The Special Synod on the Pan-Amazon is, and is increasingly becoming, a Synod which goes far beyond the territory upon which it is based. Equally, we should not lose sight of its specific geographic focus in case this might dilute its chances of producing the necessary changes and perspectives for the Synod to respond effectively to the particular situation which is in such need of conversion in the way that the Church is present. It is very important that the Synod on the Pan-Amazon should not lose its relevance and sense of belonging, and above all, its capacity to be truly announcing good news in the midst of such complex conditions of fragility and absence insofar as the Church is concerned, of death which results from the increasing forms of domination, extermination and extractive activity in the territory, and for the necessary acceptance and recognition of the grace and revelation of God in the midst of the cultural diversity of its original (indigenous) peoples and other communities, and the way in which they live out their hopes and their resistance so as to survive and remain there.
Thus, it is clearly a Synod held in tension between complementary poles or extremes. This is a huge challenge, but it is also a real opportunity for the necessary and longed for change in the Church and its way of being present in the world. As a reflection on the Unity in Diversity and the Trinitarian dimension of our faith, I present here what I consider to be, from my own experience in the different processes and stages of this current Synod, the THREE SUBSTANTIAL TENSIONS around and within the Pan-Amazon Synod. I hope that they serve as keys to understanding the present moment of the Church, what is at play, and what is disputed, in this Pan-Amazon Synod:
On the one hand we have a tension about 1. The DIMENSION. The present Synod is focused on a specific Territorial dimension, with very particular challenges and features which demand from the Church a kind of presence and response which is appropriate to this reality. On this point we can speak of the emergence of the territory as a new theological place (locus), and a new ecclesial subject in its territorial dimension. This brings with it serious implications for the very structure of the Church, given that the notion of territory, or promised land in the ancient tradition, is an element which gives meaning and identity and is the sustenance of the ecclesial raison d’être and mission: but it is also, in the tradition of following Christ, a call to search constantly to discover God incarnate in Jesus, that is to say, located in a territory, in a specific culture and context, and which goes on becoming incarnate in the changing passage of time.
It is also necessary to recognise territory in the realm of Social Sciences as a social and symbolic construct, which needs to be seen as a complex network of relationships, inter-knowledge, inter-recognition and inter-dependence. This is a perspective which helps us to understand the relationship of territories with apparently intangible aspects such as our culture and spirituality, with the natural surroundings which give us life, and with our history. And also, in the realm of Natural Sciences, particularly relevant in the case of the Pan-Amazon, where territory is conceived as a biome or an ecological unit which is a living system of complex organic inter- relationships which determine specific aspects of flora, fauna and mega-biodiversity.
It is a reality, as is stated in the preparatory document, where:
“in the Amazon forest, of vital importance for the planet, a profound crisis was unleashed, due to prolonged human intervention where a “throwaway culture” (LS 16) and an extractive mentality predominate. The Amazon is a region with a rich biodiversity, it is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith, a mirror of the whole of humanity which, in order to defend life, demands structural and personal changes from all of humanity, from States and from the Church”.
And, on the other hand, the Universal dimension of the Church, in which the need to accompany the itineraries of ecclesial reform which inspire us from the Second Vatican Council is clearly evident, and which are clearly expressed in the pastoral model which Pope Francis desires for the whole Church, where the future is presented as hope-giving and challenging. In this way, the Synod can, and should, contribute enlightenment in a universal overview, affirming the duality or dual focus of this Synod as far as its reach is concerned:
“The reflections of the Special Synod go beyond the strictly ecclesial scope of the Amazon, because they focus on the universal Church as well as on the future of the whole planet. We start from a specific territory from which we wish to build a bridge towards other essential biomes in our world: the Congo Basin, the biological corridor of Central America, the tropical forests of Asia and the Pacific, the Guaraní aquifer, amongst others”.
In response to this the question arises: Is it a Synod just for the Pan-Amazon, or is it for the Universal Church from a specific reality such as that of the Amazon? And, given that we know that the Synod must respond to both these inter-connected and inter-dependent dimensions, we need to ask also, what implications will this Synod and its dual dimension have for the future of the mission of the Church both in the territory itself and for the Universal Church as a whole?
