spoke with great reverence of Irish missionaries. The destruction of their way of life has brought with it a range of social problems from alcohol and drug abuse to child prostitution and human trafficking. Their suffering was palpable.

For decades Irish priests and religious have joined other missionaries in providing a courageous defence against the horrific exploitation of the Amazon and the brutal disregard for the culture and values of the native peoples by multinationals motivated entirely by profit and greed aided and abetted by bribe-hungry and utterly corrupt politicians.

One of the Amazon’s most vocal advocates for several decades has been Fr Peter Hughes, an Irish Columban who has served as the Latin American Bishops’ executive secretary on justice and solidarity. Another is Kiltegan missionary, Bishop Derek Byrne of Primavera do Leste–Paranatinga. Both participated in the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region which concluded on October 27 last. Fr Hughes was one of the Synod’s chief architects.

In addition to being a region of extraordinary natural beauty, the Amazon tropical rain forest provides 20% of the world’s oxygen and has been described as the earth’s lungs. While the Synod was taking place in Rome the Amazon was literally burning. These latest  fires were the worst since 2013 and mostly resulted from illegal actions by timber loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers clearing the forest for grazing land.

The government has been accused of enabling these criminals by relaxing environmental controls. In turn, the government has dismissed criticism of its complicity in deforestation as ‘fake news’.


This is the background to the Synod and highlights its significance. It went a long way towards making up for the Church’s complicity in the colonisation of indigenous peoples in previous centuries. It provided a platform at the centre of the Church to the most vulnerable of its members from the peripheries. It drew the universal Church’s attention to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

The Synod is in the news again because last week Pope Francis issued the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Querida Amazonia (‘Dear Amazon’). It is a letter – some have described it as a love-letter – to the Amazon peoples, outlining Pope Francis’ dreams for the future of that region under four headings. He dreams of a region that fights for the rights of the poor and defends their dignity. He dreams of a region that cherishes its people’s cultural distinctiveness.

He dreams of a region that safeguards its natural beauty. Finally, he dreams of a Church with thriving Christian communities, “incarnate”, as he puts it, in the Amazonian culture.

The Synod’s most important message is a reiteration of Laudato Si’, namely, that the care of people and the care of ecosystems is inseparable (n. 42). Quoting Benedict XVI, Pope Francis says that “alongside the ecology of nature, there exists what can be called a ‘human’ ecology which in turn demands a ‘social’ ecology. All this means that humanity…must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. This insistence that “everything is connected” is particularly true of a territory like the Amazon region” (n. 41).

He wants the Church to empower lay leaders more while avoiding clericalising them.  This has been a constant theme of his pontificate”

Here in the West, reaction has focused on the fact that Pope Francis’ Exhortation is silent on the issue of the ordination of married men to the priesthood and of women to the diaconate.

A majority of bishops at the Synod voted for consideration of both of these to ensure not only adequate provision of the sacraments but also the development of a ministry in the Amazon region that is genuinely indigenous. Both proposals received the required two-thirds majority enabling them to be included in the Synod’s final document. However, of the 120 proposals put forward these two proposals also had the greatest number of votes registered against them.

A decisive step in the ordination of married men was taken by Benedict XVI in 2009 when he made provision for former Anglican clergy to be ordained to the priesthood.  Pope Francis isn’t convinced about extending this provision. “I haven’t sensed that the Holy Spirit is at work in that right now,” he is reported to have said.

He seems of the view that it could be too easy a solution, a step in the direction of spiritual worldliness that could foreclose on a self-sacrifice that is prophetic in contemporary culture. At the same time he accepts fully that it is wrong to leave communities deprived of the Eucharist.

The integral link between presiding at the Eucharist and leadership of the Christian community is also important”

He therefore believes the matter needs further discernment. Synodal-type processes are currently underway in the German and Australian Churches and Pope Francis is no doubt concerned about implications for the universal Church of a decision taken now on married priests in the Amazon.

His solution for now, apart from praying for vocations and requesting missionaries, is to suggest that we differentiate between the power to celebrate the sacraments and the authority to lead Christian communities.

This proposal is not unproblematic. He wants the Church to empower lay leaders more while avoiding clericalising them.  This has been a constant theme of his pontificate and is welcome. Yet the integral link between presiding at the Eucharist and leadership of the Christian community is also important and it is not clear how this would also be preserved by what he proposes.

On the issue of ordaining women deacons the Pope is far from encouraging though it can be assumed from what was said by Church representatives at the press conference to launch Querida Amazonia that the matter will be investigated further. He supports the formal establishment of formal lay ministries because it will help the Church in the Amazon to be properly inculturated and will give recognition to the leadership roles currently being exercised by lay people, mostly women.

Yet there will be understandable disappointment. When he speaks of “the simple and straightforward gifts…of strong and generous women”, many will see this as condescending even though his intention is no doubt the opposite.

Some commentators have concluded that the Pope’s silence on these issues is because he has lost his nerve; that he was ‘spooked’ by the intervention of his predecessor on the issue of celibacy and the hostility towards the synod in certain quarters. I don’t agree. His actions and even his inactions are consistent with the understanding and operation of synodality that he has been endeavouring to place at the heart of the Church. His silence is an ‘active’ silence albeit revealing the fact that he is intuitively conservative on these matters.


Synodality is a way of living and working together as Christians whereby we, the People of God, listen to the Word of God and, nourished by the Eucharist, assume and exercise collective responsibility for the life of the Church in our own place and time and in accordance with our respective callings.

Listening to the Holy Spirit is key and there are structures to facilitate this listening process at local, national and universal levels. The synodal process is sub Petro et cum Petro, that is, it happens with the Pope and under his direction. In Francis’ view certain issues discussed at the Synod on the Amazon require further discernment.


With the exception of the election of a Pope, decision-making in the Catholic Church does not come down to a vote. The issue is that Francis is not yet sure of “what the Spirit is saying to the Church” (Rev 2:29).

As he has often said, time is greater than space, and he believes that more time is needed.

In a key paragraph in Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis says that differences between us shouldn’t make us enemies and that if we engage in dialogue with truth and sincerity “we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction (n. 108). He goes on to say, “in this way, it becomes possible to be frank and open about our beliefs, while continuing to discuss, to seek points of contact, and above all, to work and struggle together…”

This is refreshing. Not that long ago difficult and divisive issues in the Church could not be discussed. No discussion meant no collective discernment. We are in a much healthier situation now. Yet the fact that we are free to discern issues does not necessarily mean that change will inevitably follow, or, if it is to follow, that it will follow immediately.

If we are genuinely open to discernment then we must also be open to the possibility that some things we discuss might not lead to change, or at least not for some time.

Fr Eamonn Conway is Head of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College