Pope Francis suggested that his apostolic exhortation following the Amazon synod could be completed before the end of the year. The Holy Father is certainly capable of it. In 2015, the draft of Amoris Laetitia was delivered to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before the feast of the Immaculate Conception, less than six weeks after the synod’s end, and that was the longest papal document in Church history.
A target date of November 30, the feast of St Andrew, would be suitable. That was the date in 1919 of Maximum Illud, the apostolic letter of Pope Benedict XV calling for a renewal of missionary fervour in distant lands.
Indeed, to commemorate the centenary of Maximum Illud the Holy Father declared October 2019 to be an Extraordinary Missionary Month. Benedict XV’s apostolic letter is extraordinary in itself. Just a year after the civilisational suicide of the Great War – a catastrophic failure of Christian countries from which European Christianity has still not recovered – the Roman Pontiff was able to summon the Church’s energies to “dispatch to every corner of the world her couriers of the doctrine God entrusted to her, and her ministers of the eternal salvation that was delivered through Christ to the human race.”
In the prayer Pope Francis composed for the Extraordinary Missionary Month, the Holy Father prays “that the mission entrusted to the Church, which is still very far from completion, may find new and efficacious expressions”.
Maximum Illud did not appear to have much influence on the recent Amazon synod. Indeed, the final synod report gave Maximum Illud the same treatment that Amoris Laetitia gave to Veritatis Splendor, namely pretending that it did not exist, with no citations at all.
Benedict XV’s missionary confidence was absent from the Amazon synod.
The bishops seemed to have given up on the possibility of fruitful mission even in the Amazonian regions of their own country. Hence the conclusion that something about the Amazon is unique, meaning that it requires measures never needed elsewhere, namely married priests and perhaps a “diaconate” for women.
The Amazon synod did call for radical conversion, but of the Church to a new ecological agenda, with less emphasis to conversion to Christ.
In drafting his apostolic exhortation then, Pope Francis – having established centenary celebrations for Maximum Illud – will likely want to quote some passages from his predecessor a century ago.
I doubt Benedict XV’s recommendation of the “Association of the Holy Childhood, a group that arranges for the administration of Baptism to dying children of non-Christian families” will make it in, given contemporary sensitivities. It does, though, indicate what missionary fervour animated by a concern for eternal salvation looks like.
Perhaps Pope Francis might nod toward the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, who Benedict XV praised for “the twin tasks of protecting the unfortunate indigenous people from human oppression and wresting them from their grinding subjection to the powers of darkness.” The Amazon synod was rather strong on the first point, and decidedly ambiguous on the second.
The canonization of St John Henry Newman did not prompt the synod to consider that what the new saint applied to himself might also apply to the Amazon’s indigenous peoples: ex umbris, out of the shadows into the truth. Bartolomé de las Casas was the first bishop of Chiapas in Mexico and the first “Protector of the Indians” under the Spanish crown. His Cause for beatification is open, and he is already honoured on the calendar of the Church of England (July 20).
To those who think that the Amazonian mission is simply too difficult, Francis might quote Benedict XV’s characterisation of the missionary: “Toil, scorn, want, hunger, even a dreadful death – he will gladly accept them all, as long as there remains a slight chance that he can free even one soul from the jaws of hell.”
To the bishops of Brazil, Columbia and elsewhere who have long found themselves unable get priests into the Amazon, Francis might cite Benedict’s warning against a “false prudence”, thinking that “what you send to the foreign missions you will be subtracting from the resources of your diocese. To fill the place of each priest you send to the missions, God will give you many priests, and very able priests, for your work at home.”
Finally, Benedict XV has a timely reminder that the decision to ordain married deacons as priests is not a matter of just scheduling ordination ceremonies: “It is absolutely necessary that [indigenous clergy] be well trained and well prepared. We do not mean a rudimentary and slipshod preparation, the bare minimum for ordination. No, their education should be complete and finished, excellent in all its phases.”
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
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