By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
ROME — While the Amazon region has been the focus of this month’s Vatican meeting of bishops, one of the Americans taking part says he hopes the gathering’s reverberations will be felt in the United States.
“What this Synod needs to provide is specifically a jump-start on Laudato Si’,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told The Tablet, a reference to Pope Francis’s landmark 2015 letter on the environment.
“It’s been received beautifully, and it’s resonated throughout the world, but so many societies have not lived up to the call and that needs to be renewed with a very strong voice,” he said.
“It’s particularly true in the United States,” he continued. “Our nation has backed out of the [Paris] climate accord which is enormously detrimental to the effort to try to safeguard humankind against extinction.”
While Bishop McElroy noted that several U.S. dioceses have sponsored local initiatives and mentioned a recent meeting at Creighton University that included U.S. bishops focused on this very issue, he said the response needs to be much more widespread.
“We’ve got to be doing more,” he said of the American Church’s efforts. “It’s got to be much more dramatic.”
Bishop McElroy, along with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, was named by Pope Francis as a special representative to this month’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which is predominantly comprised of Latin American prelates.
The California bishop also said he will return home stressing the need for the U.S. Church to embrace the pontiff’s call for greater synodality, noting that the process for the Amazon Synod offers a model for other countries and regions to follow.
“The process has been two years long and the key is that it involved huge numbers of people, listening to people in consultation in the very breadths and depths of the villages, towns, and cities of the Amazon,” seeking to discover “how God is present to them and how can the Church be more present to them.”
He praised the process for being “unafraid” of asking the questions of what is needed to move forward as church and to understand “what Paul says to live by the Gospel.”
“That’s universal,” he added. “That’s a process that could be helpful for any region of the world.”
When it comes to the specific issues being discussed inside the synod hall, Bishop McElroy said it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the question of whether the participants will back married priests in the Amazon region has dominated much of the headlines.
“It gets to the heart of one of the topics that Catholics and non-Catholics alike find most interesting about the priesthood, [which is] the celibate priesthood!” he said.
Yet Bishop McElroy said that much of the discussion outside of the hall hasn’t captured the heart of the question, which he says is a pastoral consideration of “how can the Church in the Amazon have a ministry of presence within the community and not a ministry of visiting.”
“That’s the way it’s codified,” he said of the language surrounding the viri probati – established men within the community, some of whom are married – that the synod is considering whether to ordain as priests.
“So many of these vast dioceses have very few priests,” he continued. “The average faith community only gets the Eucharist maybe once a year. The problem gets compounded because the Eucharist in that climate does not preserve, so they can’t even have Eucharistic services.”
“They long for the Eucharist and we’re a Eucharistic Church, so the question of the viri probati comes out of that longing,” he added, noting that while many of the villages and towns have strong lay leaders, many of whom are often women, he said it’s the “sacramental presence” that “is the great challenge.”
Some of the Synod’s proposals have prompted fierce reaction by outside detractors, who in some cases have portrayed the indigenous participants from the Amazon and their practices as pagan.
“It’s enormously offensive for me to see that faith distorted and caricatured and demeaned,” he told The Tablet. “It’s just not right.”
“The indigenous leaders who have come from the Amazon to be present here during these days of the Synod have a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ,” he continued. “It’s the foundation for their life, their family life. It’s clear in their prayer, it’s clear in the way they speak about his presence in their life and their world that there is a beautiful faith, a beautiful Christian faith that is at the heart of it all.”
While he noted that important questions have been raised about inculturation and the need to avoid syncretism, he insisted that discussion must avoid “treating our fellow members of the faith as if they are somehow a lower caste of believers in the Church.”
As the synod participants head into the final days – with a vote on the final document set to take place on Saturday evening – Bishop McElroy said that there is a “wide consensus on most issues already.”
Questions over the viri probati aren’t insignificant, he said, but noted “it’s not the most significant question.”
“The overarching question is much wider, which is how can the Church be present to the people in the Amazon now, and the answer to that is a massive enhancement of the programs of lay training and formation and lay involvement,” he said.
“What we’re searching for,” he said in describing the process of finalizing the document, “is how do we conceptualize major issues facing the region and bring them in light of the Gospel.”
Those solutions, he said, “will really be on the level of the pastoral needs of the people, the social, economic challenges of the people and the ecological challenges of the whole of the world, which are emblematic of the Amazon.”