St. Winifred’s Well

3 March 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Winifred (or Winefride, Welsh: Gwenffrewi) was a Welsh martyr in the 7th century.  The spring associated with her martyrdom and restoration is now a shrine.  It is called St Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire, Wales.  It is the oldest active pilgrimage site in Britain.  The well is open most days of the year and people still go there to bathe and sit on St. Beuno’s stone to ask for favors and blessings. There is a tradition that before he left Holywell, Beuno seated himself on the stone and declared: “Whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winifred would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.”

According to legend, Winifred’s family were descendants of Vortigern, a 5th century warlord. Her mother’s name was Wenlo, and she was a sister of Saint Beuno. Her father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, was the lord of Tegeingl, an area in northeast Wales which later became part of the county of Flintshire.

At the time of her martyrdom, Winifred was a teenage girl preparing to enter religious life.  Her uncle, Beuno, was an abbot and her mentor.  A local noble by the name of Caradoc approached her to propose marriage. Winifred was not interested in the man’s advances and refused to lay with him. She became frightened and ran to the church where her uncle was saying Mass. The rejected and angry Caradoc followed and caught up with her on the slope of a hill.  He drew his sword and cut off her head. The head rolled down the slope and eventually came to rest. As soon as it stopped, a spring of water bubbled up out of the ground.

On hearing of the terrible murder, Beuno left the church and went to the newly formed spring where Winifred’s head lay.  He returned the head to the body and covered it with his cloak.  After Mass he returned to the body and prayed. Legend says Winifred sat up as if she had been in a deep sleep, with only a thin scar to show where she had been decapitated.

Seeing Caradoc leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, Beuno called on God to punish him. According to one legend, he died on the spot. Another legend said the ground opened to swallow him. Some historians think he was killed by Winifred’s brother, Owain.

Fearing the encroaching Saxons, Winifred and her companions left Holywell and joined a community of nuns living in Gwytherin near the River Elwy. Winifred eventually became abbess and passed away on November 3 sometime between 650 to 660 A.D.

The oak reliquary of St. Winifred was identified in 1991 from earlier drawings and descriptions.  The reliquary probably contained a piece of clothing or article identified with the saint but not her bones. It provides evidence that Winifred was recognized as a saint soon after her death.

The details of St. Winifred’s life are found in two manuscripts.  The one in the British Museum is by a monk named Elerius, a contemporary of Winifred.  The other manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford is generally believed to have been compiled in 1130 A.D. by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury Abbey. Prior Robert promoted the cult of St. Winifred.  In 1138 A.D. her bones were carried with great ceremony from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury where they became an extremely popular destination for pilgrims. To further enhance the prestige of the abbey, Abbott Nicholas Stevens built a new shrine for St. Winifred, and had some of his monks steal relics of St. Beuno to add to the abbey church. They abbey was fined, but they were told that they could keep the relics. 

Many royal pilgrims have visited St. Winifred’s Well over the centuries.  The earliest recorded visit was by Richard I (King Richard the Lionheart) in 1189. King Henry V made the pilgrimage in 1415 before his victory at Agincourt.  In 1416, he went on foot from Shrewsbury Abbey to Holywell as an act of reverence for his victory.  In 1461, the future King Edward IV of England went on pilgrimage shortly before the Battle of Towton.  According to an account by Welsh poet Tudur Aled, the young king took earth from beside the well and placed it upon his crown.  The future Henry VII is thought to have made a secret visit before winning his crown at Bosworth in 1485.

St. Winifred or St. Winifred’s Well have found their way into poems, plays and novels.  St. Winifred’s Well is mentioned in the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  William Rowley’s 17th century comedy, A Shoemaker, A Gentleman dramatizes St. Winifred’s story.  Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorialized St. Winifred in his unfinished drama, St. Winifred’s Well. 

 The most famous references to St. Winifred are in Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries.  The story of Winifred’s relics being taken to Shrewsbury Abbey forms the basis of the novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in her series of Cadfael books. The celebration of her feast day provides the setting for The Rose Rent and The Pilgrim of Hate. The casket containing her relics is stolen from the shrine in The Holy Thief. Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk at Shrewsbury Abbey is also a former knight and crusader.  He has a special affinity with St. Winifred, who he affectionately calls “The Girl.” 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Wistan’s Miracle of the Hair

25 February 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

St. Wistan, also known as Saint Wystan and Saint Wigstan, died in 840 A.D. His grandfather, King Wiglaf, ruled Mercia from 827 to 839.  His father, Wigmund, died of dysentery shortly before him. A young Wistan may have been proclaimed king, but more likely he abdicated in favor of King Beorhtwulf (Bright Wolf), who ruled from 840 to 852.  Wistan appointed his mother, Aelfaed, as regent.  Wistan’s godfather, Beorhtric, son of King Beorhtwulf was appointed as her advisor.

