Pope Francis urged bishops on Sunday to boldly shake up the status quo as they chart ways to better care for the Amazon and its indigenous people amid threats from forest fires, development and what he called ideological "ashes of fear."
Francis opened a three-week meeting on preserving the rainforest and ministering to its native people as he fended off attacks from conservatives who are opposed to his ecological agenda.
Francis celebrated an opening Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday with global attention newly focused on the forest fires that are devouring the Amazon, which scientists say is a crucial bulwark against global warming.
On hand for the service were indigenous people from several tribes, some with their faces painted and wearing feathered headdresses, as well as more than 180 South American cardinals, bishops and priests, who donned green vestments like the pope.
They traveled to Rome from the region for a special synod, or meeting, that has become one of the most controversial of Francis' papacy.
Among the most contentious proposals on the agenda is whether married elders could be ordained priests to address the chronic priest shortages in the region. Currently indigenous Catholics in remote parts of the Amazon can go months without seeing a priest or having a proper Mass.
Francis' conservative critics, including a handful of cardinals, have called the proposals "heretical" and an invitation to a "pagan" religion that idolizes nature rather than God. They have mounted an opposition campaign, issuing petitions and holding conferences to raise their voices.
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Yet in his homily, Francis urged the Amazonian bishops to go boldly forward, urging they be "prudent" but not "timid" as they discern new ways to protect the environment and minister to the faithful. He drew a distinction between the "fire" of missionary zeal and fires that aim to carve out the rainforest for agricultural uses.
"The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel," he said. "The fire of God is warmth that attracts and gathers into unity. It is fed by sharing, not by profits."
He prayed that God's "daring prudence" would inspire the bishops to bold action to protect the region.
"If everything continues as it was, if we spend our days content that 'this is the way things have always been done,' then the gift vanishes, smothered by the ashes of fear and concern for defending the status quo," he said.
In many ways, Francis opened the synod last year, when he travelled into the Peruvian Amazon and demanded that corporations stop their relentless extraction of timber, gas and gold. Meeting with native families in steamy Puerto Maldonado, Francis declared that the Amazon and its indigenous people are the "heart of the church" and demanded that governments recognize their rights to determine the region's future.
The seeds of the Amazon synod, however, long predate that visit and even Francis' landmark 2015 encyclical "Praise Be," in which he denounced the profit-at-all-cost business interests destroying the rainforest.
The pope, when he was the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, drafted the final document of the 2007 meeting of South American bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, which identified the Amazon and its indigenous peoples as threatened by global economic interests and deserving of the church's utmost attention.
Scientists say the vast rainforest's lush vegetation absorbs heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The moisture given off by its trees also affects rainfall patterns and climate across South America and beyond.
While the numbers of fires burning in the Amazon declined sharply last month, parts of the rainforest burned at a pace in July and August unseen since 2010. That fueled global worries about climate change, put the Amazon fires on the agenda of the Group of Seven summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and directed environmental outrage at the pro-development stance of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he wants to promote economic development in the Amazon and regularize small-scale illegal mining. He has also strongly criticized foreign countries for meddling with what he sees is a domestic Brazilian matter.
Repam, a pan-Amazonian church network that links dioceses, religious orders, Catholic foundations, charity and lay groups, is challenging Bolsonero's view on deforestation
"It's clear that we are reaching a point of no return," Repam's executive secretary, Mauricio Lopez, told reporters. "And what Pope Francis has spoken about in terms of integral ecology explains that this is an ethical appeal for all the world, not only Catholics."
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people who is one of the experts invited to the synod, said deforestation was leading to violence against native people.
"If we refuse to surrender our territories for cattle ranchers and soybean farms — two of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon — we are often labeled criminals, illegals or terrorists," she said.
In fact, those were the exact words used by panelists at an anti-synod conference held at a Rome hotel this weekend organized by a traditionalist Catholic group, the Plinio Correa de Oliveira Institute. Panelists denounced what they called the "propaganda" and "hysteria" over global warming at the synod, claiming it was based on "false data."
The event featured an indigenous lawyer, Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, leader of the Macuxí ethnic group, who denounced what he called the "dictatorship" of missionary workers who seek to prevent development in the Amazon, thus keeping its native people in alleged poverty and misery.
The indigenous people who are advising Francis, he said, "don't represent the people of the Amazon."
Sitting in the front row was Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of Francis' fiercest conservative critics, who claims the synod's working document contains "serious theological errors and heresies."