In remote Amazon, indigenous married Catholics spread gospel, pray for priesthood

Maria Cervantes, Reuters

Posted at Sep 24 2019 06:24 PM

A Guajajara Indian "forest guardian" drinks water from a tree branch at a makeshift camp on Arariboia indigenous land near the city of Amarante, Maranhao state, Brazil, September 10, 2019. Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino


WIJINT, Peru - Just before dawn, Shainkiam Yampik beats a drum carved from a tree trunk at the start of a Roman Catholic prayer service in Wijint, a hamlet of thatched-roof huts in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.

Whispering "Jesusan namanguinde," or "the body of Christ" in the tongue of the indigenous Achuar people, Yampik gives communion bread to villagers in a small chapel amid a loud chorus of birds and insects outside.

A tribal elder with 10 grown children, Yampik, 48, is a leading Catholic figure in one of the Church's most remote outposts.

But because Yampik is married, he cannot become a priest. He is an ordained deacon, a lower rank. That means he cannot hear confessions or, more importantly, say Mass, the key sacrament that villagers in Wijint must go many months without because of a lack of priests. The communion bread he distributes is consecrated beforehand by a priest in another town.

But Yampik and other Achuar Catholics in this vast region are hopeful a historic meeting at the Vatican next month will change that.

On Oct. 6, Pope Francis will open a three-week synod of Amazonian bishops where one of the most keenly awaited topics will be whether to allow Yampik and other married men to be ordained as priests in parts of the Amazon, a proposal that would break centuries of Roman Catholic tradition.

The idea is to allow older married men with grown children and a strong standing in the Church - "viri probati" or proven men - to join the priesthood and help fill a gap in their communities.

"I feel it in my heart. I want to be a priest," Yampik, who like other Achuar in the region was converted by Catholic missionaries decades ago, told Reuters in Wijint.

A three-day boat ride from the nearest town with paved roads, Wijint is one of 827 native communities in the Vicariate of Yurimaguas, a region nearly the size of Panama ministered by just 25 priests, the vicariate's administrator, Reverend Jesus Maria Aristin told Reuters.

"It's impossible to reach them all," Aristin said, recalling a recent visit to a village that required a four-day day trek through jungle marshlands.

At least 85% of villages in the region cannot celebrate Mass every week, a ritual in which Catholics believe communion bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

Yampik is one of four married "viri probati" Achuar deacons who will be discussed for the priesthood at the synod, said Aristin, who will attend.


CELIBACY OR SACRAMENT?

The synod will also discuss protection for the Amazon after a global outcry over forest fires this year. But the "viri probati" proposal could be more explosive within the Church, where Francis is already under attack by its conservative wing.

The synod's working document, branded heretical by its critics, says men could be ordained in the priesthood "even if they already have an established and stable family, in order to guarantee the sacraments."

Opponents of the reform say it will introduce a slippery slope leading to the abolition of the Church's rule on priestly celibacy, which became obligatory in the 12th century in part to keep children of priests from inheriting Church property.

The Church teaches that by remaining celibate and unmarried, a priest can devote himself entirely to God and the Church.

But the requirement has crimped efforts to recruit priests to minister to all its current members - much less expand - in traditional strongholds like Latin America, where evangelical Christians are making inroads.

"Viri probati" proponents also say the Church cannot neglect faithful in places like Wijint, a village with no electricity or running water where the Achuar grow cassava root and bananas and hunt wild pigs in surrounding forests.

"What's more important, celibacy or the Eucharist, the center of Christian life?" said Aristin.

Just four decades ago, the Church's presence in this far-flung region was growing, thanks to Italian priest Luis Bolla's success in converting isolated Indians in Peru and Ecuador.

A Salesian missionary, Bolla lived among the Achuar for decades, adopting their customs and language, and leaving a void when he died in 2013.

Today, it is hard to get outsiders to stay in Achuar villages, said Yampik.

"A priest outside of this culture can give himself to us but just for a season. Then he says, 'I can't get used to this. I can't learn the language. I can't talk,'" Yampik said.

"An Achuar priest would be ours. Where's he going to go?"


DARING PROPOSALS

The Vatican has allowed some leeway before. Some Anglican priests who were already married when they converted to Roman Catholicism were able to continue to serve as priests.

But it has not made an exception to its celibacy rule for the purpose of addressing shortages of priests. It is a discipline, though, not a dogma, and therefore can be changed.

The synod does not make decisions. Only the pope can. Participants will vote on various articles in a final document, which will then go to the pope to decide whether to make it into an official Apostolic Exhortation.

Aristin said he was hopeful Francis would relax the celibacy rule for the Achuar. He recalled Francis' excitement when the pope met Yampik and other local "viri probati" on his 2018 visit to Peru.

"Francis, who's always a bit mischievous, winked at me and said 'make some daring proposals for the synod,'" Aristin said.

The "viri probati" proposal is backed by all Catholic congregations in the Vicariate of Yurimaguas. It has also fueled calls for bolder change, including among nuns, who outnumber priests in the Amazon and often carry out the bulk of missionary work in remote areas.

"We sisters clamor for the Achuar deacons to be ordained," said Maruja Escalante, a nun with the Missionaries of Mary Immaculate and Catherine of Siena order. "I also think it's important that a woman can become a priest," she added.

Pope Francis, however, has said that the door to a female priesthood was closed by his predecessor Pope John Paul II, and that he would not open it.


CHURCH WITH AN 'INDIGENOUS FACE'

Achuar is among the last Amazonian tribes to come into regular contact with non-natives and traditionally practiced polygamy and shamanism. To win converts, Bolla infused ancient Catholic rites with indigenous customs, a tradition Yampik keeps alive today.

In the prayer service Yampik led in Wijint, girls sang Achuar ancestral chants to praise the Virgin Mary as villagers gathered around a fire built with three logs, a native ritual adopted to symbolize the Holy Trinity.

That multicultural approach, once considered avant-garde, today is celebrated by the Church under Pope Francis, who has called for a Church with an "Amazonian and indigenous face."

"Father Bolla had a special vision. He said, 'evangelization here has to be done without disrupting their culture,'" said Reverend Vicente Santilli, the head of the Salesian House in the Peruvian capital Lima.

Yampik, who like Bolla draws a cross on his forehead in the red face paint of the Achuar, said allowing "viri probati" to become priests would bring his tribe closer to the Church.

"The Achuar are also preaching the word of God," Yampik said. "We want to be recognized, because here in this corner of the Amazon we don't feel acknowledged."