Wistan was scalped and slain with a blow to the head because he protested his widowed mother’s marriage to his godfather, Beorhtric.  In canon law at that time, baptism established a link of spiritual consanguinity between the parents and godparents of the baptized. As a spiritually close relative, Wistan’s godfather was forbidden from marrying her.

Aelfaed was the daughter of King Ceolwulf of Mercia who ruled from 821-823, the last of an ancient Mercian royal line descended from Offa, a legendary warrior and ruler.  The prestige of marriage to woman descended from the last branch of ancient Mercia was reason for Wistan’s murder. His death resulted from a Mercian power struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son, Beorhtric.  They may have inherited claims to the Midland kingdom from an earlier Mercian king, Beornwulf (823-825) or Beornred, who was deposed by Offa in 757.

There are various accounts of Wistan’s death on June 1, 840. Beorhtric cut off his head while he was standing in prayer. Beorhtric cut off the upper part of his head with is sword, while a companion stabbed him. Beorhtric struck Wistan on the head with the shaft of his dagger while his servant ran him through with a sword. Wistan’s companions were killed as well.

Most writers identify this spot with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire, although another candidate is Wistanstow in Shropshire.  According to legend, the true site of Wistan’s murder was identified by a miraculous shaft of light, and an annual crop of human hair on the anniversary of his death. 

Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days. — Florence of Worcester

In 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman abbot of Evesham, subjected Wistan’s relics to the ordeal by fire. He was skeptical about the authenticity of Anglo-Saxon saints and relics. Since the fire had no effect on Wistan’s bones, the abbot decided to return St. Winstan’s relics to the shrine.  By accident he dropped the saint’s head on the ground. It began to sweat and spread a sweet fragrance throughout the church.

The legend of the murder anniversary “crop of human hair” persisted for several hundred years. The miracle was apparently verified by a special commission set up by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury in 1187.

St. Wistan’s relics disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII between 1536-1541.

A detailed article about St. Wistan can be found on Clas Merdin, a good source for Arthurian legends.

 

 

Saint Hugh and the Swan

22 January 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

The son of a noble, Hugh was a monk at La Grande Chartreuse in France when King Henry II of England asked him to come to Witham, England to head up a new Carthusian house.  The house was founded by Henry II in reparation for his role in the death of Saint Thomas Becket.  Hugh was a good man and a tough one.  He insisted the king pay the residents who had been displaced from their homes on the property intended for the new monastery. He supported people when they suffered from the treatment by the king’s foresters. He stood down an angry mob determined to punish Jews.  He convinced them to release their victims.

Nevertheless, the affable Hugh became a favorite of the king. In 1186 he was appointed bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England.  Shortly after his election, during his first visit to the manor in Stowe, Hugh was presented with a large wild swan that had recently come to the manor lake. Hugh offered the swan scraps of bread, and from that moment, the swan became devoted to him. When Hugh was away from the manor, the swan kept to the middle of the lake.  But when the bishop came for a visit, the swan flew to him, tenderly placing his beak in the sleeve of the Hugh’s garment.  If any of his attending clerics came near, the swan would jealously attack them.  Their friendship lasted for 15 years.  The swan lived a few years after Hugh, but never became close to another person.

Antiquarian books often have the most charming stories and illuminating details. Here is one about St. Hugh from 100 years ago:

St. Hugh as a Monk – Hugh grew up into a splendid young man, and he desired above all things to be a priest; so he was ordained and became a Carthusian monk in a monastery high up in the mountains.  The monks lived a very austere life, fasting much, and never speaking to each other, living alone, each in his own cell. But for Hugh there were friends and companions with whom he might speak and yet keep his rule. He had always loved birds and beasts, and they knew it and loved him in return. When he sat down to supper his friends the birds would come hopping in, ready to share his meal; and the squirrels would scamper down from the trees and make themselves quite at home in his room, even whisking the food from his plate. Wherever he lived the wild creatures became his friends.”

