How Jesuits in South America are working to promote an ‘Amazon-like’ church

Father Ferro visits with a parishioner in San Francisco, Colombia. Photo by David Agren.Father Ferro visits with a parishioner in San Francisco, Colombia. Photo by David Agren.

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.”

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“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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

What is meant by change, renewal, new evangelization? It would be good if this was cleared up and distinguish what is Church doctrine being promulgated from social projects that will lead to the practicing of Catholicism. I am sure few will object to the style of the church where the Mass is celebrated. The original Masses were celebrated in people's homes.

The very fact that the author brings up the fires is indicative of the political nature of this article.

Michael Barberi
2 weeks 5 days ago

I would not be surprised that this Synod will open up the question about married priests. There is a reasonable rationale for ordaining virtuous married men as a solution to the problems in the Amazon. Did we not admit some Anglican married priests to the Roman Catholic priesthood. They say Mass and hear confessions just like Roman Catholic priests.
I believe celibacy will become voluntary some day . I also believe most men will choose celibacy, but some may not. When Pope JP II closed the door on this question, many theologians did not find his justification persuasive. Almost all the Apostles were married men and there is no convincing evidence that Anglican married priests are less effective than celibate RC priests. The practice of mandatory celibacy has caused many problems as an article in this month's The Tablet clearly documents. As the Tablet article documents, the hierarchy resists the truthful evidence and honest discussion about the impact that celibacy is having on the worldwide priesthood. The article is an eye opener for those with an interest in this subject.

Steve Thompson
2 weeks 1 day ago

I wouldn't be surprised either, but I have to wonder how the laity will respond, after their intitial approbation, when they realize that they must provide each married priest a living wage which will pay all living expenses including health care, education, vacation, food, etc., etc., etc., for the entire family. A priest, being a faithful Catholic, cannot use contaception, of course, and as an example to his parish would, in a sense, be even more obligated to have a large family (barring a grave reason not to). Parishes can barely survive financially as it is, and now we want to add this enormous expense?

There are many other practical reasons why married priests are a bad idea. They are not difficult to imagine.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 1 day ago

Two of the obvious practical reasons for celibacy are 1) pastoral, the priest's first obligation is to his parish. His family would get in the way of this as how much time would family life take up. Second, is that a priest in the modern world has to be ready to move about at short notice. This would be extremely difficult with a family.

Gino Dalpiaz
2 weeks 5 days ago

WHERE IS JESUS....!

David Agren’s article , “How Jesuits in South America are working to promote a ‘Amazon-like’ church,” is almost 1500-words long. Not once; not one single time was the name of Jesus mentioned in the article, except for “Society of Jesus” — the official title of the Jesuits. What Gospel are the Jesuits preaching in South America?

St. Paul, the preacher par excellence, would have blown a gasket by now, for he famously told the Corinthians:

“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).

Jesuits, try “the ole-time Gospel. It’s worked in the past.

Michael Reilly
2 weeks 4 days ago

A question:

Michael Reilly
2 weeks 4 days ago

A question: what would the apostles, Paul, Augustine, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril & Methodius, Xavier, Ricci, John Wesley, John Mott, Billy Graham and the thousands of men and women who went to the nations following the Great Commission . . . What would they think of the synod? Sustainable development, care for the earth, intercultural dialog — is this the only good news for the Amazon? A suggestion: if the evangelicals are having success in the Amazon, invite some of them to the synod. They might help focus the message. M C Reilly

Michael Reilly
2 weeks 4 days ago

A question: what would the apostles, Paul, Augustine, Patrick, Boniface, Cyril & Methodius, Xavier, Ricci, John Wesley, John Mott, Billy Graham and the thousands of men and women who went to the nations following the Great Commission . . . What would they think of the synod? Sustainable development, care for the earth, intercultural dialog — is this the only good news for the Amazon? A suggestion: if the evangelicals are having success in the Amazon, invite some of them to the synod. They might help focus the message. M C Reilly

John Walton
2 weeks 4 days ago

David, thanks for writing this.
I was a little put off by Fr. Ferro's "hubristic" comment: "I don't like it" when referring to the white-washed church. Perhaps he was asleep in physics class -- the thick white walls reflect the heat of the sun and moderate the inside temperature. Maybe the indigenous people are smarter than their "betters".

