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.
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.