The Time of Radical Change in the Church — and in the World

By Emilie Smith

This past August, the Amazon basin flashed through our news cycles, and for a few weeks our eyes were focused on the fires, the deaths, the burning, the ruin. The moment which finally broke my heart was a photo of a dead anteater lying stiff in the ashes.

The Amazon is embedded in the imagination of the whole world, an indescribably wild place: the great, wide snaking river, the thick tropical rainforest, the exotic animals, the indigenous peoples. We hope, maybe, that this last place will live on untouched by the ravages of human devastation.

Yet the machines chug on. The fires — started intentionally by expansionists desperate to make money, and supported right up the chain of power to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — rage on. Exposed in the fires is the seemingly unstoppable march of a colonialist, capitalist, mercantile worldview where everything on earth, and the earth itself, is a product to be taken, packaged and sold.

The Amazon basin, report scientists, is in danger of tipping into a point-of-no return savanaization, where the damage done is greater than the rainforest’s ability to regenerate and recover, and the jungle becomes a dry, treeless plain. The burning of the Amazon has become a symbol for the whole world as we look into the aching, unbearable face of climate devastation. Who can stand up to this power of destruction? Can anyone put a stop to it?

In October, 2017, Pope Francis announced that the Catholic Church would host a Special Synod on the Amazon Region, and in January, 2018 he travelled to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon, to initiate a process of consultation with the communities that live in the bio-region that stretches across nine South American countries. The communities were asked: what are the greatest challenges you face in your region? Where do you find hope? How can the Church come alongside the fight to preserve the river and her peoples?

Then two years later, in October, 2019 after the consultation which reached out to around 85,000 people living in the Amazon basin, thousands of attendees were invited to Rome to participate in the Special Synod on the Amazon Region. In September I received an invitation to come as a special guest the parallel activities to the Synod.

My story with America Latina starts at the beginning: I was born in Argentina. And since 1984, I have walked with the peoples of Guatemala, living there on and off throughout my adult years. I lived there most recently from 2009 – 2013 as a Volunteer in Mission from the Anglican Church in Canada, sent and supported from my home Diocese of New Westminster. During my years in Guatemala I participated in an active Liberation Theology network, SICSAL* and — to my everlasting surprise — in 2012 was elected co-President of this historic organization. That is how I ended up in Rome, together with my beloved abuelo, SICSAL’s other co-President, Monseñor Raul Vera, the fiery bishop of Saltillo in Northern Mexico.

On the morning of my arrival, after settling in with my hosts, the Missionary Sisters of Mary, I caught a tram and then walked up to a side gate in the tall walls of the Vatican. A small group was gathering. I knew no one. It was October 4th, the Feast Day of St. Francis. We were heading to the interior gardens, there to plant a tree to commemorate the launching of the Synod. More and more people arrived, many Franciscan brothers and sisters, and religious from other orders. And indigenous community members, the principal interlocutors of the Synod. Before we moved in beyond the walls of the Vatican a young man asked if he could mark my face with achiote, a temporary dye paste made from a red-coloured seed. “We are in celebration,” he explained. I said yes, and he marked me as one with the community, and together we entered the grounds, singing and dancing. In the heart of the garden Pope Francis and Endamar Oliviera planted an oak tree.

I sat on an old stone bench laughing a little. I am a bundle of contradictions: an Anglican in the Vatican, a female priest in a sea of ordained men, wearing black, brown, purple, red and white robes, a European-heritage woman, hanging out with, making friends with, building home with the people of the Amazon, in all their complexity. I am an ardent anti-capitalist, some sort of anarchist, in the green garden of tradition. Above all I am a believer in local communities and a despiser of systems of power — economic, political, spiritual — that destroy all things of beauty on this earth in the filthy pursuit of money. But somehow all of us here gathered loved the earth so much, despite our widely varied faith traditions. I sat for a while and then I saw myself out, walking all the way home to the Sisters where I tried to sleep my way out of jet lag and sorrow.

For the two weeks that I was in Rome I moved from knowing almost no one (though I knew very well two men who the day after St. Francis’ Feast were turned into Cardinals — fiery Guatemalan anti-mining bishop, Alvaro Ramazzini, and lovely, smart Canadian Jesuit, Michael Sherny) to falling in love with everyone. Bishop Raul and I spent most days in the Casa Comun, a gathering place for the supporters of the Synod, in the church of Santa Maria Traspontina, down the causeway from St. Peter’s Square. Here we opened each day in prayer, in song, dancing, with testimonies and embodied symbolic actions. The community leaders from the Amazon, the indigenous and afro-descendant people, the people of the river banks and deep forests, together with their loyal Christian collaborators and defenders had organized each day, and we sunk into each others stories and lives.

Our anthem was: Tudo esta interligado como se fosemos um: over and over again. Everything is interconnected, we are all one. All creation is holy, the trees, water, animals, the people too. We all belong to one another. We cannot harm one part of ourselves without harming the rest of our body. Money buys nothing of real value. There are massive threats to this holy earth. Sorrow and grief can be crippling. The weaving of connections is crucial. We are all friends.

One afternoon Bishop Raul and I went out for lunch with an old friend: Fr. Eleazar Lopez Hernandez, a Zapotec Indigenous leader and theologian, founder of the Teologia India movement in the 1970s. He laughed telling us he had been hauled to Rome a couple of times before, but always to give account for his tradition-bending theology. Now he had been invited here as a special consultant.

He said:

“our traditions, the indigenous stories of the Americas, and our bible stories share a story of an older and younger brother. The older one is the keeper of order, tradition, the maintainer of equilibrium and peace. But the younger brother has gifts and knowledge too. His vision matters. He is a disrupter, a bringer of new things. What has happened with the Amazonian Synod is that the younger brothers — and sisters — have come to Rome. The time has come to be church — and world — in a radically different way. The Indigenous peoples have knowledge that today the whole world needs to hear.”

The significance of what happened at the Special Synod on the Amazon Basin is bigger than can first be imagined. On Sunday, October 20, two days after Bishop Raul and I had left for our respective homes, 50 Bishops from the Synod, and other supporters and friends went early in the morning to the ancient Christian burial grounds of Domitila where they signed the Pact of the Catacombs of the Common House. The original Pact of the Catacombs was signed in 1965, a few weeks before the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. The 1965 Pact was the fertile seedbed of the origins of Liberation Theology where the signatory Bishops promised to divest themselves of all trappings of power and wealth, and to embrace the poor of their regions as God’s own beloved. The new Pact confirms this commitment to the poor, but extends the promise to the earth itself. The Church, with Pope Francis embracing all, is standing up to a worldview that is destroying the planet. As it is with the Amazon, so it will be with the rest of the planet.

Fr. Eleazar said clearly: It is time for the church to stop being diplomatic. It is time for the church to embrace its prophetic mission. Words to consider. A call to act.


The Diocese of New Westminster, December 3, 2019