The unique challenges missionaries face in the Amazon

Celestina Fernandes da Silva, a Catholic activist, waters flowers in front of her home in the Wapishana indigenous village of Tabalascada, Brazil, on April 3, 2019. (CNS Photo/Paul Jeffrey) Celestina Fernandes da Silva, a Catholic activist, waters flowers in front of her home in the Wapishana indigenous village of Tabalascada, Brazil, on April 3, 2019. (CNS Photo/Paul Jeffrey) 

The ongoing Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region—to be concluded on Oct. 27 in Rome—must address the region’s challenges through a creative combination of respect for the Catholic tradition and openness to local realities. That is the assessment of the sociologist Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, the coordinator of the Center of Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.

According to priests and women religious who have worked in the Amazon for decades, the particularities of the Catholic mission in the region—especially the lack of clergy to attend to thousands of geographically isolated communities—has led them to make hard choices. Over the years, new ways of pastoral care have had to be tested, usually derived from local habits, traditions and cultures.

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“It needs to be clear that the Amazon—as well as great portions of the South American countryside—historically suffered from a very serious lack of priests. The consequence was the formation of a popular form of Christianity, in which the absence of a basic religious education prevented the people from grasping the differences between the several Christian denominations,” Mr. Borba said.

According to priests and women religious who have worked in the Amazon for decades, the particularities of the Catholic mission in the region—especially the lack of clergy to attend to thousands of geographically isolated communities—has led them to make hard choices.

This situation not only accounts for the recent progress of neo-Pentecostalism in the Amazon region but also has led to a kind of Catholicism mainly based on the popular devotion of saints—and not in the sacraments.

A historical tradition of the church in the Amazon has been the desobriga (from the Portuguese verb desobrigar, meaning “to disoblige” or “to release”), in which a bishop or priest visits several communities that have gone up to 15 years without the presence of a member of the clergy and administer all the sacraments at once. Nowadays, visits are more frequent, but many faraway communities still receive a priest no more than once a year.

“The other day, I traveled to celebrate a Mass at a community that hadn’t seen a priest for two years,” the Rev. João Carlos Andrade Silveira of the city of Anapu, in the Brazilian state of Pará, told America. It was one of 70 communities in Anapu, a city with a total area of 11,900 square kilometers—bigger than a country like Kosovo, for instance.

“In the meantime, they lead their lives, praying the rosary and doing weekly celebrations of the Word—which they usually call ‘service’ due to the influence of the evangelicals,” said Father Silveira. In many communities, Eucharistic ministers and catechists play the role of religious leaders, doing baptisms and witnessing matrimonies.

Women religious also play a central role in Amazonian communities. They certainly outnumber the priests and seem to reach more places. The way they are seen by the people—sometimes akin to priests—is a natural result of their work.

When Sister Ivone Oliveira first arrived in the Amazon, 20 years ago, she spent six years in the northern Brazilian state of Rondônia, in a parish that did not have a priest. She and her colleagues had to ensure that all the 24 communities of the region were visited, doing baptisms and matrimonies and also offering classes of religious and social education. Over time, they also formed lay community leaders.

Women religious also play a central role in Amazonian communities. They certainly outnumber the priests and seem to reach more places. The way they are seen by the people—sometimes akin to priests—is a natural result of their work.

“Many people would come to us and say they needed to confess their sins. We always made clear we couldn’t forgive them in the name of the church. But we obviously listened to them, gave them a blessing and a hug,” she told America. But if the nuns understood that a priest was important for a given occasion, they would make a huge effort to bring one to the city.

After a few years, when finally a priest settled in the region, people still asked to “confess” first with a nun. “They trusted us very much and used to ask us if they could tell this or that to the priest,” said Sister Oliveira. “Many of them were traumatized with ancient priests that were too moralistic and yelled at them depending on the sin. The priest gave us full support on this task.”

Luigi Ceppi, an Italian-born priest who has been living in the Brazilian state of Acre for decades, remembers some hard decisions he has had to make. “After one day of ‘desobriga’ in a very faraway community—it took us 15 days traveling on a boat to get there—I was approached by a family who wanted to baptize their kids. They heard we were there and came to us,” he told America.

Father Ceppi asked them about their knowledge of Jesus Christ, Catholic prayers and so on. “They told me they didn’t know much about any of that. I was in doubt if I should baptize them under those circumstances. But then they told me they had traveled for 18 days to get to me, through the rivers and the forest.”

So he decided to baptize them. “What was more important: the effort they made or the sacrament’s doctrine, the need of a preparatory course and so on? They were very happy to know they were the children of God.”

Sister Miriam Spezia, who lives in Acre near the borders of Peru and Bolivia, explained that for many people in the region, baptism is seen as an obligation, but they do not view the other sacraments in the same way. “Their experience of religion in our region is largely based on the Gospel, the collective reflection on it and its concrete application in their daily lives,” she said. She has been working in the region for 30 years, but she said that only in the last five years has the parish regularly seen a priest.

The vast distances and lack of infrastructure are constant obstacles for Catholic missionaries in the Amazon. “We normally schedule a week or two to visit the riverside communities, but it’s too expensive for us. What keeps their faith while nobody visits them is their devotion to saints,” explained Sister Vilma Padilha from the city of Borba, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. “In some communities, there are men who certainly could assume some kind of priesthood, in case the synod approves the possibility of the viri probati [certain married priests]. This would be a great help.”

The lengthy and frequent travel required under the current model of the Amazonian church is also costly for communities that are often struggling financially. “This year the communities in our region are very happy because despite their poverty they were able to contribute with 22,000 reais,” about $5,350, “to the parish. But our annual expenditure with transportation equals 20,000,” about $4,870, said Sister Oliveira.

