Pope Francis receives a t-shirt from the delegation of indigenous leaders Pope Francis receives a t-shirt from the delegation of indigenous leaders  (Vatican Media)

Amazonia leaders grateful for Pope’s encouragement

South American indigenous leaders Patricia Gualinga, Sister Laura Vicuña and Yesica Patiachi – representatives of the Amazon Ecclesial Conference and REPAM – share their concerns about the attacks on their lands in Ecuador, Colombia and Peru in an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday.

By Salvatore Cernuzio

On March 4, South American indigenous leaders Patricia Gualinga, Sister Laura Vicuña, and Yesica Patiachi wrote a letter to Pope Francis informing him of their “lucha,” or years-long struggle to protect the Amazon and its inhabitants, and thanking him for his constant attention to this region of the world that is essential to the health of the entire eco-system. The idea for the letter came during a layover at an airport in Colombia, during one of their innumerable visits to international fora where they made the voice of their people heard. They then gave the letter to Cardinal Pedro Barreto of Peru.

Audience at the Vatican

They did not expect such a prompt response, which arrived five days later – much less that “Grandpa Francis” would invite them, through the Prefecture of the Papal Household, to a personal, face-to-face conversation, in the Vatican. The three indigenous leaders—representing the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA) and the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM), but most importantly the Amazonian populations of Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru—were received by Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace Library on Thursday morning.

The meeting with Pope Francis
The meeting with Pope Francis

The conversation with the Pope

“It was a pleasant, calm, and trustful conversation,” they told Vatican Media immediately after the audience. They were emotional as they recounted the attacks on their land, then joyful as they recalled the Pope's jokes about “portuñol”, the mix of Portuguese and Spanish they used to express themselves.

"This meeting with the Pope was a great joy for us," said Imrã Laura Vicuña Pereira Manso, a member of the indigenous Kariri people of Brazil, the daughter of migrant parents, and a religious of the Congregation of the Franciscan Catechist Sisters, a graduate in anthropology and specialized in social psychology. "What can I say...? It was a historic meeting. Pope Francis represents the new breath of the Spirit, the springtime in the Church. Once again we are living this spring and I feel that Pope Francis is leading these changes. Real changes, and there is no turning back because they are changes inspired by the foundation that is Jesus Christ".

Warmth, gifts, encouragement

“Pope Francis has given us a lot of security and confidence,” Patricia Gualinga echoed. Since June 2020, she has been the vice-president of CEAMA, the Ecclesial Conference of Amazonia, a body led until his death by the late Cardinal Claudio Hummes. CEAMA was born five months after the publication of Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the Pan-Amazonian Region.

But Patricia is first and foremost the Kichwa leader of the Sarayaku, in Ecuador, an indigenous people living in the Pastaza forest who have made the defence of “madre Tierra” from the threats of foreign oil companies their reason for living.

Patricia has brought the voice of the Sarayaku to various COPs and other foreign events, and also to the Synod on Amazonia in 2019, invited as an expert among the bishops. She had already, on that occasion, had the opportunity to embrace the Pope—an emotional moment recalled by Patricia in a contribution to L'Osservatore Romano in the special issue for the tenth anniversary of the pontificate.

Speaking about Thursday’s meeting, Patricia said, “At first we were quite nervous because we did not know what to do, what to say. So we first gave him the gifts that many people sent from the territory. Many gave me letters or said, 'Greet the Pope'." The many gifts included a large painting depicting the Amazon landscape, t-shirts, necklaces, and even a box of chocolates. “When we sat down to converse, everything went well. It was a serene, quiet, very confidential conversation”.

A gift for the Pope
A gift for the Pope

The work of women

Three important points especially were addressed in the dialogue with the Pope: “the work of the women of the Church in the territory, the recognition of the ecclesiastical structure of this work, the reality of indigenous peoples and education.” The three indigenous leaders presented their concerns to the Bishop of Rome “so that he may be aware of them.”

The greatest fear is for the policies that are being pursued in various places, which they say represent an attack on international human rights, “but especially to the rights of the Amazon inhabitants,” says Gualinga. “Many of these policies have a commercial purpose,” she noted.

They spoke about the devastation caused by mineral extractions, about territories being plundered, and about inhabitants threatened with being deprived of their homes in order to set up open-pit mines—“even illegal ones,” said the Sarayaku representative, explaining that all this is on the increase in Ecuador.

CEAMA accompanies the struggles of the people and demands respect for the Amazon territories and their fundamental contribution to the world, taking into account all the wealth the region possesses. There is still a long way to go, but the women are on the frontlines carrying out this “process.”

The challenge of a Church with ‘an Amazonian face’

The activists told Vatican Radio that the Pope, for his part, praised the commitment of the women of Amazonia, their sensitivity, as well as their work of evangelization. “He encouraged us to go forward and said that no one can stop change," they explained.

That change, they said, also includes the challenge launched by the Pan-Amazonian Synod: to give the Church an Amazonian face. “It is a very big challenge that we are still building,” says Patricia Gualinga.

The three indigenous leaders during their visit to Vatican Radio
The three indigenous leaders during their visit to Vatican Radio

Markets and the destruction of creation

Patricia, Sister Laura, and Yesica—the latter a writer, researcher, painter, and educator of the Harakbut people whom the Pope had already met in the meeting with indigenous peoples in Puerto Maldonado during his 2018 trip to Peru—emphasized during the audience the joint advocacy efforts with the Amazon Ecclesial Conference to achieve a more just society, without forgetting the “cosmovision” of the indigenous peoples and “the great spirituality that is the presence of God.”

All three expressed regret at seeing that “people do not want to generate an awareness of caring for the environment.” Why is this? Because “the market invaded us,” Patricia explains. “It told us that everything could be possible; and what it did [instead] was, in a way, destroy creation, which is so beautiful.”

The ministries of women in the Church

In the conversation with the Pope, the activists did not fail to highlight the socio-educational and socio-pastoral reality of Amazonia, with an “emphasis” on the mission and ministries of women in the Church.

Concerning this last point, Imrã Laura reported, they all agreed that “there can be no going back” on the mission that every woman has been carrying out in the Church for a long time: “The woman is this maternal face of the Church: Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a woman who is at service. And women in the Church are those who bring about the changes that promote the evangelization of the Church.”

“Without a doubt,” the nun explained, “we women are present in countless communities, encouraging and motivating people not to lose faith and the meaning of life. But the service we render to the Church is not recognized, generating tensions that could be overcome with the recognition of new ministries for women according to the urgency of the socio-pastoral reality of the Church in Amazonia".

A visit to Assisi

Over the next few days, the three “difensoras” of human rights will meet representatives of eight Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, before heading to Assisi to venerate St. Francis, the saint of “naturaleza,” “the one who called earth, air and water brothers and sisters." There they will ask him for the gift of the “ecological conversion” desired by the Pope.

Imrã Laura Vicuña Pereira Manso
Imrã Laura Vicuña Pereira Manso

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02 June 2023, 14:32