Bishop Olson emphasizes universal Gospel in discussion on Amazon Synod
FORT WORTH — Why should American Catholics care about the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon taking place in Rome from Oct. 6-27? Bishop Michael Olson has the answer.
“Because we are all connected. The Church is one body,” Bishop Olson said during an Oct. 18 interview on North Texas’ Catholic radio station KATH 910 AM — part of the Guadalupe Radio Network.
People tend to be desensitized to problems outside their immediate community, which runs contrary to the tenets of our Catholic faith, the prelate emphasized.
“And we only pay attention to what’s going on in other places when it’s to our immediate advantage,” he continued. “That, in itself, is not a Catholic disposition.”
Called by Pope Francis, the gathering of 184 bishops, 80 experts, and auditors is studying the pastoral, ecological, and social issues affecting 3 million indigenous people who live in the resource-rich rainforest of South America. Meeting the sacramental needs of villagers who may see a priest only once a year, as well as the exploitative practices damaging life in the Amazon and its environment, are some of the biggest challenges under discussion.
Bishop Olson said it’s important to pay attention to the struggles voiced by people who live in the Amazon countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Suriname.
“But we can’t use the Amazonian experience as a fulcrum to do rampant change any more than we can use our own experience to impose our thoughts and preferences on the universal Church,” Bishop Olson explained.
The Amazon Synod is the 11th “special assembly” in Church history convened to address matters pertaining to a particular continent or region. Serving as both a guide and goal for the Synod is the instrumentum laboris, or working document, “Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”
Put together by a 15-member committee, the preparatory document has drawn criticism and concern from some Catholic clergy and laity who feel it contradicts individual points of Catholic doctrine. Bishop Olson addressed one of the more controversial topics raised during the synod — the suggestion that ordaining older, married men could remedy the shortage of priests working in the Amazon. Catholicism, long the dominant religion in Latin America, is losing members to evangelical Protestants who appoint indigenous pastors to serve communities.
“Pope Francis has reaffirmed in the past, and there’s no reason he won’t in the future, what is clearly the tradition of the Church — the ministerial, ordained priesthood differs in degree and essence to the priesthood of the baptized and is reserved to males,” the bishop explained. “That’s not going to change.” The sacramental identity of the priesthood is restricted to males precisely because of Christ’s maleness, he added.
But there is a crisis of evangelization in the Amazon, he admitted. One bishop from the region said he had never baptized an indigenous person in 35 years of ministry.
“Very few indigenous people being baptized draws to light the problems the Church there is facing,” Bishop Olson continued. “Not baptizing people is an enormous problem. To be part of the Church, you have to be baptized.”
The working document also generated debate by stating, “It is necessary to identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women.” Bishop Olson suggested a dispute over a new role for women would be premature, and women of the Amazon will serve God in a similar manner to women elsewhere.
“The leadership of women in our own country is shown in the schools, catechesis, and social outreach. They were not afraid to influence the life of the Church and society,” Bishop Olson noted. “In other words, evangelizing.”
Efforts to hold a synod dedicated to the Amazon region comes from the Holy Father’s personal experience, the bishop suggested. The first pontiff elected from South America, the Jesuit spent his priestly life in a country with grave social injustices and disparities between the wealthiest people and the poorest people in the world. He’s been a longtime advocate for the environment and justice for indigenous cultures.
Bishop Olson cautioned American Catholics to wait and see what recommendations come out of the synod. At the end of the synod’s 22 days, the synod fathers approve the final working document by a 2/3 majority vote. That approved document is essentially a set of recommendations to Pope Francis.
“What we need to pay attention to is what the Holy Spirit is guiding us to do on this,” Bishop Olson pointed out. “The Holy Spirit has guided us for 2,000 years.”
The pope himself offered a good metaphor for the synod. After witnessing an indigenous ritual to Mother Earth in the Vatican garden that called upon nature as a spirit, he set aside his prepared remarks and simply closed the ceremony with the Lord’s Prayer.
“He spoke the words of Christ. That is an example of what is ultimately the final line,” Bishop Olson added. “There is something inherently different and essential to the Christian Gospel that is Jesus Christ Himself.”