Indigenous people in the Amazon Indigenous people in the Amazon 

Amazon Synod Briefing: Ministers of the Word, face of indigenous Church

Participants share their personal experiences along with their impressions of Day 4 of the Synod for the Amazon with journalists during Thursday’s briefing in the Holy See Press Office.

By Vatican News

The Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, Dr Paolo Ruffini, opened the press briefing by summarizing the main points covered during the Wednesday afternoon's session of the Synod for the Amazon. The first series of interventions by the Synod Fathers concluded on Wednesday evening, he said. Among these interventions was one by Pope Francis himself.

Summary by Dr Paolo Ruffini

The issues discussed during the morning session were all interconnected in some way, added Dr Ruffini. They concerned ecological questions, the future of the planet, the value the Amazon Region represents for the entire planet, the violence committed toward the Amazon as an area, and toward the people who live there, the need to change the paradigm, to respect human rights, and to combat all forms of violence. These issues themselves are connected with culture, dialogue among cultures, evangelization and the inculturation of the Gospel.

Other questions regarded how to “be Church in the Amazon”, and how people living there see the Church. Observations confirmed the lack of vocations in the Amazon region, the need for new forms of ministry, both ordained and non-ordained, the role of women, and the importance of the sacraments in the community. Emphasis was placed on the need to give suitable formation and responsibility to lay people, and to let go of a “clerical vision” in the Church.

Comments by Fr Giacomo Costa SJ

Jesuit Fr Giacomo Costa is Secretary of the Information Commission for the Synod. He developed the connectivity among the themes discussed at the morning session. While examining the Amazon Region, he said, the Synod is also connecting it on the universal level, because the impact of what is happening there affects the entire Church throughout the world.

Fr Costa used the term “missionary synodality” to explain the way the Church can contribute in a specific region. He spoke of a “new way of being Church” that values the contribution of everyone: laity, indigenous, etc.

The Synod has moved on to the next step, he said, describing the so-called “circoli minores”, or small language groups, that began their work on Thursday morning. These groups allow for greater sharing, comparing and exchange of ideas among their members. All these are connected with the interventions in the Synod Hall, he said, and are the result of a period of profound listening, aimed at discerning the new paths of evangelization. These small groups will continue their work on Thursday afternoon and on Friday. The General Congregation will pick up again from Saturday to Tuesday. The relations of the groups will be presented in a week’s time, on the evening of Thursday 17 October and will be published.

Presentation by Bishop Wilmar Santin, O.CARM., of Itaituba, Brazil

Bishop Wilmar Santin spoke of his personal experience ministering in an area that covers 175 thousand square km. His prelature was established in 1988, he said, but the Church’s work with the indigenous peoples dates back to 1910 or 1911. It was the Franciscans who began working there. They were followed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the same Congregation as Sister Dulce Lopes Pontes who will be canonized this Sunday.

Bishop Wilmar told the story of how the indigenous people did not want to approach the missionaries at first, until a Franciscan missionary won them over by playing his flute. Most of the people in the area where Bishop Santin ministers are baptized in the Catholic Church, he said. A Baptist mission headed by a Swiss couple is also there. The relationship between the Catholic missionaries and pastors of the Baptist Church has always been good, he added. They have been collaborating under a banner of dialogue since 1963.

The Bishop’s said his experience and intention has been to intensify the indigenous pastoral ministry. He spoke of how the local Church is putting into practice “what the Pope is calling us to do”: namely, that it should be the indigenous peoples themselves who shape the Church in the Amazon. An important aspect, said Bishop Wilmar, is that the people he works with should have their own leaders. Until now, these have always been foreigners. Pope Francis, said the Bishop, told someone how he dreamed of seeing an indigenous priest in every village. When Bishop Wilmar asked how to fulfil that dream, the Pope said he should start with what the Church already allows: the permanent diaconate. Which is what they decided to do. They developed a plan with an Italian priest who had worked in the indigenous missions in Amazonia all his life. The first step involved creating Ministers of the Eucharist, then ministries that Deacons perform in order to move toward being ordained as Deacons. They chose to begin with the Ministry of the Word, as the Eucharist cannot be preserved in these territories for very long. Formation for Ministers of the Word began in November 2017. 20 men and 4 women were appointed and began preaching the word of God in their own language.

