Tuesday, 10 March 2020 12:40

Reflections on the Amazon Synod

March 2020

As with all Pope Francis’ writings, this document is very accessible, direct and full of practical insights and reflections. Some are of particular interest to the peoples of the Amazon basin, who speak 240 distinct languages across an area which is about three-quarters of the size of Australia and incorporates parts of nine countries. However, some are of much wider interest, and I want to highlight three of them.

First, the Pope emphasises that those who are poor and marginalised must have a privileged place at the table in decisions affecting them. Making decisions that affect people’s lives should not be regarded as problem-solving or a set of negotiations, but instead should begin with genuine dialogue with those involved:

They are not just another party to be won over or merely another individual seated at a table of equals. They are our principal dialogue partners, those from whom we have the most to learn, to whom we need to listen out of a duty of justice, and from whom we must ask permission before presenting our proposals. Their words, their hopes and their fears should be the most authoritative voice at any table of dialogue on the Amazon region. And the great question is: “What is their idea of ‘good living’ for themselves and for those who will come after them?” (QA 26).

In this context, Pope Francis is thinking of the indigenous people of the Amazon basin. However, his insight is equally applicable in our own situation. Here in Australia, our own indigenous people have put forward a very similar approach in their proposal for a ‘Voice to Parliament’, which would give them a way of providing input on policy and legislation that impacts them and their communities.

Finding ways for those who often struggle to be heard to participate in decisions affecting them is equally relevant, as we listen to people in aged care or with a disability in the current Royal Commissions. It should also be a core element in any just and compassionate response to survivors of child sexual abuse, and in our attempts to address social issues such as the growing problem of homelessness.

Second, Pope Francis takes the opportunity of this synod to reaffirm the idea of ‘integral ecology’ that he introduced in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS). While we clearly have a responsibility to care for the environment, integral ecology resists thinking about the environment exclusively as a resource that needs to be conserved so that it remains available into the future.

Pope Francis broadens our understanding of the environment beyond this, by calling us to “integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49). Even more fundamentally, he reminds us that “we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings” (LS 220). We are ourselves part of creation, and therefore part of the ecology that we are considering: “everything is connected.” (LS 16). This insight is often particularly apparent to indigenous peoples, who can increase our awareness that “the care of people and the care of ecosystems are inseparable” (QA 42).

Finally, Pope Francis writes movingly about how our liturgical life can be enriched by symbols drawn from indigenous rituals. As he points out, simply adopting an indigenous ritual without adaptation risks importing non-Christian elements and is also disrespectful to the integrity of the belief system in which it arises. However, he highlights that indigenous myths and rituals often contain fundamental truths that it is valuable to recognise and affirm in the context of a ritual that is authentically Christian.

Recalling the Second Vatican Council’s mandate for sensitive and careful inculturation of the liturgy, he points out “that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols” (QA 82). In our own diocese, this is a timely affirmation of the value of the well-established practice of sensitively and thoughtfully incorporating into our liturgies and rituals Aboriginal symbols such as message sticks and smoking ceremonies.

This synod has led to valuable discussion and insights, not just for the peoples of the Amazon basin, but for the whole people of God. I encourage you to reflect further on it.

(Querida Amazonia and Laudato Si’ are available in full on the Vatican website: www.vatican.va)