There may be a deficit in leadership among the traditional global powers, but amidst the gloom and doom, the leader of the world’s tiniest state shines head and shoulders above the rest.
Pope Francis maybe 82, but possesses the courage, enthusiasm, energy and inspiration of someone half his age.
The man from Argentina has grasped the imagination and attention of just about everyone with his commitment to the environment, simple Gospel values and determination to lead a church of the poor by the poor and for the poor.
His most recent audacious act was to organise a three-week Synod for the Amazon region that was an inevitable follow up to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si on environmental challenges.
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The Amazon Basin is frequently referred to as the lungs of our planet; destroy it and our common home perishes. The Amazon covers 2.5 million square miles, straddling nine countries and is home to 30 million mostly indigenous communities that have lived in harmony and respect with the rain forest for millennia.
In recent months, we have seen raging fires destroying millions of acres of forest cover, a catastrophe that has been blamed on wealthy prospectors who want to turn the rain forest into dairy farms.
By calling the Synod, the Pontiff gave the indigenous communities and the church leaders a voice and space to assemble and share what the social and pastoral needs of the region are. Francis was clearly recognising that if the Amazon controls its own resources, it has a much greater chance of surviving and adding to the quality of life for all creatures on the planet.
The church in the Amazon accompanies the people and is also asking itself questions on how to safeguard God’s beautiful environment and how to effectively and adequately serve its faithful. Most priests serve up to 15,000 Christians over vast distances.
As a result, most followers rarely receive the Eucharist, which for Catholics is the cornerstone of their communal faith. The Bishops and leaders have done a lot of soul-searching and have come up with proposals that have upset many traditionalists but pleased reformers. One solution that has gained a lot of credence is that the Church should ordain as priests married men of integrity and faith as ‘the right to the Word and the Eucharist’ should be effective in all communities. The church cannot adequately serve the Amazon without someone to preside over the Eucharist. A second and equally challenging recommendation is that women should be ordained deacons. That notion has not gone down well with those who are reluctant to admit that women have gotten a raw deal in the Catholic Church for centuries.
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These two proposals will be voted on this weekend and if approved, will only be applicable in the Amazon region. However, regardless of the outcome, a lot of debate has been generated on the issues worldwide. What is at stake of course is not doctrine but law. That point must be understood.
Celibacy only became a mandatory condition for the priesthood in the 11th century while women deacons were active in the church up until the 12th century when a culture of misogyny swept through western culture and the church sidelined them.
Women would bring a variety of gifts, insights and charisma while married priests would be a real challenge to the clerical male culture that is so predominant and abusive worldwide.
It is also good to remember that the Catholic Church in England already has over 200 active married priests who converted from the Anglican Church with their spouses. The Amazon proposal then would not be a first.
Pope Francis is bravely acknowledging that one size doesn’t fit all and there can be unity in diversity. Laws come and go while doctrine remains consistent. But to confine ordained ministry to only those who sign up to a lifetime of compulsory celibacy can be a burden too heavy for many to carry.
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The consequences of that enforced law are seen in loneliness and abuse worldwide. Recent revelations in Kenya also show the difficulties entailed, not forgetting the secrets that remain hidden.
The willingness of the Pope to encourage healthy debate on these issues should also be encouraged at a more local level. After all, it is the people who will benefit most from our searching and honesty on how best to meet their pastoral needs.
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