Witnessing a Missionary Synodal Church in the Amazon

View from the Road, Porto Velho, Brazil. Photo Credit: Casey Stanton

Responsorial Psalm: The Lord hears the cry of the poor (Psalm 34:7)

Two weeks ago the Instrumentum Laboris–the document that will guide the Church in the next phase of the global synod–was released in Rome and shared with the world. 

I was driving in a truck in Rondônia out of Porto Velho, Brazil on our way into Karipuna indigenous territory. The last message that came through before service cut out was a text message with this screenshot from the document:
Of course: a part of me was thrilled. 

Our hope as Discerning Deacons is that this very question would be given air to breathe as the synod process continues to unfold. It feels like a genuine sign of grace and consolation to see this active hope reflected in the Instrumentum Laboris.

But the good news was tempered, as a more pressing reality weighed all around me. 

We drove for miles on a road that used to be thick rainforest. I stared out at flat lands stretching into the horizon. As far as I could see there were crops of soy, cattle grazing lands, with a few remains of trees dotting the horizon.

I’m not sure when the knowledge was first planted within me, but for as long as I can remember I was getting “Save the rainforest” stickers and being taught about the incalculable value of the Amazon, in particular, as a precious place for the life of our earth. The lungs of the earth – breathing in our carbon and releasing air for us to breathe. 

How many of us have read about (illegal!) deforestation? Or watched documentaries, signed petitions?

What had been a remote, if consistent awareness was coming close into view. Not to be unseen. 

That is: how industrialized agriculture and meat production and mining has driven policy and economic practices that railroad over original peoples’ claims to vast stretches of territory. Here, trees that have grown for thousands of years are cut down in minutes.

So while I held a kernel of good news in my heart — it was to a deeper reality that we were being invited into as Sr. Laura Vicuña led us to the Karipuna people, whom she has been accompanying for 7 years through her ministry work with the Council of Indigenous Missions (CIMI).

As we came alongside Sr. Laura, she lived an expression of ministry and mission as accompaniment: an anti-colonial way to make present the reality of Christ in our midst. Her ministry is not to catechize about Church doctrine or moral codes; she resolutely and primarily honors the dignity of the particular community, learning the way this community sees the world, honoring their wisdom, holding space for their questions, and coming alongside as they navigate the webs to find footholds for legal advocacy and claims to protect the land. 

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“How is the ministry of the permanent diaconate to be understood within a missionary synodal Church?” (Instrumentum Laboris, B 2.4)

This is one of the questions in the Instrumentum Laboris – and it is coming more alive for me in light of our encounter with Sr. Laura and the Karipuna people. 

Becoming a missionary synodal Church: this is the broadest goal of the synod. It’s not about one issue or theme. It is about setting in motion a process everywhere, with all of the baptized, to wake up to our vocation to be a people who go out and live Good News. To be a people who welcome in and include. Who see ministry as listening and organizing in solidarity. Not a set of rules to impose and police, or a strict rubric to obey. 

In this vision of a missionary synodal Church, how are deacons called to walk and witness? What is the Holy Spirit asking of those called into service as its ordained ministers? It surely is not for them to don a stole and celebrate their elevated clerical status—it is to be sent out by the Church, into the heart of every struggle to care for God’s good and precious creation. 


In our own country, our Supreme Court recently ruled that the US Government is under “no obligation to take steps to secure, or even identify, the water needed for the reservation” for the Navajo Nation, which represents the largest land area of indigenous peoples in the US. Catholic Justice Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion.

As we mark July 4th this week–even when our country can feel so broken–I find myself clinging to the contested claim at the heart of the wayward experiment in democracy: that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. And I hold this dream of democracy alongside the questions the Synod mothers and fathers are asking us to wrestle with… as we listen anew for God’s dream for the Church. 

Perhaps deacons are called to be an order of ministers who honor the unalienable rights that God endows every person. Called to the work of listening, the kind that makes a claim on the hearer. Called to enter into a life-long commitment to walk alongside in struggles for land, for recognition, for water, for life–as the way to follow the one who came that we might have life abundant. These interwoven struggles strike me as sacredly held in the heart of God, and an indelible part of our mission as Discerning Deacons. 

Paz e bem,

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“I have worked alongside many lay and religious women in my ministry who have exhibited outstanding ability for ministry.  Many have taught me by their example how to be a more effective minister, and by their instruction, helped me to grow in this role…It’s time that the Church gets in step with society and recognizes the equality of women in the workplace.  Women are as capable as men in the work of ministry, and have demonstrated the same equality in scholarship, skills and education as men.”
Fr. Joseph A. Genito, O.S.A
Pastor, St. Thomas of Villanova Parish, Philadelphia, PA
“If there were women deacons in my parish, lay women would relate in a deep and meaningful way to deacons who look, act, speak and feel more like themselves…Though I am an unlikely choice to wear the alb and stole, I have a deep commitment to service in Christ’s name and I try to live it every day. Any need that arises, I am ready to shoulder it, though some needs of our sisters and brothers would be well- or better-served by a woman’s different compassion.”
Deacon Bill Zapcic
Parish Deacon and Homilist, Retired Journalist, Tinton Falls, NJ
“Not only is ordaining women as deacons a restoration of the dynamism of the early Church, it is a matter of justice!”
Fr. Stephen P Newton, CSC
Executive Director, Association of US Catholic Priests, Notre Dame, IN

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