This heart-warming, uplifting and challenging article is from the Roman Catholic Discerning Deacons website. Catholic women, doing remarkable work like this, are praying, lobbying and organising for the time when the Catholic church will be prepared to ordain them as permanent deacons.
“Hermana Ciria and I walked in the blazing summer sun onto a small wooden boat heading out onto Madre de Dios, a calm river in the Amazon that meanders by Riberalta, Bolivia – the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. A young adult worker on the boat looked at Hermana Ciria and recognized her. “I remember you,” he said. “You baptized my son.” She had also baptized several other family members. The two of them chatted, recalling the celebrations, providing updates. His son is now eight years old.
What was extraordinary about this moment was how ordinary it was. A father and a religious sister remembering with fondness the baptismal celebration that welcomed his son into the Catholic faith. It was the most ordinary of conversations in an extraordinary place – the Amazon, where the spiritual gifts of women have been unleashed and where bishops, priests, religious and laity collaborate closely to accompany a fragile faith on an even more fragile land.
Following our recent Discerning Deacons pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, I traveled with Divine Providence Sister Ciria Mees through Porto Velho, Brazil and onto Guayaramerín and Riberalta, Bolivia to witness to the work of Catholic religious and lay women who have — with great stamina, conviction, dedication, and sacrifice — accompanied the poor, indigenous communities, mothers, fathers,
children, grandparents. They also seek to raise the world’s consciousness about what is at stake in protecting the Amazon rainforest – often called the lungs of our planet. I hoped that my visit could spark our imagination in the United States to better understand where the Holy Spirit might be leading the Church in the third millennium and to build bonds of friendship and solidarity across the Americas – especially as the global synod begins its continental phase. Constructing unity, local Bishop Eugenio Coter told me, requires understanding the needs of others.
Walking with Ciria into the formation offices of the Instituto Pastoral Rural of the Vicariato Apostólico de Pando, where she served for nine years and directed for six, I’m struck by the maps hanging on the wall of wiggly Amazon rivers dotted with more than 160 small rural faith communities — a territory so vast that it could take up to nine days by boat to reach the farthest community. In this part of the world where there are few priests and with the permission of her bishop, Cira has baptized more than 1,300 children and adults. That the Catholic Church has a presence and can accompany people in these communities is largely due to the efforts of women like Ciria who have braved all manner of weather to travel by boat or to set up camp sites in communities where they travel along dirt roads by auto. While I was there, we visited a few communities – La Esperanza, San Juan del Urucu, San Juan Km 27, and San Cristobal. The largest community had about three thousand people living on it. The smallest had 16 families.
Each time we were greeted warmly, and Ciria was quick to engage the animadora or animador in conversation. Listening to community members is one of Ciria’s strengths. We listened to mothers, fathers and grandparents who were the first to arrive while we waited for others to join us. One time a group of 5-year-old girls delighted in teaching me their games. After enough people had assembled, around 30 or so, Ciria presided over the Catholic Liturgy of the Word with Communion. We sang popular hymns. Community members, often youth, took turns lectoring. Several times Ciria invited me to offer the Gospel reflection. Afterwards, communities shared cookies, empanadas, or a home-made fruit juice made from any of the many varieties of fruit trees growing nearby. Confirmation students in one community wanted me to teach them English words while I practiced a few words in their ancestral indigenous language. One time we went in search of tall almond trees — almonds being a key export crop in the region.
In the Amazon, leadership is formed from the grassroots; each faith community seeks to identify an animator and a catechist to prepare community members for sacraments like baptism, first Communion and confirmation. Ciria might make it to the community only 1-2 times a year and a priest even less frequently, so the role of the lay animator and catechist is critical to sustaining a rural faith community. The institute assists by providing ongoing faith formation to these leaders. After nine years of dedicated service and accompaniment, Ciria has recently returned to her native Brazil to complete a theology master’s program. Lay leaders like Jose Antonio and Sandra are stepping up with the passion and commitment needed to keep ministering in rural communities.”