Ministries Appropriate to the Amazon and the First Territorial Synod

Ministries Appropriate to the Amazon and the First Territorial Synod October 14, 2019
A group of pilgrims travel by boat on the Caraparu River in Santa Izabel do Para, Brazil.
Special conditions in the Amazon, like distances and travel difficulties, require a new look at Church ministries.

Austin Ivereigh, in a Commonweal article makes much of the fact that the Synod for the amazon is a territorial synod, the first ever, he says. Doing so and focusing more intently than customary on Amazonian conditions, he helped me understand the push for a ministries structure peculiar to the Amazon. I rely on this article for much of what follows.

Despite charges of paganism, pantheism, and other heresies from “superannuated cardinals” and some Catholic news outlets, Ivereigh sees, on balance, the Church tilting toward “the peripheral, the local, and the particular” and away from “homogenizing centralism.” Those last are the pope’s words. Francis vows to respect “the ancestral wisdom and culture” of Amazon peoples.

 A ‘terrritorial’ synod

The Amazon synod focuses on a territory including parts of nine countries. The synod ignores national boundaries, and no country is wholly within its territory. Of the 185 voting members the majority are from the Amazon. Most of the rest ae “either embedded in the area or deeply sympathetic to it.” Many have more in common with the group of Amazon bishops than with other bishops of their respective countries.

Of Amazonian bishops at the synod, “around two-thirds of them are wholly supportive of the synod and its proposals for the ordination of elders and some kind of recognition of women’s ministries.”

The question of ministries

American and European Catholics may imagine that they are experiencing a crisis of ordained ministries, but it is nothing compared to the reality in the Amazon. There distances are so great and travel so difficult that a priest might be able to visit a village once or twice a year. Eucharists, baptisms, weddings, confessions would be crowded into those few days.

The rest of the time community elders lead Catholic religious life. They may be catechists. They would gather the community around a service of the Word. Except for the Breaking of the Bread, it looks like the Christian communities from the Acts of the Apostles. The economy is based on sharing. The people hunt, fish, and gather what they need and no more. No one goes hungry.

But the day-to-day religious life of the village, with the Word but not the sacraments, doesn’t look particularly Catholic. A priest may find on one of his yearly visits that the village has transitioned to Pentecostalism.

The evangelical influence

Speaking badly of another religious group has an aura of political incorrectness. Ivereigh’s article, though, isn’t the only one that worries about the influence of Pentecostals and similar evangelical groups.

By “evangelical” I mean not mainline Protestant churches such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but fundamentalist denominations. On their websites I read accounts of admirable courage and devotion to spreading God’s word among Amazon peoples. That’s along with insistence on literal, inerrant Scripture. Nowhere did I read that God might be operating among Amazonians before the “word” gets there. One time, in my brief perusal of these sites, a missioner referred to the Amazon peoples as “lost.”

“Nowadays,” Ivereigh says, these churches “are likely to be powerful megachurches that proselytize aggressively and preach a version of the Prosperity Gospel.” A European missionary described the problem to Ivereigh:

The indigenous Catholic communities in the Amazon today are among the best reflections of the first Christian communities in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s natural for them to share, and no one ever goes hungry. People hunt and fish for what their people need, but no more. But all that changes when the Pentecostalists come in. What happens is that soon everything gets sold: the wood, the fish, and so on, to get money, because prosperity is seen as a gift of God—and of course the pastors get their share. It’s really sad. The communities cease to be communitarian. Their mentality becomes one of accumulation and exploitation. I saw it happen over and over.”

Other perspectives, same view

A CRUX article quotes Cleber Buzatto of the Brazil bishops’ Indigenous Missionary Council, speaking of evangelical influence:

Most of these churches demonize the indigenous cultures, spirituality and traditions. At the same time, they stimulate converts to accept commercial initiatives in their lands, with financial ambitions. So, their very existence as indigenous groups is in jeopardy.

Another article from Religion News Service describes a split between Catholic and mainline Protestant groups on one side and fundamentalists on the other. These evangelical Christians tend to ally themselves with Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. Catholics and others decry the willful destruction of huge tracts of the Amazon for financial gain.

On August 22, the Ecumenical Forum ACT Brazil, a council of Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, released a statement saying the Bolsonaro administration’s policies “led to a surge in devastation of the environment” ….

But since the crisis began, evangelical organizations, representing some 22% of Brazilians, have made no public statements about fears of deforestation.

Buzatto, also quoted above, says, “The evangelical bloc has an ancient alliance with the landowners bloc.” They are well represented in Bolsonaro’s cabinet and the Brazilian congress.

I have spoken with firm believers in an imminent Second Coming and Young Earth Creationism. They also seemed to worry little about environmental issues, especial global warming. I guessed that there must be a connection between their biblical literalism and this lack of environmental concern. The Religion News Article quotes Renan William dos Santos, a researcher on relations of Christians with environmentalism. He seconds my guess, saying,

[T]he evangelical position on the Amazon is influenced by their apocalyptic worldview. “From their perspective, there’s no point in struggling against major ecological problems, given that the world is coming to an end and such issues are the signs of the times.”

New Amazon ministries

The anonymous missionary in Ivereigh’s story believes that these are among the reasons ministries in new Amazonian forms matter. These would include ordained elders, respected leaders in a community, who would undoubtedly be already married. Their faculties could be limited to the community of which they are part. I imagine they would serve under a bishop but not be transferrable to new parishes every 12 years or so, as is common practice elsewhere.

This arrangement would put the authority to preside at Eucharist within the authority structure of the community. It would be close to what we see in the early Church. There, Ivereigh says,

… priests were generally chosen from the community not as young men who were then sent off to be trained, but as respected, mature men with families and professions who had an eye for the welfare of the community.

In many indigenous communities women are the leaders. The synod’s working document asks for some sort of official recognition of their ministries. Ivereigh suggests, “Non-ordained minor orders of acolyte and lector may be a way of recognizing women’s service. More controversial would be the ordaining of women as deacons.” Amazonian Bishop Erwin Krautler says,

We talk a lot about giving women more value, but we need something concrete. I am referring to the female diaconate, and I say: Why not?

An Amazonian Rite?

The Roman Catholic Church includes 19 rites, or special structures. Almost all of them allow some form of married priesthood. Some such structure for the Amazon is conceivable. Ivereigh concludes:

Such a body would, of course, be a powerful witness to the defense of the Amazonian peoples, raising its voice against the plunder of the region by extractivist industries, and against the destruction of native cultures by technocrats. But for the church, too, it would be a sign: that it is possible to allow diversity in its structures and disciplines for the sake of inculturating the Gospel.

Image credit: Religion News Service via Google Images


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