Rome -- Pope Francis and over 200 bishops, indigenous leaders and climate change experts convened in the Vatican on Monday to discuss issues related to the Amazon rainforest region.
The gathering, called a synod, opened Monday with a festive procession that started in St. Peter’s Basilica and moved through St. Peter’s Square.
The three weeklong meet comes in the wake of global protests calling for urgent action to fight climate change and this summer’s raging fires in the Amazon.
On Monday in his opening address, Pope Francis urged the bishops to pray a lot, reflect, dialogue and listen with humility -- and be open to new thinking. He warned against a "homogenizing centralism" in the church driven by ideology and urged to "approach Amazon peoples on tiptoes, respecting their history, their culture and their style of good living."
He stressed that the church’s approach was "far removed" from colonial ones "that destroy the distinctiveness of people."
"May God preserve us from the greed of new forms of colonialism," he said at the synod. "The fire set by interests that destroy, like the fire that recently devastated Amazonia, is not the fire of the Gospel."
The fire that destroys, he said "blazes up when people want to promote only their own ideas, form their own groups, wipe out differences in the attempt to make everyone and everything uniform."
Francis has made preservation of the planet a focus issue throughout his papacy and passionately argued for defending the poor and their natural environment in his 2015 encyclical letter, "Laudato Si."
On trips around the world, Francis, the first pope from South America, has drawn attention to indigenous communities and asked that they are listened to as equals instead of as minorities. He has often denounced their exploitation by governments and businesses that plunder their lands and natural resources.
The purpose of the gathering is to discuss the Amazon region’s cultural, ecological and spiritual problems and identify new ways for the Catholic Church to minister to its people. The vast area which spans nine countries -- Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname -- has approximately 34 million inhabitants, including 3 million indigenous people from nearly 400 ethnic groups who speak over 200 languages.
The Catholic Church's challenge is immense, especially since the region has a lack of priests. Some rural indigenous communities, often only accessible by boat, may see a priest just once a year.
To address this regional shortage in the more remote areas, some have raised the possibility of making married men from the local communities priests and strengthening women’s ministerial roles, many of whom are already doing the largest share of ministering to these communities.
The synod has sparked a great deal of controversy before its start. A conservative Catholic minority, opponents of this pope, which include a few cardinals, are against debating the proposal to allow the region’s married elders to become priests and elevating women’s ministerial roles.
There also have been accusations of heresy and apostasy from some dissenting Catholics who view this gathering as the church ‘’maneuvering to re-establish institutional primacy’’ in a once-Catholic territory that now sees the fast advancement of evangelism and Pentecostal Protestantism.
Another criticism related to this synod has been over bishops granted permission to wear clerical suits instead of cassocks in the synod hall and female experts and auditors able to sit where they wish, not just in back rows, as was the rule in previous synods.
On social media others have criticized Francis for his welcoming and greeting indigenous people who had come to the Vatican for the synod. During his opening address, the pope reacted to a negative comment made about the feathered headdress worn by an indigenous man at the opening mass.
"I was very saddened to hear, right here, a sarcastic comment about that pious man who brought the offerings with feathers on his head. Tell me, what difference is there in having feathers on your head and the three-cornered hat worn by some officials of our dicasteries?" referring to the three-pointed red birettas worn by cardinals.
The synod ends Oct. 27.