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story.lead_photo.caption Pope Francis reads his message during the weekly general audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis refused Wednesday to approve the ordination of married men or women as deacons to address a shortage of priests in the Amazon, sidestepping a fraught issue that has divided the Catholic Church and emboldened his conservative critics.

In an eagerly awaited document, Francis didn't refer to recommendations by Amazonian bishops to consider married priests or women deacons. Rather, the pope urged bishops to pray for more priestly vocations and to send missionaries to a region where faithful Catholics in remote areas can go months or even years without Mass.

The pope's dodge disappointed liberals, who had hoped he would at least put both questions to further study. It outraged progressive Catholic women's groups. And it relieved conservatives who had used the debate over priestly celibacy to heighten their opposition to the pope and saw his ducking of the issue as a victory.

Francis' document, "Beloved Amazon," is instead a love letter to the Amazonian rain forest and its indigenous peoples from the first Latin American pope. He has long been concerned about the violent exploitation of the Amazon's land, its importance to the global ecosystem and the injustices against its peoples.

Quoting poetry as frequently as past papal teachings, Francis addressed the document to all peoples of the world "to help awaken their affection and concern for that land which is also ours and to invite them to value it and acknowledge it as a sacred mystery."

Francis said he has four dreams for the Amazon: respecting the rights of the poor; celebrating their cultural riches; preserving its natural beauty and life; and showing the indigenous features of its Christian communities.

Francis had convened bishops from the Amazon's nine countries for a three-week synod in October to debate how the church can help preserve the delicate ecosystem from global warming and better minister to its people.

The Argentine Jesuit has long been sensitive to the plight of the Amazon, where Protestant and Pentecostal churches are making gains in the absence of vibrant Catholic communities where Mass can be regularly celebrated.

According to Catholic doctrine, only a priest can consecrate the Eucharistic hosts distributed at Mass, which the faithful believe are the body of Christ. Given the priest shortage, some remote communities only see a priest and attend a Mass once every few months or years. For Catholic communities in the Amazon, some of which date from the time of the Spanish colonization, the priest shortage coupled with the spread of evangelical churches risks the very Catholic nature of the communities.

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