Alfredo Ferro, S.J., labored as he climbed an uphill path in Puerto Nariño, past an enormous sculpture of an ape and toward a handsome new parish church further up the hill in this indigenous Colombian community that caters to tourists on the Amazon River. “I don’t like it,” he said of the whitewashed church with a gabled roof and bell tower, shaded by palm trees.
The church in the Amazon, Father Ferro explained, “should keep with the indigenous reality” and “come closer to the architecture of their houses, of their cultural centers.”
“A church, for me...should be in the style of a ‘maloca’”—a circular, communal structure with a thatched roof at the center of the local indigenous Ticuna’s communities—“not like this.”
Father Ferro is among the Catholics promoting a renewed vision of the church in what was until recently an overlooked but vitally important corner of creation. In August, widespread fires focused international attention on the Amazon. Pope Francis, meanwhile, put the region at the center of the Catholic world by scheduling a Synod for the Amazon from Oct. 6 to Oct. 27 in Rome.
Priests like Father Ferro are now at the forefront of an evolution in Catholic thinking about the Amazon, which is still populated by indigenous peoples—including uncontacted tribes—but increasingly under threats like urbanization, agricultural interests, loggers and illegal miners. Then there is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration cannot develop the Amazon quickly enough and who cried conspiracy when he was called out for his callous response to the disaster of the Amazon fires.
A more Amazon-like church incorporates the customs and sensibilities of the local population, like indigenous spirituality, and promotes new forms of evangelization.
Father Ferro and his colleague, Valerio Sartor, S.J., form the Jesuit Pan-Amazonian Service. It was created by the Society of Jesus in 2015 to attend to a region the Jesuits consider a priority in the Americas.
But his work—as exemplified by his dislike of the traditional parish building—is increasingly to support what synod organizers call creating a more “Amazon-like” church. A more Amazon-like church incorporates the customs and sensibilities of the local population, like indigenous spirituality, and promotes new forms of evangelization.
Father Ferro reeled off a long list of what he considers those new forms of evangelization: “Care for the common home” and the Amazon region; “pushing [sustainable] projects and alternative proposals” for development; and the defense of indigenous peoples.” He calls the approach “intercultural dialogue,” a subject which will surely surface at the synod.
“The call to evangelize has to go through an intercultural dialogue, through a great respect for cultures, their cosmovision, their spirituality and their way of life. That requires dialogue and deep respect,” Father Ferro said.
The question for the synod, he added, is “what kind of presence should the church have and how can we build a church that we call ‘a church with an Amazon face?’”
Proposals to make the church more Amazon-like—in the Amazon region, proponents stress—are proving controversial. Many local bishops still cling to the old ways of evangelizing, even as indigenous people abandon the Catholic Church.
Further afield, two senior churchmen, Cardinal Raymond Burke and Bishop Athansius Schneider, have called for prayer and fasting ahead of the synod, claiming the working document for the meeting promotes pantheism. Critics of the synod have also raised concerns about the possibility of allowing married men of proven virtue—“viri probati”—to be ordained as priests to serve in the remote villages of the region.
For his part, Father Ferro expressed exasperation at the chatter around married priests and its focus in the media. “It’s just one part,” he said, speaking from the Jesuit’s base in the Colombian city of Leticia.
Father Ferro’s view is informed by reality more than ideals. Fathers Ferro and Sartor take slow boats to visit communities along the Amazon and its tributaries throughout the “tri-border” region, where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. Many villages in the region seldom see priests and are unable to celebrate the Eucharist. In their absence, evangelicals have moved in, often bringing with them a worldview that sees indigenous spirituality as something akin to witchcraft.
The stakes for the synod are high, supporters in the Amazon say. It is about nothing less than whether or not the Catholic Church will continue to have a presence in the region. The traditional model, they say, has run its course.
“If we really want the church having a presence in the future, it has to be changed,” said Mauricio López, the executive secretary of the Pan-Amazonian Church Ecclesial Network (Repam).
“There are no vocations,” added Mr. López, a Mexican national, who is now based in Ecuador. “The vocations that you have here do not have the missionary drive. The international missionaries, who were here in the past and sent here—in Europe, they don’t have any more people to send or resources.”
The question for the synod is: “What kind of presence should the church have and how can we build a church that we call ‘a church with an Amazon face?’”
Repam consulted widely ahead of the synod, Mr. López said, holding forums across the region and receiving input from 87,000 individuals. Pope Francis was also consulted. Mr. López, who twice met with Pope Francis to prepare for the synod, says the pontiff “mostly listened” during meetings and told participants at the end of a planning session that was his intention: “I came here to listen, to learn, and I thank you for helping me prepare. I’m not coming here to control it nor tell you what to do.”
Many of the consultations in the Amazon took place in small settlements and outside of churches. At a consultation earlier this year with the indigenous Ticuna people on the outskirts of Leticia, some 85 people, 80 percent of them indigenous, shared thoughts on the church and its role in the Amazon. Participants said the consultation was cordial, not centered on past problems, which date back to colonization, and focused on “how to move forward together.”
“The most important thing was to listen to indigenous peoples...in indigenous people’s own spaces,” Father Sartor said from inside a maloca. During the consultations, he said, “There were no sacraments,” though there were expressions of indigenous traditions using coca leaf, tobacco and yucca dulce.
“Right now, this form of accompaniment is part of the reparation process for us,” said Elver Isidro, a Ticuna leader, who saw the relationship with the Catholic Church as “learning from each other.”
Friendly but intense, Father Sartor came to the Amazon from the shanties of Puerto Alegre in his native Brazil, where he was a parish priest and directed a Fe y Alegría education center. Bearded, avuncular and endlessly cheerful, Father Ferro worked for years with campesinos in his native Colombia. The Jesuit Pan-Amazonian Service “isn’t a pastoral project,” Father Ferro said. He describes it as a service with a focus on indigenous peoples, the environment and sustainable projects.
In Brazil, they work with the Indigenist Missionary Council, which defends indigenous peoples in the remote Javari Valley, home to unprotected tribes and increasingly under threat as the current Brazilian government promotes development in the Amazon and dismantles protections for indigenous peoples.
In Peru, they work with Catholic sisters, whose presence has diminished to the point they now have to work inter-congregationally. The sisters work in villages often abandoned by the state and the church and say their projects focus on promoting human rights, environmental protection and “animating” the local people.
Brazilian Sister Ivanes Favretto calls their vision “an accompanying church,” which works in areas with few Catholics but provides a presence, so “people know that they can count on us.”
And in Colombia, the Jesuits are accompanying people in the peace process after decades of armed conflict.
The missionary council also works with campesinos on sustainable projects. In the community of San Francisco, Colombia, Father Ferro trod a muddy path with indigenous farmers to their chagras, as small plots are known here.
“It looks like a mess,” Father Ferro said, but the chagras system is traditional and surprisingly productive, favoring cultivation of everything from bananas to gourds.
“I’ve seen all kinds of programs fail because they didn’t listen to campesinos,” he said.
His hope now is that the church will listen to the residents of the Amazon as the synod unfolds.