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Why did the pope call a special meeting of bishops on the Amazon region?

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An overview of the complex pastoral challenges facing this region of 2.5 million square miles

When Bishop Rafael Cob goes to visit the faithful of his vicariate he sometimes travels by canoe, and sometimes it takes him days to get to his destination. He is bishop of the vicariate of Puyo in the Amazonian region of Ecuador and is responsible for the care of more than 65,000 Catholics spread over 11,326 square miles.

Bishop Cob’s adventures in the Amazon region, as recounted by Pontifical Mission Society of Spain, are an example of just one of the challenges faced by the men and women religious and other pastoral workers in the region.

Those challenges prompted Pope Francis to call for a special assembly of the synod of bishops in 2019 to examine the life of the Church in the Amazon region.

When the pope made the announcement October 15 during his weekly Angelus address, he said he hoped the synod could identify “new paths for evangelization” that focus specifically on the Amazon’s indigenous population who are “often forgotten and lack the prospect of a serene future.”

The Amazon region stretches over 6.7 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles, or about twice the size of India) and is home to 30 million people. Most of the Amazon lies in Brazil but it also spreads over the borders of nine different countries, making the region’s inhabitants and ecosystem a shared concern.

The Church has been present in the Amazon for generations, witnessing the socio-political and ecological challenges that Amazonian peoples face. Both sets of challenges directly shape the issues that men and women religious must deal with if they hope to provide pastoral care to the people of the region.

Father Victor Livori, the director of the Pontifical Missions Society in Peru, told Aleteia there are 64 ethnic groups of indigenous people in Peru’s Amazon region and they live in “a situation of exclusion, extreme poverty.”

He said the Church takes on the role of protecting and defending the basic rights of the indigenous people. “The Church … inserts itself in their social reality, commits itself through its initiatives to working for a better life which they so desire.”  

Dialogue and “encounter” are a key part of the relationship between the Church and indigenous people in the Amazon, but it can only happen if it is acknowledged that two different cultures are meeting — the indigenous and the non indigenous, said Fr. Livori.

The Diocese of Roramia, Brazil, has been working with that country’s Yanomami population since 1965, advocating for their rights in legal settings, and helping them access health, education, and pastoral care while trying to respect their “cultural rhythms.”

Bishop Mario Antonio da Silva took over as head of the Diocese of Roramia in 2016 and since then has realized there are not enough missionaries and pastoral workers for the number of different communities in his diocese. In May 2017 he told Religion Digital, a Spanish religion news site, that there needs to be a more consistent Church presence in the communities that make up his diocese, but there are simply not enough people to ensure that presence.

He said lay people could play a key role in providing that constant presence, but they would need to receive special formation — something that requires time, funds, and teachers.

In 2015 the bishops of Latin America created the Pan Amazonian Eclesial Network, known by its Spanish acronym REPAM, to educate about human rights and ecological issues in the region — both of which directly impact pastoral work.

REPAM compiled case studies of the situation facing some of the indigenous groups living in the Amazon. The case studies reveal that some of the biggest challenges facing the region’s indigenous populations are environmental and economic.

Exploration for, and extraction of oil and other natural resources is present across the region. The Acre people in Brazil have seen their traditional land scarred by oil exploration and fracking while the Yanomami territory in the same country is sought after by mining corporations whose aspirations are often supported by the government.

Similarly the Awajun and Wampis peoples of Peru also suffer the consequences of “petro business” sourcing oil from their lands. Both mining and oil exploration results in deforestation and contamination of previous unpolluted land and rivers, which affects resident’s ability to living off that land.  

Social challenges such as poor education are also shared across the Amazon region. According to REPAM the Awajun and Wampis people of Peru often get their education from teachers who lack proper training. Limited access to healthcare services is a region-wide issue, as is having land rights and other civil rights recognized and enforced.

The hope among those living and working in the Amazon is that the 2019 special assembly of the synod of bishops will offer a much needed space to explore the complex challenges they face and finally give a voice to the people being most affected.

Mauricio Lopez, the executive secretary of REPAM, told Vida Nueva magazine he believes there are five key elements that will be fundamental to the work of the 2019 meeting of the synod of bishops. Among them: that the voice of the Amazon’s residents be heard, not just the priests and nuns who work there speaking for them. They must be “subjects of their own history,” he said.  As well the meeting must be profoundly theological, employing a theology that “responds to the signs of the times” and reflects the reality of a Church that wants to walk out of sacristies and into the world.


LEARN MORE

The synod of bishops was established in 1965, as an assembly to help the pope. At synod meetings, bishops gather with the Holy Father and share information and experiences, in the common pursuit of pastoral solutions. 

These meetings are either general (referring to the universal Church) or special (referring to a particular geographic area). General meetings can be ordinary (held at fixed intervals) or extraordinary.

The last special assembly of the synod of bishops regarded the Middle East and was held in 2010.

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