None of them looks revolutionary, but they do have a vocation. They are happily married couples whose children have made grandparents. A retired indigenous piratapuia teacher, María Ana Albuquerque, who for years traveled by boat to isolated villages of The Amazon Brazilian to give catechesis and bring communion to parishioners who just come to the priest from year to year or, at best, every several months. Faithful surrendered as Denis Goma da Silva, 41, a Tucano indigenous, father of a family, who makes a living as a security guard and a decade ago assumes countless ecclesiastical tasks and even, when there is no priest, officiate as close to a Mass that standards allow. Or Socorro Oliveira, 54, married to a permanent deacon, most similar to a Catholic priest. The main difference is that he cannot give the Eucharist, extreme unction or confess. Everyone enjoys the confidence of their bishops and their communities but demands that the Vatican go further.
The Catholics of the Amazon have made the Vatican officially debate a proposal to order married men as priests; and women as deacons. They picked up the Pope's glove when he summoned his bishops to a synod and asked them for “brave and innovative” proposals to protect the nature and the inhabitants of this immense territory, of dispersed parish, lacking priests and vocations, and fertile ground for evangelicals. The appointment is this October at the synod of the Amazon, which is celebrated 9,000 kilometers from here, in Rome.
If Francisco blesses the proposal, it would be a step with revolutionary potential because it would mean the end of the monopoly of celibacy adopted a millennium ago in the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church. The synod, in which the Pontiff and Amazon bishops will also discuss how to protect native populations and this very rich set of ecosystems, has Brazilian Catholics as busy as they are hopeful. The preparatory assemblies follow one another months ago. One of the last was in Manaus, one of the most dangerous cities in Brasil, which however has a spectacular heritage opera house of the splendor of rubber. Embedded in a landscape of dense vegetation and winding rivers, here the paved roads are a rarity and the railroad is nonexistent. You travel by boat.
Before leaving for Rome, the bishop of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Edson Damián, 71, details during the Manaus meeting who has this proposal in mind. "It is those leaders who are at the helm of isolated communities, who have long celebrated the word, who transmit catechesis ... We want parents to be ordained with the proper formation and that the Eucharist be present instead of denying it as now." He synod working document, as a result of a long assembly process in which 87,000 people from the nine countries through which the region extends, participate, said that these new priests should be "preferably indigenous", "even if they have a family." It is about priests living with their parishioners in the most isolated villages, where they now go on sporadic and fleeting visits.
Not in all Catholic rites celibacy is sacrosanct. Nor was it always in the Church of Rome. "It would be to rescue what worked for 1,100 years," he says by telephone from Cruzeiro do Sul, another Amazonian diocese, his bishop, Flavio Giovenale. Moreover, emphasizes this religious born in Italy, only two or three of the 23 branches of Catholicism have no married priests. Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt are not separated from the priesthood. Underline that there were also deacons. It was centuries before the discovery of America, where Catholic missionaries came from the hand of the conquerors in 1500. The first thing the Portuguese did when they stepped on what Brazil would be was to celebrate Mass.
Bishop Damián makes it clear that, if it were to prosper, married priests would be only for the Amazon. Among the leaders and faithful of the Church of Brazil - the largest in the world although in decline, 62% of the population - no one mentions that their German counterparts - the richest Church in the world - have decided to discuss celibacy, the ordination of women and homosexuality despite the Vatican opposition.
