The Synod on the Amazon & Lessons from the Eternal City
My husband and I were able to plan a spontaneous trip to Rome this fall. We made few concrete plans other than to make the trek to St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, the site of the martyrdom and burial of the Apostle Paul. We have been to Rome several times, but the draw to the city’s centre is strong and we hadn’t made it out to this site before.
I wanted to go; I wanted to honour Paul’s role in my life. I remember at the age of fifteen reading the Bible for the first time. I was smitten with Jesus, with his wit and his ability to see the world in ways that I had never considered. But when I met Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and in his writings, I knew that I was home. Here was a chronic over-achiever just like me. And here was the articulation of grace — my anxious striving to measure up levelled by a love that I couldn’t (and didn’t need to) earn.
There were public transit options, but we wanted to approach as pilgrims, so we walked. St. Paul’s is well named. You get there by walking right out of the crowds of the bustling city, past its ancient walls and onto streets where ordinary people live and work. The tourists thin out and then disappear altogether. It was a welcome change. It was even more welcome when we finally approached the massive basilica and, as opposed to every other place we had gone in Rome, all we could see was empty space. There were a few buses lined up to drop off visitors, but their numbers were insignificant in the face of the site’s epic dimensions and cavernous silence.
My relief at being out of the crush of loud, gawking, jostling, obliviously self-absorbed tourists was short lived. My awe at the dimensions and majesty of the basilica turned into a growing disquiet. Hung around the sanctuary were two sets of pictures: the top set pictured every Pope of Rome, from Peter to Francis I; the bottom set depicted 36 key moments in the life of Paul. Not surprisingly, the top set of pictures were all of white men, most of them bearded. But the weight of this visual was amplified by the way that Paul’s life was also depicted. In the 36 images, only one had a woman in it — a small girl being freed from demon possession. In fact, as I looked around at the statuary and art contained in the basilica, these two sets of images left me only able to see what wasn’t there. The story of the church had been scrubbed clean of the ethnically-diverse and egalitarian community of the Church that Paul was so much a part of midwifing into existence across Rome. The witness of the misfits — of women and slaves raised as leaders in this mushrooming community and the co-mingling of people across tribe and race, all because of the radical hospitality of God — was exchanged for a picture of the church that has opted instead to cozy up to the values of the empire.
Back in the city’s centre, this cozy relationship is also prominently visible. There is no denying that the church has long shared the values of the patriarchy. Across the Christian church — even the parts of the church where women have been ordained for a generation or two — that has been hard to alter. But it was in being outside the walls of Rome that day that allowed me to see clearly why I love the city inside those walls so much. I love Rome because, unwittingly and often unwillingly, this is a city who can’t help but sing the song of Mary:
The mighty will be cast from their thrones
And the little ones will be lifted up.
Yes, there is this complicated relationship with empire, but that brave, prophetic and wise female voice is the sweet and strong descant that refuses to not be heard, that lilts untouchable and unstoppable above the competing voices. Yes, there are plaques of Popes and legions of collared men roaming the streets. I wondered to my husband what would happen if I were to wear my collar too. We assumed it would be seen as an aggressive political statement or an odd fashion choice (which is sometimes the reaction I get in Canada, too).
But alongside this dominant story of white male leadership is the actual living reality of the church gathered.
There are the historical saints, those like Agnes and Cecilia, women of self-possession lifted up alongside the fishermen and no-account peasants. In St. Bartholomew’s, a beautiful church on an island in the Tiber River, the lay-led Sant’Egidio’s community has collected and displayed relics telling the story of sainthood still being lived out across the world — by men and women, all races, numerous denominations, different levels of education and influence, young and old. Every one of these witnesses, from Jesus through to the faithful today struggling against the oppressive and dehumanizing power of empire, looked as if they were powerless in the face of the Caesars and Hitlers of history. But it is their feeble artifacts that have ultimately been lifted up and venerated with the lingering (growing, even) power to instil faith in our hearts.
When I was outside the relentless crush of Roman tourists, I realized how much I missed the crowd. There aren’t enough traffic lights, bathrooms or sidewalks to accommodate Rome’s volume of visitors, and nobody obeys the rules about silence and “no pictures” in the holiest of sites. Yet these jostling masses are also the counterpoint to the church’s propensity for white-washing our story. The male leaders of the church are here, and they are front and centre. But those crowds tell a story too.
This is the church that is faithless; this is the church that wants to be faithful and can turn around at any point and hear again that levelling call of mercy and grace.
This is the church of tourists with jaws on the floor gawping at every sparkling attraction; this is the church on its knees, still able to see holiness in the witness of insignificant no-account women and men doing foolish things, like standing up to machine guns and giving to the poor.
This is the rainbow church flaming so brightly it is hidden in plain sight; this is the church that doth protest too much.
This is the church debating about ordaining women and married men; this is the church incognito — we are already here and we are leaders, but you can’t see us because we don’t look like what you expect.
We descend on the city by the thousands, millions even, all of us visibly searching for something. That is what Paul was so good at, the flame he fanned across the Roman Empire was the same one sparked by Jesus: connecting that hunger inside us with the One who has forever been seeking us.
Several days after our trip to St. Paul’s, Dan and I found ourselves at the closing papal mass for the Roman Catholic Church’s Synod on the Amazon. It had been taking place during our visit. In its final report, and from the papal chair in Pope Francis’s closing homily, declarations were made about stewardship for the environment, a humble relationship of mutual learning with Indigenous people and the door cracked open for recognizing different forms of leadership — including married men in remote parts of the church, as well as female deacons. Although I am an Anglican, not directly affected by these decisions, it felt like a significant moment for the church as a whole.
From the Roman Catholic world, both liberals and conservatives reported anger and consternation. On one end, accusations were lobbied of Christ being abandoned for paganism. Statues were tossed into the Tiber river in protest.
On the other end, the church was criticized for once again being too cautious in aligning itself with the radical roots of a Saviour whose mother evidently taught him about how the power of God really moves.
I feel both hope and fear in the jostling crowds of Rome, which is exactly how I feel each and every time I hear Mary’s song. My hope is in a witness that spans so much time and is revealed in so many kinds of people that mercy, love, compassion and forgiveness really are the fingerprints of God’s power, and God’s power will take all the time needed to be revealed as unconquerable.
My fear is a healthy and holy fear, the only kind of fear that is worth investing time in at all: does my life align with the right kind of power? When I come to those times of trial and I think I have no power, will I have the courage to choose Love?
When I consider these recent developments in the Roman Catholic Church, however, I feel only hope. No fear. I had thought it odd that a Synod “on the Amazon” would be held in Rome. But in retrospect it seemed right that the Eternal City would have its say on the proceedings, too. Synods can be held, the church can choose to get on board with acknowledging that God isn’t done with us yet, that God is still raising up the misfits and the little ones, and the women too. Or the church can take its time to get there. Mary’s song rises above it all, strong and sweet, embodied in the jostling crowds of the church gathered, witnessed to in the sprawling artifacts of our long and messy history.
No amount of white-washing the story is going to tame or silence that truth.
(Thank you to my husband Dan Tatarnic and to my friend Aidan Johnson for conversations and a sermon, respectively, that helped to inform the thoughts shared in this piece).