Roman Catholic priests, deacons and bishops across the Amazon expressed surprise, resignation and reluctant acceptance of Pope Francis' refusal to allow married men to be ordained priests, lamenting that their faithful continue to be deprived of mass and subject to competing evangelical churches. made impressive inroads into the region.
Francis avoided the issue in his large Amazon document released Wednesday. Although he officially presented recommendations from the Amazon ecclesiastical hierarchy to consider ordaining permanent married deacons, he refused to endorse the idea as a way to address a serious shortage of priests in the region, where the faithful can go months or years without one. mass.
This did not rule out the proposal altogether, but it certainly did not adopt it, as many expected Francis to be after a three-week synod last October at the Vatican, dedicated to the situation of the world's largest rainforest and its indigenous peoples.
Church leaders in the five countries that house the Amazon basin share their thoughts on the pope's message.
A COLOMBIAN DACON
Ferney Pereira, a 30-year-old deacon from the Ticuna indigenous group, was surprised that Francis did not explicitly address the issue of married priests. Currently, priests find their way to their village – accessible only by boat on the Amazon River and home to around 1,000 people – only once every several months.
"We need more priests to deliver the sacraments," Pereira told the Associated Press by phone from his village, Nazareth. "Our catechists are able to do some work, but we really need more priests to accompany indigenous communities."
Meanwhile, neighboring villages are visited frequently by evangelical missionaries and Jehovah's Witnesses, who preached against indigenous rituals and managed to convert some people.
"If there are no priests, the people are also more tempted to join evangelical churches," said Pereira.
A BISHOP IN BRAZIL
Bishop Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian bishop who has spent the last 55 years in the Brazilian Amazon, has long defended the view that married men should be eligible for the priesthood. Now based in Altamira, Pará, he says there are 30 priests for a diocese the size of Germany and about 800 distant communities.
"We cannot say that our church, in terms of priests, is present in the community," Kräutler told the AP. "They are always traveling from one community to another."
There are few viable transportation options. Just a few days ago, Kräutler, 80, visited a community more than 1,000 kilometers from Altamira. He traveled by car.
Itinerant priests do not have the same relationship with local communities as those who live there, as evangelical pastors, he said. In view of the rapid expansion of evangelicals in Brazil, the bishops of the region realized that the church needs a deeper link or, as Kräutler calls it, a "face of the Amazon".
In the 1970s, Brazil was more than 90% Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. That number dropped when evangelical faiths gained ground and, in the most recent 2010 census, was below 65%. A survey conducted in December by researcher Datafolha with nearly 3,000 Brazilians found only half declared to be Catholic, and some experts say that Catholicism will be overtaken by evangelical faiths in just over a decade.
AN ECUADOR PRIEST
Omar Mateo, a priest at the Señor de los Milagros Sanctuary, said he attended a meeting with the Archbishop of Guayaquil on Wednesday to analyze how many permanent deacons there are in each of the Vicariatees of the Amazon in Ecuador. Five out of six do not.
This finding emphasized that the problem is not prohibiting married deacons from becoming priests, but a general lack of people who play church leadership roles in the Amazon. Pope Francis, in a footnote to his letter “Amada Amazonia”, noted that local missionaries tend to go to Europe or the USA, instead of staying in their own vicariates in the Amazon.
"Where are we going to get the deacons, if there are none?" Said Mateo. “Keeping a priest is already difficult in the Amazon. How would we proceed with the family of ordained deacons? Who will take care of the family, provide education? "
Only 29% of Catholics in Ecuador agreed that priests should marry, according to a separate 2013-2014 survey by Pew. This was the lowest among countries with Amazon rainforest after Peru, where 28% supported the proposal. Support was greater in Brazil, with 56%.
A Peruvian devotee
"In time, (the church) will have to give in," said Yésica Patiachi, a teacher of the indigenous Harakbut ethnic group, about the permission of married priests in the Amazon.
The Harak, however, live in the remote Amazon of Peru and were saved from abusive rubber tappers by Spanish missionaries who arrived in the early 20th century. Since then, there have been strong ties between Harakbut and the Catholic Church. When Francis visited the area early last year, Patiachi delivered an emotional speech and in October traveled to the Vatican itself.
"During my visit to Rome, one afternoon, I saw how, in some churches, a priest does Mass for just three people," said Patiachi by telephone from the Mother of God region. "In the Amazon, when a priest arrives after several months of absence, hundreds of people gather."
The conservative wing of the church has put "enormous pressure" on the pope to avoid changing its centuries-old tradition of celibacy, she said. Still, she believes he has paved the way to discuss topics that were previously ignored, including the defense of the Amazon rainforest and its people.
A BISHOP IN BOLIVIA
Bolivia's bishops have clashed with the country's government over policies that encourage settlers to cut and burn the forest to make way for cattle and commercial crops.
Bishop Eugenio Coter, from the Pando Vicariate, praised Pope Francis' letter for focusing on the environment that remains a "victim". He said the document highlights the situation of indigenous peoples and others trying to establish sustainable production.
But Coter criticized the pope for ignoring the proposal to order married men. Its vicariate in northern Bolivia has 10 priests to minister to 270,000 people spread across an area the size of Portugal. He is trying to train lay members of the village to perform religious ceremonies and also has nuns to perform baptisms. "We hoped to find a new way to offer the Eucharist to people in remote areas," said Coter. "This door is not open at the moment, but I think it has not been permanently closed."
Associated Press writers Manuel Rueda reported from Bogotá, Colombia; Diane Jeantet, from Rio de Janeiro, Franklin Briceno, from Lima, Peru, and Gonzalo Solano, from Quito, Ecuador.
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