For those who wish to understand what is really going on as the October synod on the Amazon looms on the horizon, the words and “dreams” — to use his own expression — of an indigenous Brazilian Salesian priest, Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende, are among the most revealing.
Fr. Justino is considered to be a pivotal element among those who prepared the synod: he was already a member of the group that wrote the preparatory document(with its pantheistic overtones) in 2018. Brazilian media tout him as the “indigenous counselor of Pope Francis,” and he has repeatedly pleaded for the Church to “change” in order to acquire an “indigenous face” in his own country. In a recent interview with the liberal Hispanic site Religion Digital, Sarmento expanded on his vision of a Catholic Church that would embrace the heritage of the many diverse indigenous tribes of the Amazon, helping them to retrieve their ancestral culture and rituals.
In particular, he spoke of the Instrumentum laboris — the working document published last June in view of the Pan-Amazonian Synod that cardinals Brandmüller and Burke have accused of “apostasy” — and its drive for “interculturality,” “interaction with other peoples, with other non-human realities …”
Synod “expert” Fr. Sarmento is known to have attended the private pre-synod “study meeting” in Rome last June, as a member of the 30-strong progressive group that included Cardinals Hummes, Barreto, Baldisseri, Kasper, and Schönborn; Bishops Kraütler, Overbeck, and Cotter; and a number of priests and religious. Their private symposium ended with an open call for the Church to reconsider the female diaconate and to ordain married men in the Latin rite, as Diane Montagna reported from Rome at the time.
As an indigenous priest, Fr. Justino enjoys portraying himself with indigenous gear and markings on his Facebook page.
Reading through Fr. Justino’s Religion Digital interview is no easy task. His answers are repetitive, long-winded, and verbose, proceeding more through suggestions and accumulative evocations than by the plain statement of facts or even desires. Often they lack visible coherence. But he does make clear that what he, for one, expects from the synod is that “the Church will commit itself to valuing the dreams of the indigenous peoples.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ (but also the Most Holy Trinity, Our Lady, and the saints) is conspicuous only by His absence in Sarmento’s lengthy developments.
“As an indigenous person, I see that it is a great opportunity for us to be known by the whole Church; for the dioceses, the congregations and we indigenous peoples to rediscover the great value that we have in the world and the values that the peoples have to contribute to being an echo of the indigenous voice in defence of the world, in defence of ecology, in matters of rivers, forests, great traditions, small traditions, also of daily life. For us indigenous peoples, this synodal moment is significant. Many indigenous peoples contributed and now the work is being channeled. Indigenous peoples will be there, but connected with the bases, with the dreams, with the proposals of the communities,” he told interviewer Luis Miguel Modino.
Fr. Justino works as an indigenous priest in the São Gabriel da Cachoeira diocese in the northern province of Rio Negro close to the Colombian border. He explained that here, an indigenous movement “works with the theme of self-determination, the strengthening of languages, cultures, the revitalization of these traditions. The Church, the diocese of San Gabriel, which is growing with other congregations and there many indigenous in universities, studying various courses. All this shows that the Church needs to be different.”
In the Upper Rio Negro region, he added, there are “people with academic training … many indigenous organizations, young people, women, leaders, shamans.” He called it a sign of “vitality” and “dynamism.” “That is why I told Bishop Monsignor Edson, who is bishop of our diocese, to have the strength, the courage to be the voice of the indigenous peoples of Rio Negro, twenty-three peoples. We will build this bridge during the Synod,” said Sarmento.
Putting people with university training on the same level as shamans is in itself problematic, and it is even more so when considering that the shaman is a tribal healer who can act as a “medium” between the visible world and the spirit world, given that voluntarily seeking contact with the spirit world is as dangerous as it is sinful from the Catholic point of view.
“For all the gods of the pagans are demons,” said the Psalmist, and Saint Paul repeated: “That what they sacrifice, [they sacrifice] to demons” (1 Cor. 10:20). Such is the object of the pagan cults.
This appears not to be a matter of concern either to Fr. Sarmento or to those who have been preparing the synod in the way he himself sets out in his interview: “When I say that the Church must adopt an indigenous face, the synodal fathers also say that the Church must continue to gain or create an indigenous face, which means precisely that missionaries, female missionaries, bishops, non-indigenous priests need to create new attitudes of coexistence with indigenous peoples, and together with them create new pastoral goals. This is already being done in the region of Rio Negro, but it has yet to be materialized.”
This means that the objective is to modify the way the Church teaches the faith, preaches, interacts with native peoples, and even celebrates the liturgy.
The indigenous Salesian continued: “It should come out of this discursive field or phase to become practice. This happens through various ecclesial actions, pastoral actions, in catechesis — we already have often dreamed of doing an indigenous catechesis, working on indigenous themes, themes of indigenous spirituality, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals.”
In such a way are indigenous, shamanic traditions put on the same plane as the Catholic truth and liturgy a Catholic priest is expected to serve.
