One Venezuelan prelate taking part in the current Synod of Bishops on the Amazon says people back home have a creative alternative for coping with chronic priest shortages, beyond the much-discussed idea of married clergy to serve isolated rural communities.
Rather than ordaining married men, he said, their proposal is that he bring some of the surfeit of priests who clog the streets of the Eternal City back with him to the rainforest.
“All these priests and religious that we see on TV… It cannot be that they’re all studying in Rome,” said Bishop Johnny Eduardo Reyes, apostolic vicar of Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela, explaining that the idea of bringing Roman priests back to the Amazon was floated in the hall by another Venezuelan bishop.
“The distribution of priests and religious is not good,” he said.
Globally speaking, two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world today live in the southern hemisphere, but two-thirds of the world’s 415,000 Catholic priests currently reside in the northern hemisphere.
More basically, Reyes insisted that inventing new ministries, including a form of the priesthood for married men, isn’t the synod’s main challenge. More important, he argued, is the question of proclamation.
“I don’t see a sacramental need, but a need for the first proclamation,” he said. “I don’t see a sense of belonging to the Church from many of the indigenous, as they speak of the Church as an institution foreign to them. There’s a need of belonging.”
Reyes also said that something that had attracted much support in the synod’s assembly was a comment from an unnamed Venezuelan bishop who said his people had asked him to bring some priests and religious home from Rome.
The need for the first proclamation, he said, goes beyond the Amazon and the indigenous, and is also very much needed in Europe and other continents: “People don’t go to Mass. The problem of the [lack] of faith is universal. We need to do something about this, everywhere.”
His words came during an event in Rome titled “On the way with the synod, witnesses and martyrs of the faith in the Amazon.”
Cardinal Bartazar Porras, of Caracas, Venezuela, told the event the synod on the Amazon is a potential turning point both for the Church and the world.
“It’s up to us, and the media, for it not to be something marginal, a fictional novel for some weird peoples, lost who knows where,” Porras said Tuesday.
“We cannot have eyes of tourists, this is something that touches and questions each one of us, so that we can manifest God’s love fully and so that his grace overflows humanity,” Porras said.
One of the key elements of the synod, he said, was set by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’: “What are we leaving for future generations? Will there be life on the planet in a few decades with the destruction of these lungs?”
The Venezuelan cardinal is a delegate president of the synod. Tuesday’s event was an attempt to highlight the many martyrs of the Amazon.
“Martyrdom is a ‘gift’,” said Maria Lia Zervino, the president of the World Union of Female Catholic Organizations, which co-organized the event with Catholic Action.
Martyrdom is the “gift of a life called to live a particular relationship of love and coexistence with Jesus,” she said. “That which makes a death violent, a real martyrdom is the identification and the union of the person with Christ and the existential consequences of this radical option.”
She noted that, as Francis has often said, there are more Christian martyrs today than in the first century.
In the Amazon region, Servino argued, the Church has the example of concrete lives that give witness to such love in defense of human rights, care for creation and accompanying in the fights of the indigenous peoples for the recognition of their dignity and their ancestral cultures.
Zambrano spoke from her experience as a woman in the synod, and shared that, ahead of it, several of the 40 women taking part had come together for a lunch to try to come up with a strategy to guarantee that their voices would be heard.
“But there was no need,” she said. “We were surprised to see that there was no need for confrontation, as from the beginning, there was a spirit of synodality, of respecting the role each one has.”
The voices and witness of women she said, is “central,” because they speak “from the heart, of the experiences and sufferings that we have and that we have seen in the Amazon.”
The synod, Porras said, has been a “school of holiness,” with many of those participating giving witness of “gifting” their lives for the Amazon.
“Martyrdom, I believe has more than one face, not only murder,” he said.
The cardinal also called the summit of bishops a “great grace” because it’s looking into problems that aren’t regional but universal, which concern the so-called first world too.
He complained that as a leader of the Church he’s often met officials of multinational companies that exploit much of the wealth of the Amazon, who often allege that the Catholic Church is against progress because it’s against the exploitation of mines or oil.
“I always tell them that this is not so, that all we want is for them to apply the same norms that they follow in their countries of origin, but they say it’s not possible and leave [my office],” Porras said.
The prelate also said that during the synod, a “transversal” issue has been the matter of the announcement of the Gospel, “respecting the culture of the indigenous peoples, without imposing it, but discovering the seed of the Word also present in indigenous cultures.”
Talking about the ordination of married men of proven virtue - viri probati -to address shortages of priests in the Amazon, he said something that has been brought up is the need for communities that are also viri probati, meaning communities living and growing in their faith that ask for the ordination of one of their own.