Not wasting any time, the chairman of Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon kicked things off Monday morning by putting the hotly contested issues of married priests and the role of woman squarely on the assembly’s table.

“Another issue consists in the lack of priests at the service of local communities in the area, with a consequent lack of the Eucharist, at least on Sundays, as well as other sacraments,” said Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, appointed by Francis to serve as the relator, or chair, of the Oct. 6-27 gathering.

“This means pastoral care made up of sporadic visits instead of adequate daily pastoral care,” Hummes said.

While Americans and Europeans often complain of priest shortages, church statistics suggest there’s one priest for every 1,300 baptized Catholics in both regions. In Latin America overall that ratio is 1 priest to 7,800 Catholics, and in some parts of the Amazon it can soar to 1-15,000 and higher.

“Participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, at least on Sundays, is essential for the full and progressive development of Christian communities and a true experience of the Word of God in people’s lives,” Hummes said. “It will be necessary to define new paths for the future.”

Hummes then got concrete about what those “new paths” might be.

“During the consultation stages, local communities, missionaries and indigenous persons, faced with the urgent need experienced by most of the Catholic communities in Amazonia, requested that the path be opened for the ordination of married men resident in their communities, albeit confirming the great importance of the charisma of celibacy in the Church,” he said.

Hummes then indicated the reflection won’t stop at married men.

“Faced with a great number of women who nowadays lead communities in Amazonia, there is a request that this service be acknowledged and there be an attempt to consolidate it with a suitable ministry for the women who lives in these communities,” he said, without specifying what that “suitable ministry” might be.

The reference to women drew applause in the synod hall.

In 2016, Francis established a commission to examine the possibility of women becoming deacons. That commission presented a report without apparently reaching consensus, and in May Francis said, “I am not afraid of studying, but up to this moment it does not proceed.”

In the run-up to the Synod on the Amazon, the question of married priests - the so-called viri probati - has been among its most debated points. Critics see such proposals as a Trojan horse that could lead to the abolition of clerical celibacy everywhere, while advocates tend to style it as a realistic response to the pastoral exigencies of the region.

In a 2017 interview, Francis said he’s open to the idea of ordaining viri probati to serve isolated rural communities, and has also mentioned their possible use not only in the Amazon but also on Pacific islands.

Drawing applause from the synod hall, Hummes began by announcing he would speak in Portuguese, the language of Brazil. In broad terms, he urged participants in the Amazon synod not to be bogged down by “traditionalism.”

“Traditionalism, which remains linked to the past, is one thing, but true tradition, which is the Church’s living history, is something else,” he said, arguing that each generation in the Church “enriches this tradition in current times with their own experience and understanding of faith in Jesus Christ.”

“God always brings newness, and demands our complete trust,” he said, quoting a homily of Francis.

Hummes also called on the synod to issue a strong defense of the roughly 400 native and indigenous communities of the Amazon.

“It is necessary that the right to be the leading players in their own history be returned and guaranteed to indigenous populations, as the subjects and not objects of the spirit or the victims of anyone’s colonialism,” he said.

In keeping with the “green” ethos of the synod, Hummes urged a strong ecological stance.

“Ours is a Church that is aware that its religious mission, in keeping with its faith in Jesus Christ, inevitably includes ‘care of the common home’,” he said. “This bond also proves that the cries of the land and those of the poor in this region are one and the same.”

“This synod is held within the context of a serious and urgent climatic and ecological crisis, which involves our entire planet,” Hummes said. “The planet is experiencing galloping devastation, depredation and degradation of earth’s resources, all fostered by a globalized, predatory and devastating technocratic paradigm.”

“The earth cannot take this anymore,” Hummes said.

The Brazilian cardinal, who was seated next to Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina during the 2013 conclave and suggested that he take the name “Francis,” listed several specific threats facing the Amazon today with which he suggested the synod will have to reckon:

  • Criminalization and assassination of leaders and defenders of the territory.
  • Appropriation and privatization of natural goods such as water itself.
  • Both legal logging concessions and illegal logging.
  • Predatory hunting and fishing, mainly in rivers.
  • Mega-projects, such as hydroelectric and forest concessions, logging for monoculture production, construction of roads and railways, or mining and oil projects.
  • Pollution caused by the entire extractive industry that causes problems and diseases, especially among children and young people.
  • Drug trafficking.
  • Resulting social problems associated with these threats such as alcoholism, violence against women, sex work, human trafficking, loss of original culture and identity, and conditions of poverty.

In light of all that, Hummes finished by ticking off several “core issues” for the meeting.

  • An outgoing Church and its new pathways in Amazonia.
  • The Church’s Amazonian face: Inculturation and inter-culturality in a missionary-ecclesial context.
  • Ministries in the Church in Amazonia: Presbyterate, diaconate, ministries and the role played by women.
  • The work done by the Church in looking after our “shared home”; listening to the earth and to the poor; integral environmental, economic, social and cultural ecology.
  • The Amazonian Church in the urban reality.
  • Issues concerning water.
  • Others.

Prior to Hummes, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary of the Synod of Bishops provided a lengthy overview of the meeting’s history and procedures. Baldisseri said the ultimate purpose of the gathering is to focus on “this garden of immense wealth and natural resources, the motherland of indigenous peoples with an unmistakable history and face, and a territory that’s threatened by the runaway ambition of human beings rather than being taken care of.”

As Baldisseri presented it, the synod will alternate between general sessions in which participants can speak to the entire assembly and smaller working groups organized by language that allow for freer discussion. The first meeting of those small groups is scheduled for Wednesday.

In a nod to the 21st century, Baldisseri also told participants that while they’re free to give interviews and discuss the synod publicly during their free time, he’d ask them not to take to social media to share impressions during the actual working sessions.