POPE Francis’s highly anticipated Apostolic Exhortation “Querida Amazonia” (Beloved Amazonia), released by the Vatican on February 12, has been described as a document “not just for a distant and alien part of the world, but has much to offer the Catholic Church in Australia”.
“The Amazon is remote from us but the issues are not,” Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said.
Two issues Archbishop Coleridge said were critically addressed were indigenous culture and an integral understanding of ecology – issues that “must be front and centre in the Australian context as well”.
Most worldwide media attention has focused on how Pope Francis’ “Querida Amazonia” would address a scarcity of priests in some remote areas of the Amazon region, with the possibility of allowing some married men to be ordained, and the introduction of women deacons.
In the document, the Pope says that confronting a shortage of priests simply by “facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist” would be “a very narrow aim.”
The members of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in October asked Pope Francis to open the way for the priestly ordination of married permanent deacons so that Catholics in the region could go to Mass and receive the sacraments regularly.
In response, Pope Francis wrote in Querida Amazonia that the priest shortage must be seen as an opportunity for the Catholic Church to “awaken new life in communities.”
“We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness through various kinds of lay service that call for a process of education – biblical, doctrinal, spiritual and practical – and a variety of programs of ongoing formation,” he said.
On the role of women, Pope Francis highlighted current situation of women in some Amazon communities preserving the faith “even though no priest has come their way, even for decade.
Women, the Pontiff wrote, have a “central part to play in Amazonian communities”, including “access to positions, including ecclesial services, that do not entail Holy Orders and that can better signify the role that is theirs.”
Archbishop Coleridge said all papal documents were highly anticipated, but this one held a special interest not just for the peoples of Amazonia with all their needs, but for the Church around the world.
“The Amazon has a unique place in the planet’s ecological footprint and its abuse in various forms is having and will continue to have an impact on the connection between humanity and the planet, our common home,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“Here in Australia we see, at times dramatically, the damage done by abuse of the natural world – not only to the environment but also to wildlife, to communities and countless individuals.
“The Church has a God-given duty to care for our common home, made clearer than ever in Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’. Querida Amazonia builds on the papal teaching and applies it boldly in one particular situation.”
Pope Francis’ focus on indigenous cultures in the Amazon spoke strongly to the Australian context, Archbishop Coleridge said.
“It’s good that the Pope’s words on indigenous peoples come as we in this country consider the woeful lack of progress on closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in key areas,” he said.
“The issues faced by many in the Amazon are not foreign to Australia, and the Holy Father’s words come as a challenge and encouragement to us too.”
Archbishop Coleridge said Pope Francis had issued a particular plea for the global Church to be generous in responding to the faithful of the Amazon who longed for greater access to the Eucharist and the sacramental life of the Church.
“For those in Australia, the idea that one might go weeks, months or years without access to the Eucharist is hard to comprehend. For the peoples of Amazonia, it’s deeply painful,” he said.
The Pope acknowledged the indispensable role of priests, but also praised the “vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity” in the Amazon, as well as the powerful ministry of consecrated women and men, and permanent deacons.
“It’s when all are playing their proper part that the Church’s witness has its true power,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“Querida Amazonia will be a milestone in the Church’s reception of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and a spur to us in Australia as we continue the journey of the Plenary Council. For that we are greatly indebted not only to Pope Francis, but to all who made the Amazon Synod what it was.”