NAZARETH, Colombia — On a Sunday morning, Deacon Ferney Pereira was leading a prayer service in this small village’s Catholic Church.
After reading a passage from the Gospel of Luke, the 30-year-old deacon stepped down from the altar, walked among his congregation and delivered an animated sermon in Tikuna, the language of this Amazonian village.
“I speak in Tikuna because this helps us to preserve our culture, and because there are elders here who can’t speak Spanish well,” Pereira said after the service. “I was also telling them that we live in a paradise called the Amazon. And if we don’t work to preserve it, no one will do it for us.”
Pereira will become the first priest from the Tikuna ethnic group, a tribe of about 60,000 people that live deep in the Amazon, along a stretch of the jungle shared by Colombia, Peru and Brazil.
As an indigenous priest, he said, he will be in a unique position to keep the Catholic faith alive among the members of his tribe, while working in defense of native communities.
“Some people here have criticized me for supposedly betraying our culture” Pereira said. “But I don’t see it that way. I think that the Church has given me an education that will help me to strengthen our communities.”
His road to the priesthood began as a teenager, when he moved away from his home village of Nazareth because it did not have a high school. His parents sent him to Leticia, where he lived in a dormitory run by Franciscan friars who hosted indigenous students who were in town to complete their studies.
At the dormitory, the friars also trained the young indigenous students on how to plant crops and how to be community leaders. They also got lessons on indigenous history.
“They never talked to us about becoming priests,” Deacon Pereira said. “But they showed us that it would be possible for us to be leaders in our communities.”
After training to become a teacher and returning to his village, Pereira ended up running a church youth group at the request of a local missionary. That’s when, in a gathering of local catechists, he met the bishop of Leticia.
“He asked if anyone there wanted to become a priest,” Pereira recalled. “And I lifted my hand without really knowing what that entailed.”
Pereira ended up living eight years away from the Amazon, near Medellin, Colombia, as he completed his theology and philosophy studies at one of the country’s main seminaries.
But he returned to the Amazon upon graduating. In June, he was ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop Jose Quintero Diaz, the bishop who got him on track to becoming a priest. Quintero asked Pereira to return to his home village to restore the local church and work with the indigenous population.
During his current spell in Nazareth, Pereira experienced some of the challenges that bishops from South American countries will discuss at the Oct. 6-27 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican.
One of them is the issue of building a church with an “indigenous face” that embraces different ways of life and culture.
“Many young people in the Amazon don’t want to go to church, because the priest only talks,” he said. “We are a people that are used to praising God through song and dance, because that is what we also have in our rituals.”
To encourage more young people in his village to go to church, Pereira infuses his prayer ceremonies with singing in the Tikuna language and lively music played by a youth group he has been leading since last year.
He said some missionaries “have frowned upon” this type of practice, saying it is too similar to what evangelical churches do. But he insists that dance and song must be integrated into Catholic ceremonies in the region because it is something that is natural for indigenous people.
Pereira is also supportive of traditional indigenous rituals and recently organized a “purification” ceremony with a group of local medicine men; about 70 young people in the village attended. He said he believes these type of activities help to build cohesion in the community and pride for indigenous culture. They also help some young people to feel less alienated.
“I think it is important for us to accompany the community in different areas of their life,” said Pereira, who has also helped organize sports tournaments and a cultural festival. “In the traditional rituals, there are also lots of ways in which we praise God from our own culture.”
He said he hopes the synod will help deepen the commitment of missionaries and clergy that arrive in the region to work with indigenous people, while being respectful of their traditions.
He is also hoping that the synod will address priest shortages in the region. Currently, Pereira’s village of Nazareth only gets visited by priests on special occasions like Easter, so Catholics in the village rarely get sacraments like confession.
As he awaits ordination, Pereira helps sustain the faith by holding Sunday liturgies in which he gives people Communion with hosts that have been consecrated by a priest.
“The idea is to walk together, to implement social projects, pastoral work, religious work,” he said. “We don’t want the Church to eclipse indigenous culture, or indigenous culture to eclipse the Church.”
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