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NEWS: February 28, 2020
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Bird’s Eye View of the News

Atila Sinke Guimarães
EXAMINING QUERIDA AMAZONIA - The first middle-of-the-road reactions caused by the release of Querida Amazonia – the latest papal Apostolic Exhortation – were sighs of relief. Indeed, a first reading gave the impression that Pope Francis had denied the weight of papal authority to support the two principal changes requested by the Synod Bishops in their Final Document: to wit, the authorization to ordain viri probati – experienced men – and the official acceptation of deaconesses.

Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende 1

Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende a Catholic priest visiting a tribe in Amazonia, below, with Pope Francis

Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende 2
However, this first impression was false because Francis did not close the doors to these important initiatives. On the contrary, he effectively left the decision on viri probati to the local authorities and took contradictory approaches regarding the deaconesses.

Parts of Querida’s introduction allow the conclusions of the Synod’s Final Document to be applied at the discretion of the Amazonia Bishops. I will be translating directly from the original Italian text by Typografia Vaticana. In this article I will not analyze  other issues addressed by Querida that practically endorse what the Synod Final Document had requested.

After mentioning the Synod’s Final Document – Amazonia: New Paths for the Church & for an Integral Ecology – the Pope writes:

“I will not develop here all the issues dealt with at length in the Final Document. I do not intend to replace that text or repeat it. … (n. 2)

“I want to officially present this Document that sets forth the conclusions of the Synod, which profited from the collaboration of so many persons who know better than I or the Roman Curia the problems and issues of the Amazonia, because they live there, they suffer there and they love it passionately. I prefer not to cite this Document in this Exhortation, because I invite everyone to read it in full. (n. 3)

“I pray God that the whole Church be enriched and challenged by the work of the synodal assembly. May the pastors, the consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful of the Amazonia strive to implement it, and may it inspire in some way every person of good will.” (n. 4)


These introductory words give the Final Document of the Synod an official papal endorsement. Indeed:
  • Francis tells Catholics that he does not want to overwrite its conclusions, “I do not want to replace that text or repeat it”;

  • He approves them as they are because the Bishops who reached those conclusions “know better than he the problems and issues of the Amazonia”;

  • He invites Catholics to read it in full, which means that he fully approves it;

  • Finally, he wishes that not only the Church in the Amazonia, but the entire Church should to be open to the challenges presented by the Synod’s Final Document. In clearer words, it means he wants the new paths proposed by this Document – viri probati, deaconesses, new rites etc – to be implemented or at least to inspire Catholics all over the world.
Given this endorsement, when Francis indirectly deals with the ordination of married men and deaconesses in Querida, he is not correcting the Synod’s Final Document with his papal authority. He is just adding his contribution to be placed and discussed alongside that of the Bishops. In fact, he wrote:
    “I only wish to offer a brief framework of reflections to incarnate in the Amazonian reality a synthesis of some of the larger concerns … to help guide us toward a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal way.” (n. 2)
I believe that it is under this synodal, or democratic, perspective that Querida must be understood.

Viri probati


Let me try to grasp what some of the texts actually want to say.
  • “The way of conceiving the life and ministry of priests is not monolithic, but acquires various forms in different places of the earth. … The first conclusion, then, is that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies him [the priest] alone to preside at the Eucharist.” (n. 87)

    Amazonian culture

    An Indian blows drugs into another one's nose: An expression of the Amazonian culture...

    When he says that priesthood can acquire various forms, he seems to endorse the request of the Synod’s Final Document to open the Sacrament of Holy Orders to married men with long experience in life.

  • In the next text, Francis emphasizes the help laymen and women can offer to the priestly ministry and stresses that this assistance is not enough for the communities, since they have need of the Eucharist. He concludes:

    “If we believe that this truly occurs, then it is urgent to create a way for the peoples of Amazonia not to be deprived of the Food of a new life and the Sacrament of forgiveness.” (n. 89)

  • In this text, the Pope warns Catholics that it is urgent for the Amazonia to have more priests, which corroborates what the Bishops requested.

  • The question of the viri probati is addressed more directly in another text, although Querida does not clearly and plainly state that they should be ordained. It reads:

    Pope Francis using a feather hat

    Francis dreams of a Tribalist Church

    “A Church with an Amazonian face requires the stable presence of responsible and mature laymen endowed with authority, who know the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and way of living in community of the different places, while also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one. For, wherever there is a particular need, the Spirit has already poured out the charismas that can respond to it. This requires the Church to be open to the audacity of the Spirit.” (n. 94)
Francis was expected to state that mature and experienced married laymen should be ordained priests, as the Bishops requested. Instead he enters into generalities – “The Church must be opened to the audacity of the Spirit.” Why this language?

It is because if the Pope were to clearly endorse this request, he would face strong opposition. Remember, please, the book From the Depths of Our Hearts signed by both Benedict XVI and Card. Robert Sarah defending priestly celibacy launched just weeks before the release of Querida. So, this camouflaged language means: “Go ahead, Bishops of the Amazonia, I am behind you and will approve your ‘audacities.’ I just need a little more time to clean the house before I can state it clearly.”

Deaconesses

The question of having deaconesses in the Church is a first step to having women priests. Since the categories of deacon and priest are both Major Holy Orders, once a woman is admitted to the first, the precedent is set, and she can go on to be a priest or even a bishop. There are serious obstacles to be crossed for a woman to become a deaconess or priest, given the imposing number of traditional documents forbidding this step. Even John Paul II had to issue the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of May 22, 1994, forbidding it.

Francis is doing his best to create a precedent to impose this novelty. He established a commission to study the first centuries of Church History to see if he could find an example. This commission did not find anything and the topic stagnated. In the Final Document of the Amazonia Synod, the Bishops again insisted on having deaconesses. In response, Francis sings his own aria to the Bishops. Let us see where he stands.
  • After emphasizing the role of Mary and the role of women in the Amazonian communities, Querida affirms:

    Amazonian future deaconesses

    Although it faces serious obstacles, the push to approve deaconesses continues

    “The present day situation requires us to encourage the emergence of other services and charismas proper to women that respond to the specific needs of the people of the Amazonia in this historic moment.” (n. 102)

    When Francis speaks of “other services and charismas proper to women,” he implies that such services and charimas should go beyond those already carried out and possessed by women in Amazonia. What could theses services and charismas be? Obviously, the elevation of women to deaconesses is what comes to mind.

  • Further on, however, he says the opposite:

    “In a synodal Church, those women who in fact play a central role in Amazonian communities must be able to rise to ecclesiastical positions, including ecclesial services that do not require Holy Orders and that can permit them to better express their proper role. It is good to remember that such services require stability, public recognition and a mandate from the Bishop.” (n. 103)

    Here Querida affirms that no matter what new services and charismas are needed, women cannot have access to Holy Orders. This is a denial of what Francis implied in the previous paragraph.

    So, unless there is a plan to create a new type of “deaconess” that does not participate in the Sacrament of Orders, we have Pope Francis taking contradictory stands. At times he encourages women to become deaconesses; at times he affirms that they cannot receive Major Orders.
Therefore, regarding women becoming deaconesses, Francis’ message to the Bishops is this: “I am doing what I can but so far it hasn’t come to anything. Let us continue to keep looking together until we find a break in the wall.”