News Analysis

Why ‘evangelisation’ is a taboo word for some Amazonian Catholics

A Mass in the Colombian town of Nazareth, populated by Ticuna people.

Bishop Adolfo Zon Pereira of Alto Solimões, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, became animated as he cited the preamble of the Amazon synod’s working document. His voice rose as he read out the words “The Amazon is a subject and it must be listened to.”

“This is an earthquake!” he told a scrum of reporters. “It is an earthquake in the new geopolitics because the Amazon should be seated as a subject at the table of the big powers.”

The earthquake of which Bishop Zon spoke will be felt far beyond the Amazon region and could shake the Church itself. The Amazon, which covers parts of nine countries and has a basin containing 15 per cent of the world’s freshwater, has long been treated as a hinterland. But at this month’s synod of bishops in Rome it will be the centre of global attention.

A Spanish missionary with the Xaverian Missionary Fathers, Bishop Zon has spent decades in the Amazon. His diocese covers an area on the tri-border region of Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The Brazilian Church’s focus on the Amazon isn’t new, he insisted, during an hour-long conversation in the Colombian city of Leticia, which neighbours his diocesan seat of Tabatinga.

Many communities seldom see a priest, though Bishop Zon tries not to let any community be abandoned. But it’s an issue he and others working in the Amazon want to see addressed. “I think the starting point must be: the Eucharist is fundamental in the Christian community [but] how can so many communities remain without the Eucharist throughout the year? We have to respond to this challenge. But how?

“Maybe a new ministry that would also be compatible with the celibate priests,” he wondered aloud. “The early Church, for example, had a need and created deacons.” In communities without the Eucharist, Celebrations of the Word occur. It’s a liturgy which “feeds the faith”, according to Bishop Zon. But it falls short for many.

“People want to have access to the Eucharist,” said Mauricio López, executive secretary of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (Repam). “They say: we cannot be fully members of this Church without the Eucharist, or else what is the difference with the Evangelicals?”

Repam consulted widely prior to the synod in communities across the Amazon and considered the contributions of 87,000 people, according to López. A consultation near Leticia took place in a maloca – a circular centre of community life – in a village populated by the indigenous Ticuna. Although priests were among the 85 or so participants, no sacraments were celebrated.

“Here there was shamanism. The spirit spoke. We listened. We celebrated,” said Fr Valerio Sartor, a Brazilian member of the Jesuit Pan-Amazon Service. “It was a beautiful encounter.”

Fr Sartor expressed a preference for the Church celebrating services in such places as malocas – a nod to indigenous customs. He emphasised that an appreciation of indigenous customs “is not syncretism”, and would not be combined with Catholic customs. “The words I would use instead are ‘intercultural dialogue’,” he said.

Some Catholics in the Amazon now use those words in place of “evangelisation”, which they say carries harsh connotations from the colonial era of conversion by force. Instead, they promote a Church which preaches less, listens more and defends indigenous peoples, along with promoting an environmental message.

“We don’t use the word ‘pastoral’ … nor do we use ‘evangelisation’,” said Brazilian Sister Ivanes Favretto, one of four nuns working in an inter-congregational ministry in the Peruvian Amazon. “These are words which were not good in this community. We pay visits, go to their homes, offer workshops with contents which inspire.”

Many in the communities Sister Ivanes and her colleagues visit have abandoned the Church, though many still ask for baptism. From her base in Islandia – a Peruvian community built on stilts to avoid flooding – she spoke of providing accompaniment to abandoned communities. She also suggested that some indigenous customs, such as a typical drink made from yucca (which is shared in ceremonies), “is something that we could incorporate into our liturgy”.

Indigenous customs continue even among the baptised. In some Ticuna communities, newborns are taken to the shaman – locally known as a medicine man – before baptism. The baptism is “a second step”, said Cesar López Ahue, who is Ticuna and recently finished nine years of seminary studies. He said the shaman “entrusts” the child to an animal (such as a jaguar) as its protector, while the priest provides a “blessing”.

López said his family had stayed Catholic – his father remembers the work of Franciscan missionaries fondly – but barely 10 per cent of Ticunas now baptise their children. Many have joined non-Catholic congregations, he said. With others, “The mentality is, ‘The child will decide’,” when they are older.

For his part, Fr Sartor said: “The Church has been very concerned with doctrine [but] it’s forgotten a fundamental part of Christianity: spirituality – allowing the spirit to speak.”