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.

Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Mgr Neri José Tondello is Bishop of the diocese of Juína, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

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.

"I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures".

“I don’t understand the reasoning behind this culture of using fire to clear the pastures”.

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.

Amazon synod: “The indigenous peoples have had God with them for a long time”.

Amazon synod: “The indigenous peoples have had God with them for a long time”.

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.

The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, scheduled for 6 – 27 October this year, has attracted the attention not only of faithful Catholics but of the entire world. The agenda for the meeting includes the defence of our Common Home, concern for the indigenous peoples and riverside communities, and new paths of priestly ministry. Mgr Sebastião Bandeira is the Bishop of Coroatá, in the state of Maranhão in northeast Brazil. Born in the region of Amazonia Legal, he has spent practically his entire life in the region. Bishop Sebastião recently visited the headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, where he spoke of the situation of his people and the expectations for the forthcoming Synod. He was interviewed by Rodrigo Arantes.

 ACN: The Amazon region is critical, not only for those living in the region, but also for the health of the entire planet. What are the expectations in regard to this Synod, which is vital not only for the inhabitants of the region but also for the entire world, since in a sense it depends on the Amazon for its natural equilibrium?

Bishop Sebastião: Although the Synod is meeting to discuss a particular region, namely the Amazon, the issues it raises, the decisions it takes will undoubtedly influence the whole Church and the whole world. Pope Francis has chosen the theme for the Synod, which is “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology”. Hence, as Church we need to grasp this privileged moment that we are living with Pope Francis, who has been very courageous and has shown himself very open to the problems of Amazonia and attaches great importance to the Church in this region. We need to seek these new paths, so that our evangelisation can be more sound and solid.

And the other aspect, that of an integral ecology?

This is an appeal to the whole world. We need to look after the people of the Amazon. So in Maranhão for example, we have a moderately large indigenous population, but we also have a significant number of quilombola among the population (rural communities formed by the descendants of slaves) who form part of the demographic reality of Maranhão and of the Church throughout Amazonia. We want to take care of the people and of the environment and, above all, we are looking for new ways so that the Church can fulfil its role at such a decisive moment as the one we are living through today.

You speak of new paths and a more solid evangelisation. We know that there are many communities in Amazonia which are only visited by a priest once or twice a year, owing to the distances and the shortage of priests. What are the expectations of these people, for example the riverside dwellers and the indigenous peoples, with regard to this Synod? 

In the first place, the Church in Amazonia has fulfilled a most important role, thanks to the missionaries who have left their mark on the entire region, both in religion and culturally. These were veritable heroes who dedicated their lives in such distant lands to the promotion of an integral development and to evangelisation. Moreover, in Amazonia the popular religiosity is very vigorous, not least because many people in the northeast moved to Amazonia, taking with them their popular religiosity. This religious spirit was also a form of resistance to the attacks of the Protestant sects. On the other hand, we know that Amazonia needs to have a Church with a face of its own. And as the preparatory document for the Synod states, we need to move from  “a Church that visits” to “a Church that remains”. This enduring presence of the Church will only be possible when we have people, ministries that are there on a daily basis, so that the people can really feel themselves to be Church and participate in a more enduring way in the life of the Church. I believe that the question of the ministries will be the subject of much discussion, because this is really the principal concern – how to maintain an institutional presence in a situation that is so remote and so challenging as the one in Amazonia.

Boat Pope Francis, a boat donate with help of ACN for Tefé: Father Pedro (Piotr) Schewior on board of the boat.

Boat Pope Francis, a boat donate with help of ACN for Tefé: Father Pedro (Piotr) Schewior on board of the boat.

Given that you have referred to the question of ministries, do you believe that the Church will be able to offer a more sound and solid evangelisation to these peoples?

Our communities are at risk of disappearing in many places, because we don’t have enough people. Many missionaries are weary and discouraged, so consequently we have to provide a response so that the Church can continue to be alive and active in this very difficult region with its own distinctive features. Many other places in the world, facing different situations, have also thought deeply about this fundamental ministry so that the Eucharist – which is the Sacrament par excellence – can be received and can strengthen our communities. Pope Francis is continually underlining these problems, which are undoubtedly a challenge, in the hope that we can find appropriate solutions in order that the Church can continue to thrive and act, continuing the mission of Jesus, as a prophetic Church that is a sign in the world, a servant, even though she may be persecuted. For even though the Church is facing many difficulties, what matters most is to continue her mission in this world. It is to us as shepherds that this task has been entrusted, and we cannot neglect it under any circumstances.

