Retired bishop of Amazon’s most sprawling diocese defends synod documents, says women, as well as married men, should be eligible for priesthood

The Synod of Bishops’ special assembly for the Pan-Amazon Region, which is set to take place next October at the Vatican, will be not be derailed by those who have harshly criticized the assembly’s working document (Instrumentum Laboris).

That’s the promise of Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian-born Precious Blood Missionary who has spent most of his adult life ministering to people in the vast Brazilian Rain Forest. He is one of 18 people Pope Francis named last year to the pre-synodal council that has been preparing the upcoming assembly on the Amazon.

The 80-year-old bishop retired in 2015 after nearly 35 years as head of the Territorial Prelature of Xingu, the largest geographical diocese in Amazonia. Covering an area of 142,000 square miles, Xingu would be fifth largest American state behind only Alaska, Texas, California and Montana.

“We are concerned with the people of our region”

Kräutler has long been a fierce defender of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region. And for this he has been loathed and criticized by the wealthy landowners.

He was president from 2006-2015 of the Brazilian bishops-sponsored Indigenous Missionary Council, an organization whose primary goal is to support indigenous peoples in their fight for recovery, demarcation and integrity of their territories.

Because of this, and despite being retired, Kräutler is playing an active role in the upcoming Synod assembly. And in a recent series of interviews with Austrian media, he defended the assembly’s Instrumentum Laboris against those who are opposing the text and even the assembly itself.

“We are concerned with the people of our region,” he said. “But for the Synod’s opponents, the laws and norms created by human beings are of primary importance.”

The bishop, who is known simply as Dom Erwin, said most of those opponents have never been to the Amazon region and have not intention of addressing the Synod assembly’s real issues.

One of the most aggressive has been German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a ninety-year-old Church historian who has called the working document heretical and neo-pagan.

But Bishop Kräutler rejects the charge and said the Synod assembly would forge ahead and discuss, in depth, the ongoing ruthless exploitation of the Rain Forest in the Amazon region and the drastic shortage of priests. He said these would be among the main agenda items, adding that they are also of vital worldwide concern.

Fighting for the plant, fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples

The bishop pointed out that scientists have proven that the Amazon region plays a critical role in the global carbon cycle that helps shape the world’s climate. He said if the current destruction and ruthless deforestation continue, the consequences would be felt not only in Latin America, but soon also throughout the entire the Northern Hemisphere.

Kräutler said the Church has a duty to impress on all people around the world their responsibility to future generations, by repeated the words of Pope Francis from the 2015 papal encyclical, Laudato si’:

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (LS 14).

Bishop Kräutler said Europeans sometimes find it difficult to understand indigenous peoples’ way of life, but said it is all-important for us to accept that their basis of life (Lebensgrundlage) is in no way less valuable than ours.

“This calls for a loving solidarity and an open-mindedness for other cultures on our part,” he said.

“Evangelization first of all means ‘recognizing’ God’s presence in the different cultures. It means committing ourselves to the kind of service Jesus performed at the Washing of the Feet,” he added.

The missionary bishop talked about a type of evangelization that is “dialogue at eye level without any trace of arrogance or religious presumption.”

“We do not want to force our lifestyle on the indigenous peoples, but must fight with them for their rights, especially for the right to their ancestral territories, which is laid down in the constitution,” he said.

Besides environmental and territorial issues, the Synod assembly will also be looking at issues related to pastoral ministry, especially the dire lack of priests.

Who shall be ordained to preside at the Eucharist?

“Instead of leaving communities without the Eucharist, change is requested in the criteria for selecting and preparing ministers authorized to celebrate the Eucharist,” the Instrumentum Laboris notes.

One longstanding proposal, that has never been implemented, is to ordain married men of proven virtue (viri probati). Critics says Church progressives are hoping to use the Synod assembly for the Pan-Amazon Region to approve the plan and then use it as a “Trojan horse” to sanction a married priesthood in other parts of the world, too, such as in Europe.

But the same critics have argued that, statistically, the priest shortage in places such as Austria is hardly significant compared to Amazon.

Bishop Kräutler said that type of reasoning fails to address reality.

He pointed out that the situation in Austria has changed “drastically” in recent decades. Whereas every Catholic parish in the country, no matter how small it was, had had its own parish priest (one who knew “his own sheep and had ‘the smell of the sheep’, as Pope Francis puts it”), today one priest is often responsible for several parishes.

“How can such priests, who rush from parish to parish with blue lights flashing, possibly acquire the smell of the sheep today?” the bishop asked.

He said it was crucial to remember that celebrating the Eucharist meant that all the members of a specific community gather together in a spirit of community awareness (Gemeinschaftsbewußtsein).

“When we say ‘We proclaim your death and profess your Resurrection’, the emphasis is on we. The Sunday service consists of two parts – the Liturgy of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. And not to celebrate the Eucharist is against Jesus’ express command: “Do this in memory of me’,” the bishop said.

What of the married women of proven virtue?

As for the proposal to admit married men of proven virtue to the priesthood, Kräutler said he far preferred the term “married persons” of proven virtue because it is “less gender specific.”

He noted that committed married women preside over many indigenous Catholic communities in the Territorial Prelature of Xingu. These women not only celebrate the Liturgy of the Word on Sundays, but they also baptize, prepare people for baptism and confirmation and visit the sick.

“Why on earth should it not be possible to ordain these women? But not only in exceptional cases when there is a shortage of priests. Women are not stopgaps when there are not enough men around!” the bishop exclaimed.

“The argument that there were no women present at the Last Supper is simply unconvincing. If that was so decisive, then women wouldn’t even be allowed to receive the Eucharist,” he concluded.

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