The first thing that struck Teresa Glass when she moved to Riberalta, deep in Bolivia’s Amazonian region, was that in this world of huge, snaking, sometimes roiling rivers, there were no bridges.
In her work as a therapist aiding families who had children with disabilities, Glass, who served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Bolivia from 1989 to 1996, traveled the dusty or muddy roads on a sturdy red motorcycle.
When she came to a river, the only way to get from one side to the other, especially in the rainy season, when the waterways overflowed their banks, was in precarious-looking wooden boats.
Muscling the motorcycle up and down steep riverbanks and along narrow wooden planks onto boats was next to impossible without help, but she found that someone was always willing to lend a hand.
From such simple daily tasks, Glass learned one of the Amazon’s most profound lessons: people, plants and animals, fish, forests and rivers——are all interconnected, all depend on one another to survive and to thrive.
That is one of the messages that some 100 bishops will hear when they gather at the Vatican in October for the Synod for the Pan-Amazonian Region. Pope Francis has called the meeting of prelates from the Amazon to discuss challenges facing the Church in the region, with its enormous distances and its dizzying diversity in both the natural world and the human cultures to which it is home.
The people of the Amazon have “an understanding of life … characterized by the connectivity and harmony of relationships between water, territory and nature, community life and culture, God and the various spiritual forces,” according to the working document for the synod, which reflects dozens of discussions that took place last year among Catholics in the nine countries that share the Amazon basin.
The Catholic Church has long been part of that web of relationships. Early missionaries made their way along the rivers into the heart of the region in the 17th century, shortly after Europeans arrived in South America.
Unfortunately, at times the Church favored colonial governments, suppressing native cultures and siding with powerful interests. Conversations with indigenous leaders in preparation for the synod have shown that “there is still an open wound due to past abuses,” the working document says.
But Catholic missionaries also have a centuries-long history of defending and supporting those who suffer most, those who live at the margins of society, “on the periphery,” as Pope Francis puts it. The Synod for the Pan-Amazonian Region will put the periphery at the center of the Church’s attention.
The first Maryknoll missioners to the Amazon arrived in 1942 in Riberalta, which was then a small frontier town on the remote border between Bolivia and Brazil. Traveling by boat, they ministered to people in villages along the rivers. Although there are more roads in the Amazon now than there were 50 or 100 years ago, many places are still accessible only by boat.
That makes pastoral work especially challenging. In the Amazon basin, parishes are enormous, distances are great and river travel is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Priests and sisters cannot visit all their parishioners frequently.
For many Catholics in the Amazon, Mass is a very rare event. Some communities can celebrate the Eucharist only a few times a year, says retired Bishop Erwin Krautler of Altamira, Brazil. “To me, that is a scandal,” he says. “Without the Eucharist, there cannot be a Christian community.”
How to ensure that Catholic communities in far-flung villages can maintain an active spiritual life will be one of the main issues the bishops face when they meet in October.
Proposals include encouraging priestly vocations, expanding the pastoral role of lay people and considering ordaining village elders — lay men who are respected for their faith and their wisdom — to celebrate the Eucharist in their communities. (Some bishops outside of the Amazon have criticized the proposal to ordain village elders, fearing that it would be a first step toward allowing priests to marry, but Pope Francis has emphasized that the requirement of celibacy for priests is not in question.)
The bishops at the synod are also likely to consider new leadership roles for women in the Catholic communities in villages.
The empowerment of local people is crucial for the Church in the Amazon, says Larry Brixius, who served on Maryknoll’s river team as a priest associate in the early 1990s.
The missioners traveled by boat to communities along the river. They led workshops for people who served as Catholic leaders in their villages, training them to celebrate baptisms and marriages and to prepare the faithful for first Communion.
Nurturing that web of relationships is the most important part of being a missioner, Brixius says.
The gift of a missionary life, he says, was “bringing me into that greater awareness – it’s about people loving people and caring for people, and that’s where God is present.”
When Pope Francis spoke to about 2,500 Amazonian people in Peru during his visit to that country in January 2018, he said he wanted to give the Church an “Amazonian face.”
Missionaries say the Amazon has not one face, but many. There are hundreds of indigenous groups in the nine Amazonian countries.
And in Brazil, slaves who escaped from abuse on estates fled into the forest and formed communities called quilombos. Their descendants still live in those communities, keeping alive the memory and traditions of their ancestors.
There are urban faces and rural faces, and there is much migration from rural areas to cities as people travel in search of education or jobs.
Migration has expanded in recent years, as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have streamed across borders into neighboring countries, fleeing economic and political upheaval at home. Increasingly, the migrants are families, arriving only with what they can carry. Many are hungry.
Church workers help with food and shelter while migrants try to find ways to support themselves or travel on to join relatives in other places.
Sister Inés Arciniegas, a Consolata Missionary, left her native Colombia to help minister to migrants crossing Venezuela’s southern Amazonian border into Brazil. Because she is a native Spanish speaker, hers was an especially welcome face for the Spanish-speaking migrants as they navigated their arrival in Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
Being in solidarity with the migrants “is what it means to be a missionary in the Amazon,” Sister Arciniegas said as she visited families in a makeshift tent camp in the city of Boa Vista, Brazil. “It means traveling light.”
The Amazonian face of the Church, she says, is also “the face of one who is a companion on the journey, who becomes a friend, who shares — a prophetic face, one that is welcoming, that listens to people.”
In proclaiming the Gospel and helping to build the reign of God in the Amazon, “it is important to seek a decent life for all, especially for those who are poorest,” says Father Miguel Ángel Cadenas, a Spanish Augustinian priest who has ministered for nearly three decades among indigenous people along Peru’s Marañón River and in Iquitos, Peru’s largest Amazonian city.
Increasingly, that means helping local people stand up for their rights as outsiders encroach on their lands.
In the parish where Father Cadenas worked on the Marañón River, oil spills from an aging pipeline has polluted water and made the fish, on which Kukama Indians depended for protein and for income, unsafe to eat.
Mission on the margins is sometimes dangerous, for both the local people and the missioners who defend the environment.
In Brazil, Sister Dorothy Stang, a U.S. member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered in 2005 because of her work with small farmers who were struggling to defend their land against land speculators, loggers and ranchers. Beside her grave, under trees at a small training center on the outskirts of the town of Anapú, where she worked, is a red cross painted with the names of 16 local people who have been murdered since her death.
Of 165 murders of defenders of the environment recorded by the non-profit watchdog group Global Witness in 2018, half were in Latin America.
Over the years, the people have learned to defend their rights, but missioners continue to accompany them, says Sister Jane Dwyer, also of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Despite the hardship and danger, she says, “The people give us hope. The people don’t have (much), but they have food. They have the land. They’re community. They’re not going to give up easily.”
Featured Image: Tikuna dance in the street of their neighborhood in Manaus, Brazil. Tikuna families started moving to the city in the 1980s from their forest villages in the Alto Solimoes region of the Amazon. (CNS/P. Jeffrey/Brazil)