Michael Schuck is a professor of Christian ethics in the Theology Department at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-director of the International Jesuit Ecology Project, which has produced Healing Earth, a free online textbook in environmental science, ethics, spirituality, and action.
It is a Society of Jesus tradition to test the validity of a teaching by the actions that it inspires. While composing Laudato Si, Jesuit Pope Francis was no doubt already contemplating an action to animate his breakthrough encyclical. The recently concluded Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region was just that action. At the synod’s opening, Pope Francis called the gathering the “first child” of Laudato Si.
Two and a half years of preparation led to the three-week synod which met under the title “The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for Integral Ecology.” From October 6 to 27, hundreds of bishops, priests, religious women, experts, and observers discussed how the Church might better serve the Indigenous Peoples of Amazonia and the Amazon rainforest itself. The result was a Final Document approved by the 184 voting members and issued on October 26, to which Pope Francis is expected to respond with an apostolic exhortation by December.
In his final synod remarks, Pope Francis asked that people not let their attentions get absorbed into the details of ecclesiastical subjects such as the ordination of married men, the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate, and the creation of an Amazon Catholic liturgical rite, but stay focused on the big, overall themes that emerged during the synod. This is where the "fire" of the Spirit would be manifest. At this early juncture, it appears that at least four themes arose and deeply stirred the synod participants in their proceedings and their Final Document: listening, conversion, action, and urgency.
The history of Church evangelization in lands of Indigenous peoples reveals how listening has not always translated into truly hearing. Synod delegate Bishop Medardo Del Río from Colombia insisted that walking together and truly hearing Indigenous Peoples “means trying to understand what indigenous communities need and what they want.” Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino, prelate of São Félix do Araguaia, Brazil, added that “We need to enter more deeply into their mentality” to better understand “the soul of their spirituality.” This can make genuine human and environmental insight available to the Church. As the Final Document affirms, the Church needs to listen to the “fundamental wisdom” of Indigenous Peoples who have “for thousands of years...taken care of their land, their waters and their forests” (14).
The Final Document candidly admits that the Church needs to “unlearn, learn, and relearn, in order to overcome any tendency toward colonizing models that have caused harm in the past” (81). This requires real conversion, a major topic in the synod proceedings and the organizing principle for the Final Document’s four chapters. At the press briefing on October 26, Cardinal Michael Czerny, S.J., undersecretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Special Secretary for the Amazon Synod, directed attention back to the “New Paths” in the synod title. With that in mind, he stated that “conversion means change and without change there will be no new paths”…we will just be “repeating what we’ve done before.” The Final Document reiterates: “Listening to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor and of the peoples of the Amazon with whom we walk, calls us to a true integral conversion” (17).
In press briefings and interviews, synod delegates recounted how deeply they were stirred by the testimonies of Indigenous Amazonian men and women. Some delegates were brought to a frank, public acknowledgement of their complicity in rainforest destruction and a personal commitment to greater environmental awareness and simpler lifestyles. Among the Church actions called for in the Final Document include:
- stopping excessive consumption;
- decreasing production of solid waste;
- stimulating reuse and recycling;
- reducing dependence on fossil fuels, use of plastics, and consumption of meat and fish;
- seeking sustainable alternatives in agriculture, energy, and transportation;
- divesting in extractive companies;
- reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases related to climate change;
- developing new (circular) economic models;
- promoting education in integral ecology at all levels (especially a new Amazon University);
- defending the territorial rights of Indigenous Peoples;
- restoring the ancestral wisdom of the Indigenous Peoples;
- distancing the Church from the new colonizing powers;
- ordinating “suitable and esteemed” married men to the priesthood;
- and creating “a liturgical rite for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.”
A sense of urgency pervaded the testimonies of Indigenous men and women throughout the synod. One delegate remarked that the mood was “plus tard sera trop tard”—later will be too late. At the final press briefing, Cardinal Czerny remarked that the ecological and human crisis is so deep that without this sense of urgency “we’re not going to make it.” This bold assertion was matched by the Final Document’s declaration that “integral ecology is not one more path that the Church can choose for the future in this territory, it is the only possible path.” For the synod delegates this urgency was not only a matter social and ecological justice, but also a matter of the soul. As Archbishop Pedro Guimarães from Palmas, Brazil reflected, “While we profess the Creed that we believe in God the creator of heaven and earth, we continue to sin against nature—without even questioning ourselves.” For Pope Francis, this questioning is long overdue. For our Indigenous brothers and sisters, our planet, and our souls, later will surely be too late.