St. Hugh as a Bishop – One day the prior of Hugh’s monastery received a letter from King Henry II of England asking for a good monk to take charge of a monastery…There was a lake in the grounds, and one day a splendid wild swan swooped down on it and killed or drove off all the tame ones, and then sounded a shrill cry of triumph.  The servants knew how the Bishop loved wild creatures, and they managed to get the swan up to the palace; St. Hugh at once made friends with it, and coaxed it to eat bread from his hand, and the creature became devoted to him from that moment.  It followed him everywhere, and even slept in his room.  The servants dare not go near the bed when St. Hugh was asleep, for the great bird would raise its huge wings in defense and hiss fiercely.  It would never let anyone but Hugh touch it, but it would nestle its head up his sleeve, and fondle him with queer loving cries.  When the Bishop was away from Stow the swan never entered the palace, but it seemed to know when he was expected, and as soon as the luggage carts and servants began to arrive  it would leave the lake and go striding up to the house. When it heard its master’s voice it would run to him and follow him about all the time he remained at Stow. But when St. Hugh came to Lincoln for the last time, just before his death, the swan seemed to know what was coming, and would not go near him, but hid in the reeds, drooping and ill, broken-hearted at losing his beloved master.” Faith & Duty by Judith F. Smith, Benzinger Bros., 1920 

St. Melangell, Hares and the Origin of the Easter Bunny

17 December 19 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Melangell (pronounced “Mel-eng-eth”) is the patron saint of hares and rabbits.  They are sometimes called St. Melangell’s lambs.

According to Welsh legend, Melangell was the daughter of King Cyfwich Addwyn, who is mentioned in the Tales of Culhwch and Olwen as a member of King Arthur’s court.  King Cyfwich Addwyn was said to be related to St. Helen of Caernarvon, the famous Elen Luyddog (Helen of the Hosts) who married the Roman general, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) the 4th century emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Elen’s story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Welsh epic, Mabinogion.

In most accounts Melangell is described as the daughter of an Irish king who fled from her father’s court to avoid marriage. Around 590 A.D., she arrived at the valley of the river Tanat, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains in Powys, Wales. 

In 604 A.D. the prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, went hunting close to where Melangell lived and prayed. His hounds pursued their prey into a thicket, where he found a young woman with a hare lying under the fold of her garments. She boldly faced the hunting dogs and they retreated. The prince gave up the chase and sat down to listen to Melangell’s story. She told him she was a hermitess who lived nearby and had dedicated herself to God.  The prince and his huntsmen were the first men she had seen in 15 years.

So moved was the prince that he offered her the valley where she lived as a perpetual asylum and refuge for animals, and anyone who was fleeing harm.  Melangell lived there the rest of her life, eventually attracting a small community of women for whom she served as abbess.  A church was eventually built in the spot where she lived and it remained a place of sanctuary throughout the Middle Ages.  The killing of hares and rabbits has long been forbidden in the region, because people believe they are sacred animals under the protection of St. Melangell.  People in the parish still honor this custom. 

The association of religious female figures and hares is legendary and predates Melangell by several centuries. When the Romans invaded the British Isles, Julius Caesar saw that Celtic people did not regard it lawful to kill and eat the hare.  In Ireland the hare was associated with women who could shapeshift into their form, so eating them was taboo.  There is a legend that the God and warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare, wounding it in the leg.  He followed the wounded animal into a thicket, where he found a door leading down into the ground. He went in and came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound.

Boudicca, the British warrior queen, was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans and released a hare from beneath her gown to divine the outcome of the battle from the hare’s movements.  She also took a hare with her into battle to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

Boudicca probably prayed to Eostre, the Celtic version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ostara.  Ostara gave her name to the celebration of Easter.  She was associated with the seasonal change from winter to spring.  Ostara was a shapeshifter who took the form of a hare at each full moon. All hares were sacred to her and acted as messengers. 

Eostre/Ostara is mentioned by Saint Bede in his treatise, The Reckoning of Time, written around 725 A.D.  Bede states that during the time period equivalent to April, Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eostre’s honor.  The tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his 1892 study on the hare in custom and mythology, folklorist Charles J. Billson cited numerous incidents of folk customs in northern Europe involving hares around the Easter season. Billson said, “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon and British worship, there are good grounds for believing the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”

The story of St. Melangell is a blend of local history, custom, folklore and pre-Christian goddesses and practices. Was Melangell created to legitimatize these beliefs, or is she another in a long line of spiritually powerful women with a hare as her symbol and companion?

Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology

On October 15, 2017 Pope Francis announced a special synod on the Pan-Amazonian Region to take place in Rome.  It is scheduled for October 6-27, 2019. 

The synod arose out of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, “Caring for Our Common Home,” which called for action on global warming, environmental pollution and pinpointed the Amazon region as a chief area of concern.

The Pan-Amazon region spans over two million square miles within nine countries, including Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana. It is home to 33 million people, among them 3 million indigenous people representing 400 different tribes.  It is the source of one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, one-fourth of all oxygen and more than one-third of global forest reserves.

