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SÃO PAULO – Announced as one of the 21 new cardinals that Pope Francis will create on Aug. 27, Brazilian Archbishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of Manaus is expected by many in the region to be the Amazon’s voice in the Vatican.
As the Brazilian bishops’ conference’s secretary general between 2011-2019, he followed all preparatory work for the Amazon synod, which took place at the Vatican in 2019, but his contact with the region began years earlier.
Born in 1950 in Santa Catarina State, in the southern part of Brazil, he was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1978 – by Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, his cousin – and in 2005 he was ordained a bishop, appointed to the prelature of São Félix do Araguaia.
Located in Mato Grosso State in the Amazon, São Félix do Araguaia is a notoriously conflicted area where peasants and Indigenous peoples have historically been attacked by big landowners. The prelature had been administered by the Catalan-born Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga since 1971.
A liberation theology activist, Casaldáliga was known for his persistent defense of the poor and his criticism of power structures, including in the church – something that at times caused friction.
“After Bishop Casaldáliga’s resignation, the apostolic nuncio asked him to leave São Félix when Steiner arrived,” recalled Bishop Edson Damian of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in Amazonas State.
Steiner not only told Casaldáliga to keep living in the prelature, but also announced that they would live in the same house, Damian said. “He somehow showed that he and Casaldáliga shared the same ideas.”
Steiner’s firm stances on pastoral and social matters contributed to making him a strong voice in the media, said Spanish-born Father Luis Miguel Modino, a communications officer at the Bishops’ Conference’s North 1 regional chapter.
“He is not a bishop who sits on the fence. When he talks, people hear him. Since he became Manaus archbishop, he has delivered a strong and prophetic message,” he told Crux.
Steiner has had to deal with two major crises since 2020: The increasing devastation of the rainforest and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both were made worse by the political movements supporting President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies, which downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and encouraged the economic development of the rainforest.
The record number of wildfires in the Amazon over the past few years has had a severe impact on Manaus, the major urban center in the region with more than 2.2 million people.
People in the surrounding region suffering from diseases caused by the smoke are often sent to the city, and displaced riverside and Indigenous communities often go to Manaus in search of work.
Once COVID hit, Manaus became one of the epicenters of the pandemic in Brazil. The general lack of health care infrastructure in the Amazon region caused thousands of patients to flood the city’s hospitals, which soon collapsed.
The inaction of the federal and state governments made the situation worse. Instead of addressing the urgency, Bolsonaro’s administration sent so-called “preventive kits” to Manaus – drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, whose effectiveness in treating COVID has not been scientifically proven.
“The president even said that it was not the federal government’s task to send oxygen to Manaus. How is that possible? It is absurd. One notices that the limit to ignorance has been lost, the limit to actions against the population has been lost. They were elected to take care of the people, but that is not what is happening,” Steiner later said during an interview with the Brazilian news website Tutaméia.
Despite his firmness, Steiner “has proved his ability to avoid political polarization and kept exerting peaceful leadership,” said Father Zenildo Lima da Silva, rector of the Archdiocese of Manaus seminary.
“He did not lose time responding to his critics. He worked with the church to organize donation campaigns and to get national and international aid. Thus, Manaus centralized the relief to several other regions in the Amazon,” da Silva added.
During the worst phase of the pandemic, Steiner organized spiritual assistance for patients and to the families of the dead in church communities and funeral parlors. At the same time, he took part in the distribution of medicine and medical equipment.
“He was so worried about all that. Once I saw him personally helping to unload a truck with oxygen cylinders,” Modino recalled.
Steiner usually gets his hands dirty, although he does not like to publicize this approach, Modino added. “He has been greatly promoting the homeless’ pastoral ministry in Manaus, and at times he takes part in the distribution of hot meals,” he said.
In April, Steiner was nominated as the president of the Special Episcopal Commission for the Amazon. He is also the vice president of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region (CEAMA).
“He has a profound commitment to the poor and to the Amazon. Bishop Steiner is engaged in a synodal and ministerial path, one which can deal with the current challenges of the church,” said Sister Laura Manso, a member of CEAMA.
Damian said that since the Amazon synod many in the region’s church had been waiting for a local cardinal.
“Cardinals talk directly to the pope. Pope Francis is worried about the Amazon and will certainly listen to Steiner about themes like deforestation, land invasion, disrespect to the Indigenous peoples,” the bishop said.
Da Silva said Steiner’s appointment as a cardinal will further accelerate the implementation of some of the Amazon synod’s decisions.
“He is very involved in the debate of new ministries,” he said.
At the same time, he will be able to take some of the Amazonian church’s elements to the global church.
“The Amazonian debate is not only about the Amazon for the pope. It is about the dynamics that the Amazonian church can point to for the church as a whole,” da Silva said.
Steiner’s nomination by the pope is a signal of such perspective, Modino said.
“Manaus is not a major reference in the Brazilian ecclesial sphere. But the Amazon’s significance for the church and for the world is gigantic now,” the priest said.