Women play outsized role in missionary activity in Amazon

Women play outsized role in missionary activity in Amazon

Women play outsized role in missionary activity in Amazon

Two women participate in a march by indigenous people through the streets of Atalaia do Norte in Brazil's Amazon region March 27, 2019. They were protesting a central government plan to turn control of health care over to municipalities, in effect destroying a federal program of indigenous health care. (Credit: Paul Jeffrey/CNS.)

The suggestion of a need to identify the “type of official ministry that can be conferred on women” included in the working document of the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon region has been controversial, but Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Territorial Prelature of São Félix in Brazil thinks the document is “timid” about the role of the women in the region, which he says “in many communities is already diaconal.”

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – The suggestion of a need to identify the “type of official ministry that can be conferred on women” included in the working document of the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon region has been controversial, but Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino of the Territorial Prelature of São Félix in Brazil thinks the document is “timid” about the role of women in the region, which he says “in many communities is already diaconal.”

“Women are already doing the work of ordained deacons in many places, so I don’t see why such a reality can’t be acknowledged. I believe this is only a matter of power,” Vasino told Crux.

According to him, the Instrumentum Laboris – the official preparatory document of the synod – didn’t stress the importance of women for the Amazonian Church, and the synod must “go back to this subject in order to adequately discuss the female role in the ministries and in defense of the biome.”

According to a story published by Catholic News Agency, in an August letter to his fellow cardinals, German Cardinal Walter Brandmueller expressed concerns about some “nebulous formulations” of the working document, especially the ones regarding the “priestly ordination of the so-called viri probati” (married men) and “the proposed creation of new ecclesial ministries for women.”

However, many of the local clergy and lay missionaries argue the Amazonian reality demands new solutions.

Many remote regions of the rainforest, only reachable by boat, are visited by a priest no more than once a year. Many times, female missionaries are the sole Catholic presence in such communities.

“In the Prelature of São Félix, the missionary women are the ones who work most closely with the indigenous peoples,” Vasino told Crux.

Sister Laura Vicuña Manso has been working with indigenous nations in the Amazon for 23 years. A member of the Brazilian Congregation of the Franciscan Catechist Sisters, Manso said there are numerous women missionaries in the Amazon, frequently woking in bordering areas with marginalized people.

“In most of the territories inhabited by indigenous peoples, rubber tappers and quilombolas [descendants of African slaves who fled captivity], the Church is not institutionally present. But the female missionaries are there,” she told Crux.

Manso remembered that 25 years ago, in the Amazonian Diocese of Rio Branco, nuns usually peformed baptisms and served as the official witness at marriage ceremonies.

“Women have been performing these activities for a long time in the Amazonian Church, even though they didn’t have the official acknowledgement. Nowadays, it’s up to the local bishops to let them perform such a ministry or not.”

Pastorally, Catholic women can usually play a more significant role in their communities, since they have been there much longer than a priest.

Manso said it takes a long time to really connect with an indigenous group, in order to understand their needs and to assist them.

“We arrive without great plans and we just listen to them and accompany them. We make ourselves available.”

For the past two years, Manso has been working with the Karipuna, a people that has been under threat from land grabbers in the Amazonian State of Rondonia. “I share the same fate as they do. If they’re attacked, I’ll be attacked.”

Maria Petronila Neto, a lay agent of the Pastoral Land Commission – a committee of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil – said without the burden of clerical responsibilities, women can spend more time with people.

“A doctor’s appointment doesn’t change the lives of the communities. When I visit the quilombolas, I always spend a couple of days with them. We celebrate together the word of Jesus, but we also talk about their concrete problems. There should be no separation between faith and real life,” she told Crux.

Many people in the Amazon live in very patriarchal communities, so female missionaries have an advantage when it comes to connecting with indigenous women.

“They tend to see a priest the same way they see their husbands and other men in the community. I usually organize discussions only for women and they open their hearts to me,” said Petronila Neto.

For her, the possible diaconal ordination for women is a necessary step; at the same time, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the problems of the Church in the Amazon.

“The communities like us precisely because we’re different [from the priests]. It wouldn’t be good if we assumed a clericalist role. We need to change our missionary pedagogy,” she said.

Petronila Neto said she wouldn’t like to become a deacon if the Church allows women to do so in the future. “It wouldn’t bring anything new to my work.”

Leila Meurer, a Catholic small farmers association leader in Rondonia, agrees with her.

“I think new ministries for women are necessary, but the changes would not be automatic. Patriarchy is a very strong layer of society,” she said. Meurer stressed that the role of women in Amazonian Catholicism is deeply connected with the social pastoral activities of the Church.

One reason for this contradictory attitude towards ordained ministry for women in the Amazon region may be the historic role “base ecclesial communities” (CEBs] played in Brazil beginning in the 1970s.

“The CEBs were a church centered in the houses of the people and not in churches,” Vasino explained to Crux. “At home, the women always had a special role.”

The existence of the Church in many Amazonian communities, he added, depends on the active role of women. “And not only in the Amazon, but in the whole world.”


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