"Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests" is the unsurprising headline of today's NY Times article on Pope Francis' just released Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, the much anticipated follow-up document to last fall's Synod on the Amazon. The Times article's disappointment was palpable, evident in the odd observation that it somehow contrasted with "the openness he had displayed on the subject and his frequently expressed desire for a more collegial and less top-down church," and raising "the question of whether Francis’ promotion of discussing once-taboo issues is resulting in a pontificate that is largely talk"
Of course, another way of looking at all this is that. almost seven years into his pontificate, the Pope has finally mastered how not to step on his message and how to focus the Church's attention on the issues he really wants to talk about - in this case, the "four great dreams" (social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial) "that the Amazon region inspires" in him, rather than the issues that preoccupy so much of rich first-world religious news and secular punditry.
Those latter issues (the possibility of ordaining married viri probati as priests and women as deacons) were indeed included among the Synod's considerations. But, despite the western media's obsessive preoccupation with them, they were hardly what the Synod was all about or the main focus of either its deliberations or its recommendations. Pope Francis has wisely focused on the Synod's main concerns both in regard to the Amazon region itself and in regard to the wider Church - "because the Church’s concern for the problems of this area obliges us to discuss, however briefly, a number of other important issues that can assist other areas of our world in confronting their own challenges" [Querida Amazonia, 5].
The result is an Apostolic Exhortation focused primarily on the social, cultural, ecological, and ecclesial concerns surfaced by the Amazon Synod, illuminated by a multitude of references back to the Pope's previous and groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si'. While much of what the Pope has written is addressed directly to explicitly Amazonian concerns, their universal relevance in our globalized world and to our Universal Church is evident.
Of particular interest, given the many anticipated expectations and criticisms is the fourth chapter's explication of Francis' "ecclesial dream." The Pope stresses that "as Christians, we cannot set aside the call to faith that we have received from the Gospel. In our desire to struggle side by side with everyone, we are not ashamed of Jesus Christ. Those who have encountered him, those who live as his friends and identify with his message, must inevitably speak of him and bring to others his offer of new life: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!' (1 Cor 9:16)" [Querida Amazonia, 62].
Unsurprisingly, much of this chapter focuses on the complex question of inculturation. And, in what may be a reference to that other unfortunate distraction during the Synod, the so-called "Pachamama" controversy, the Pope reminds us that it may be "possible to take up an indigenous symbol in some way, without necessarily considering it as idolatry. A myth charged with spiritual meaning can be used to advantage and not always considered a pagan error. Some religious festivals have a sacred meaning and are occasions for gathering and fraternity, albeit in need of a gradual process of purification or maturation. A missionary of souls will try to discover the legitimate needs and concerns that seek an outlet in at times imperfect, partial or mistaken religious expressions, and will attempt to respond to them with an inculturated spirituality" which "will certainly be centered on the one God and Lord, while at the same time in contact with the daily needs of people who strive for a dignified life, who want to enjoy life’s blessings, to find peace and harmony, to resolve family problems, to care for their illnesses, and to see their children grow up happy" [Querida Amazonia, 79-80].
Nor does the Pope skirt the challenging question of the inculturation of ecclesial ministry, in the difficult circumstances of the contemporary Church, which in part provided motivation for raising the controversial suggestions about married priests and women deacons during the Synod. In this context, the Pope has also provided a clear statement of how the Church understands the priesthood:
"The answer lies in the sacrament of Holy Orders, which configures him to Christ the priest. The first conclusion, then, is that the exclusive character received in Holy Orders qualifies the priest alone to preside at the Eucharist. That is his particular, principal and non-delegable function. ... When the priest is said to be a sign of 'Christ the head', this refers principally to the fact that Christ is the source of all grace: he is the head of the Church because 'he has the power of pouring out grace upon all the members of the Church'.... The priest is a sign of that head and wellspring of grace above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire Christian life. That is his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders." [Querida Amazonia, 87-88]..
Approaching priesthood and ecclesial ministry matters in this way has freed the Pope to concentrate on the Amazon's unique needs and the synod's primary preoccupations. In the process, the Pope has successfully refocused news about his papacy on the concerns of the poor and marginalized, whose interests he has always tried to foster, but from which we have repeatedly been distracted by rich first-world worries and secular punditry..In so doing he is surely seeking to promote unity in the Church, which has for so long now been so sorely divided by these pointless and destructive divisions and conflicts.