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Tim O'Leary
3 weeks 6 days ago

It would have been great to have some idea of the scale of the pastoral problem in the Amazon basin. From Wikipedia, there are just under 3 million people in 400 tribes speaking 240 languages across 9 modern nations. It appears that the vast majority of people live in urban areas (link below). I imagine the number of baptized and practicing Catholics is a fraction of this. I expect the large distances are similar to what the Jesuit missionaries faced in North America in the 18th and 19th century. A big difference with then is the missionaries brought “civilization” with their Catholicism, whereas the missionaries today have been criticized by some indigenous people to be enamored with a primitivist ideology that considers it a good to keep the living conditions primitive.

At the synod, an Amazon tribal chief complained about a “dictatorship” of missionary workers teaching liberation theology has sought to prevent development in the region, thus keeping indigenous people in poverty and misery (see link re Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, the chief of the Macuxi tribe). In any case, it seems the Eucharistic ministers and catechists mentioned above could obviate the need of ordaining men who do not have a true vocation.

https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_people.html
http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/amazon-tribal-chief-hopes-the-synod-will-curtail-the-ideology-of-primitivis

Alan Johnstone
3 weeks 5 days ago

How wrong the untravelled and inexperienced can be.
There is nothing unique about the indigenous people of the Amazon encountering the European explorers carrying the papal permitted missionaries; the gun, the plough and the Bible.
The entire population of Australian indigenous peoples have had exactly the same issues which is a clash of civilisations, high death rates of the indigenous from mainly germs but some murder and the impossibility of reversing the Pandora's box nature of the issue.
I cite a couple of others out of many more, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the hill tribes of central Vietnam and the high country of Northwest Bangladesh and the numerous differing tribes of Myanmar.

Donald Muench
3 weeks ago

We who live in thriving Catholic communities have always been taught that the Eucharist is "central" to our worship and our identity. Why do our present rules prevent a whole people (those in Amazonia, for example) from enjoying the blessings of a Eucharistic life? And that's but one sacrament that should be a Catholic right.
i hope and pray that the Synod and the Pope will make it possible for indigenous "viri probati" to be educated in theology and the sacramental life and sent forth as priests into the communities of "Amazonia".

Nora Bolcon
3 weeks ago

No Viri Probati until we have women ordained priests!

All we keep hearing is how naturally these people turn to nuns to do what priests do and the nuns have to either turn them away or explain to death how what they are doing isn't exactly what a priest does because our Church refuses to treat women with justice and human dignity. Maybe we will still need married priests of both genders after we ordain women priests and bishops but we are fools if we ordain married men first since it does not appear that there are that many laymen even volunteering to do the work these nuns are already doing.

Of course maybe men just won't do any necessary work unless they are publicly honored, feet-kissed, and crowned for volunteering? No doubt they will be the ones telling women how priesthood is about calling not respect and gaining some kind of honor or prestige.

Supporting married priests when we have no female priests supports misogyny by gender segregation. It is a sin-filled priority and it will have sin-filled repercussions. Religious sexism has already been proven to lead to poverty, terrorism, sex abuse of both children and women, forced illiteracy, slavery, and even war. Don't these people have enough of these problems already? We must stop supporting these ills by no longer supporting their root which is the discrimination against women in religion and for religious and sacred positions, works and roles.

Jim Smith
2 weeks 3 days ago

Another gap in the conversation is the absence of any attention being paid to the missionaries that do not fly under the flag of Rome nor belong to the anachronistic "missionary" orders.

“A Pentecostal penetration into several indigenous ethnic groups, overrunning cultures, ethnic identities, indigenous peoples in the name of the Gospel, is a serious phenomenon in today’s Amazon, which with its fundamentalist and proselytizing connotations has a profound impact on the indigenous peoples.” Retired Bishop from Amazon.
In other words, announcing the good news like St Paul did.

Jesuit missionaries sought solutions, which did not break with Church tradition and teaching, to address the dire need for clergy among the unreachable and completely isolated tribes in northern Albania and Kosovo by founding The Jesuit Traveling Mission. The main reason for the establishment of The Jesuit Travelling Mission was the clergy shortage in the vast territory of the Albanian highlands. If “some people [in the Amazon] might not see a priest for a year” as reported by Crux on October 9, 2019, in 1888 the Catholic tribes of Albania and Kosovo had not seen a priest in ten years. And, speaking of distance, this region was not as remote from the centre — Rome — as the Amazon is. What the Jesuit missionaries of the Travelling Mission found among the remote and isolated Northern Albanian tribes was not very different from the situation of the indigenous people of the Amazon. They found men and women who had not confessed in twenty years, Catholics who had never confessed in their lives, and youth who had never been baptised or even seen a priest. The moral abuses were also abundant: men co-habituating with multiples wives, arranged marriages, superstitions, animism, and vendettas or blood feuds among families. The Church never thought of changing doctrine or tradition, of ordaining the tribal elders (who were very much respected by the people), or ordaining women deacons to replace the celibate, seminary-trained, mission-designated priests who preached, heard confessions and with their zeal and selfless dedication lifted people up and fostered native-local priestly vocations. In fact, despite many forced conversions to Islam, Catholicism was saved and priestly vocations among the locals followed in the highlands of Albania and Kosovo.

The truth is that the Church then did not opt for the modernist agenda of reform, or the easy way out. The Jesuit Missionaries of the Traveling Mission did not give up, but instead stood up to meet the challenges and difficulties of evangelicalism. In 1907, Pope Pius X, in his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), warned against the dangers of modernist reform, which aimed to change Catholicism’s philosophy, theology, history, dogma, worship and ecclesiastical celibacy:

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