Last week brought us the much-anticipated “post-synodal apostolic exhortation”. Is there any less lovely combination of words on the Vatican beat? This one though, Querida Amazonia, was lyrical and poetic, and Pope Francis chose to style it in the form of dreams which he has. Four of them to be precise: social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial.
The dream imagery was suitable.
Suitable because so much of the Amazon synod and its aftermath has been about dreams more than realistic visions, let alone concrete plans. And one should not be surprised when dreams do not come true.
The most vivid dream was of those who thought that the Amazon synod, concerned with an infinitesimally small slice of the global Catholic population, would be the anaconda’s nose in the tent for a married priesthood. The German bishops certainly thought so. Both those in Germany, who paid for much of the synod’s preparations, and those of German descent in Latin America, led by Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who organised the preparations on the scene.
But it was not to be. Pope Francis did not approve the ordination of married deacons as priests, as recommended by the synod. Neither did he approve women deacons.
The main organs of the ecclesial bureaucracy in Germany were not at all happy, accusing the Holy Father of “lacking courage”. After all, everything had been bought and paid for. Except for Pope Francis; the synod could be paid for but he could not be bought, or beseeched, or bullied.
Liberal Catholics were not shy about voicing their bitter disappointment. Catherine Pepinster wrote that Francis “frustrated” and “alienated” his supporters. Massimo Faggioli went further, writing that Querida Amazonia might “suggest a betrayal” of the synod and synodality itself.
Is the dream of Pope Francis as the liberal great reformer dead? Perhaps.
The Holy Father may never have had that dream for himself. But the dreams that he does have are not faring well either.
The dream of a vast “continental mission” for Latin America was articulated at Aparecida in 2007, where Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the principal drafter of the stirring final document. That dream was not dreamed at the synod, which abandoned any urgent sense of the Latin American Church evangelising anew the Amazon. Pope Francis gamely tries to propose that dream again in Querida Amazonia, calling for new “zeal” and insisting that the Amazonian peoples have a “right to hear the Gospel”.
He knows, though, that the dream is dead, because there is little interest in the Amazon itself in such evangelisation. Querida Amazonia is full of sound and fury about corporations and consumerism, but the saddest lament is for the failures of the Church herself. Pope Francis confines the embarrassing reality, as opposed to the noble dream, to a footnote (#132): “It is noteworthy that, in some countries of the Amazon Basin, more missionaries go to Europe or the United States than remain to assist their own Vicariates in the Amazon region.”
Another dream is that of “resolute defence of human rights” by a Church in solidarity with Christ “who wished with special tenderness to be identified with the weak and the poor”. Quoting himself from Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes that “from the heart of the Gospel we see the profound connection between evangelisation and human advancement”.
The Church can and must offer her witness. Yet there is little prospect that the rights of the indigenous poor in the Amazon will be greatly respected, given that the governments of the Amazon region are hardly robust in defending the human rights of the majority of their citizens.
The Amazon synod included representatives from Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, Venezuela and the territory of French Guiana. There is turmoil and upheaval across those countries. The problem in Venezuela and Bolivia, for example, is not that human rights are not respected in the remote regions of the Amazon Basin, but that human rights are not respected at all.
The kind of progressive, democratic and liberal order that Pope Francis dreams of for the Amazon is hard to find in Latin America today. As for “human advancement”, the past decade has been one, from Mexico to Argentina, of Latin America going backwards in terms of political stability and economic prosperity.
Some commentators have likened Querida Amazonia to a “love letter” from the Holy Father to the Amazon. Love letters are fitting places for dreams to be dreamed. It is not a failure of a love letter if the dreams remain only that.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca