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Archbishop Víctor Manuel FernándezPrensa y Comunicación Arzobispado La Plata / Youtube

February 20, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – An Argentinian archbishop close to Pope Francis, who is widely regarded as the principal ghostwriter of the Pope’s controversial 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, is claiming that the Pope blazed a path to married priests in his new Amazon exhortation. The Pope did this by means of suggesting the development of a new “Amazonian rite” that would, in the words of the exhortation, “inculturate the liturgy among indigenous peoples,” the archbishop claimed.

Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the archbishop of La Plata, Argentine, published on February 17 an article in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that offers an interpretative key to the new papal exhortation Querida Amazonia. Additionally, he also published a similar statement on the website of his archdiocese. In these texts, the prelate who has worked closely with Pope Francis even before his election, presents several points about how the exhortation should be interpreted:

  1. Querida Amazonia is a “complementary” text to the Amazon Synod's final document, “without canceling it,” which is a “synodal novelty”;
  2. The question of the married priesthood and “other proposals” of the synod are not “off the table,” but, instead, will come up again with respect to a new “Amazonian rite” to be developed;
  3. The key of the document is that Pope Francis wishes that the laity “take the reins of the Church in Amazonia,” with laymen leading the communities;
  4. Pope Francis has developed a new understanding of priesthood that is a “source of grace,” not a “source of power,” thus more power can be given to the laity;
  5. Pope Francis insists upon “inculturation” which “also implies greater freedom and boldness in local actors,” also with regard to the liturgy

Archbishop Fernández, infamous for his erotic book on the “art of kissing,”  calls for a “serene” re-reading of Pope Francis's new exhortation and hopes that “our internal ecclesiastical questions will not stifle this prophetic voice” dealing especially with social, cultural, and ecological issues. But then deals with the key elements of the papal document with regard to the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, according to Fernández, wishes to “create a 'markedly lay' Amazonian Church” and for this he demands “that the laity be 'endowed with authority' (n. 94). It is here that the Pope introduces a new understanding of the priesthood that is effectively separated from authority – a proposal that also has come up in the Amazon Synod's working document. That document had stated that the Church must “reconsider the notion that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all areas (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and in a permanent way to the Sacrament of Holy Orders.” (n. 127)

As Fernández explains in his L'Osservatore Romano article, there is a need for “revising a way of understanding the priesthood that relates it too much to power.” “Francis specifies that when it is said that the priest is a sign of Christ the Head, one must understand Christ as the source of grace, especially in the Eucharist, not as the source of power. Therefore the leadership of communities can be entrusted to lay leaders with authority,” he adds.

Fernández refers here to number 87 and 88 of the papal exhortation, both of which speak of the priesthood and its main function which is “to preside at the Eucharist. That is his particular, principal and non-delegable function.” “There are those who think that what distinguishes the priest is power,” Francis continues, “the fact that he is the highest authority in the community. Yet Saint John Paul II explained that, although the priesthood is considered 'hierarchical', this function is not meant to be superior to the others, but rather is 'totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members'. When the priest is said to be a sign of 'Christ the head', this refers principally to the fact that Christ is the source of all grace: he is the head of the Church because 'he has the power of pouring out grace upon all the members of the Church.'” 

According to Pope Francis (n 88), the priest's main duties are the sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance (which are also involved in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction); other sacraments could well be administered by laymen. As he says in number 89: “The laity can proclaim God’s word, teach, organize communities, celebrate certain sacraments, seek different ways to express popular devotion and develop the multitude of gifts that the Spirit pours out in their midst.”

Pope Francis later goes on to say that “a Church of Amazonian features requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority,” (n. 94) and that the Church should permit “the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay. The challenges in the Amazon region demand of the Church a special effort to be present at every level, and this can only be possible through the vigorous, broad and active involvement of the laity.” 

Fernández points out that Francis foresees a new understanding of the relationship between priest and authority in the Church, as well as what sacraments are “exclusively” to be administered by a priest. As he writes in his own commentary on his diocesan website, Fernández states that “It is about giving greater authority to the laity and in any case accompanying them so that they can take the reins of the Church in Amazonia.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has pointed to this weakness of the papal document when he wrote: “The approach to defining the nature of the priesthood through the exclusive power to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice and to administer the Sacrament of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, while not misleading, falls short. Bishops and priests represent Christ, in whom he has the total ministry of teaching, sanctifying and governing (Lumen gentium 26-28; Presbyterorum ordinis 4-6).”

On this topic, LifeSiteNews published a statement by Professor Karl-Heinz Menke, a German theologian and member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission, who said that “The power of ordination (potestas ordinis) and the judicial power (potestas jurisdictionis) may not be separated.” This same point had been also refuted by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller who spoke last summer of the working document's “direct attack on the hierarchical-sacramental constitution of the Church, when it is being asked as to whether it would not be opportune ‘to reconsider the notion that the exercise of jurisdiction (power of government) must be linked in all areas (sacramental, judicial, administrative) and in a permanent way to the Sacrament of Holy Orders’ (no. 127).” 

Archbishop Fernández insists that the discussion of the ordination of viri probati (married, morally proven men), as well as “other proposals” (he does not mention explicitly the female diaconate) are not off the table. He writes in L'Osservatore Romano: “Some have argued that Francis 'closed the doors' to the possibility of ordering some married men, as well as excluding other proposals of the synod. The truth is that Francis did not close or open doors on this theme, he only avoided rushed solutions.”

Thus, says this papal confidant, Pope Francis has just delayed this discussion, not shut it down. 

Here, the Argentine prelate explains that the Pope did not replace the Amazon Synod's Final Document: “It should not be forgotten that in the introduction to his exhortation he [Francis] writes: 'I will not develop here all the questions abundantly set out in the concluding Document' (n. 2). So, if in Querida Amazonia he does not mention a point, it is not because he excludes its further development, but because it is evident that he did not want to repeat the Final Document, to the point that he avoided mentioning it. Francis clearly says: 'I neither intend to replace nor repeat it'. (n. 2).”

Concludes Fernández: “If he does not replace it, he does not deny it.” He also stresses that the Pope asks for the Final Document to be “applied.” That application, explains the prelate, will be “simpler” for some, while “for others it will be much slower and more complex.” Fernández points out that this is a “new procedure” that this papal exhortation is a “complementary” text to the Final Document. As he writes in his personal commentary: “For the first time an Apostolic Exhortation does not want to be an interpretation of the Final Document of a Synod or a restriction of its contents, nor an official text that leaves behind what the Synod concluded.” It rather calls for the “application” of the Final Document. Comments Fernández: “This is a huge synodal novelty that unfortunately has gone unnoticed.”

As another important aspect, Archbishop Fernández highlights in his article that Pope Francis has a “strong emphasis on inculturation, which implies greater freedom and boldness in local actors,” also with regard to the “liturgy.” “This is why Francis asks us to avoid being too harsh with indigenous rituals and manifestations and not to accuse them immediately of paganism or idolatry (n. 79).” “Here opens a space for a possibile elaboration of an 'Amazonian rite,' mentioned by Francis in note 120,” the prelate continues.

Here he points out that this Amazonian rite might include a married priesthood: “It is a point on which the Synod accepted the challenge proposed by the Pope to come out of the controversy about the 'viri probati' from above, aiming at a broader approach that could eventually include this theme as well.” It is about “addressing” the problems “in a different way,” on a “higher level,” Fernández writes. “This higher level, in the discussions of the Synod, became the possibility of elaborating an 'Amazonian rite' that would in fact be the appropriate ambit to better discern the possibility of ordaining some 'viri probati.'”

Pope Francis wrote the following about inculturation and new ministries in Querida Amazonia

“Inculturation should also be increasingly reflected in an incarnate form of ecclesial organization and ministry. If we are to inculturate spirituality, holiness and the Gospel itself, how can we not consider an inculturation of the ways we structure and carry out ecclesial ministries?” (85) 

As Fernández also writes in his personal commentary on his own diocesan website with regard to introducing the married priesthood in the framework of an “Amazonian rite”: “Of course the application will not be automatic. There will be several years to do it,” some “topics will take longer than others.” “Obviously,” he concludes, “thinking of an 'Amazonian rite' is a work of years and decades.”  

If one were to take Fernández' words – as now presented by the Vatican itself – as the indirect words of Pope Francis – perhaps also aimed at calming down the dissident faction in the Catholic Church – the message is: it will just take a little longer.

In a 2015 interview, Fernández said that the “pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact. The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around. If you go slowly it's more difficult to turn things back…You have to realize that he is aiming at reform that is irreversible.”

Mauricio Lòpez, the executive secretary of the Amazonian network REPAM which was heavily involved in the Amazon Synod, stated about embarking on the path trail-blazed by Pope Francis: “For us now begins the most important phase of the whole synodal process.” 

For Lòpez, “it is that of a profound listening to the territorial instances, of the incorporation of the different voices and of the approximately 200 proposals presented in the [Synod's] Final Document, which the Pope asked us to keep in mind,” and that of “an understanding of the hermeneutic novelty.” 

“Pope Francis has made the Amazon a theological place,” Lòpez adds. For him, the Amazon thus becomes a tool for change: “This opens a way for the same reflection to arise in other biomes of the world and for the challenges of the Church's mission beyond the traditional structures. The periphery breaks into the center and illuminates it, helps it to transform itself. This periphery is clearly represented in Querida Amazonia.” 

The remaking of the Church with what the Pope called an “Amazonian face” has, in the eyes of Fernández and Lòpez, slowly just begun.

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Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli,, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana,, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.