Reflection on the Synod and Martyrs

November 4, 2019

By Scott Wright, Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Early Sunday morning, on October 20, forty bishops and a hundred or more observers and participants in the Synod on the Amazon took time away from their meetings to visit the ancient catacombs of Domitilla on the outskirts of Rome to celebrate a new “Pact of the Catacombs for Our Common Home.” There they committed themselves to “a church with an Amazonic face,” a poor, servant, prophetic and Samaritan church.

Fifty years before, following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, another gathering of bishops, mostly from Latin America and led by Archbishop Helder Camara, of Recife, Brazil, made a similar pilgrimage to this same site and in the original Pact of the Catacombs promised to renounce the wealthy trappings of the church, and urge their governments to work for a new social order based on justice and equality for the poor, what Pope Francis would later call “a poor church of the poor.”

Here, where the remains of the early Christian martyrs of ancient Rome are found, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes recalled the indigenous and church martyrs of today, victims of persecution by mining and logging corporations for defending the land and waters of the Amazon. It was and is a reminder, in the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, that the Church is and always has been, “a church of the martyrs.”

Cardinal Hummes, a Franciscan, is the one who leaned over to tell Pope Francis, immediately after his election, “not to forget the poor.” In a symbolic gesture linking the original Pact of the Catacombs with this renewed pact, he wore the same stole that Archbishop Helder Camara wore fifty years before.

Just one year ago this same month, I visited these same catacombs after the canonization by Pope Francis in Rome of another martyr, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Then, as now, the occasion confirmed the ancient wisdom of the church fathers: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of new Christians.” Indeed, the martyrs have a claim on our lives. Here in the United States, we remember in a special way Sister Dorothy Stang, SND de Namur, martyred in the Amazon in 2005 for her defense of the people and their territory.

Pact of the Catacombs for Our Common Home

In his homily, Cardinal Hummes recalled the significance of the moment, in a place that “was a refuge of persecuted Christians, of martyrdom . . . a holy land that inspires us,” and he spoke of the Synod on the Amazon as an attempt to “search out new paths,” “to return to our roots,” and “to rediscover the great content of the message of Jesus and to give new life to it in our time.”

He did not mince words, but spoke of “a sense of urgency in the face of aggressions that devastate the territories of the Amazon, threatened by the violence of a predatory and consumer economic system.” In the face of such violence linked to global capitalism, the bishops “recognized that we are not the owners of Mother Earth,” an acknowledgment that led them in this new pact to “renew each day the Alliance of God with all of creation.”

These words, pronounced in the context of the Synod on the Amazon and in the presence of the ancient martyrs of the Church, take on particular meaning, especially when they are addressed to the transnational mining companies and extractive industries, and the governments that support them, that are destroying the lands and waters, the rainforests and the air, of the Amazon, forcibly displacing entire communities and targeting environmental activists and indigenous leaders.

What did the bishops say in this new Pact of the Catacombs for Our Common Home? They called on the Church to renew its preferential option for the poor, now represented by indigenous peoples who are called “to be protagonists in society and in the Church.” But in order for this truly to happen, we must reject “every kind of colonial mentality and posture,” and with it “every form of violence and aggression” against indigenous peoples, their cultural identity, their territories and their forms of life.

In the face of such violence and aggression, the result of the destructive and oppressive practices of mining companies and extractive industries, as well as the deforestation cause by agribusiness and small farmers, the bishops committed themselves to “stand with those who are persecuted for their prophetic service of denouncing injustice … for defending the earth and the rights of the poor … and for welcoming and supporting migrants and refugees.”

It’s Not Just the Amazon, We Are All Responsible

There is a sense of urgency to what is happening in the Amazon, because the life of entire communities, future generations, and the earth itself is at stake, recalling that the Amazon is both a carbon sink, absorbing the destructive consequences of carbon emissions causing climate change, as well as a source of twenty per cent of the world’s oxygen. But this could change, and is changing. The fires that have devastated large portions of the Amazon are a wake-up call and reminder that the clock on global warming is ticking. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that 2030 is the tipping point beyond which the consequences of global warming will be disastrous for the planet.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and much of the blame points directly to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for encouraging the burning of forests and the seizure of indigenous lands. But big agribusiness companies like JBS and Cargill are also to blame for large-scale deforestation, and wholesale outlets like Costco and Walmart and consumer demand in the U.S. for soy and meat, drives this destructive cycle. The developed countries of the Northern hemisphere, as major consumers and supporters of extractive industries and agribusiness in the Amazon, owe an “ecological debt” to the poor countries of the global South. In the words of one Amazonian bishop, “We are all responsible.”

After three long and intense weeks, marked by special gatherings of cardinals and indigenous leaders, a Way of the Cross marking the martyrdom of indigenous communities, and an apology on the part of church leaders for complicity of the Church in the colonial conquest of the Americas, the Synod on the Amazon concluded with a closing mass and final document committing the Church to a pastoral, cultural and ecological conversion.

The final statement, represented a commitment from the highest levels of the Catholic Church to become a church “with an Amazonic face,” poor, servant, prophetic and Samaritan. The statement speaks of “the suffering of the Amazon,” and in a phrase borrowed from Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’, of the urgency of responding to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” It speaks of the sacrifice of the martyrs, and a commitment to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, including dialogue and genuine “encounter” with indigenous and Afro-descendant cultures and religions.

The Synod document speaks strongly of the need for justice: “The defense of the land has no other purpose than the defense of life.” In specific terms, that means the defense of “human dignity,” of “human rights”, of the rights of “self-determination,” especially for indigenous communities and territories and their rights to free, prior and informed consent as their first line of defense against the exploitation of mining companies, extractive industries and governments that ignore these internationally recognized rights and conventions.

Come Holy Spirit, and Renew the Face of the Earth

The heart of the Synod on the Amazon may be found in the expression “Ecological Conversion,” by which the bishops mean “just models of development” and solidarity. Such a conversion must not be understood as an “optional” path for the Church going forward, but rather as “the only way possible to save the region from predatory extractive industries, from the shedding of innocent blood, and from the criminalization of the defenders of the Amazon.”

What does this mean specifically? It means that the Church is committed to “denounce … those predatory development projects that result in ethnocide and ecocide, criminalizing social movements” and environmental defenders. It means participating in “divestment campaigns,” withdrawing Church investments from “the extractive companies causing social and ecological damage in the Amazon.” And it means “calling for a radical energy transition and search for alternatives” for our common home.

In a word, the Church is committed to “the defense of life” and to opposing “the structures of death, sin, violence and injustice.” These are strong words, and speak directly of “ecological sin,” which constitutes a “sin against God, against neighbor, the community and the environment,” as well as “against future generation and the virtue of justice.”

Most important, for the Church, is its commitment to “synodality,” which speaks to the original meaning of “synod,” to “walk together” as a People of God, empowering new forms of co-responsibility and ministry, with indigenous communities, women and young people as protagonists of a new way forward, and becoming a church that truly reflects the “faces of the Amazon,” a church that is “a poor church of the poor,” servant, prophetic and Samaritan.

In the face of a global climate emergency, massive forced migrations, global inequality and violence on a global scale, we are called to see in the “signs of the time” the seeds of a new future, of ecological conversion, moving forward with hope and courage befitting a Spirit that comes anew “to set hearts on fire” and “to renew the face of the earth.”