On the contrary, Fr. Sarmento explained:
This indigenous face of the Church is also equivalent to saying that communities must be organized in such a way that values appear more and more, that our indigenous values enrich the values of the Good News of Jesus. One complements the other, nor can it be said that the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus comes through missionaries who come with their own vision, Italian missionaries, Spanish missionaries, even from here in southern Brazil, who come with their cultural structures. That is why it is also more difficult for them to be inculturated in a culture, to learn the indigenous languages where they work, to learn the good customs. That would give the indigenous face, the face of the indigenous Church, but it means work. Even so, I myself think a lot about how this church could be a church with an indigenous face, or is it just an idea, a dream?
An indigenous Church would not be enough, he added: what would also be needed is “a church with a ‘caboclo’ [mestizo] face, a feminine face, and from other discussions yet to come.”
Those “values” — which are often mentioned in the Instrumentum laboris — should be sought in the native cultures, suggested Fr. Sarmento: “The indigenous people have those who bless them, those who take care of other parts of community life, they have catechists, women responsible for singing, young people for ornamentation. This already exists within each culture, the specialized roles for those who will be teachers in healing, blessing, who will organize the songs, the dances, who will take care of the house, the preparation of the food.”
This is where he most openly spoke of what is in reality the profound syncretism of the synod’s pro-native ideology (emphasis added):
These services already exist, and the Church, the missionary, the female missionary who arrives, must know these important realities that are expressions of a community. These values are already Christian values that come from God. He has already placed in the hearts of the indigenous peoples all this desire to do good, and they have been successful, each with their own cultural filters, they are indigenous, but each people has its own way of acting. There is also the question of interculturality in the Instrumentum laboris, precisely to say that this interaction with other peoples, with other non-human realities, the world of water, the forest world, the subterranean world, is existential, and this appears a lot in indigenous rituals and ceremonies which show us that we are not alone in the world, we interact with the beings above, the constellations, who are our brothers, the thunderstorms, the underworld of the world of water, the beings who live there.
The above appears to be nothing more than a plain and simple expression of pagan pantheism.
Interestingly, in a 2017 interview for Periodista Digital, Fr. Sarmento spoke of the resistance of the indigenous Catholics to the “native” adaptation of the liturgy: recalling his own experience when he first came to Iauareté, a parish where at the turn of the last century Catholic priests had taken pains to root out native cults and customs, he explained how he had wanted to celebrate Mass in the Tukano language, “chanting music to the rhythm of our traditional dances, with body postures, dancing during the celebrations, indigenous ritual celebrations.” “But I was criticized. First by my own brother priests, and then by the indigenous themselves, who compared the previous evangelization and the new way of celebrating.”
There was a “conflict,” he admitted, adding that he had come with the idea of “revolutionizing” while the “people are at another level of life, of understanding.” “In my case that was how it was, I had ideas, since I had just finished my missiology studies in São Paulo, with Latin-American theologians who were on the line of Liberation theology, and I wanted to do things differently,” he acknowledged.
Later, his educators would tell him that if he “wanted to start with the liturgy that is the most difficult field within the Church, and if one wanted to move forward it was important to privilege catechesis, formation and from there go on to celebrations.”
Does this mean the Catholic indigenous of the Amazon need to be brainwashed into accepting a reversion to their ancestral rites that some so clearly want to integrate into the Catholic liturgy?
In that same 2017 interview, Fr. Justino Sarmento Rezende was already announcing that the priestly ordination of married men is “possible and necessary” and should be included in the discussions of the synod.
That same theme was also central to his latest interview. The synod “expert” stated (emphasis added):
It is a dream for the Amazon region, initially. As Pope Francis said, we will think about the Amazon, but, of course, critics are also right to criticize this, because these experiences or solutions related to the Amazon can end up influencing the whole world. I don’t disagree with any of that, it was said from the beginning. Good, positive, ecclesial, cultural experiences with the Amazonian peoples can also become new models of missionary action for the ministerial question. As the tradition of the Church is very old, it was always a very strong concern, including the priesthood for married men, for mature men. In some places they were able to do so, and here in the Amazon it was imagined as a solution for the small number of priests to serve hundreds, thousands of communities, so one thought of this model. It did not come out of no-where, it came from other experiences in other places.
Adding that this was the reason for a recent symposium on the theme in Rome, he went even farther, if somewhat confusedly:
For me, in my opinion, there would also be couples or non couples, that could assume this to serve a region or some communities, as was already done with some ministers of the Eucharist. He would serve the communities close to him, approximately three, five communities, but still living his own life. Because when you think about this ministry, many already think about financial matters, how they will support their families, how they will live. For me these become excuses for not accepting this new proposal. For me it is clear that only in practice can one see, that such a person is not in any kind of competition with other priests who live in celibacy, this priesthood will continue to exist; but those who think otherwise, think that we will abolish the priesthood as it exists today. That is not to understand anything, it would continue to exist, that would be a proposal.
And he concluded:
We also have weaknesses, and so it will be with this ministry of married men. Over time we will see the absence of certain elements in their formation, which we will have to offer them, responding to the challenge of the new reality that may arise. But that will not depend on this Synod for the Amazon. I hope that this is an indication, with many probabilities, it is a dream.
With this sort of language, almost anything could come out of the Amazon Synod.
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