More than 600 km separate Santa Isabel do Rio Negro, a riverside town deep in the Amazon, from the Seminary of Saint Joseph, in Manaus. But the two could be in different worlds.
It was in that riverside town that Rolisson Afonso’s journey to the seminary began. His memories of his days in the Amazon are still very much present. “I was born in Manaus, but my mother was too young to take care of me, and she had financial difficulties, so I was sent to live with my grandparents in Santa Isabel do Rio Negro. My grandparents were devout Catholics. They could barely read or write, but we would pray every day, reflect on the Gospel, pray the Rosary, and go to Mass every Sunday”, he recalls.
One of his most vivid memories is of going fishing with his grandfather. The river was everything to the community, a point of access, of recreation, but above all of life and sustenance. Unable to afford an outboard motor, they would paddle to nearby islands and fish for hours to provide food for the home.
Rolisson was only 12 when, lying on a hammock with his grandmother, he told her he would like to be a priest. “I wanted to be a priest because of the vestments, the ritual, I was enchanted by it”, he admits.
However, when word got out, he began to be teased by his friends, and put the idea aside. His teenage years were filled with mistakes, excessive partying, alcohol and drug abuse, and romantic escapades. He stopped practicing or thinking much about his faith. His grandparents were always there for him, though. “At the time I wasn’t able to understand their disappointment in me. But these experiences were also important, and I feel that I am in a better position now to reach other young people in similar situations”, he says.
Eventually he moved to Manaus to further his studies and to live with his mother and siblings. Ironically, this move away from his Catholic grandparents was what put him back on the path to the Church. “My mother and my siblings are Evangelicals. They would ask me questions about my Catholic faith, but I wasn’t able to answer them. So, I went looking and discovered a community near my house. I became involved and joined a youth group”.
He also studied, and eventually got a job, but the conversation with his grandmother had stayed in the back of his mind and now returned. Having experienced life in the remoteness of the Amazon, he knew better than most how much these communities need priests. “Some of these riverside communities only get visited by a priest once a year, or once a month. He arrives, celebrates mass and then returns to the city. This is one of the reasons I want to be a priest, to take the sacraments, the Gospel, to these people, to serve their needs”, he says.
Taking that final step was difficult, the hardest part was quitting a steady and promising job for the uncertainty of seminary life. In a region of Brazil where jobs are scarce and poverty is rampant, the Church too is poor, and seminarians have to be supported by donations. Through its benefactors, ACN is a major contributor to this formation.
The seminary now has many students, including representatives from several indigenous communities, who will help adapt the language of the Gospel to their own social and cultural realities.
Meanwhile, Rolisson continues to be moved every time he reads passages of the Gospels related to fishing. “Just as Jesus walked along the margins of the Sea of Galilee, calling his disciples, who were simple people, to be fishers of men, so does he call us, and so does he call the riverside communities to be his disciples and proclaim the Gospel”.
And just as any fisherman needs equipment to practice his trade, so do these new fishers of men who are called to evangelize the Amazonian regions, from their formation to more material goods, such as modern boats to better reach their flocks. This is precisely what ACN helps provide.
“I would like to thank all the ACN benefactors for helping us, and ask them to keep doing so, so that we can have more priests for our Amazon, for the whole world, and continue to take the Eucharist and our pastoral work to furthest reaches”, says Rolisson Afonso.