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April 24, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — For the first time, a member of the Ticuna tribe in the Brazilian diocese of Alto Solimões in the Western province of Amazonia was ordained a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church on March 15, in a ceremony fraught with indigenous symbols.
The event received international attention when the Holy See’s official news service, Vatican News, published a short report on Monday under the title: “First ever ordination of an indigenous deacon in a diocese in western Brazil.”
Local media underscored that the ordination is clearly a part of the process of building the Church with an “Amazonian face.”
It was presented as an implementation of the recent Amazon Synod. Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia called for “many more” deacons in the Amazon region and the “inculturation of the liturgy.”
The diaconal ordination took place in the church of St. Francis of Assisi in Belem do Solimões, a village that is considered the “spiritual center” of the local Ticuna tribe, according to Vatican News. Adolfo Zon Pereira, named to the see of Alto Solimões in 2015, was the ordaining bishop. He is known for having said the abolition of priestly celibacy would not in his opinion solve the problem of the lack of priests in the region: “Today we have a problem with vocations, and our celibacy allows us to accomplish pastoral work turned only towards the people,” he told a Brazilian newspaper in 2017.
At the time, the Catholic Church had only 40 permanent officials in Alto Solimões, of whom 18 were priests, while 11 permanent deacons were being trained in order to take up large responsibilities within the diocese. Permanent deacons are allowed to be married and have children, and they also have professional jobs outside the Church.
The new deacon is no exception. Antelmo Pereira Angelo was accompanied to the altar by his wife and nine children. The numbers of married deacons are increasing in many countries where priestly ordinations are rare; their wives must give consent for the ordination to be possible and are expected to follow their husbands’ training to some extent.
What made the ordination of Pereira Angelo particularly significant was the effort made to include native customs and traditions in the celebration. Vatican News underscored local missionaries’ efforts to maintain these traditions as a cultural heritage.
But the effort went far beyond that in including many of the symbols in the diaconal consecration itself: songs, dances, bead necklaces, and traditional headwear, as well as the use of animals’ teeth, shells and snails, and bracelets made of vegetable fibers.
The Brazilian bishops’ conference published a lengthy and admiring report of the occasion, including pictures that show several of the celebrants sporting traditional face-painting during the ordination Mass.
The chalice and ciborium were made of non-precious materials: black bowls and globes reminiscent of the impedimenta surrounding the Pachamama statuettes during the pagan ceremonies in Rome at the Amazon Synod.
The local population came to the church singing and dancing and wearing face paint proper to the 12 clans of the ethnicity of the “Sacred Earth of Eware,” which are locally associated with the 12 tribes of Israel.
The celebration started alongside a stream that runs near the church with indigenous musical instruments and a dance traditionally used for young girls’ rite of passage to adulthood. Descriptions of these traditional rites are harrowing. At the time of their first menstruation, girls are isolated from the rest of the tribe for anything from two weeks up to six months or even several years in a secluded area of a small room, learning the arts of womanhood from female relatives, until the rite of passage itself. The girls are considered vulnerable to the evil spirits of the forest during their puberty.
At the end of their isolation, they have their bodies painted black and are given intoxicating drinks and have all their hair removed. Traditionally, it would be pulled out by their fathers to show that they were ready for childbirth; in modern times, scissors are sometimes used. The ceremony involves four days without sleep during the final fertility rites, during which their eyes are covered and they repeatedly have to jump over a fire to the obsessive beating of drums.
Masked young men dressed as demons then dance around the girls with drums and carved wooden penises.
Later, an arranged marriage takes place.
During the new deacon’s ordination, other specifically indigenous gestures took place.
A mat prepared by women of the tribe with the bark of the Capinuri palm — a substance called tururi by the Indians — played a special role. Tururi is also used to make circular garments considered a symbol of protection against all the forces of nature — a clearly pagan use that traditionally has recourse to certain substances supposed to fight off the evil spirits.
Lying flat on his face on the floor of the church as a sign of obedience and humility, Pereira Angelo prostrated himself on the mat, which is of the type used for the rite of passage described above.
Another circular mat bearing indigenous symbols — a parrot, a snake, and a leopard with signs of the sun and moon — was also brandished at that moment as a sign of protection from all the forces of nature. Green leaves and red flowers were placed on the floor behind the new deacon, also reminiscent of the decorations used in Rome at the Pachamama ceremonies.
Before the ordination ceremony began, Bishop Adolfo Zon Pereira made clear that he specifically wanted to answer Pope Francis’s call to make a church with an Amazonian face.
In his post-synodal exaltation, Francis spoke about at the Amazonian liturgy he was hoping for:
The inculturation of Christian spirituality in the cultures of the original peoples can benefit in a particular way from the sacraments, since they unite the divine and the cosmic, grace and creation. In the Amazon region, the sacraments should not be viewed in discontinuity with creation. They “are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life.” They are the fulfillment of creation, in which nature is elevated to become a locus and instrument of grace, enabling us “to embrace the world on a different plane.”
Pope Francis also said:
In this sense, encountering God does not mean fleeing from this world or turning our back on nature. It means that we can take up into the liturgy many elements proper to the experience of indigenous peoples in their contact with nature, and respect native forms of expression in song, dance, rituals, gestures and symbols.
It is apparently not a problem that these rituals should be associated with cruel and violent traditions in which the cult of spirits plays a large role.
According to Vatican News, the diocese of Alto Solimões has “at last recently reaped one of the first fruits of the evangelisation that has been going on for more than a hundred years.” This would appear to suggest that the sum of conversions, baptisms, marriages and religious observance since the diocese was created in 1910 by Saint Pius X count for nothing. The Catholic history of the region goes back much farther: Jesuit missionaries were active in the territory from 1542, to be replaced by Carmelite fathers once Portugal took definitive control of the region in 1749.
From that time onward, under the authority of the king of Portugal, parishes were created and organized and churches were built, but the regular presence of priests occurred only from 1892, when the diocese of Amazonas was created. From 1909, the Capuchins of Umbria have taken over as missionaries in the enormous diocese: as large as Greece or Nicaragua, its population is only 216,000 strong. 38 percent of the inhabitants are indigenous, and most are members of the Ticuna ethnicity, the largest native group in Brazil.
In 2000, over 70 percent of the population were Catholic; in 2010, that percentage dropped to 59.5 percent, while 31 percent were Evangelicals (as compared with 21 percent in 2000).