When it comes to tackling the difficulties, Amazonia has held a place in the heart of ACN ever since the 1970s, when our charity sent 320 ex-army trucks which were crucial to the “mobilisation of the Gospel” in the region. What solutions can you envisage for giving a new impetus to the Gospel in the Amazon region today?

First of all I would like to express my profound gratitude to ACN, which has always helped our local churches, including my diocese of Coroatá, in Maranhão State. We have been blessed by the help of your Foundation, which has helped us in the construction of churches and the purchase of vehicles, so that the Gospel can be brought to so many remote and needy communities. And our religious sisters have also been greatly helped.

Responding to your question, what I can see is the following: nothing is more important than investing in the formation of local leaders. And so we are endeavouring to see how to improve their formation and increase their number, because it is they who will transform our society. Of course, I also believe greatly in the means of social communication, because there is no doubt that they can directly reach so many places we cannot. It is well-known that within Amazonia the parishes are far apart from one another. For this reason I can see that the leaders of the Church in Brazil are most enlightening when they speak of missionary ecclesial communities. That is to say, we need to form communities which, enlightened by faith, will become evangelising communities, who will bear enthusiastic testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason I am very hopeful, because even the experience of the preparatory work for the Synod is already a great victory. Never before has so much attention been paid to a Synod in recent times, a Synod that holds out the opportunity of opening up to the ordinary people, the indigenous peoples, the quilombolas, the young, the fishermen, those on the margins. Undoubtedly, many things will emerge from it, because the Spirit is in the Church, and when the Church gathers together, it is always in order to open up new paths and respond, in the light of the Word of God, to new challenges.

The Catholic Shalom Community was founded in 1982 in Brazil. Its members include young people, families, married couples and priests, who live in so-called „life communities“ and are dedicated to the work of evangelization and Christian instruction, above all among young people. Central to the life of the community and its 3,000 or so members in 20 different countries is the daily celebration of Holy Mass, together with personal prayer, meditation on the Sacred Scriptures and the radical decision to follow Jesus Christ.

Last year ACN gave Mass stipends for a total value of 9,200 Euros for the 19 priests of the community living in Brazil. The Mass stipends are individual offerings by our benefactors, in the form of money or other small gifts, in return for which the priest agrees to celebrate Holy Mass for the benefactor‘s intentions. There is no suggestion here of „paying“ for the Holy Mass, but rather of a fraternal Christian gesture of gratitude and support for our priests, who do not shrink from difficulties or sacrifice in proclaiming Christ and offering Him in the Eucharist for our sakes.

Brazil: Mass stipends for 19 priests of the Shalom Community.

Brazil: Mass stipends for 19 priests of the Shalom Community.

One of these 19 priests is 46-year-old Father Jairo Barbosa Leite. He has been a member of the Shalom community for 25 years. However, in October 2015, while inspecting the renovation work being done on his parish church, he fell nearly 20 feet and has been paralysed ever since. Yet he refuses to speak of the accident as a „disaster“ or a „blow of fate“, but declares instead, „Naturally it was a shock, when I realised that I would be permanently paralysed from now on. Then I understood that this was no burden, but rather a grace. Many people think that you can only be happy if everything is going well. But I am happy, and I feel I have been given a special grace – precisely because I now find myself totally dependent on others. And I can even reach out to people who are far from faith, for they inevitably ask themselves how it is that I can still be happy. But I see it as God‘s Providence. Even while sitting paralysed in a wheelchair, I can recognise what value my service still has, through my life of prayer, the night vigils, the celebration of the Eucharist, hearing Confessions and the educational courses I am still able to offer. I am happy to know that God can use my priesthood in this way. How good it is, despite my weaknesses, to be able to entrust my sins to God and witness to his intervention!“

On behalf of all his fellow priests, Father Jairo thanks us for the Mass stipends offered by our benefactors. „I want to thank all the benefactors of your charity and to assure them that their donations are helping to save souls, through the Church and the men of the Church whose ministry continues throughout the world.“

Code: 212-04-masses

The town of Camela has a population of around 30,000 souls and lies in the midst of the vast sugarcane plantations in the northeast of Brazil. The life of the people here is marked by great poverty and grave social problems, with widespread violence and drug addiction and an invasion by fundamentalist sects. Today there are no fewer than 75 different temples of these sects in the town, while the Catholic Church has just one, far too small parish church and a chapel in the cemetery.

