SÃO PAULO, Brazil  – One of the most compelling voices for the Catholic Church in Latin America, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, believes a lack of priests and access to the sacraments for Christians in the Amazon often leaves many communities in the mammoth region “isolated” and “weakened”.

That reality, according to the retired Archbishop of São Paulo, can’t help but be a major issue that a special Synod of Bishops for the Amazon called by Pope Francis will have to address in October 2019.

The cardinal did not comment on the controversial topic of ordaining viri probati, although the synod is expected to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood. Some permanent deacons already lead Christian communities in the region but aren’t able to preside over Mass or hear confessions.

“The Church has been in the Amazon for 400 years, and yet many communities today have a hard time to live the Gospel, live their faith,” the cardinal said in a short speech to pastoral agents of Santo Andre (Sao Paulo, Brazil) posted on a Facebook page of their cathedral, on December 1st. He was the second bishop of the Diocese of Santo Andre and therefore has many friends there.

Numerous Christian communities in the Amazon “lack agents, lack priests, lack the Eucharist, lack the sacraments… they have at most a meeting on Sundays, without a priest, in which they listen to the word of God, pray together, but the sacraments are missing,” Hummes told those friends.

Since 2011, he has been the president of the Brazilian Episcopal Conference’s Commission for the Amazon. Hummes is now also president of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Repam) and one of the closest allies of Pope Francis. They have known each other since the time they were bishops of São Paulo and Buenos Aires.

After his election, Bergoglio acknowledged that he had chosen the name “Francis” because Hummes, a Franciscan, warned him: “Do not forget the poor!” Hummes was on Francis’s left-hand side in his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Pope Francis summoned the special Synod for the Amazon in a very serious context, which is the great issue of the climate crisis, of the ecological crisis, which is global, serious and urgent,” said cardinal Hummes in his speech. He added that the Paris agreement was a strong sign of global concern.

“There [in COP21] it was said that, if you want to do something later, it will be too late. We must start now; later will be too late,” he insisted. “The pope emphasized this whole question in Laudato Si’ and also placed our Amazon as a lung of the planet. We are not taking proper care of this lung. It’s starting to get sick, because of devastation, deforestation, because today’s development projects do not sufficiently care for the Amazon and, even less so, for its peoples.”

In his view, a second reason to summon a synod on the Amazon is precisely the quality of life of these peoples and the challenges they face to participate at the ecclesial communion.

“How can these communities develop fully as Catholic communities if they have so few opportunities to receive the sacraments? This is a great question that Pope Francis poses us: How should the Church in the Amazon be?”

In Hummes’ view, the Church should be closer to the people in the Amazon and also show more solidarity towards their needs.

“It should be more open and take to the region all the possible resources, especially the sacraments. The Word illuminates the way, the sacraments help us to make the way, to make ourselves capable of loving others, of loving God. These things, in the context of today, are quite precarious,” he said.

In a book launched in 2017, Hummes wrote that Pope Francis loves the Amazon and supports developing an autochthonous (native-born) clergy – recognizing the huge effort made by lay ministers and religious sisters to keep Christian communities alive.

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“It cannot be that a priest shows up only once in a while, once a year, and the people are completely alone and isolated. This weakens communities, this does not give perspective to communities,” said the cardinal on the Facebook video.

In short, the cardinal believes that the Synod on the Amazon will, on the one hand, respond to the ecological challenges and preservation of the Amazon, related to Francis’s call for care to the common home.

On the other, there is the question of “inculturating the Gospel” together with Amazonian peoples.

“These are big questions that, in fact, the Synod will face and discuss. We are now preparing it with the consultation of the bases, the people,” Hummes told pastoral agents.

He also explained that consultations and pre-synodal meetings within Amazonian communities will take place until February 2019. They’re being asked about material challenges, such as work and exploitation of the forests, and religious issues, such as “What kind of church would they like to have by their side?”

The results of these consultations will become the base for an Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the next special Synod, to be discussed by synodal fathers and other participants in October 2019.