SARAYAKU, Ecuador – Ever since Pope Francis convoked a summit of bishops on the Amazon, the question of ordaining married men has been both a cause for hope among some and a source of trepidation among others.

Francis has been clear he’s not doing away with priestly celibacy, but when it comes to the ordination of the so-called viri probati, meaning married men of proven virtue, he’s been less definitive, allowing the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops to ponder that question.

The Amazon region – technically a “biome” – includes nine countries in Latin America: Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.

According to Spanish Bishop Rafael Cob, the ordination of the viri probati would “respond to a concrete reality in the Amazon, and it’s not meant to question the ordinary norm of celibacy.”

Cob has been in Ecuador since the late 1990s and currently serves as the apostolic vicar of Puyo. He spoke with a group of journalists, including Crux, in Quito, the national capital, Sept. 14.

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The bishop noted that geographically, the Amazon is a difficult region due to distances and inaccessibility. However, he also acknowledged that the viri probati could be a response to the fact that there’s a “lack of candidates who can, or want, to be priests,” given the discipline of celibacy.

“Logically, the Church is looking for new methods to respond to concrete challenges,” he said.

Though it doesn’t actually mention the viri probati, the Synod’s preparatory document, released by the Vatican in June, does suggest studying “the possibility of priestly ordination for elders — preferably indigenous, respected and accepted by the community — even if they have an established and stable family.”

Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, told journalists June 17 that he was perplexed at the media’s continued use of the phrase viri probati.

“It’s a different thing,” the cardinal said regarding the document’s proposal. “For me, I think (the term viri probati) is a bit abused.”

In drafting the working document, he said, the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops wanted to emphasize that while the subject of ordaining married men would be studied, the Church continues to affirm celibacy for priests.

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One remote location with no regular access to a priest is the Kichwa indigenous community of Sarayaku, home to some 1,500 people, most of whom identify as Catholic. The community is located deep in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon and it’s only accessible by small plane. The largest such aircraft fits six people, assuming they don’t surpass the weight limit, with the other option being a four-hour canoe ride.

The public square of the Sarayaku. (Credit: Inés San Martín/Crux.)

The community has two nuns living there permanently, but no priest. A priest visits once a month, and the rest of the time Alfonso Cuji, a lay catechist, leads a Liturgy of the Word with the help of the sisters, and also accompanies the infirm and buries the dead.

“As Catholics, our mission is to willingly live a life for the good of our Lord,” he said Sept. 18. “Even when we don’t understand economy or science, our hearts, poor as they are, must praise him.”

Cuji also said that there’s a great need for young missionaries willing to help in the task of evangelization. Last year, he prepared some 60 young men and women to receive the sacraments.

Cuji’s work is supported by Sister Rosa Elena Pico, from the Ecuadorian order of the Missionaries of Mary Co-Redemptrix. She arrived in 2017, and since then, twice the community came to the conclusion that she should be expelled. However, she told them both times that it’s not up to them but the bishop, to transfer her.

Asked about the reasons the locals wanted her gone, she said it had to do with the sacraments: “To be a godparent,” if you’re living with someone, “you have to be married. And there are only six [sacramentally] married couples in Sarayaku,” she said.

She’s also struggled with teaching the Church’s sexual morality, because boys here aren’t considered men until they’re living with a woman. This means teenagers often become couples, with girls as young as 12 starting a family with the support of her parents.

Alfonso Cuji, a catechist from the Sarayaku people who leads the Liturgy of the Word with the help of the sisters, accompanies the infirm and gives proper burial to the dead. (Credit: Inés San Martín/Crux.)

“I’ve tried telling them that it’s OK to wait,” but the traditions of the Sarayaku make it hard,” Pico said.

She said that even though most of those who live in the community identify as Catholic, they prefer to embrace a non-demanding version of Catholicism.

“Many don’t want to commit to what the Church demands,” she said. “They have a self-made Catholicism.”

Asked about the possibility of ordaining married men, she said she’s in favor of it.

“If there’s no priest, there must be someone, perhaps a permanent deacon,” Pico said. “We have here a man who’s almost a deacon [referring to Cuji], who can do everything but administer the sacraments. He assists the sick, brings communion to those who can’t come to church, celebrates the burial for the dead and leads the Liturgy of the Word.”

“I believe that the Church has much to learn from the Amazon,” Pico said. “As you know, it is perhaps the center of the whole world and I hope [the synod] says something on defense of Mother Nature [and] the indigenous people who live here, inside the jungle, loving her. They also need the moral and spiritual support of the Church.”

Franco Tulio Viteri Gualinga, former president of Sarayaku and of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, also spoke with reporters, sitting next to his wife.

He believes that every priest, up to the pope, should be married and “be happy.” Soon, he said, while adding “not soon enough,” women will be priests too, and he sees no reason why a woman can’t be pope.

As a community, Gualinga said, Sarayaku has resisted “all forms of colonization, from the government, the army [and] the Church.” He said that at one point, the Church “couldn’t understand our truths and tried to impose the cross and the Bible.”

But today, he sees a “great change.” He’s particularly fond of Pope Francis, saying the Argentine pope “understands that the created must be protected.”

Gualinga met Francis when the pontiff was in Quito in 2015.

Franco Tulio Viteri Gualinga, former president of Sarayaku and of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, his wife Berta and their youngest child. (Credit: Inés San Martín/Crux.)

For a man who sees the roads as a “dagger in the indigenous communities that comes and kills you from behind,” Gualinga needed no prompting to talk about gender equity, saying that “patriarchy” must end.

He acknowledged that the term itself is something he picked up during his travels outside of the jungle, but doubled down on the need to “de-patriarchalize” the world, which, he said, needs a “motherly message of love.”

“And I go further: why does the pope have to be a man and not a woman for a while? But if one says so, then he becomes the boogie man or a Communist,” Gualinga said. “I understand that today it can’t happen, but at some point …”

From a tribe in which women tend to farms and men weave the hammocks that adorn most homes, Gualinga said discrimination against women has not allowed for an “evolution of thinking in equality.”

Asked about the synod, the indigenous leader says he “know about it” and the “very important job” that was done ahead of it. But his biggest concern is the environmental message he hopes it will deliver, talking about drilling companies looking for oil with the support of the government.

“We believe that nature is the living manifestation of God. We must take care of it,” he said.

“We try to do good, to be fair, to keep the commandments of God and the jungle,” he said. “Because the world is one. The jungle, the oceans, the deserts, all have an energy.”

His wife, Berta, who listened attentively when her husband spoke, had a message for Francis: “Respect the indigenous peoples, because a long time ago, [the Church] didn’t.”

“The indigenous peoples have always kept silent, but we won’t shut up anymore and we want our cultures to be respected,” she said. “Everything that is God’s creation is being destroyed. I would ask you to help us take care of the Mother Earth.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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