Amazon Synod: New paths and pastoral illnesses (Part Two)
by Martìn Lasarte

Too often there is talk of "new paths", but "old" ideological patterns are again rooted in 1968 and in the 1970s and 1980s. Cultural anthropology silences the proclamation of Jesus Christ. The exaltation of service reduces the Church to a NGO robbed of all of her mystery. Secularism renders testimony timid. A spiritual desertification is taking place, and the Pentecostal sects are taking advantage. Some pastoral proposals.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The pastoral care of the Latin American Church is "ill" with a form of pastoral Alzheimers. This is the curious definition that, in this second part of his article, Salesian Fr. Martìn Lasarte, uses to describe a style of evangelization that is in vogue in the Amazon world. It disfigures the Christian message, silencing the proclamation of Jesus to safeguard the purity of the Indian culture; offers services - health, social, political, ... - but not warmth and mystery; it is plagued by secularism, hiding its faith. Fr. Lasarte, chosen by Pope Francis as a Synod Father, also suggests eight "new paths", as long as they are "really moulded with new fervor". For Part One click here.

The theme of the Synod underway in Rome is "Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology". It is common to hear in the expression of ‘new paths for evangelization’ a synonym for promoting ordinations of viri probati. I fully agree that we must seek "new paths" for evangelization. But I do not think we can agree in where the ‘new’ is.

I think that in various parts of Latin America, and in particular Amazonia, one of the pastoral problems is the insistence on "old paths". There is great conservatism in different Churches and ecclesial structures. I am not referring only to pre-conciliar traditionalists, but to pastoral lines, a mentality that took root in 1968 and the 1970s and 1980s.

For some, the only Continental Assembly of Latin American bishops was the one in Medellín, ignoring the richness and reflection of Puebla, Santo Domingo, Aparecida, in particular with regard to the problem of dialogue with culture, evangelization, and mission.

In my opinion, there are three types of pastoral Alzheimer's that affect the evangelizing sterility of the Amazon.

Cultural anthropologism

In 1971, a group of 12 anthropologists wrote the famous Declaration of Barbados, which stated that the Good News of Jesus was bad news for indigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, this provocation gave rise to a fruitful dialogue between anthropologists and missionaries developed in various parts, which served to provide mutual enrichment. But in other places it became self-censorship, it resulted in a loss of the "joy of evangelizing" (Evangelii Gaudium 1-13). I remember cases of nuns who decided not to announce Jesus Christ, nor to do catechesis, "out of respect for indigenous culture". They would limited themselves to witness and service.

20 years on, when the evangelical groups arrived in the indigenous communities, they asked the priest of the mission if it was not the case to also speak of Jesus. The answer of the priest was: "There is time, little sisters, to say something about Jesus".

Sometimes the insistence on witness is such as to demand it replace proclamation. In this regard, Paul VI, in the fundamental document on evangelization Evangelii nuntiandi (22) tells us: " Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified - what Peter called always having "your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have"[52] - and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed".

Social Moralism

In more than one place I have heard expressions of this kind from pastoral workers: "When people need services, they come to us (the Catholic Church), but when they look for meaning in their lives, they go to others (evangelicals etc.)". It is startlingly clear and evident that the Church, in an attempt to be "a Samaritan Church", has forgotten that it is a "Magdalene Church": it is a Church that provides services but does not announce the joy of the Lord's resurrection.

The Church’s social commitment, in the evangelical option for the poorest, has been and is an enormous resource, made concrete in many initiatives in favour of healthcare, education, the defence of human rights, the defence of indigenous lands, the social organization of communities, production cooperatives, environmental protection ...

This commitment to the dignity of the person has undoubtedly been and continues to be a constitutive aspect of the process of evangelization, which expresses the diaconal dimension of the Church. Such a commitment has been a great source of wealth not only for the Latin American Church, but for the universal Church.

The problem arises when this kind of activity absorbs all of the life and dynamism of the Church, casting a shadow over or even silencing the other dimensions: kerigmatic, catechetical, liturgical, koinonia. We are in an unresolved tension between Martha and Mary.

At times even our preaching, in many contexts, has been overly concentrated on social issues concerning commitment, transformation and social liberation; on the problems of world injustice, on structural sins, etc., elements that are part of the message of evangelization, but which have been transmitted in such a way that to simple people they have said or say little or nothing about their nightmares, how to cope with their child’s illness, their particular family problem ... A preaching strongly marked by "social moralism" with themes and dynamics that are sometimes heavily laden with ideology and sociological reductionism has proven incapable of plucking at the strings of people's heart.

Thank God, when academic pastoral planning omits that "spirituality embodied in the culture of the simple", the Virgin herself intercedes taking care of her children and touching the popular heart, not with great reflections, but with simple popular piety: rich, simple, direct, full of affection, profoundly interiorised by the "little ones". Here we can point to the great Amazonian devotion to the Virgin of Nazareth, when in October, in Belém de Pará, about two million pilgrims accompany the procession of the "Cirio de Nazaret" (image of the Virgin of Nazareth, see photo - ndt).

In the Latin American Church, the enormous hemorrhage of Catholics towards the constellation of the Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal Churches is undoubtedly due to various factors, so one cannot be simplistic, but certainly the lack of an overtly "more religious" and "less sociologized" ministry has greatly influenced an emigration towards the Evangelical Churches and new religious movements, where in the Word, in a fraternal and warm welcome, in a constant presence, in a strong sense of belonging, they find a "meaning" and a company for their life.

