Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the Amazon calls for women in the South American region to be included in new forms of service in the Church, but not within the ordained ministries of the permanent diaconate or priesthood.
To admit women to Holy Orders “would in fact narrow our vision; it would lead us to clericalize women, diminish the great value of what they have already accomplished, and subtly make their indispensable contribution less effective,” the exhortation, published Feb. 12, states.
“Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother,” the pope writes. “As a result, we do not limit ourselves to a functional approach, but enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church.”
In his letter, called Querida Amazonia, Francis writes that with “new and unprecedented threats” to the region, the Church must “encourage the emergence of other forms of service and charisms that are proper to women and responsive to the specific needs of the peoples of the Amazon region at this moment in history.”
Querida Amazonia (which means “Beloved Amazon”) is Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation following the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. Held at the Vatican Oct. 6-27, the Amazon synod was a meeting of bishops and advisors to discuss ecological, political, and pastoral issues for the Church in the region, which spans across nine countries in South America.
At the end of the meeting, synod members — specially invited bishops and some religious brothers mostly coming from the Amazon region — voted on a document of recommendations, which was presented to Pope Francis Oct. 26.
Among the suggestions in the document was the request that women be considered for certain ministries in the Church, including the permanent diaconate, which is an order within the sacrament of Holy Orders.
The bishops wrote that this was requested in a large number of the consultations conducted before the meeting, and “for this reason the theme was important during the synod.”
In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis calls for “forms of service” for women, outside of the permanent diaconate — services which entail “stability, public recognition and a commission from the bishop.”
“In a synodal Church, those women who in fact have a central part to play in Amazonian communities should have access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs,” he writes.
The exhortation states that “this would also allow women to have a real and effective impact on the organization, the most important decisions and the direction of communities, while continuing to do so in a way that reflects their womanhood.”
Querida Amazonia acknowledges the important role women have played in the sustenance of Catholic communities in remote areas where priests are not present or seen infrequently.
“In the Amazon region, there are communities that have long preserved and handed on the faith even though no priest has come their way, even for decades,” it says.
“This could happen because of the presence of strong and generous women who, undoubtedly called and prompted by the Holy Spirit, baptized, catechized, prayed and acted as missionaries. For centuries, women have kept the Church alive in those places through their remarkable devotion and deep faith.”
The exhortation also calls for the encouragement of the “simple and straightforward gifts” which have allowed women to play an active role in Amazonian society and noted that “without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them.”
“This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs,” the document states, warning against a view which restricts the Church to just her “functional structures.”
Under the same section, “the strength and gift of women,” the pope also recalls that in the celebration of the Eucharist at Mass, Jesus Christ, Spouse of the Church, appears “through the figure of a man.”
This dialogue between Christ and his Bride, the Church, “should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church,” it states. “The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary.”
In an earlier section, the document references and briefly quotes St. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem.
“There are those who think that what distinguishes the priest is power, the fact that he is the highest authority in the community,” Francis writes. “Yet Saint John Paul II explained that, although the priesthood is considered ‘hierarchical,’ this function is not meant to be superior to the others, but rather is ‘totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.’”
In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II wrote about the significant role women have played in the history of the Catholic Church, especially in passing on the faith, stating that holy women are “a model for all Christians, a model of the ‘sequela Christi,’ an example of how the Bride must respond with love to the love of the Bridegroom.”
“It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride,” John Paul II’s letter continues. “This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts ‘in persona Christi,’ is performed by a man.”
But, John Paul II recalled, “all the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ, both men and women, inasmuch as they must ‘present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (cf. Rom 12:1), give witness to Christ in every place, and give an explanation to anyone who asks the reason for the hope in eternal life that is in them (cf. 1 Pt 3:15).’”