A contextual view of the tensions arising from the Amazon Synod and its Working Document: Discernment from the Spirit of God in the key aspects of unity, charity, and peace

A contextual view of the tensions arising from the Amazon Synod and its Working Document: Discernment from the Spirit of God in the key aspects of unity, charity, and peace

2019_08_31_Editorial_Photo1Mauricio López Oropeza

“And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains, if I am without love, I am nothing…For we know only imperfectly, and we prophesy imperfectly. But once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with.” (1 Corinthians 13: 2, 9-10)

It seems natural to me and even desirable, that we should hear a variety of voices (even dissenting ones) in this Amazon Synod (Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region) process. This reflects well the abundant richness of our Church. In any synod journey, if we are talking about remaining faithful to its essential purpose, then we must welcome all voices, as long as they have the right intention and are for the good of the Church and its mission.

This Amazon Synod which brings with it several novel features, is fully in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution, Episcopalis communio of Pope Francis. Perhaps one of its most defining features, and something that possibly explains the disquiet or lack of understanding in certain sectors within the Church itself – and beyond – is that it is a Synod which acts from the periphery towards the centre.

As so often happens in the gospel preached by Jesus, the Amazon region – indeed, the South American church as a whole, with its richly distinctive approaches to the wider world – is an area on the periphery aiming to support the centre in a shared quest for purity of heart. In no way is this a process in which the periphery seeks to take the place of the centre. In fact, this would be totally undesirable. This periphery brings with it no more and no less than what it has and what it is. And with this, perhaps it can, in this present moment, shed a light on the way forward, asking for urgent changes in the face of the enormous challenges confronting not only the Church, but also for our whole global society.

For all those of us who have been part of the process of preparation for the Amazon Synod or for those that simply have a genuine interest in it, it would be very beneficial to read or listen to a few Vatican II extracts prior to making our contributions. All this is on the premise of being a Church of Christ in diversity and in which there exists a single Apostolic College which brings together the Supreme Pontiff with the Bishops:

“…Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace… (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter III, Number 22, On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular of the Episcopate, 2nd Vatican Council)

The process of taking in any stance with respect to the Amazon Synod and evaluating its strict intention will be assisted greatly if we can identify whether it proceeds from a desire to promote these three approaches and indispensable conditions: Unity, Charity, and Peace. We should not let ourselves become worried by differences of opinion. We insist, indeed, that these are potentially good things.

However, something that must be made absolutely clear is that we will ask the question as to whether there is clear evidence of the presence of those three elements so beautifully expressed in the Second Vatican Council – and which sometimes are not lived out or experienced concretely.

Keys for synodal discernment in searching for the will of God in this Kairos(opportune time or moment)

Spiritual discernment is a pathway for finding and following the will of God. This is something I have learned and experienced in my own service of accompaniment in the widest sense from the tradition of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

It is a question of discerning what comes from what is good spiritually, and which leads to a greater abundance, a greater sense of life, greater interior peace and communion. In contrast, what derives from the spiritually bad gives rise to confusion, loss of meaning and purpose and a sense of negative interior disruption and dissonance.

Leaving this aside, it is worthwhile for all the Church, whether it be in the Amazon or beyond, to enter into a genuine approach of synodal discernment in order to search out and find the will of God. Doing this, it must be hoped that we do not fall into a trap when working out and discerning the mind of the Synod Assembly; namely the trap of becoming distracted by the stridency of certain positions which do not enrich and further the process.

It is requested of the fathers of the synod and all those attending the Assembly that we know how to identify what is of God and what constitutes a “spiritual consolation” (Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius – EE 316): namely, a bolstering of hope, faith and charity and internal happiness that attracts Godlike qualities. This is in contrast, on the other hand, with what is not of God and which expresses a “spiritual desolation” (EE 317): darkness of the soul and turbulence (destructive anxiety) which leads us towards a lack of trust and loss of direction and purpose.

The reflection within the Instrumentum Laboris (the Working Document) together with the various materials prepared within the Amazon Synod process, call for a serious and profound reading on our part.

We have to discern with courage, energy, and interior freedom that to which God calls us in this present situation – one that we recognize as a true Kairosmoment. This is a favourable and special time to recognize the revelation of God for the Amazon region and for the mission of all the Church to follow the Lord.

Some dangers about discernment with regard to the Instrumentum Laboris of the Amazon Synod

To denigrate the Instrumentum Laboris is to divest the synodal process of its irrefutable worth with regard to discernment and its potential as a source of innovation, even more so when this discernment of what is innovating is still under way.

There is a sizeable section of the People of God, who have participated in the Synod consultation, with their hopes and weaknesses,1and from whom is reflected in the Instrumentum Laboris, without doubt, their sense of faith in their believing (their Sensus Fidei). The invitation to the Church now is to show some respect and humility and to open our ears and hearts in order to see what God could be saying through such people, for the good of all the Church. It is essential to rid ourselves of any suspicious frame of mind which prevents the Spirit expressing itself to us as a breath of fresh air.

1. There remains a danger in aspiring to “bind” the Holy Spirit, so that before synodal discernment occurs in the October Assembly, limitations, barriers and restrictions are imposed. Wanting to subject the Spirit to particular wills and desires would be fruitless and could limit the freedom of the Synod’s journey and purpose. It is vital to understand the process and its stages and identify therein that the Preparatory Document (Lineamenta) and the Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris) are means, and not ends.