In my view, this is one of the theological-pastoral sins of difficult conversion, in which we can hardly recognize certain imbalances and radicalizations that have rendered our pastoral care sterile, provoking a spiritual desertification. There is a kind of impenetrable defensive attitude in ideological bunkers. It continues persistently on the same line.

I visited a diocese, where 95% of the population were Catholics in the early 1980s; today they are 20%. I remember the comment of one of the European missionaries who systematically "dis-evangelized" the region: "We do not favour superstition, but human dignity". That says it all.

The Church in some places has turned into a great services manager (health, education, promotional, advocacy ...), but little in the mother of faith.

Visiting a community of my congregation that works among the natives, after having worked for years in education, in the legalization of lands, in the defense of rivers against mining enterprises, in the revaluation of traditional cultural elements, some leaders of indigenous communities do not allow them to enter their territory, because they are now evangelical. We have done many things, except share the richness and beauty of our Catholic faith, boldly proclaim the Word and form pastoral workers.


A third side affect of this pastoral Alzheimer's is secularism. It is certainly a global challenge. Unlike Western Europe, Latin America is more susceptible to influences due to its geographical location. Even the secular urban culture exerts an influence beyond the limits of the city: these challenges are somewhat normal to the whole life of the Church and at all latitudes.

But the main problem is not in the cultural pressures of the dominant environment, but in the fact that a Church is secularized, when its pastoral workers internalize the dynamics of a secularized mentality: the absence or very timid manifestation of the faith almost asking forgiveness.

The consequences of these options or pastoral influences, without a doubt, are reflected in the vocational sterility or lack of perseverance in the path undertaken, due to the absence of deep motivations. No one leaves everything to be a social animator; no one gives his life to an "opinion"; no one offers the absolute of his life to something relative, but only to the Absolute of God. When this theological and religious dimension is not evident, clear and alive in mission, there will never be options of evangelical radicalism, which is an indication that evangelization has touched the soul of a Christian community.

A Christian community that does not generate priestly and religious vocations is a community affected by some spiritual illness. We can ordain the viri probati and others, but the basic problems will remain: an evangelization without the Gospel, a Christianity without Christ, a spirituality without the Holy Spirit.

Logically, in the horizontal vision of the dominant culture, in which God is absent, or reduced to some symbolic, cultural or moral concepts, it is impossible for a young person to come to appreciate the fruitful spiritual and pastoral value of priestly celibacy as a precious gift of God and of the total and sublime disposition of love and service to the Church and to humanity.

There will be authentic priestly vocations only when an authentic, demanding, free and personal relationship is established with the person of Christ. Perhaps it is very simplistic but, in my view, the "new path" for the evangelization of the Amazon is the novelty of Christ. 

Proposals for new paths

Here are eight guides for new paths of evangelization. In themselves they have nothing new. They are the same as they have always been, but with the desire that they be really moulded with new fervour.

1. An integral evangelization

It is first and most important. As we speak of integral ecology, we must keep in mind integral evangelization. Where all the pastoral aspects of mission are present in a harmonious and balanced way, where everything has to do with everything: the kerygma (the joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ), catechesis (not as indoctrination, but as a patient catechumenal process which interweaves the Gospel with Amazonian life and culture); the diaconia (thousands of services, as an expression of a creative and committed charity that is born of faith); the koinonia (creation of fraternal communities around the faith and the Word), the liturgy (a community that joyfully celebrates its faith). Without processes of integral evangelization, not only will there be no vocations, but there will be no Christians, or at least Catholics.

2. A rich catechumenate

The experience in some parts of the world and in the Amazon has shown the effectiveness of the catechumenate, as a place of incarnation of faith in the richness of its cultural heritage. Otherwise, if we only sacramentalize and do not evangelize, faith is transformed into a superficial varnish in the life of the believer, which does not convert, does not penetrate, does not transform existence. A patient, communal process accompanied by faith is a journey of authentic renewal. It is a slow journey, not rushed, but fruitful and long-term.

3. A creatively ministerial Church

A creative Church in the promotion and leading role of ministries in communities: ministries rooted in baptismal commitment, for men, women, young people, for different circumstances and pastoral areas. A rich and fruitful community with ordained or lay ministries: permanent diaconate, readers, announcers, Eucharistic ministers, storytellers, commentators on the Word, exorcists, ministers of hope (funerals), catechists, youth leaders, missionaries of the poor, etc. Only when this pastoral and ecclesial dynamism is lived is it possible to think of further ministerial steps, such as the study of a possible priestly ordination of some of these ministers.

4. Organized political participation

It takes place with the commitment of the Catholic laity in regional and national policies, in particular with regard to indigenous territories and environmental protection.

5. Small Christian communities

This pastoral proposal of groups or movements that, in a fraternal atmosphere around the Word of God, offer the warmth and affection of Christian fraternity, which frees from the anonymity of the urban peripheries and preserves, in many, the dynamics and riches of the rural communities of origin. They are communities of accompaniment, of growth in faith in the light of the Word and missionaries for their joy of evangelizing.

6. A family ministry

That knows how to accompany, to gather, to form in faith, because it is from the womb of the family that the most effective processes of evangelization are born.

7. Youth ministry

It must be rich in proposals adapted to different contexts (rural, urban, adolescents, students, workers, university students, indigenous, Afro, mestizos, whites ...), but strongly centred in the life of the group (youth associations), in volunteering and in gradual itineraries of faith formation. It will be possible to have a rich vocation ministry only when there is a prosperous and robust youth ministry.

8. A strong investment in local vocations

This occurs through believing, trusting, accompanying, forming, distinguishing the best ecclesial resources that you possess among the young candidates. They are undoubtedly the most suitable to find the best paths, the most authentic ones to give the Church an Amazonian face.