At another level, in the theme and the title which the Pope decided for the Synod: “Amazonia, New paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology” a second big tension is expressed about the 2.TEMPORALITY – TIME. On the one hand, the theme and title of the Synod speaks to us of the urgent call for a Pastoral Conversion in the phrase “New paths for the Church”, which no doubt represents the pastoral agenda of the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium, on proclaiming the Gospel in the world today” which reflects the attempt of Francis’ Pontificate to interpret the signs of the times and calls for a way of being Church which is in communion with and in service of the kingdom in this current setting, just exactly as it is, and not based on an anachronistic reading of it. It is a moment which we can definitively identify as “Kairos”, since we can see specific features of the active presence of God, and of a calling towards Him, in the midst of a world in search of mystery, in a fragmented reality where the Church identifies the call of the Spirit to accompany this process in a “missionary outreach”. It is a call to missionary discipleship, to be witness of a credible Church, with a clear vocation to recognise and accept diversity, becoming incarnate in it and affirming it as the expression of God.
And at the other end of this second tension, the very theme of the Synod speaks to us of the call to reach for “an Integral Ecology” as a way of being and living as Church. It is, fundamentally, a call to an Ecological Conversion, whose itinerary is clearly set out in the Encyclical “Laudato Sí’. On the care of our common home”. This gives us, just as in the previous point, a concise and profound reading of the signs of the times, but in this case based on a planetary crisis on a never-imagined or anticipated scale, in which the very future of the human being and of the planet are at risk.
We find ourselves faced with a call to change our way of relating to our sister-mother earth, and all that she represents in terms of the diversity of the goods of creation, to a fundamental change in our relationship with each other, on the grounds that we have installed an unprecedented process of exploitation and accumulation (“throwaway culture”) which has brought the planet to a state of intensive care and to the end of its limits. It is an imperative invitation to a change of relationship with a sense of mystery, recognising that we need to rethink our spirituality to seek out one which is more sober, based on the essential, and which allows us to be in true communion with sister-mother earth, with our sisters and brothers of this world, especially those who are most excluded but who are protecting our common home, and with the God of life who wants a future which is possible for those who are yet to come.
In short, it is a moment in time which requires a real and immediate change, and as such it needs to be seen as a time of “cronos”. That is to say, time is going forward so unstoppably fast that if we don’t do something meaningful to change the situation, perhaps it may be too late. A change which is concrete, material, urgent and non-negotiable, which is based on the vision of Integral Ecology for this Synod. Will a Synod be able to interpret this “Kairos” moment to embrace the revelation of God who demands a progressive but inevitable pastoral conversion and at the same time, able to make a prophetic and effective call for a conversion at a material level and in relationships, in the face of the enormous planetary socio-environmental crisis in a “cronos”? One without the other will be insufficient, and incomplete.
And lastly, there is a third great tension on 3. The REFORM UNDER WAY within the Church. This tension is linked with the two previous tensions, insofar as we see it as a point of arriving at the process of revelation and call to conversion from the Vatican Council to the present day. A reform which is in process, still incomplete due to the natural dynamic of the Church and of the world, as an expression of the creative action of God always in movement, but which is reaching, or wishes to reach, some points of fulfilment in the present moment.
Here, the tension is, above all, expressed between one extreme which seeks the continuity of what we consider a model of Centrality : a more traditional mindset, linked to a Church with a centralising form of government which is overwhelmingly hierarchical and vertical which stands over the Church of the periphery. This way of being Church is more associated with a style of preservation, which looks after certain essential aspects of our ecclesial identity but which, perhaps, has lost its capacity for discernment more closely linked to a dynamically changing situation and, as a result, finds it difficult to discover and allow itself to be touched and shaped by the permanent novelty of the revelation of God Jesus set in a time and place and, as a result, is resistant to change.
It is necessary to take care of our whole ecclesial body, safeguarding its future and maintaining the substantial elements of our faith. We must identify, however, where the desire for preservation has made us lose sight of the enormous richness of the dynamic process of God revealed in the midst of diversity, or even more, where we have lost sight of the crucified Christ who is present at the diverse frontiers of our world today. There is a call to become an incarnate presence, inculturated and intercultural, demanding that we be that Church capable of reorganising itself, abandoning certain structural securities, to go out and meet those who are wounded and have been cast aside. And how urgent this is today in the Pan-Amazon, a territory which is so coveted and despoiled, and for its people.
