ROME – In his final message capping off a Vatican summit meant to extend the Church’s pastoral ministry in the Amazon region, Pope Francis warned against building walls and ignoring the traditions of those often on the margins of society.
“How many times do those who are prominent, like the Pharisee with respect to the tax collector, raise up walls to increase distances, making other people feel even more rejected,” he asked. “Or by considering them backward and of little worth, they despise their traditions, erase their history, occupy their lands, and usurp their goods.”
The pope’s remarks came on Sunday during the closing Mass for the nearly month-long Synod of Bishops on the Amazon – giving him the final word, after weeks of conservative backlash over his efforts to elevate the plight of indigenous peoples in the Amazon as well as the rainforest itself.
“How much alleged superiority, transformed into oppression and exploitation, exists even today!” the pope said, surrounded by the nearly 200 bishops that participated in the Vatican summit.
“The mistakes of the past were not enough to stop the plundering of other persons and the inflicting of wounds on our brothers and sisters and on our sister earth,” he said. “We have seen it in the scarred face of the Amazon region.”
On Sunday, as the final Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica began, an indigenous woman in a feathered headdress led the procession down the nave, while the pope carried a new wooden crozier given to him by participants in the synod.
On Saturday, the bishops participating in the event approved a final document asking that the pope consider ordaining married men to the priesthood to address the priest shortage in the Amazon, along with opening up a new commission to study the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.
RELATED: Synod offers cautious support for married priests, study of women deacons
Yet while the hot-button issues of celibacy and women dominated much of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, the pope has insisted that its primary purpose was that of an ecological conversion- a theme he returned to on Sunday, insisting that the global Church has much to learn from the Amazon region.
“In this synod we have had the grace of listening to the voices of the poor and reflecting on the precariousness of their lives, threatened by predatory models of development,” he said.
“Yet precisely in this situation, many have testified to us that it is possible to look at reality in a different way, accepting it with open arms as a gift, treating the created world not as a resource to be exploited but as a home to be preserved, with trust in God,” Francis said.
In his meditation on the Gospel story of Luke where Jesus contrasts a pious Pharisee and a tax collector seeking mercy, the pope said that despite the Pharisee’s boasting of his virtues and keeping of the commandments, he had forgotten the greatest commandment, “to love God and our neighbor.”
The pope’s words seemed to build on his final address inside the synod on Saturday where he called out some “elite” Catholics focusing on small “disciplinary” matters rather than concerning themselves with the “bigger picture.”
“If we look at ourselves honestly, we see in us all both the tax collector and the Pharisee. We are a bit tax collectors because we are sinners, and a bit Pharisees because we are presumptuous, able to justify ourselves, masters of the art of self-justification,” the pope asserted. “This may often work with ourselves, but not with God.”
“Even Christians who pray and go to Mass on Sunday are subject to this religion of the self. Let us examine ourselves and see whether we too may think that someone is inferior and can be tossed aside, even if only in our words,” he said. “Let us pray for the grace not to consider ourselves superior, not to believe that we are alright, not to become cynical and scornful.
“Let us pray for the grace to experience ourselves in need of mercy, interiorly poor. For this reason too, we do well to associate with the poor, to remind ourselves that we are poor, to remind ourselves that the salvation of God operates only in an atmosphere of interior poverty,” he continued.
Instead, the pope directed attention to the lives of the poor – both in the Amazon and elsewhere – as “living icons of Christian prophecy” that can make salvation possible.
“While the prayer of those who presume that they are righteous remains earthly, crushed by the gravitational force of egoism, that of the poor person rises directly to God,” he said.
“The sense of faith of the People of God has seen in the poor ‘the gatekeepers of heaven:’ they are the ones who will open wide or not the gates of eternal life,” he continued. “They were not considered bosses in this life, they did not put themselves ahead of others; they had their wealth in God alone.”
While the end of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon marks the conclusion of a nearly two-year process of regional consultation, followed by this month’s meeting in Rome, it will now be up to the pope to pen a final document that will, in effect, set the Church’s new pastoral directions for the Amazon and beyond.
“Let us pray for the grace to be able to listen to the cry of the poor,” he concluded. “This is the cry of hope of the Church. When we make their cry our own, our prayer too will reach to the clouds.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212