And Quiet Flows the Amazon: Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia

I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced. Pope Francis

And Quiet Flows the Amazon: Pope Francis’ Querida Amazonia

By Fr. Dr. Subhash Anand

On 2 February, 2020, Pope Francis released Querida Amazonia, hisPost-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, sharing with us his reflections on the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region (the Amazon Synod), which gathered in Rome from 6 to 27 October 2019. Pope Francis has definite concern for the Amazon region: social justice, cultural integrity, ecological harmony and ecclesial renewal. This is indeed an integral human rights concern.

The title ‘Querida Amazonia’, ‘beloved Amazon region’ is very inviting.  There could be different reasons why Francis chose this title. First, the future Pope was born in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. As such he does not belong to the Pan-Amazon region strictly speaking, but speaks of it as ‘ours’, thus evoking a feeling for the neighbouring people. The Pan-Amazon region is a multinational and interconnected whole shared by nine countries: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, Venezuela and the territory of French Guiana.  The Amazon region has felt the full force of foreign invasion which has today 34 million people and among them more than three million is indigenous, one of the obvious victims of human rights violations anywhere in the world. The people of the Amazon region belong to more than 390 ethnic groups. It was the first synod “organized around a distinct ecological territory.” Argentina, Pope’s own nation, shares its borders with Bolivia and Brazil. This is the basic geographical affinity.

Pope Francis, earlier known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is one of the Jesuits, who had been working in South America for a long time, a service which at times demanded heroic commitment. Jeffrey Klaiber S. J. writes inThe Jesuits in Latin America: Legacy andCurrent Emphases,“The murder of six Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989 dramatically reminded the world that the Jesuits are still in Latin America and, as usual, in the centre of the storm. For more than 400 years the Jesuits have been present in the region as educators and missionaries.” Bergoglio has been part of that history. He was also the provincial of the Argentina Jesuits from 1973 to 1979. The Jesuits are also in the Amazon region. Thus, with them he has a fellow-feeling. The greater part of the Latin American population is poor. Francis once remarked: “My people are poor and I am one of them.”

There is also a cultural belonging. Francis enjoys quoting from South American poets. “In fact, the Holy Father offers a breadth of literary knowledge, weaving excerpts of poetry throughout the text. The images and selections of verse underscore one of the exhortation’s main concerns: animating environmental and ecological stewardship,” says a commentary. In all he quotes seventeen poets, “most of them Amazonian and popular”. This enables the reader to feel the beauty of Amazon region and the agony of its people to some extent the way Francis feels. Speaking about the Amazon synod, Pope Francis feels that God had given him and his brother bishops “the grace of focusing on that region”. He thinks that “we believers encounter in the Amazon region a theological locus, a space where God himself reveals himself and summons his sons and daughters”.

Pope Francis’ dreams
The exhortation presents us the four great dreams Francis has for the people of the Amazon region.

I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.

I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.

I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.

I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.

Thus, the four dreams are social, cultural, ecological and ecclesial. Francis makes “a prophetic plea” and calls “for an arduous effort on behalf of the poor”. “Placing the church on the side of the powerless inhabitants of the Amazon region and squarely in the path of those, many Catholics included, who live well at the expense of that region, is not a route to easy popularity.” But Francis dares to dream. His dreams take us far beyond the traditional boundaries of our institutional Church and churches.

1. A Social Dream

Christopher Columbus landed in what is now known as San Salvador in 1492. “Starting in 1492, the arrival of Europeans in present-day Latin America irrevocably changed the region's history.” They had advanced technology; they could produce steel and gunpowder. “But most important of all, Europeans were aided by silent allies in the form of deadly Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox, influenza, and measles. It was a combination of these factors that paved the way for European success.” In 1493, by his Inter Cetera, Pope Alexander VI gave the European rulers free access to land not yet under some Christian ruler. The colonial forces not only looted the land, but also raped the native women.Alexander was in no way able to inspire the colonial powers.

Faulty developmental projects affect the Amazon environment and its biome very adversely. The primary beneficiaries are the outsiders. The indigenous peoples lament: “We are a region of stolen territories.” The invading colonials considered the indigenous peoples “more an obstacle needing to be eliminated than as human beings with the same dignity as others and possessed of their own acquired rights”. Pope Francis bluntly states that “local powers, using the excuse of development, were also party to agreements aimed at razing the forest—together with the life forms that it shelters—with impunity and indiscriminately”. Any resistance on the part of the locals was dealt with highhandedly.

Francis offers his apology to all the people of the Amazon region: “I express my shame and once more I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America, as well as for the terrible crimes that followed throughout the history of the Amazon region.”

Pope Francis tries to awaken our conscience: “We need to feel outrage, as Moses did (cf. Ex 11:8), as Jesus did (cf. Mk 3:5), as God does in the face of injustice (cf. Am 2:4-8; 5:7-12; Ps 106:40) It is not good for us to become inured to evil.”  If things have to change, then the bishops, priests and religious not only of the Amazon region, but also of the whole Church will need to take to heart the words of the Bishops of Brazil:

We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness.

Pope Francis laments the poor quality of homilies in our churches. Among other things he thinks that priests avoid some themes and give more importance to others. Our people get very little catechesis on justice. I know from personal experience some priests and bishops do not want it. Only a poor Church can exercise a prophetical role. Only such a Church can be of any help to the Amazon region.

