SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Issues on the table at the upcoming Vatican summit on the Amazon region are not just political and ecclesiastical, but also down to earth and mundane, including the funding difficulties for Amazonian dioceses and parishes.
According to local bishops, the geographic and economic challenges in the Amazon make the Catholic mission in the region a very expensive one, but there aren’t many monetary resources. In other words, the Amazonian Church currently faces a financial crisis.
Bishop Flávio Giovenale of the diocese of Cruzeiro do Sul in the State of Acre, explained that the Church in the Amazon had been financed by international agencies and religious congregations until the 1990s, when the dioceses had to become self-sustaining.
“Each diocese used to be managed by an international congregation, such as the Salesians and the Spiritans, which brought money from other countries. But in the 1990s the support Brazil received started to be redirected to poorer countries,” the bishop said.
Since then, the Church in the Amazon region has relied mainly on its own parishioners and on scarce donations from other parts of Brazil.
“But outside the major urban areas of the Amazon, there isn’t a healthy economy. People just don’t have money to contribute,” Giovenale told Crux.
Since the beginning of the preparatory works for the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops, local bishops have been stressing that they want to move from “a Church that visits to a Church that remains.”
The current “ministry of visits,” Giovenale said, is one of the main reasons for the financial hardships in the region.
“The other day, I had to go to a small city called Eurinepé. I took a bus to Feijó [170 miles from Cruzeiro do Sul] and then a very small plane, because there are no roads there. For a visit of only a couple of days, I had to spend almost the equivalent of a monthly minimum wage in Brazil [around $240],” he explained.
If Giovenale’s trip also required a boat – in the Amazon, the rivers are the main connectors between cities – the total cost could easily run $480.
“Most dioceses make a huge effort to pay their priests a salary equivalent to twice the minimum wage – and we rapidly spend a similar amount of money when traveling for just a few days,” the bishop said.
Without the proper funding, it’s been difficult to keep the local dioceses functioning, said Bishop Mário Antônio da Silva of the diocese of Roraima, who serves as the Vice-President of the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops.
“No matter what kind of church mission will be prioritized in the synod, resources will be needed,” Silva said.
In the city of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the State of Amazonas, Bishop Edson Damian faces the same reality. Consisting of 42,150 square miles, the diocese area is bigger than Portugal.
“From the urban center in São Gabriel to the parish of Pari-Cachoeira, it takes two days by boat and 500 liters [132 gallons] of gas, with a cost of $600,” he told Crux.
The boats are simple 20-foot-long canoes with an engine at the stern, which frequently have to be pulled out of the rivers and carried through waterfalls.
“In these trips, we also have to take with us all the fuel which will be used, since there are no gas stations in the small communities we visit,” Damian said.
The priests of these isolated locations receive all the food, clothes and fuel they need from the diocese, which arrives periodically. Most communities are not able to provide for them, explained Damian. “We also pay them a very small salary.”
In Roraima, the missionaries travel by car, but many roads are terrible and require small trucks.
“We usually have to spend money on new vehicles or on maintenance and repairs,” said Silva. Additionally, the diocese also has to provide funds for unexpected emergencies. Over the past few years, the Diocese of Roraima has been helping a massive wave of Venezuelan refugees fleeing the economic collapse and political violence under the Maduro regime. Since 2017, 160,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the city.
“Four international congregations are in the state assisting the immigrants with their own resources,” Silva said.
The great geographic distances and the lack of infrastructure and transportation also result in added expenses for the formation of priests. Seminarians usually must leave their local communities for years in order to study, and all the expenses are paid by the dioceses.
“Given that an undergraduate degree is required, the costs are high. The bishops’ conference and the German Church offer a little help, but it’s not enough,” said Giovenale.
One of the topics on the agenda at the synod is the possibility of ordaining married, older men within isolated communities in the Amazon, so they can have regular recourse to the sacraments.
If such a system was implemented in the region, one which allowed community leaders and professionals to become ministers, many of these disproportionate costs would be minimized, said Giovenale.
“These would be men who guide their own communities, so they don’t need to travel, and who have their own jobs,” he said.
Another idea developed during the community listening phase in the preparation for the synod: A special fund for supporting the mission in the Amazon.
“The neediest dioceses would be selected to receive the money,” Damian explained.
According to Silva, the fund could be structured with donations by national and international Catholic organizations.
“There is no ready-made solution. But we do know that sharing can produce miracles.”
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