And at the other side of this tension, an attempt to build a more Synodal Church. That is, a Church able to review itself internally so as to change its pace, to change its way of being, and recognise the diverse subjects who are pleading with it to walk in tune with the women and men of today, who are the subjects of redemption. A Church which is organised on a model of government which is more synodal, or more participatory, collegial, of greater communion, and which establishes new structures and criteria to enable it to walk alongside and in tune with the cries and hopes of reality, capable of incorporating the novelty which comes from the wealth of diversity. And once more, how much does the Pan-Amazon have, along with its people and the missionaries who have seriously incarnated themselves, to teach us new ways, new forms and a profound vision of the sacramental and ministerial, which make sense in this time and place and with these people.
A Synodal Church which must take on the restructuring of its way of being and operating so as to take on board this “aggiornamiento”, which started more than 55 years ago but is still incomplete, and with a Synodal outlook seeking to reach a point of true fulfilment. It is sufficient to read some extracts of the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Francis “Episcopalis Communio. Upon the Synod of Bishops”, which is providential and strategically presented with the Pan-Amazon Synod in mind, so as to identify the features of this third tension and permit us to discern where the Spirit is calling us so that this Synod can throw light upon the conversion which is necessary:
“The Synod of Bishops must also be converted increasingly to become the privileged instrument to hear the People of God: «Let us pray above all to the Holy Spirit, for the Synod fathers, for the gift of listening: hearing God and hearing with Him the cry of the people; listen to the people, so as to breathe in them the choice to which God calls us»”.
In this document on structure and identity the longing is expressed for a Church which is much more Synodal in its constitution, and being an Apostolic Constitution, it confirms that it is possible to reform and reconstitute the ecclesial structure to place it in ever-closer service of what the present moment demands, and as a result, pass from preservation to the urgent pastoral and socio-ecological conversions towards synodality. Radical conversions, or rather, deep-rooted and sustained.
At this level there is an obvious tension with some aspects of the Code of Canon Law, although it is not too much to say that this is a mutable juridical corpus in our Church to respond to the most profound Spirit of the revelation of God, and not an immutable word carved in stone, set against the call of Pope Francis for greater synodality as expressed in the Apostolic Constitution, “Episcopalis Communio”.
Let us pray to the God of life, with the best efforts of our faith and our capacity to read the signs of the times, so that this “Synodal” moment, with the territory of the Amazon and its indigenous people and diverse communities as the face of the Incarnation, and in the mystery of its enormous biodiversity as an expression of the face of God, so that we might be able to transform ourselves and choose life, and honour it. Let us take off our sandals and face up to the grave signs of destruction which weigh upon this sacred space where the diverse faces of Christ incarnate are still being crucified. Let us hope that we will be allowed to reach the necessary reforms. We pray also for delicate and clear discernment, to be able to overcome fragmented points of view or fundamentalisms in the extremes of conservatism which refuses to change anything, and those who seek self-serving and self-indulgent changes which lack ecclesial identity.
May we know how to sow seeds of conversion in the midst of a “Kairos” moment, and be able to respond prophetically, with the strength of the martyrial Church of the Amazon, in the face of this grave social and environmental crisis, as the situation can take no more.
I conclude this reflection with a quote from the Episcopalis Communio which helps us to place our hopes and ready our strength for the most important aspect of the Synod, that is, the post-Synodal phase of implementation in which we might discern and take strength from the Three tensions outlined here:
DIMENSION: between territoriality and universality.
TEMPORALITY-TIME: between the Kairos of the “new paths for the Church” and the cronos of the urgency to respond to the socio-environmental crisis through an “integral ecology”
And, for the REFORM UNDER WAY: between centrality and synodality
“And lastly, the celebration of the Synod Assembly must be followed by the phase of its implementation (…) It is necessary to be quite clear that «cultures are very different from one another and any general principle (…) needs to be inculturated if it is to be observed and applied». In this way, it can be seen that the Synodal process has its starting point and also its culmination in the People of God, upon whom should be poured the gifts of grace poured out by the Holy Spirit throughout the Assembly Meeting of the Pastors”.
Mauricio López Oropeza
Executive Secretary and co-founder of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (Red Eclesial Panamazónica-REPAM). Layman in the Ignatian tradition, former World President of the Christian Life Communities – CLC, Member of the Pre-Synodal Council established by Pope Francis for the Special Synod of the Pan-Amazon. Formation in Ignatian Spirituality, Discernment and Spiritual Accompaniment, Social Sciences and Territory, Human Development, Management and Administration. Mexican by birth, Ecuadorean by choice, and Amazonian by vocation.