Pope Francis meets Jose Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, a member of the Curripaco indigenous community, during a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican. CNS photo/Vatican Media
Pope Francis meets Jose Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, a member of the Curripaco indigenous community, during a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican. CNS photo/Vatican Media
" The synod … invites me to have a spirit of listening and discerning. "

For Divine Word Father Guilherme Andrino, the ideas and concerns that came out of the Amazon synod evoke both the unique and the familiar.

“The message relatable to us, I think, is dialogue with one another,” said Father Andrino, parochial vicar in St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood. “Our Diocese is very diverse in terms of culture, and we are called to be open to each other’s richness.”

At the same time, he continued, “we are asked to evaluate how we are caring for the creation of God, our common home… Many people told me they were praying for the Amazon when the forest was on fire. We are people who pray for each other. We recognize each other’s struggles.”

The diversity of the Diocese of Trenton, Father Andrino emphasized, echoes that of the Amazon, comprising various traditions, cultures and customs. “Many of our people struggle day by day to be themselves, afraid they will not be understood by their brothers and sisters.”

The Amazon synod, he said, “is an invitation for enculturation, for acceptance, for deeper relationship with one another, and is also an opportunity to learn more about those who share the same faith, read the same Gospel and receive the same Body of Christ. Maybe they dress a little differently, maybe they eat different kinds of food, maybe they like a different beat of music – but all of them are a creation of God, and are in the search for God’s salvation.”

 

SPREAD ACROSS NINE COUNTRIES and three million square miles, the Amazon region dwarfs the Trenton Diocese hundreds of times over. And while this central New Jersey community enjoys access to 99 parishes, the three million indigenous people of the Amazon basin, consisting of nearly 400 tribes and nationalities, are dispersed across the vast region in 79 Catholic dioceses – with many local worship communities situated hours apart from each other.

“One parish priest can cover sometimes more than 30 chapels/communities,” Father Andrino explained. “It takes months and even years to cover them all. When a priest gets to those places far away, he does everything at once: Mass, baptisms, weddings, visit of the sick and formation. It is a full day schedule.”

Access is often blocked by poor road conditions, particularly during the rainy season – so often travel occurs by boat. “Some priest friends of mine assigned to the Amazon basin live part of the year in a boat,” he said. “They travel, sleep, eat and bathe in the boat. However, the happiness and enthusiasm of the faithful for receiving the representative of the Church makes it worthwhile.”

Father Andrino, who grew up in the south of Brazil, outside the basin region, stressed that the Amazon synod is helping to bring two mottos together, both based in gratitude.

“Even though we see a shortage of priests compared to the past years, the synod invites us, in the Diocese, to be thankful to God for the priests we have,” he said. “We are blessed for having Masses in all the parishes every week and in many different languages. Also, we should be thankful for the well-trained lay leaders [of the Diocese], who are able to give excellent formation to all our parishes.”

The Church in the Amazon basin relies heavily on community leaders, Father Andrino noted, who act as Eucharistic Ministers and celebrate the Liturgy of the Word on weekends priests cannot be present.

“They oversee the wellbeing of the Church community … they also do the entire preparation for weddings, baptisms, etc. – so when a priest comes, he administers the Sacraments.”

Prior to his diocesan assignments – for seven years in Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd-Blessed Sacrament Parish, Trenton, and for five years in St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood – Father Andrino ministered to the African Brazilian community of Brazil, the Quilombos, settlements first established by escaped slaves in Brazil.

“I always worked in multicultural communities, which has helped me to have an attentive ear to the cry of the people [and the] poor,” he explained. “Even though the conversation of the synod is more about the issues of the Amazon region, I have no doubt that it is not much different from the issues we face in every single place where the Catholic Church is present: lack of vocations, poverty, corruption and migration. For me, the synod urges us to recognize the dignity of God’s people and creation; it invites me to have a spirit of listening and discerning.”

 

FATHER ANDRINO IS WELL VERSED in the threats to the natural resources and people of the Amazon, namely exploitation of both.

“To talk about the Amazon basin goes beyond trees and rivers,” he said. “Every year, more and more poor people receive threats from big farm owners and companies; they are forced to abandon their land and homes. If not, they suffer consequences – houses are burned, families get hurt, waters are contaminated, and community leaders and missionaries are assassinated because of their faith.”

The indigenous people are losing the rights to possess their land, which is important to the survival of their traditions as well as their livelihood. The Catholic Church present in the Amazon region, he said, has helped to maintain interfaith dialogue as well as defend the human rights of the indigenous poor.

“I am certain that if we were not there, today we would not have anything to talk about – everything would be destroyed already,” he said. “We as Church have not only a spiritual but also a moral authority when we step in to help the population, when the Church speaks out against all kinds of evildoings in the area. The local people know it, they trust in us. For me, this is really what the Gospel calls us to do.”

 

THE SYNOD, Father Andrino said, has introduced questions that relate to the struggles faced by the Diocese as well.

“How can we minister to all of them? How can we better evangelize?” he asked. “How can we, the Catholic Church, be the voice for those with no voice living there? How can we value the contribution of the laity, the indigenous [and other cultures]? Is there a new way of being Church for the local community?”

Divine Word Father Raimundo Maciel Ribero, originally from the Amazon basin region of Santarém – Pará, noted that recognizing local peoples’ customs and their innate respect for the natural resources are key to sharing the Catholic faith and preserving the land.

“The missionaries who visit these villages respect their indigenous culture and exchange experience about their theology and Catholic doctrine – otherwise, the missionaries would not even be welcome,” Father Ribero explained. “We must learn, from the local population, to relate to nature in a reciprocal way; [they] have a great respect for the rivers, forests and animals.”

Divine Word Brother Jairo Guimaraes, who works as a lawyer in Rondonia, in the Amazon Basin, said that as the world begins to recognize the threats and problems that plague the Amazon, “It is necessary to advance the quality of answers to these problems.”

Brother Guimaraes suggested that the synod, in its theme to seek “new ways for evangelization and an integral ecology,” is looking not for a proselytizing evangelization, but to “find mechanisms that help the Church to walk, valuing the elements of local cultures, in deep connection with nature.”

“A synod is a sign of hope, light and also a time of evaluation,” Father Andrino said. “I have visited some of the parishes in the Amazon region … Each tribe and community is [unique]; understanding and accepting it, for me, makes our conception of God’s creation much richer ... Understanding each other’s tradition and culture help us to better evangelize.”