Steve Thompson
2 weeks 1 day ago

"Many local bishops still cling to the old ways of evangelizing, even as indigenous people abandon the Catholic Church."

There are virtually *no* Catholic bishops which evangelize according to the "old ways", unless we are to consider late 20th century evangelizing as "old". The "changes" being offered by this synod are merely an extention of the same exact changes that we have been experiencing in the Church during modern times which have devastated all Catholic meaning in the world and instigated mass abandonment of the faith by virtually all Catholic peoples and cultures, including (even especially) the clergy. Further cementing these abysmal failures will only continue to produce an even deeper abyss of what we have - which is the utter devastation of faith in the world.

The authentic and fresh "new" way of evangelizing would be for the pope, bishops and clergy to safeguard and teach, to all peoples, the entire deposit of faith which Christ entrusted to the apostles, baptizing the nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Oh, what a refreshing and joyous time that would be!

Mike Macrie
2 weeks ago

Below are the numbers of declining Priests and the numbers were calculated before the Church Sexual Abuse Scandal.
“The situation in the United States is that the "Catholic Church is unique among eleven of the largest Christian denominations in several areas: the dwindling supply of priests, the increasing number of lay people per priest, the declining number of priests per parish, [and] the increasing number of 'priestless' parishes...In the Catholic Church, the total number of priests has declined from 58,534 in 1981 to 52,227 in 1991, 45,713 in 2001 and 37,192 in 2015 (a 36 percent loss between 1981 and 2016). In every other group, including denominations in which membership has declined (e.g., the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches), the total number of clergy has increased.[6]

With the Catholic population increasing steadily[7] and the number of priests declining, the number of laypeople per priest has climbed from 875:1 in 1981 to 1,113:1 in 1991, 1,429:1 in 2001 and 2,000:1 in 2012 (a 130 percent increase). The declining number of priests in parish ministry is producing a marked increase in the number of 'priestless' parishes. In 1960, only about 3 percent of Catholic parishes had no resident pastor. By 2000 that figure was up to 13 percent, and by the summer of 2003 it had risen to 16 percent".[6]

Between 1965 and 2012, the number of USA parishes without a priest climbed from 549 to 3,496.[2] Research by Davidson found "a growing shortage of Catholic priests but an increasing supply—some analysts say an oversupply—of clergy in most Protestant denominations".[6] Similarly, Richard Schoenherr found in 1993 that "the current clergy shortage is a
distinct Catholic crisis".[8][a]”

Steve Thompson
2 weeks ago

The reason why there is a shortage of priests is because no sane man will give their entirety to a life that has been inflitrated and managed by a church full of effeminate, rudderless, dull, daft, heretical, soft, pathetic men. There will be priests when the pope and bishops start believing in, safeguarding and fearlessly teaching the entire deposit of faith which Christ entrusted to them. Men will answer the call to strive for perfection and fight and die for the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, but no man worth his salt will choose to be slowly sauted in the bath of insepid lard which the leadership of the church has become. If the church truly wishes to attract men to the priesthood then they need to stop being repulsive.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks ago

The harsh reality exists as this version of "evangalization" is purely secular in nature, there is no theological basis other than the theatrics involved. And the married priests concept is solely a business decision; we simply need more priests. Concepts of forgiveness and concern for migrants entering a country without due process is also a business decision. From where does one fancy future operating funds will be obtained? This is why there is a push for the inclusion of divorced and LGBTQ individuals, it's not them nearly as much as their wallets. Those at the United States border with Mexico are the future $$$ for the operation of the Church. Again, if they were any other grouping of people their plight would be ignored....Always follow the money trail to find the truth behind motivations. Rare is the organization acting as a compassionate entity. Harsh...I gave warning!

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