The current situation - with the climate emergency in the center of the agenda public and a ultra-right president in Brazil - has given an unexpected political relevance to the synod convened in 2017 by this environmentalist Pope to analyze how to preserve the tropical forest, its inhabitants and Catholicism in a territory where the very dynamic evangelical churches and predatory economic interests - an adjective that repeats the Church - fast forward.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who considers the Catholic Church a danger to national sovereignty, has ordered internal espionage to monitor its activities in the Amazon. “The Church is not Masonry, we have nothing to hide, to come and see. We would like all institutions to participate in the defense of the most fragile peoples and the Amazon, ”proclaims Damián. Many indigenous Brazilians like Da Silva trust the Pope to intercede for them. “We need you to defend us because our rights and our lands are being taken away. And NGOs care about nature, not the people who live in it. ”
Oliveira's husband, Afonso Brito, 54, was one of the first married men ordained permanent deacons in the Amazon. They add 418 now. She accompanies him from the beginning. "It is our attempt to populate spaces where there is no official father," he says. Both do pastoral work but, as Oliveira explains, the Vatican does not treat them the same way: “We formed together, but they did not lay their hands on me. Although the bishop says that I am automatically too, ”he adds with a laugh. If Francisco agreed to order deacons, little would change in the routine of these women. It's about officializing what they already do.
As vocations are insufficient in this land with numerous bishops from Europe decades ago, adding parents and women is seen as a solution. "It would be a very necessary change because we have very neglected realities," explains sociologist Marcia Oliveira from Boa Vista, also in the Brazilian Amazon. "The Church has lost in 30 years half of what was conquered in 500 years of evangelization," says this professor who will participate in the synod as an expert. "Either it changes its methods and legitimizes the people who accompany the faithful or will continue to lose a lot of space," he warns.
An indigenous bishop
Bishop Damián dreams that his successor at the head of the diocese of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, on the border with Colombia, is indigenous. It is what corresponds, he says, because it is one of those with the highest proportion of native faithful. Six of them, each of an ethnic group, attended with him the meeting with other religious, laity and bishops in Manaus. Walking the 800 kilometers that separate both cities takes between two and four days by boat. It depends on whether one takes the fast or the cheap. The privileged can arrive by plane. Thanks to this remoteness, it is one of those that has best resisted the onslaught of agile evangelical churches.
Although President Bolsonaro was baptized in the Catholic faith as a good descendant of Italians and remains faithful to the Vatican, he has forged a close political alliance with the main leaders of the evangelical churches. His hostility to the Catholic hierarchy is evident from the election campaign. He considers them leftists. The ultra-rightist recently admitted that the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin) was monitoring the preparations for the synod because the government is extremely sensitive to the issue of the sovereignty of the Amazon and considers that the encounter with the Pope "has a lot of political influence." The bishops are aware of this distrust, which they attribute to the huge economic and political interests that entails the issue, and that is why they have held several meetings with representatives of the Armed Forces. The intelligence agency called Caritas representatives to explain their work firsthand. They had never done it.
Although the Catholic hierarchs do not mention evangelicals, the Church is perfectly aware of the effectiveness with which these new American inspired churches They enter the indigenous communities. In the blink of an eye, they form and send a pastor, a pastor or a marriage of pastors who stays to live among the faithful. And there they are with the parish in the joys and sorrows. Thing that does not happen with Catholics, who can count on their priests to celebrate their weddings and baptisms but not in the worst moments, when they get sick or face death.
The Assembly of God, the most powerful of the evangelical churches in Brazil, was born in the Amazon in 1911. But there are cults focused exclusively on indigenous people such as the New Tribes Mission of Brazil, which has created more than one hundred churches led by members who belong to 44 of the more than 300 ethnic groups in Brazil, according to its website.
Gerardo Trinidade, 31, is a rarity among Brazilian priests because he is indigenous. It is a baniwa. Ordered a year ago, it deals with 17 communities surrounded by villages where evangelicals are the majority. "I only visit them four times a year and they are very hurried visits," he explains in Manaus. Basically he arrives, holds a meeting, throws a soccer match with the villagers, puts on a movie, gives a talk, celebrates Mass, manages communion ... After night he takes the boat to the next community.
The last word is from the Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, the first Latin American and Jesuit in the papacy. There is much at stake inside and outside the Amazon. At the end of the last Mass that gathered the participants in the presinodal meeting, the faithful of São Gabriel made an indigenous ritual to protect their bishops during the mission to the Vatican.
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