This past March, Bishop Santin said he returned to that village and found another 24 Ministers of the Word, making a total of 48, who preach in their local language. The Bishop said it filled him with joy as he thought of the day of Pentecost when so many heard about the wonders of God, in their own language. This type of formation is advancing toward forming Ministers to baptize, and later to witness marriages, he said. The local people give great importance to the Sacrament of Baptism, he added, and they want to be married in Church. They desire God’s blessings. Which is why there have to be ministers to perform baptisms and marriages in every village. This will help the people very much, concluded Bishop Santin and in the future, hopefully, the ordination of deacons will be possible.

Presentation by Bishop Medardo de Jesús Henao Del Río, M.X.Y., Apostolic Vicar of Mitú, and Titular Bishop of Casae Medianae, in Colombia

Bishop Del Rio represents an area of the Amazon where 90% of the population are indigenous people. The nearest city is one hour away by plane. He described the situation there as particularly difficult. The drug trade, he said, is exploiting indigenous people in the area. While there is a school and a paramedic station, there is widespread malnutrition and many live abandoned. The Bishop told the story of a woman who was experiencing a difficult pregnancy. She had nowhere to go and had to perform a C-section on herself. Her husband managed to get her to the hospital where the gynecologist was shocked this could have happened. In this case, the woman and her child survived. In other cases, men have had to help their wives deliver babies using knives, and women sometimes die as a result. The Health Ministry has been asked to focus more on health care but a court proceeding has been going ahead with no results.

The Church has been intervening in these areas, said Bishop Del Rio. He quoted Pope Francis saying that the Amazon has never been so threatened, not only because the State is absent, but because so many companies come to exploit it. It is not just a matter of planting trees or collecting rubbish, said the Bishop, “we need an integral ecology”. Land is very important for the indigenous peoples, he continued, because that is where their family is buried. Sometimes entire communities disappear, said the Bishop, because of the multi-nationals that force them to leave their lands. Some deceive the people by obtaining legal permission, or getting signatures from leaders through devious means, including using alcohol. The Church is trying to support these people by exposing the exploitation of the multi-nationals, continued Bishop Del Rio. Sometimes they sign things without being fully aware of what they are signing. These are sacred lands for them. Contaminated water causes problems, he added, because it is their drinking water.

Bishop Del Rio recently ordained an indigenous deacon, using some symbols from both the Latin rite, and some used in similar ceremonies in the indigenous culture. We need to take on some of the symbols and values of the indigenous people, said the Bishop, because this is what provides meaning for them. The local people have a tradition of giving what they have in abundance, and offering it to others with dancing. We incorporate this into the Offertory, he said. In this way, we connect both the culture and the Christian experience. We use elements, situations and celebrations that have the seed of God in them, concluded the Bishop.

Sister Gloria Liliana Franco Echeverri, O.D.N., President of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious (C.L.A.R.), from Colombia

Sister Echeverri shared her experience of how, at the end of August this year, a group of men and women religious from the 9 countries of Amazon got together, some of them travelling for 5 to 6 days. They call themselves itinerant men and women religious, and they accompany the people of the Amazon day by day in order to show them the face of Jesus. They offer them a word that can transform and help them to live with more dignity. C.L.A.R. comprises both men and women religious and comprises 22 countries. Sister Echeverri described their challenges as being called to live their proper vocation and to communicate and share the gift they have received with compassion and joy. She spoke of the importance of walking with the Church, one that is more synodal and more participative, listening and discerning.

