The word synod comes from the Greek sýnodos meaning “assembly” or “meeting”, and it is synonymous with the Latin word concilium meaning “council”. Originally, synods were meetings of bishops who are the heads of churches and dioceses. (Wikipedia) A Synod is therefore, a council of a church, usually convened to decide on particular issues of doctrine, discipline and administration. It is a coming together of bishops and other selected participants of the whole universal Church or the Church in a particular region to discuss together, usually on a particular theme or matter that makes impact on the Church. There has been two African Synods in the last three decades. The Celebration of various Synods in the Church’s tradition strengthens our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ and one another. It tells us that we are a part of a large family that walks together in faith with a common destination – Christ and His Church. It takes the motif from the words of our Lord who said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in their midst.”
From the Apostolic times of the Church, various synods (and councils) have been held. Specifically, a Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region took place from 6th to 27th October 2019 on the theme, “Amazonia, new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” The Amazon Synod is a great ecclesial, civic and ecological project that seeks to overcome the confines and redefine the pastoral lines, adapting them to contemporary times. Here, Amazon includes all the countries of South America, which is often called the Latin America, where mostly the Spanish language is spoken. The Pan-Amazon is made up of nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Guiana and French Guiana, which are predominantly Catholic.
The Pan-Amazon Synod was a way for the Church to pause and listen to the people of the Amazon and respond with them to the devastation they are facing and to their environment. Though this Synod was for a particular region with its own history, tradition, practices and recent happenings which may be peculiar to them, as the universal Church, we have something to learn from this much spoken synod. In the words of Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, India who was a special appointee of the Pope, the “Church is universal and the problems of one place really are the problems of the whole Church. I feel solidarity with them and see there is so much to learn from them.” In connection with Africa, the problems are similar: exploitation of nature, violence against indigenous people, corruption, unstable political situations and various forms of injustices. We also need to look into many errors and inaccuracies caused by the missionaries often unknowingly and with good intentions.
Both the Amazon region and Africa are mission territories with difficult circumstances and great challenges, but there is also great growth and great thrust to the life of the Church: both Churches in the recent times have given missionaries to the world, given new theological and pastoral thought to the universal Church. We should also remember the gift of outstanding leaders and theologians from Amazon and Africa to the Church; such as Pope Francis, Gustavo Gutierrez, Cardinal Arinze, Cardinal Robert Sarah and others. We hope that in the coming decades, these regions will take a lead in Church leadership.
This synod calls us to pay special attention to our indigenous people and their cultures. We need to look into the tribes, races and cultures that are displaced and oppressed in one way or another. Both Amazonia and Africa have gone through a difficult period of (geographical) discoveries that stifled them and destroyed the native cultures and ethos. They also went through a long period of colonization that destroyed their dignity and way of life. The lands of these people have been taken away from them and they have not been given opportunities in the local and international arena.
Now, they have new problems within the Church; the lack of priests and pastoral agents. This shortage seems to be more acute in Amazon than in Africa. Particular churches in Amazon tell us that some communities and pastoral areas have the Eucharist only once in six months or even once in a year. This resonates to some parts of Africa such as Congo, the Sudan and the northern Africa Christian communities, the hard to reach areas which makes it extremely difficult for pastoral work.Besides many pastoral needs, Amazon synod Fathers have paid serious attention to the ecological crisis. In one voice, they have cried out against the exploitation of nature. As we know, this region is famous for forests, rare species of birds, animals and plant varieties, peculiar mountains and long coastal line. It is a region that is an important source of oxygen for the whole earth, where more than a third of the world’s primary forest reserves are found. It is one of the largest biodiversity reserves on the planet, containing 20% of the not frozen freshwater.
In Laudato Si’ (#38), Pope Francis stressed the ecological importance of the Amazon and Congo basins “for the entire earth and for the future of humanity.” One fifth of all the air we breathe and the fresh water we drink comes from the Amazon. In writing the ecological encyclical, Holy Father had in his mind the rich forests of Amazon and Congo. Now, the Amazon Synod seems to tell the universal Church, she needs an “Amazonian face”.
Poor people from the Amazon have shown that God’s creation must be treated “not as a resource to be exploited but as a home to be preserved, with trust in God,” Pope Francis said. Together with the Holy Father who himself comes from this region, we observe that the region has a history of plundering of timber, rubber, minerals and other natural resources. That rapaciousness has displaced people from their land and spurred violence, including human trafficking and the murder of people who try to defend their territories.
Social scientists project that in the coming decades if urgent and drastic measures are not taken in regions of Africa and Amazon to protect the nature, it is poor people who are going to suffer most. This Synod has given voice to the poor and ordinary people in protecting their lives and environment. In the words of Pope Francis, “In this synod, we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and reflecting on the precariousness of their lives…” He encouraged his listeners to “associate with the poor, to remind ourselves that we are poor, to remind ourselves that the salvation of God operates only in an atmosphere of interior poverty.” Interior poverty is very essential for living simpler and contented lives which are the only solution to protect the environment.
In today’s demography and the distribution of world’s population, these two regions have the highest number of poor people. And the Church intends to listen to them. At the opening of the synod, the Holy Father prayed, “Let us pray for the grace to be able to listen to the cry of the poor…This is the cry of hope of the church.” Indeed, through this synod, the Church has taken a big step in listening to the poor. The Amazon Synod indirectly invites the Church in Africa to do the same.
Through the discernment and fruitful living of our brothers and sisters, we are also given enthusiasm to do the same; because our goal and target is the same—Fullness of life in Christ.
By Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB
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