In other words, they resemble the grain of wheat that in a certain way has to die before it can bear fruit. They are not finalized documents. They are the reflections resulting from a long process with very wide participation which are meant to be of assistance for the discernment of “so much and how much” we might be allowed to find what God is asking from the process.

It is crucial to also remember that the Synod is an instrument that acts as an accompaniment to the Pope in his service to the Church. A crucial factor for this to bear good fruit is the genuine disposition towards communion. In this sense, it is helpful to bear in mind the following reference from the Second Vatican Council:

“…But the college or the body of Bishops has no authority, unless it is understood with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head…” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter III, Number 22, On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular of the Episcopate, 2nd Vatican Council)

2. The Synod Working Document (Instrumentum Laboris) is the result of an intense process. It is serious business, much prayed over, with a foundation stone of Collegiality. It is a document elaborated following on from an extensive consultation (perhaps unprecedentedly so in the recent history of the Church) as has already been stated. It is the result of reflection, debate and approval by a Pre-synod Council put in place by Pope Francis for this very purpose.

Participating in it were representative bishops from the Amazon region given the specific focus of the Synod, as well as bishops and representatives of specialized agencies who have accompanied the mission of the Church in this region. There were bishops with particular sensitivity regarding the synodal theme or who brought to bear relevant experience from other realities outside of the Amazon area who took part. There were authorities and representatives from the Vatican involved because of their relationship to the matter in hand, and of course, Pope Francis himself who presided over it. Likewise, in support of all this, we have seen the participation of the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in its organizing capacity plus experts from the regional territory and from Rome.

It is crucial to both value this expression of collegiality and to recognize its richness. In the questioning that will inevitably arise, what must be taken into consideration is the sense of collegiality which is inherent in the whole manner of being ecclesial – of being church. Likewise, it will assist us to cast an eye back on the directives of the Vatican II conciliar process; the same ones that continue to illuminate this whole synod process – in its preparation and in setting up the Assembly.

“…This college, insofar as it is composed of many, expresses the variety and universality of the People of God, but insofar as it is assembled under one head, it expresses the unity of the flock of Christ…” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter III, Number 22, On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular of the Episcopate, 2ndVatican Council)

3. We can look beyond the specific contents of the document that are considered “polemical” or the possible opening of a number of paths towards ministry that might respond more appropriately to such an urgent situation, specific to the Amazon region. What apparently underlies many of the concerns about the Synod’s Instrumentum Laborisis the tension between the revelation of the Spirit and the changes that it can bring based on the sense of faith of God’s own People, its Sensus Fideiand some elements of the Doctrine that, designed for the Amazon, will require real changes in the light of a sincere synodal discernment.

In the Second Vatican Council there is an affirmation that gives clear directives as to this sense and meaning, directives which can help us overcome fears and tensions and enter into a genuine attitude of discernment in the light of the Magisterium.

“The holy people of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to Him… The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter II, Number 12, On the People of God, 2nd Vatican Council)

This point is taken up again with clarity by Pope Francis in Number 5 of his Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio.

And in the same way, a few lines further on in the same document, it affirms that the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies and directs the People of God in sacraments and ministries, but also “distributes special graces among the faithful regardless of every rank” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter II, Number 12, On the People of God, 2ndVatican Council) passing on to each one “according to what he or she needs or wants.” (1 Corinthians 12:11)

“By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church…” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium), Chapter II, Number 12, On the People of God, 2nd Vatican Council)

In the Amazon Synod there is a necessary and natural tension between the inescapable pneumatological scope (of the revelation of God in the sense of the faith – Sensus fidei– through the People which is infallible when believing) and its implications with regard to certain distinguishing features of doctrine.

In a carefully nurtured discernment, one side is never intended to be triumphant over the other. In fact, there are no opposing sides because it is about seeking what most leads towards the realisation of God’s project. This is the great danger with extreme positions or with those who seek simply to discredit. Neither allow for dialogue and do not give space to innovation and a sense of what is new.

What this is about fundamentally and what we are invited to do is to identify that which is typically and naturally God, in this progressive path of revelation set in the key of fidelity to the Spirit. This is, therefore, also an enrichment of the permanent advance of the doctrinal discipline – that should be like the Sabbath was made for man, and not vice versa.

We must walk without fear of the new, in respect of our sources and our roots, so that the presence of God in the world, in its peoples and in the Amazon may grow stronger, and the mission of the Church may be strengthened announcing the Kingdom of Christ in this territory.

1. In the REPAM consultation process which was formally part of the “listening” exercise for the Synod, about 87,000 people participated. Of these, there were 22,000 in Assemblies, Forums and Discussion Caucuses, and at least another 65,000 in the preparatory processes in the nine countries of the Panamazonía. Ninety per cent of the total of the Amazonian Bishops or their Vicars attended. Likewise, the Episcopal Conferences themselves carried out their own consultation processes in some cases.

Mauricio López Oropeza is the Executive Secretary of Red Eclesial Panamazónica (REPAM), the Pan-Amazon Church Network.


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