Moreover, the parish church is sandwiched between a store and a supermarket, and there is consequently no possibility of extending or enlarging it. Sunday Mass is now celebrated on the local sports ground instead, since there is not enough space inside the church for all the faithful.

ACN is proposing to offer 35,700 Euros to support the project.

ACN is proposing to offer 35,700 Euros to support the project.

Father Laion Fernando Gonçalves dos Santos Ferreira works very hard among his people, together with three lay missionaries, and is providing an excellent and fruitful pastoral ministry among them.

The parish has now been given a plot of land on which to build a new parish church. And they need our help… ACN is proposing to offer 35,700 Euros to support the project. Will you help us?

Code: 212-01-19

The “Bethlehem Mission” (Missao Belem) is a lay spiritual community of people who devote themselves above all to caring for the homeless, the addicts, the lonely and all those facing a crisis or some other difficult situation. The members of the community, who describe themselves as “missionaries”, share their lives full-time with these homeless victims, often even living on the streets with them. In doing so they are endeavouring to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to these people on the margins of society and make His teachings living and tangible for them.

The community is still very young, having been founded only in 2005 in Brazil, yet it already has 160 mission houses and another 7 intermediate centres in 70 different cities of Brazil, Haiti and Italy.

Brazil: Catechetical materials for pastoral work with socially marginalised groups.

Brazil: Catechetical materials for pastoral work with socially marginalised groups.

Right now some 2000 or so homeless people are being cared for by members of the community in Brazil, which includes 70 consecrated members and 200 full-time voluntary members. They all live together in the various communities, like one big family. People who have until now been living on the streets slowly become accustomed to living an orderly life in community and are able to begin to discover the potential in themselves. The community also offers them the opportunity to have therapy where necessary. And they can also take advantage of the chance to gain practical and professional qualifications or become re-accustomed to the world of work. Wherever possible, the street children are encouraged to return to or at least make contact with their families. Where this is not possible, they are helped to find loving homes with foster parents or adoptive families, in collaboration with the relevant authorities.

So far around 50,000 people have been taken in and helped by these communities. Roughly half of them have since been able to return to normal life. Many have found their way to faith and sought baptism. It is a particularly moving sight to see grown men, some advanced in age and after years of homelessness and addiction, dressed in a white baptismal robe, standing there with a baptismal candle in their hand, or going forward like little children to receive their First Holy Communion. In such cases it is quite evident that baptism has been the start of a new life for them as children of God.

The community is still very young, having been founded only in 2005 in Brazil, yet it already has 160 mission houses and another 7 intermediate centres in 70 different cities of Brazil, Haiti and Italy.

The community is still very young, having been founded only in 2005 in Brazil, yet it already has 160 mission houses and another 7 intermediate centres in 70 different cities of Brazil, Haiti and Italy.

Also very popular and very successful are the evangelising courses run by members of the community. More than 1400 people have so far taken part in these courses, which are aimed at training them for the mission of reaching out to people who still far from the Church, and especially to the marginalised in society, and proclaiming the Gospel to them. At the same time the participants are equipped with appropriate catechetical material, which they can distribute to those who are interested.

ACN is happy to help this wonderful initiative, and we have promised 46,100 Euros to help provide the necessary teaching materials for the coming four years.

Code: 212-07-49

Despite her 88 years, Sister Halina does not just sit around twiddling her thumbs. She has surely earned the right to do so, after a long life of daily service on behalf of the poor. And yet she continues to this day, tirelessly visiting the sick and sewing quilts and pillowcases for newborn babies. And her equally elderly fellow sisters also still want to make themselves useful – listening to and counselling those who come to them for advice, helping children with their homework and comforting the sick and needy. Some of them even continue to instruct and give talks.

Brazil. Support for 12 elderly and infirm religious sisters.

Brazil. Support for 12 elderly and infirm religious sisters.

The sisters are delighted to see that there are many young women who also wish to join their congregation. At the same time, however, seven of their elderly sisters are already in need of constant care, while another five are very advanced in age. Since the congregation has very limited sources of income, we help every year for the most elderly and infirm, with a contribution to the cost of their care and support. This year we are giving 4,600 Euros.

Code: 212-05-39

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.