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Editor’s note: Our Scotland-based reporter Dorothy Cummings McLean has been sent to Italy to join our Rome Correspondent, Diane Montagna, in covering the Synod for the Bishops of the Pan-Amazon region. A lifelong diarist, Dorothy has volunteered to give readers a glimpse into life off-camera as she carries out what she calls “a dream assignment.” Read all of her Amazon Synod diary posts HERE

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

It’s back to the computer after a pleasant Thanksgiving Day spent with other Canadian expats in a small town northwest of Rome. The turkey was enormous, and there was pumpkin pie. There was also idle chatter about the resignation of Pope Francis’ chief bodyguard Domenico Giani. The consensus was that he had overly rattled Vatican VIPs with his office-raiding ways. 

That, of course, was Monday. On Sunday morning, my husband and I met with a Roman pal on the Borgo Pio―Mark saw Cardinal Collins of Toronto strolling by―and, after coffee and croissants, we went to St. Peter’s Square for the beginning of the Newman (et alia) Canonization Mass. 

The front of St. Peter’s Square was packed, needless to say, but we had a splendid view from where we were in the back. There were TV screens showing the entrance procession from the Basilica, but we could see it with our own eyes, tiny figures drifting to the altar. The banners showing the saints’ faces looked glorious, the number of prelates was impressive, and the choir was in good voice. The sun shone, and “Veni Creator Spiritus” rolled out over the crowd. Mark and I then left for “our own Mass,” which is to say, the Roman Rite according to the Extraordinary Form. 

Naturally, most of the English-speaking Catholics in Rome did stick around for the whole canonization service. That night I met an Australian priest chatting to an American pilgrim pal in the street, and they both had been to the ceremony. I asked the Australian priest if the Australian aborigines understood celibacy, and after some hesitation he said that he didn’t know. Although the aborigines in his area are Catholics, they don’t come to church. The reason is that the old church burned down, and the aborigines’ spirituality doesn’t like change. 

“Just like ours,” I half-joked.

This morning began with Mass once again, and then a coffee and croissant in a cafe with my husband. I wished Mark an enjoyable holiday and went back to my apartment to write. Not only was the Pope’s ex-chief bodyguard still in the news, so was Cardinal Becciu. Britain’s Financial Times had done brilliant, old-fashioned reporting on Becciu’s surprising real estate deal, and so I liberally quoted it in my own article

After finishing those stories, I went to the Sala Stampa to see what the synod had had to say. Today’s panel included Dr. Marcia María de Oliveira, an expert in Church History from Brazil; Scalabrinian Father Sidney Dornelas, CS, the Director of the Centro de Estudios Migratorios Latinoamericanos (CEMLA) in Argentina; Bishop Rafael Alfonso Escudero López-Brea of Moyobamba in Peru; and Bishop Eugenio Coter, Apostolic Vicar of Pando and Titular Bishop of Tibiuca in Bolivia. Quite a few journalistic faces were missing, but I introduced myself to Sandro Magister before he and EWTN’s Robert Royal, who speaks good Italian, exchanged views on the Giani resignation. 

The presser began with Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, telling us that Pope Francis had personally nominated additional figures to the committee charged with writing the synod’s final document: Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Archbishop Edmundo Ponciano Valenzuela, and Fr. Rossano Sala. My colleagues are now researching these gentlemen to see what their nomination heralds.

Then Ruffini shared some of the topics discussed at the synod, including ecumenism, but also avoiding “inter-ecumenical colonialism,” the importance of education, ecology, the relationship between humans and the rest of creation, and the “touching witness” of a bilingual project in which children hear the stories of their cultures at school and come home to tell their parents about them.

Ruffini also shared “Know yourself” as a principle of wisdom. I wish the simultaneous translation had been clearer, for I got the―hopefully mistaken―impression that members of the synod thought the Ancient Greek aphorism of “gnōthi seauton” is original to the Amazon rainforest.   

Another important idea raised at the synod was the perceived need for a permanent episcopal organization for the Pan-Amazonian region, and thus there was also much gratitude expressed for the Pan-Amazonian Episcopal Network (REPAM). Potentially influencing the rest of the Church, there was a call to canonize the “Amazonian martyrs,” a suggestion so unabashedly political, I pulled a most unprofessional face. 

