Pope urges bold action to protect the Amazon at start of divisive synod
Pope Francis has urged Roman Catholic Church leaders to make bold changes to better protect the Amazon and its indigenous people at the start of a three-week meeting that could become one of the most controversial moments in his papacy.
The Pope celebrated an opening Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, where he criticised a “new colonialism” that puts profit ahead of protecting the environment.
He prayed that God’s "daring prudence" would inspire religious representatives to spread the Catholic faith while remaining open to change.
"If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that ‘this is the way things have always been done,’ then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo," he said.
One of the most contentious topics of the synod, whose 260 participants are mostly bishops from the Amazon, is whether to allow married men considered leaders in their local communities to become priests.
It has been proposed to tackle an acute shortage of priests in isolated regions in order to allow Catholics to receive the sacraments regularly. At least 85 per cent of villages in the Amazon, a vast region that spans eight countries and the French territory of Guiana, cannot celebrate Mass every week. Some see a priest only once a year.
Conservative opponents fear the move could set a precedent that would spread to the rest of the Church.
Critics have also attacked the synod’s working document as heretical, including what they say is an implicit recognition of forms of paganism and pantheism practiced by indigenous people, such as nature worship.
The Pope’s audience in Rome included a number of women and members of indigenous populations, some wearing tribal regalia.
In his sermon, Pope Francis implied that he believed at least some of the recent fires in the Amazon were intentionally set.
"The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel (which is) fed by sharing, not by profits," he said.
A Vatican tree-planting ceremony earlier in the week that incorporated native symbols and gestures, such as blessing the earth, triggered disapproval from those critical of the synod agenda.
Pope Francis said indigenous cultures had to be respected. "When peoples and cultures are devoured without love and without respect, it is not God’s fire but that of the world. Yet how many times has God’s gift been imposed, not offered; how many times has there been colonisation rather than evangelisation!" he said.
The synod will discuss actions to protect Amazon ecology and native traditions and a greater role for women in the ministry.
The synod does not make decisions. Participants vote on a final document and the Pope will decide which recommendations to integrate into future rulings.
Pope Francis lobbied for change in the Amazon region as early as 2007, when he was a cardinal in Argentina.
He made the environment a key element of his 2015 papal encyclical “Praise Be” and has spoken out repeatedly in trips to South America and Africa about the devastating global impact of corporate greed and the excessive extraction of natural resources in developing nations.