The Synod for Amazonia will be taking place from 6 to 27 October at the Vatican. It is a synod that has caught the attention not only of Catholics but of all the world. Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, and one of the 18 members of the pre-synodal Council. In the interview below with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) he relates the recent history of the Church in relation to Amazonia and speaks of the experience of the Gospel among the indigenous peoples. He also explains the consultative character of the synod.
You have been part of the pre-synodal Council. This synod has caught the attention not only of people within the Church but also of all the major communications media. To what do you attribute the great interest in this particular synod?
Bishop Neri: The Synod for Amazonia has a long history. It is evident that it has awakened great interest, because it is tackling the theme of an integral ecology. This includes not only the original inhabitants living there, especially the indigenous peoples, who are the first and legitimate proprietors of the Amazon region. It also includes the communities living on the riverbanks, the quilombolas (descendants of former African slaves), the colonists and so many other people who are now living in the region in search of a better life. The aim of an integral ecology is to seek to consider our “common home” in all its complexity, and Pan-Amazonia is a region which serves the whole planet with its benefits. This region, within this context of being a common home, is currently affected by problems that are having a grave and far-reaching impact. To this one can now add the forest fires that have been started; this is also a serious problem and a threat. Previously people did not pay much attention to the impact of these fires, but they lead to deforestation and illegal logging, agribusiness, poisoning of the rivers, and consequently to the killing of the fish within them. The hydroelectric dams and the mining industry – with its toxic byproducts such as mercury – are likewise killing off the fish stocks. We are speaking of the basic food supply for our indigenous peoples. All these things end up by gravely harming the Pan-Amazonian region in all its biodiversity.
This then is the general context, which in consequence is not restricted solely to the internal debate within the Church but which in fact involves the whole world, because Amazonia is not a separate issue – everything is interconnected, everything is interrelated, and that is why the region is of crucial importance for the world. Pope Francis is also posing the question as to what the world can do to save Amazonia.
What does the Amazon synod mean to you?
I would say that the synod is a Kairós. I know that there has been much talk about the subject around the world and that the synod has met with widespread publicity. Even though there are some who speak ill of it, who condemn it and say ugly things about the synod, the great majority take a positive view of this special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region and for the whole Church. As someone involved in the preparation process, one is very aware of this. There are those who don’t like it, who criticise it, but in general the synod is a Kairós for the Church. We are going to have to ask for many prayers so that we can have the gift of discernment.
We have listened to the reality of the situation in Amazonia and to the clamour of its peoples, who are expressing their unhappiness. During the course of the synod we will be listening to the scientists, and above all we will be listening to what the Holy Spirit wishes to say to the Churches in the Amazon region.
It is important to remind ourselves that the synod is not a deliberative body; according to its guidelines it is a consultative organ. But let us nonetheless not be lacking in courage to propose new ways for the Church and for an integral ecology. May this great event help Pope Francis to take the necessary decisions and give us sure guidance that will be appropriate to this blessed place that is our beloved Amazonia.
What is needed if the Church is not to be solely a “visiting Church” throughout Amazonia?
Evangelization was brought to us by men and women who came from abroad, who gave their lives, many of whom are martyrs of Amazonia. But many of the things that were imported were not always the best; they were often schemes of colonisation, of domination, which disregarded the potential already existing there. In other words, they did not take account of the true face of the Amazon, a face that had the capacity to become the protagonist of its own form of evangelization, through the inculturation of the Gospel, incarnated in the reality of the “seeds of the word” already present among the indigenous peoples, the riverside dwellers, the settlers and all the other people who inhabit this region. And consequently, in order to achieve a more permanent Church, more effective and more present, and closer to the people themselves, their communities and their groups, there is a need both in religious formation and also in the organisation of the community, to draw more deeply on these gifts, these charisms, ministries and individuals. Of course we have to acknowledge baptism as the starting point for everything, a baptismal and collegial Church, different from a clerical Church. In saying this I want to make it clear that our document, the Instrumentum laboris, presents the Pope with an opening to this call.
Celibacy will never disappear, because it will always be a gift for the Church. But I also believe that the Church can reflect, from the point of view of the theology of spirituality and pastoral considerations, on the need for other new forms that will help to assure a more continuing presence alongside the People of God that will go beyond this idea of a “visiting Church”. We need to be closer, more present, and for this reason we need to explore the ideas on which people have been working for so long – for example the idea of a community priest, someone with a community face, an Amazonian face, someone who lives on the spot and knows all the members of the community and can help to make the process of evangelization much more effective.
Colniza is one of the towns in your diocese and at the same time one of the towns in the country that is suffering most from the forest burnings. What is the situation like there at the moment?
The fires have been terrible. They have always happened, but this year they were excessive. The region of Colniza and Guariba are among the towns that have statistically seen the most fires during this year. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures. It seems to me that we cannot admit that the use of fire is becoming something cultural, because it is far more destructive than it is beneficial. I have been in the Mato Grosso region for 17 years and I have been able to see that this year the fires have been worse than in other years, by a wide margin. Some of the burnings are even criminal, whereas others were accidental, but they have caused great damage in the region. There is even a “day of fire” organised by one particular group of delinquents. Now the region is fearing reprisals in its international commercial relationships. We are trying to develop a sense of awareness, in collaboration with the members of IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute for the environment and renewable natural resources (Instituto Brasileño de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales Renovables), with the members of the forestry workers union, and with the firefighting agency, which is always organising campaigns to guide and warn people. We are joining forces with them and we are also using our powers of evangelization in order to draw attention to people’s responsibility in the face of this grave risk, involving the destruction of nature by means of fire.
ACN has been supporting pastoral projects in Amazonia for over 40 years now. Your diocese of Juína is also one of those that have received our help. What kind of benefits have you seen from these projects for your people?
Our diocese has benefited enormously from the projects in which ACN has been involved. Whether in catechetical formation, the family apostolate, youth apostolate and children’s apostolate, the 2000 Bibles supplied in your Bible distribution campaign, the evangelization materials, the children’s rosaries or the help for our solar energy project. After all, in the Amazon synod we cannot think only about the destruction of the forest and the construction of hydroelectric dams to obtain energy. No, we need to create alternatives, and solar energy is one of these. ACN has helped us greatly in this respect.
As to the importance of formation, we recently held some ethics classes with the group from the formation school, with the idea of establishing permanent deacons in the near future. We already have 10 deacons exercising this ministry. It is a mixed school, ethnically. We have over 20 indigenous students and 15 non-indigenous. Within this formation school we have people with close links to the riverside villages who are leaders in our communities. Thanks to the aid of ACN we feel very much a part of this Amazonian reality and really appreciate this support, amplified by your help with evangelization projects and at the same time with projects which aim to build up and train individuals for the work of evangelization within the region.