ROME — There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer and Barney Gumble are competing for a spot on the space shuttle (don’t ask). Barney beats Homer in every competition like a cheap drum, so at the end the NASA administrator tells the two of them: “In one sense, you’re both winners. In another, more accurate, sense, Barney is the winner.”
Similarly, one might say of the high-drama Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region: “In one sense, the synod ended with the closing Mass on Oct. 27. In another, more accurate, sense, the synod won’t be over until Pope Francis makes his decisions.”
That’s because a Synod of Bishops is not analogous to the U.S. Congress, or the U.K. parliament. It has no decision-making authority; at most, it can make recommendations to the pope who convened it, but it always remains up to him to decide what to do with that input.
In a statement at the end of the synod, the officers of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, one of the driving forces behind the gathering, appealed for patience awaiting Francis’ conclusions, suggesting they could come in a document in March.
In that sense, we have not actually seen the synod’s closing act. At best, we’re in the intermezzo, waiting for the fat lady to sing.
Here’s what we know about what the Synod for the Amazon left on the pope’s plate.
First, there was a ringing endorsement of what Francis calls “integral ecology,” meaning that problems of the environment cannot be solved in isolation from poverty, armed conflict, unsustainable models of development, and a lack of respect for indigenous cultures and persons.
On that level, the synod called for a global solidarity fund to help indigenous persons protect themselves from exploitation, and also to compensate them when it occurs anyway. It also called for recognizing a new set of “ecological sins” in addition to the traditional catalogue of sins already contained in Catholic moral teaching.
On a more “ad intra” level, meaning the internal life of the Church, the synod took up three hot-button issues: Married priests, women deacons and the idea of a special “Amazon rite” of the Catholic Mass, expressing conditional approval to varying degrees.
On married priests, the synod essentially endorsed ordination of the “viri probati,” meaning tested married men with stable families, as a solution to chronic priest shortages in isolated rural areas of the Amazon that presently might be lucky to see a priest once a year.
However, the bishops did circumscribe the idea a bit by saying married men called into the priesthood should be deacons first.
In terms of women deacons, the synod didn’t issue a straightforward endorsement but rather called on Francis to reopen study of the question, asking that their voices be included in that conversation.
The conversation over the diaconate unfolded in a context in which participants in the synod were looking for ways to affirm and augment the role of women in the Amazon, which virtually everyone described as indispensable.
As far as the Mass goes, the synod called on the pope to “constitute a competent commission to study and dialogue, according to the customs of ancestral peoples, the elaboration of an Amazon rite.”
The idea would be something similar to the so-called “Zaire Rite,” proposed by the bishops of what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1969 and approved by the Vatican in the 1980s, which incorporates elements of traditional African spirituality into the Mass.
Finally, no discussion of the synod would be complete without a mention of its signature personality: the “Pachamama.”
The term refers to an Incan fertility figure representing Mother Earth, and it was applied to several small indigenous figurines of a naked pregnant woman that made appearances during an Oct. 4 prayer service in the Vatican gardens attended by Francis and in the synod’s opening procession Oct. 6, and were then put on display in a church near the Vatican.
On Oct. 21 they were stolen and tossed into the Tiber River, then recovered by Italian police and restored to the Vatican.
The figurines were variously described as “pagan idols” by traditionalist critics, depictions of the Virgin Mary by some apologists for the imagery, and as simple representations of life devoid of religious significance by Vatican officials.
However much of a sideshow the Pachamama debate may seem, the images did capture a range of important features of the Francis era: its emphasis on the peripheries, its passion for dialogue and reconciliation with non-Christian cultures and religions, its “Third World” social and political agenda, and its willingness to set aside protocol and doctrinal and liturgical norms in order to make a point or deliver a message.
If the assembly for the Amazon goes down in history as the “Pachamama Synod,” therefore, that wouldn’t be entirely wrong, and the reactions that designation generates in a given Catholic probably tells you everything about what they’re hoping the pope eventually does with its conclusions.