By Pierre Bélanger, SJ
Journalist, General Curia of the Society of Jesus, Rome
Who is this tattooed character embracing an Indigenous family from the Amazon? He is a Jesuit! Fernando Lopez is a member of an itinerant team and, as the name suggests, travels the rivers and forest roads of the Amazon to live with its people and to share with them not only his knowledge and skills, but also the person of Jesus, the one who gives him life; and to continue to learn from the peoples of the Amazon how to journey along the path towards integral ecology.
“To serve, accompany, and defend”—these three verbs are, in the Jesuit context, inextricably linked to the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). But they are not reserved solely to this internationally known and recognized apostolate. These verbs also describe many other organizations and works of the Society of Jesus that are close to the poor, the abandoned, and the marginalized of the world. And among them are the Indigenous people of the Amazon region, an immense part of South America that touches nine countries, first and foremost Brazil. The Jesuits are there; they serve, they accompany, and they defend the threatened populations.
“The big companies consider all the resources of the Amazon to be commodities. The Church needs to be on our side against the companies and governments that steal from us.” Sister Arizete Miranda Dinelly, Satere-Mawe, member of REPAM
For such a long time, the people who live in the Amazon, relatively few in number and often living in hard-to-reach villages, have not been able to make their voices heard and tell the world about the obstacles they face. More recently, however, international awareness of global warming has clearly identified the importance of the Amazon rainforest as the “lungs of the earth.” The deforestation of large areas has finally been recognized as a real threat, especially in Brazil’s current political context, with a president who is insensitive to environmental issues.
But these spurts of ecological awareness rarely take into consideration the people. It took the initiative of Pope Francis to make the cry of the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon resound around the world. To the surprise of many, the pope convened a special synod of the bishops of the Amazon region to which he invited experts as well as the “people on the ground,” including Indigenous people.
Fernando Lopez was there. He and his group did not go unnoticed, either in St. Peter’s Basilica or during the Way of the Cross, which was similar to the Way of the Cross of the Indigenous peoples. This small group represented many others that are connected through the work of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network of the Catholic Church, founded in 2014. A network was necessary because the Jesuits, who created the “itinerant team” in 1998 with religious sisters and lay people, wanted to reach every corner of the Amazon region.
To this end, they promoted the establishment of a network that includes people from various parts of the Church—religious congregations, dioceses, groups of catechists— who are motivated by the same spirit, namely, that of accompanying, serving, and defending the Indigenous peoples. And this implies “living with,” acculturation, and sensitivity to the values of these peoples, including religious values. The itinerant nature of this ministry is its “life-mission,” to use a favorite expression of Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Jesuits. At the frontiers and peripheries of the world, this geographic itinerancy is also an interior one, a journey with the peoples of the Amazon towards God, a journey nourished by mutual respect and love.
The activities are both pastoral and social. On one hand, the Gospel is proclaimed by better trained catechists, and a greater number of priests are able to visit remote communities; and on the other, REPAM is also active in bringing about change by promoting the ecological vision of Indigenous peoples, defending the life of the forest and its people, and working to create a more promising future for young people without their having to be displaced. This spirit emerges from the Apostolic Letter that Pope Francis published after the Synod. It is entitled “Querida Amazonia,” “Beloved Amazon,” a title that expresses simply but clearly the warm affection that Francis has for the region and its people.
“For us, the first thing is always joy, to be able to announce the Good News and, at the same time, to denounce death, because we must be clear about what is killing our Amazon, our home.” Ednamar de Oliveira, Satere-Mawe delegate to the Synod on the Amazon
Even though REPAM was created through the initiative of the Episcopal Conferences and the governing bodies of the religious congregations of the region, the leadership of the Society of Jesus in the region and in REPAM has been well received. Their missionary experience and understanding of discernment have enabled the Jesuits to boldly explore new paths and to be creative, building on their experience of sharing life with the peoples of the region. Conventional ways have had their day; their “confrere,” Pope Francis, makes this clear by his words and especially by his actions. It is time for an itinerant accompaniment! Recently, Cardinal Pedro Barreto, a Jesuit, was chosen to be president of REPAM. This courageous Peruvian Jesuit was named a cardinal by the Holy Father, who thus expressed his support for the pastoral and social commitments that Father Pedro has taken on, despite the threats that this has earned him.