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Manaus, Amazon / Brazil - August 06, 2011: Indigenous man making body paintings on a man at a Dessana indigenous community on a river island near from Manaus

Editor’s note: Our Scotland-based reporter Dorothy Cummings McLean has been sent to Italy to join our Rome Correspondent, Diane Montagna, in covering the Synod for the Bishops of the Pan-Amazon region. A lifelong diarist, Dorothy has volunteered to give readers a glimpse into life off-camera as she carries out what she calls “a dream assignment.” Read all of her Amazon Synod diary posts HERE.

Tuesday, October 8

I find it impossible to be sad here, especially on a sunny morning. Not for nothing is it called Roma Eterna: the city is ancient, and yet it pulses with life. Umbrella pines march down the center of Via Gregorio VII, traffic rushes by constantly, and Romans stroll along in quilted jackets because for them 75℉ is chilly.

After Mass I dropped by a cafe around the corner for a croissant and cappuccino consumed at the counter to avoid the table charge. Also, it’s a work day. In cities and towns across Italy men and women spend five minutes in such cafes on their way to work. It’s “Buon giorno, ragazzi! Cappuccino. Have you seen the latest on Netflix? Arrivaderci!” and they’re gone, their places taken briefly by others. 

Across from my window there’s a carved medallion of St. Catherine of Alexandria on the peach-colored wall. She’s holding a book and clouds of smoke billow around her. Such wall medallions and paintings are all over Rome, reminding me that whatever happens at the synod, and however casual this generation of Romans about their religion, this was, is, and ever shall be a Catholic city.

The presser was, as usual, at 1:30 in the afternoon. Today’s line-up was Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication; Fr. Giacomo Costa, S.J., the secretary of the Commission for Information; Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, the Filipina spokeswoman of the United Nations on the rights of indigenous peoples; Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno, SJ, the Archbishop of Huancayo in Peru; and a Brazilian lay Franciscan named Moema Maria Marques de Miranda. The moderator was again Cristiane Murray, the Deputy Director of the Vatican Press Office.

The throng of journalists included Michael Voris and his team, Robert Royal for EWTN, Edward Pentin of National Catholic Register, Austen Ivereigh for Commonweal, and my LifeSiteNews colleague Diane Montagna.  

First to speak was Paolo Ruffini. He gave an overview of the presentations made that morning at the synod. They included a perceived need for an “encultured formation” for clergy and laypeople; the role of laypeople in ministry, which might include lay “vocations”; “new paths” for ordination; “integral Christian ecology”; the importance of “evangelization transcending colonialism”; the idea that Christ Himself is an “Indian”; and concerns that Amazonian indigenous are “second-class Catholics” because they do not have regular access to the Eucharist. 

Ruffiini also highlighted the concept of “the visiting Church” versus “a Church that is present” and the idea that the Amazonian aborigines need a “constant presence” of the Church. He also mentioned the reality of the Pentecostal Church being present, which further highlights the “lack of presence” of the Catholic Church in the jungle. 

Fr. Giacomo Costa, SJ made it clear that no debate had taken place, let alone decisions. Synod participants had just made their statements, one after the other. He added that there had been a focus on young people, who suffer when they move to cities, losing their traditions. Costa, too, mentioned access to the Eucharist as a concern, talking about “Eucharistic presence” as well as the need for an enculturated aboriginal Church. He noted that there had also been statements about human rights being linked to environmental issues, a connection mentioned also in Laudato Si’.   

Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz was the next to speak. She is an expert on aboriginal communities and took part in drafting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). She discussed how environmental damage caused by industries such as mining hurt Amazonian people, but also highlighted UNDRIPs statement that indigenous peoples have the right to teach their religion. 

Next Cardinal Barreto, vice-president and founder of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) said that it was important to realize how big the Amazonian region is, i.e. 7.5 million kilometres (4.7 million miles). While paying tribute to missionary martyrs of the past, he said there were also “shadows” in the Church’s history in the region. 

“The Gospel cannot be imposed,” he said. “It is an invitation.” 

The cardinal also stated that we must “recognize the ancestral wisdom” of the Amazonian tribes, and declared that he had been evangelized by the natives and continued to be evangelized by them. Apparently what impressed him was their ability to overcome linguistic differences among them to agree to protect the forests and also that one had told him that “Hope never ends.” 

Barreto also passed along an Amazonian compliment to Pope Francis; apparently indigenous people had said, “Politicians have no time to listen to us … However, Francis our brother has time to listen to us.”  

He too praised Pope Francis, saying that Jorge Bergoglio had taken on the identity of St. Francis, the first Christian to love all of creation and who recognized the Earth as our mother. 

Finally, Moema Maria Marques de Miranda, an expert on “the Church and mining” went full Greta Thunberg, saying that the synod is taking place at an “urgent moment.” She said that Pope Francis understands this feeling of urgency and the possibility of the destruction of the planet. 

We have treated the world like a machine, Marques said, but it is actually composed of interdependent systems. Everything we do has an impact on everything, and the aboriginal peoples can teach us how better to care for the earth. The lay Franciscan said that when St. Francis of Assisi recognized Earth as our mother, he recognizes that the Earth “governs.”

Miranda linked Greta Thunberg with Pope Francis, saying that they were both from “outside the center,” Francis because, as he said in his first greetings from the papal balcony, he comes “from the ends of the world” and Greta because she has autism. Miranda thinks it is not a coincidence that we get home from both of these “ends of the world” figures. 

Then it was time for the journalists, and the most exciting question of the day came from an Italian-speaking Swiss named Giuseppe Rusconi. He objected to Cardinal Barreto’s suggestion that we have much to learn from “pure” Amazonian “ancient wisdom,” given that “about 20” indigenous peoples still practise infanticide. Barreto was shocked – shocked – that such a thing could be said and insinuated that the charge was racist for it “indicated a situation of savagery.” 

Barreto’s use of the word “savagery” was perhaps unwise, for two reasons: first, journalists have been ticking off people for racistly using similar words of Amazonians, and second, some Amazonians really do still practice infanticide, as Tauli-Corpuz did not deny. So do the world’s abortionists, by the way, so it’s not like we can congratulate our non-Amazonian selves. But meanwhile I had my next story for the day. 

A note on linguistic accuracy: Panelists speak in the official Vatican language they know best, and almost everyone listens to simultaneous translations over headphones. These are patchy at best, for simultaneous translation is hard, especially when having to translate Italian, then Spanish, then French or English. Does the Vatican Press Office offer transcriptions of all proceedings? No, it does not.  

Luckily for me, Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz spoke in English, but naturally Cardinal Barreto spoke Spanish. Thus, as soon as I got home, I contacted my Spanish-speaking colleague Martin Barillas. He recorded my recording and wrote out a translation while I transcribed the thoughts of Tauli-Corpuz. 

While I was typing at the open window, occasionally looking up at the medallion of St. Catherine across street, an object whizzed through the window and hit my right hand. It rolled under the bed, and I picked it up. It looked like a wrinkled unripe olive. There are no trees around, so I was bemused. Another green missile hit my desk, and I stared suspiciously at the opposite windows. No-one. 

Eventually however, I lifted my gaze to the bumpy red clay roof and glimpsed two mischievous boy faces just before they disappeared. 

Vi vedo!” I yelled and had a good laugh. Boys are still boys, thank God, at least in Rome. 

We don’t actually need people from “the ends of the world” to teach us about life and hope. They’re around us, wherever we are.  

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Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and has contributed to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.