In his apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia Pope Francis sees the theological Amazon as the greatest witness to the need to care for the planet and its people, writes Jim Mulroney.
“What do you want me to do for you,” St Luke relates of a blind man asking Jesus (Luke 18:41). “Lord, I want to see,” the evangelist tells us the man replies, upon which Jesus says, “Receive your sight.” And he did.
Lawyer and advocate for the Free Farmers Federation of the Philippines in the 1950s and 1960s, Jerry Montemayor, would cite this Gospel story in describing his work among the peasant tillers of the soil from the country’s sprawling plantations.
As the son of a large landholding, Montemayor understood well what he was up against, but had to learn to stand in the shoes of the peasant, whose experience of life was not his own.
“Jesus,” Montemayor would point out, “took the man’s statement at its face value. He did not argue with him, try to force his own judgement upon him or tell him his greater need may be something entirely different.”
A world away, a small group of catechumens gathered around a stove in a small parish in Japan on a night when the sweeping winds coming out of China iced the night air.
The group was near the beginning of its two-year program and still feeling its way but had at least reached the point of beginning to feel a little comfortable.
The unusual aspect of this group was that one man was blind. It was its fourth meeting and the topic planned for discussion was the need for healing in our lives. People were asked to respond to the question, “What do you want to be healed from?” The custom was to first read the story from St Luke’s Gospel of the healing of the blind man.
Moderators of the group had discussed substituting a different healing story so as not to put the bind man on the spot, but mostly at the insistence of one, who argued strongly that people’s responses should not be manipulated, it was decided to stick with the original plan.
The story was read three times. Once quickly, once slowly and once with pauses to reflect and absorb. The sharing began. There was no pattern, but the group had fallen into the habit of moving from left to right. When the blind man’s turn came, there was a palpable discomfort in the room. But the blind man was not daunted.
“I was not born blind,” he explained, “but lost my sight in a car accident at the age of 23. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have requested my sight, but today I understand that is not my greatest hurdle to overcome.”
He then listed jealousy, insecurity and some other areas where he believed he was in most need of healing.
Montemayor’s lesson – listen and do not judge. The catechetical group’s lesson – don’t manipulate, listen. Pope Francis’ lesson in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Beloved Amazon (Querida Amazonia), “The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious reality of the Amazon demands an open attitude.”
Pope Francis wants a revolution in the exercise of all Church ministry. As we well know, the voices crying from the lower rungs of the hierarchical ladder struggle to reach the ears of the higher echelons that more easily respond to the cries of the status quo and prescriptive tasks.
Pope Francis is making a call for the realisation that the missionary nature of the Church has its origin in the fount of God’s love, a fount that is overflowing and must never be capped by task, custom or history. It must, like the Good Samaritan, be mercifully alive and well in solidarity with the dispossessed and the threatened, the foreigner and the indigenous, as well as the peasant, the migrant, the young and the refugee.
The Amazon has a highly significant geographical importance and caring for its life-giving delicacy requires caring for its people, those who are currently the most ignored in the tomes of economics and human wisdom. The Amazon itself, as well as its people is in dire need of the care of the Samaritan, as witnessed to in the incarnate son of God, who “took away our infirmities and bore our diseases”.
However, in the vision of the pope, the Amazon is not just a physical territory. Pope Francis speaks of it as a theological place calling for change that can open the way for the same reflection to take place the world across.
In the words of Maurico Lopez, from the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, it is a call that challenges the ministry of the Church to turn itself upside down and allow the periphery to break into the centre and illuminate it.
Maybe the most difficult challenge the pope is throwing out is to learn to live with those who are different – those who do not share our faith, worship in another way, come from another faith background or describe themselves as just plain secular or communist. He says dialogue and cooperation with all people is necessary, including those we do not agree with, for conversion to take place – conversion both of ourselves and of others.
Bishop Francis Daw Tang, from the Diocese of Myitkyina in the Union of Myanmar, talks to the tragedies. Small farms are mortgaged to pay labour brokers, leading to lost land over debts that can never be repaid. Young people take off for Thailand, many never to be seen again and, while a sprinkling return with a few kyat in their hip pockets, more come broke and broken.
Bishop Daw sees the fallacy in the dreams and believes there must be a different dream. He sees it lying in people’s appreciation of who they are and what they have, but laments that the glitter of the unknown is a far stronger lure than the challenge of conserving the extraordinary beauty and richness of their own land.
Along with Pope Francis, the bishop dreams of “a region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced”.
This experience speaks to what the pope calls the universal element of the Amazon region. These same challenges facing the peoples of the Amazon region mirror the dynamics manifest at the doors of people everywhere – the globalised economy, the imbalanced financial system, damaged ecology and vast cultural differences.
Acknowledging this in his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis cites the ministry of the Samaritan as the one that heals, comforts and gives strength, as well as affirming the dignity and galvanising the confidence of the person.
He titles his exhortation, Amazon: New paths for the Church and for integral ecology. It is a call to listen and hear, tune in to the groan of the earth and the cry of the people and respond with the formation of “Christian communities capable of generous commitment … and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features”. A true ecological approach requires a true social approach.
The physical Amazon is the greatest source of life-giving water, air and species the world possesses, and Pope Francis sees the theological Amazon as the greatest witness to the need to care for the planet and its people.
Do not weep for the Amazon. The Amazon is eyeing the despise of the world for the beauty and delicacy of God’s creation through its own tears.