Sister Echeverri spoke of feeling the need to renew the option for the poor and the excluded. They confront many complex realities, she said: poverty, corruption, migration. They also feel the need to foster the culture of encounter, to foster prophecy in the Church. The most effective way to do this, she said, is through fraternity. Sister Echeverri also urged opting for an integral ecology, recognizing the dignity of people, and that of all cultures. She spoke of the importance of caring for all the goods of Creation, encouraging alternative styles of life that are less consumeristic and more able to care for Creation.

A question about the impact of Evangelical Churches

In response to a question regarding the impact of Pentecostal churches in the Amazon, Bishop Santin cited indigenous people as confirming how some pastors have been very aggressive towards local cultures. Indigenous people are forbidden even to speak their own language or to paint their bodies. There is separation taking place between the Catholic community and some evangelical communities. The Gospel, he said, sometimes causes separation, not with everyone, only some.

As the Synod has been saying, we are trying to find new paths because this is a new reality. The challenges are different compared with those of 10 years ago. The Bishop gave the example of when he visited Agua Branca where gold is mined. There he met a woman, a nurse, who takes care of the Catholic community. She greeted everyone she met and asked some of them to meet the Bishop. She addressed them by name. One of them was an Evangelical, who told the Bishop he had two brother priests and a sister who is a nun. When the Bishop asked why he had converted from Catholicism to being an Evangelical, he replied that when he arrived here there was no Catholic Church. He wanted to hear the Word of God so he went to the Evangelical Church, which is where he stayed. We cannot get to all the places where the people are, said the Bishop. We need to change the Church’s structure so that the Church can move more quickly and that not everything depends on the priest, to the point where the Church cannot carry out her mission. We are slow, he added, and we cannot preach everywhere as we ought to. Which is why, sometimes, Catholics have to quench their thirst for the Word of God in another Christian Church. We need to make sure that we can carry out our mission in a much more effective way, he concluded.

A question about women deacons

Journalists present in the Holy See Press Office were reminded there are nearly 40 women at the Synod. Many more participated in the pre-Synodal consultations. The Church has a feminine face, said Sister Echeverri, she is Mother. There is a path for us to pursue as women, she added. We are not protagonists because many others have gone before us, like Saint Clare. She went on to mention the indigenous women of the Amazon, mothers and grandmothers. The Church discerns, she added. We do not know if this is the moment, but many people are seeking the “feminine face of the Church”, not one of of power, but of service. This is a moment of grace, “Kairos”. This is part of the discernment toward new paths, she concluded.

A question about drug trafficking

Bishop Del Rio responded to a question regarding how the drug trade affects the indigenous people, by describing the situation in Colombia, where he is Apostolic Vicar of Mitù. Despite the peace process, it is a violent area where guerilla fighters hide and where illegal crops are grown, he said. Once he saw four or five planes taking off, all of them filled with drugs. Young people try to become members of those groups because of the easy money they promise. One community started changing their way of life, said the Bishop, by updating their forms of food. Many indigenous peoples have left to find a “better” life and never return, said Bishop Del Rio.

A question about infanticide and violence against women

The example was given of the Mundurukus, a warlike people whoused to  cut off the heads of their enemy to use as a trophy. Prior to the arrival of missionaries, infanticide was practiced in cases where children were deformed. It was confirmed, however, that the dedication of women religious, working as nurses and teachers, has slowly made this practices disappear. But he concluded asking why people in the West should be scandalized when abortion in western hospitals is so widespread.

Sister Echeverri responded to the question about violence against women, saying “the Synod speaks to everyone”. What happens in the Amazon happens everywhere, she said, including violence against women. She mentioned human trafficking, in particular, saying it is connected to migration and sexual exploitation. Sister Echeverri also spoke of women being denied the right or possibility to study. She mentioned how women religious who have served the indigenous peoples have been murdered. These martyrs have made the Amazonian land fruitful, she added.

Synod Briefing 10 Oct 2019
10 October 2019, 17:33