We can thank God that together with the colonials “many missionaries came to bring the Gospel, leaving their homes and leading an austere and demanding life alongside those who were most defenceless”. Among these missionaries there were some religious priests who were really committed to the welfare of the indigenous people. Petrus Claver (1580 – 1654), a Spanish Jesuit, worked among the Africans who were brought to South America as slave labourers.

A strong sense of being a community remains a source of strength for the indigenous people. “Their relationships are steeped in the surrounding nature, which they feel and think of as a reality that integrates society and culture, and a prolongation of their bodies, personal, familial and communal.” Hence, when they are forced to migrate, they experience deep pain and profound alienation. To work for the indigenous people, we will need to belong to them, as Jesus belongs to us. The sense of belonging of the indigenous people will be further nurtured through honest dialogue with them as equal partners. Without this, any effort at development will be disruptive.

2. A Cultural Dream

The Amazon region is rich in cultural diversity that is intimately tied up with their land. To an outsider, their customs may look very much alike and we may be tempted to indulge in naïve generalizations.

Prior to the colonial period, the population was concentrated on the shores of the rivers and lakes, but the advance of colonization drove the older inhabitants into the interior of the forest. Today, growing desertification once more drives many of them into the outskirts and sidewalks of the cities, at times in dire poverty but also in an inner fragmentation due to the loss of the values that had previously sustained them.

Slowly they lose their roots, and personal disintegration follows. The natives of the Amazon region transmitted their wisdom through stories. The modern media can force these narratives out. Hence, the elders need to tell these stories in informal gatherings of the tribe. These narratives, together with their symbolic meaning, ought to be put down in writing. No doubt, they have their limits, but we need to listen to them; they will provide us the wisdom that we have lost in our ‘modernity’.

3. An Ecological Dream

For the peoples of the Amazon, nature is an integral part of human life, not merely as the source of what we need to survive physically, but to be human fully. It is the source of poetry and spirituality. This poetry helps us to cultivate our finer feelings and creative imagination. The Amazon transports the largest volume of water of any river system, accounting for about 20% of the total water carried to the oceans by rivers. The great river evokes awe. The indigenous people see her as their mother, the source of all vitality. The region is the home to a great biodiversity. It has the largest rainforest. It absorbs about five percent of the total carbon dioxide. It, thus, has a vital global significance. “The equilibrium of our planet also depends on the health of the Amazon region.” Hence, the ecological harmony of the Amazon region needs to be safeguarded. 

As long as the Amazon, or for that matter, any other natural given, is seen merely as material (materia)for our survival, our ecological harmony does not have much of a future; the Amazon will be lost. We need to inculcate a contemplative attitude that will enable us to be gentle and to approach all with reverence and love.

Pope Francis reminds us that “the best ecology always has an educational dimension that can encourage the development of new habits in individuals and groups”. Within the Christian community, this education will also be one aspect of faith formation. So often Jesus used different aspects of nature to explain to us the love and care of his Father. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

If, as Christians, we have to do our part to save the earth, then there has to be more poetry in our liturgy. Poets connect us to nature. “Popular poets, enamoured of its [Amazon’s] immense beauty, have tried to express the feelings this river evokes and the life that it bestows as it passes amid a dance of dolphins, anacondas, trees and canoes. Yet they also lament the dangers that menace it.” (46).

In Querida Amazonia, there is a small but very significant section ‘The prophecy of contemplation’ (53-57).

From the original peoples, we can learn to contemplate the Amazon region and not simply analyse it, and thus appreciate this precious mystery that transcends us. We can love it, not simply use it, with the result that love can awaken a deep and sincere interest. Even more, we can feel intimately a part of it and not only defend it; then the Amazon region will once more become like a mother to us (55).

4. An Ecclesial Dream

As Christians, we are called to be friends of Jesus. Our ministry will be an expression of this friendship. Like him, we will identify ourselves with the poor and the abandoned. “An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them” (63). In working for the poor and the abandoned, we are not working as social workers, but as friends of Jesus. Hence, we will try to draw them into the friendship we share. In bringing them closer to Jesus, we wish to share our joy with them.

This would mean that we have a deep spiritual life; our life radiates the joy that comes not with consumer abundance, but from friendship. Our work for them will be a token of our friendship; it will also be a deepening and widening of that friendship. They and we will together be friends of Jesus.

We show our respect for the culture of the indigenous people by making it part of Christian worship. Sometimes when we talk of inculturation, we think only of the cultural expression of the people. Francis draws our attention to the fuller dimension of inculturation:

Given the situation of poverty and neglect experienced by so many inhabitants of the Amazon region, inculturation will necessarily have a markedly social cast, accompanied by a resolute defence of human rights; in this way it will reveal the face of Christ, who wished with special tenderness to be identified with the weak and the poor…For Christian communities, this entails a clear commitment to the justice of God’s kingdom through work for the advancement of those who have been “discarded”. It follows that a suitable training of pastoral workers in the Church’s social doctrine is most important (75).

The Church in the Amazon region needs to reflect theologically and critically in the light of its actual history. In Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis presents himself as a fellow-pilgrim of the Amazon bishops. If the earth is to be redeemed, if the Church is to be saved, then we need a radical conversion.

(This is part of a long scholarly article by the author originally titled The Ever-Flowing River. And Quiet Flows the Amazon is a derivative of “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Russian writer Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov’s epic novel that depicts the struggles of Cossacks. Querida Amazonia depicts the struggles of indigenous people and hence it is given here on this Human Rights Day December 10.)

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