The main points shared by Dr. De Oliveira and Fr. Dornelas concerned migration and human trafficking. There are different forms of migration in the region: migration from the forests to the cities, internal migration around the Amazon, and migration to the Amazonian region from outside, e.g. from Haiti and Venezuela. Responding to a question, Dornelas reported that the Church had taken care of migrants when states had been unready to receive such large numbers of them. 

Bishops Coter and Escudero López-Brea spoke more generally about the synod, and how Amazonians see it as a “sign of hope” and a “moment of light” that consoles them that they are not “walking alone” but are supported by the rest of the Church. 

What can the Amazon teach us about women?

A Brazilian reporter asked Dr. De Oliveira about the idea that the Amazonians have something to teach us about the care of women and children, and the historian repeated a number of themes we have heard several times before, particularly women’s “leadership” in the Amazon and the need to “recognize” women’s pastoral work with a “ministry” that reflects what they are already doing. She also mentioned that indigenous women are considered the custodians of seeds and play a role in the distribution of goods, but, to be brief, she did not mention anything enlightening or convincing about what Amazonians have to teach the rest of the world about women and children.  

This reminds me of the hideous photographs of a woman breastfeeding an animal that are hanging in the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina. I will force myself to look at the poster itself tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I’ve never before known that such an activity existed, and I do not know why the Catholics of Rome, let alone the pilgrims, have not ripped down the offensive poster and demanded an official day of reparation.  

There was also a question about the improved relationship between the Vatican and the Church in Latin America now that Francis is in charge. This was sidestepped by both bishops, although one acknowledged that as an Argentinian, the pontiff understands Latin America. Escudero mentioned the theme of the “Amazonian face of the Church” and a hope that evangelization from Europe and the U.S. will end, replaced by missionaries from the Amazon region. 

The microphone went to Swiss journalist Giuseppe Rusconi who asked again about aborigional infanticide and also about the euthanasia of the aboriginal elderly. Dr. De Oliveira said that cultural issues are very complex, that customs change very much from one tribe to another, and that she herself had not followed any of the tribes that practice these things. She seemed to say that infanticide and geronticide are related to survival and the movement of tribes, and I was reminded of several pre-Christian peoples (e.g. the tribes of Ancient Britain) who would swiftly kill their weaker members lest they fall into the hands of cruel enemies. 

Then Fr. Thomas Reese, currently of Religion News Service, asked about proposals for an “indigenous rite.” His question was followed by a similar one from a Latin-loving Texan from Catholic Family News and, thanks to both these gentlemen, I had my third story for the day. After a brief discussion with my colleague Diane Montagna, who opted to look into the tribal murder of the indigenous elderly, I went home to resume typing.   

On the way I bumped into my American pal on his way to the railway station. He introduced me to his friend, another Newman pilgrim, and they told me they had very much enjoyed the Monday evening launch of the book Diane had written with Bishop Athanasius Schneider. They had seen Cardinals Müller and Burke and Fr. Gerald Murray at the gathering, and all available copies of the book, Christus Vincit, had sold out. 

My working day is a long one, but not as long as that of my colleague Jim Hale, who spends up to 15 hours filming, editing, and downloading reports. Tonight he did not turn up at our “table for three” at a local restaurant until well past 10:00 p.m., characteristically enthusiastic about life in Rome. 

The best antidote to the worrisome things we hear about the synod is experiencing Rome and the Romans themselves. After all the talk about recognizing women’s ministry (and breastfeeding “weasels”), it cheers me up to watch young, well-dressed Roman mothers taking their children to school and listen to uniformed waitresses cheekily address old men as “Giovanotto” (“Young Man”) as they serve up their morning espresso. 

There are other cheering examples of the ageless dignity of women. Solemn young women in long skirts and lace veils stand or kneel at Daily Mass in the Extraordinary Form, their backs as straight as candles. Elderly women, shopping bags in hand, greet their neighbors in the street. The medallion of St. Catherine of Alexandria, holding her open book, looks down fondly from the wall across from my room, her wide sleeves half-hidden by billowing carved clouds. 

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Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and has contributed to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.