Taking part in the synod will be bishops from the nine countries encompassing Amazonia, presidents of the seven bishops’ conferences, and representatives of non-governmental organizations that work in the region.  Chief among them will be REPAM, or Red Eclesial PanAmazonica, an ecclesial network of bishops created in 2014 to promote the rights and dignity of people living in the Amazon. It is backed by CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference. Caritas Internationalis is a founding member. REPAM embodies the promise Pope Francis made in the Amazon town of Maldonado, Peru to affirm “a whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”

The 16-page preparatory document for the synod was published on June 8, 2018.  It was written by the Vatican’s office for the synod with the help of an 18-member council appointed by Pope Francis to oversee the 2019 meeting.  The synod council included three cardinals, 13 bishops, one nun and a layman.  Most members are from countries in the Amazon region.  The document is organized as a Preamble, Section I – Seeing, Section II – Discernment, Section III – Action, and Questionnaires that were widely circulated to provide material for each of the three sections.

The synod’s preparatory document makes clear that central issues will focus on environmental protection, the rights of indigenous people, and evangelization. But what is articulated within these issues will ignite change not only in the Amazon, but throughout the Catholic Church.

It is obvious that most pundits from Europe and North America who follow church happenings did not read this document carefully. If they did, they would be shocked. This synod is not about a group of natives in the Amazon rainforest with a few mentions of climate change thrown in. Pope Francis and the Synod Council are attempting to shift Catholic culture and religious practice from the Euro-Centric and clerical sub-culture model to one drawn from values and cultures based in the Southern Hemisphere, with ripples extending to Africa and Asia. Europe’s domination of 1,000 years is ending.

The clash of values that dominates so much of the Euro-Centric Catholic Church today will be subsumed into other cultural debates. There, they may find a new voice, fade away or be viewed as irrelevant. How important are religious liberty, same-sex marriage, denying communion to pro-abortion politicians, sex abuse and cover up, women priests, married priesthood, conscience rights, “authentic” Catholic definitions, and “reform of the reform” of Vatican II in Amazonia?  Newer issues like racism, rights of indigenous people, migrants and immigration, gender theory, LGBT civil rights, lay involvement, habitat protection, and economic equity should get more traction, but the results will be a mixed bag of blessings for both progressives and conservatives. 

Here is what I see emerging from the Amazonia Synod:

  1. A new emphasis on “Integral Ecology” – everything is connected
  2. Evangelization as an accompaniment to where people are physically and spiritually
  3. Older married men ordained as priests to administer the sacraments
  4. Increased role in ministry and governance for women
  5. A cultural and spiritual sift away from a Euro-centric Catholicism

Each of the sections of the preliminary document has markers and flashpoints intimating where Pope Francis and the Church are heading with this Synod.

  1. Identity and Cries of the Pan-Amazonia

“Nonetheless, the wealth of the Amazonian rainforest and rivers is being threatened by expansive economic interests, which assert themselves in various parts of the territory. Such interests lead, among other things, to the intensification of indiscriminate logging in the rainforest, as well as the contamination of rivers, lakes and tributaries (due to the indiscriminate use of agro-toxins, oil spills, legal and illegal mining, and byproducts from the production of narcotics.) Added to this is drug trafficking, which together with the above puts at risk the survival of those peoples who depend on the region’s animal and plant resources.” 

“For the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, the good life comes from living in communion with other people, with the world, and with the creatures of their environment, and with the Creator.  Their diverse spiritualities and beliefs motivate them to live in communion with the soil, water, trees, animals, and with day and night. Wise elders – called interchangeably “payes, mestres, wayanga or chamanes”, among others – promote the harmony of people among themselves and with the cosmos. Indigenous peoples are a living memory of the mission that God has entrusted to us all: the protection of our common home.”

2.Toward a Pastoral and Ecological Conversion

“This social – and even cosmic – dimension of the mission of evangelization is particularly relevant in the Amazon region, where the interconnectivity between human life, ecosystems, and spiritual life was, and continues to be, apparent to the vast majority of its inhabitants.”

“Integral ecology, then, invites us to an integral conversion. This entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults, failures and omissions by which we have harmed God’s creation and leads to heartfelt repentance.  Only when we are aware of how our lifestyles – and the ways we produce, trade, consume, and discard – affect the life of our environment and our societies can we initiate a comprehensive change of direction.”

3. New Paths for a Church with an Amazonian Face

 “The Church is called to deepen her identity in accordance with the realities of each territory and to grow her spirituality by listening to the wisdom of her peoples. Therefore, the Special Assembly for the Pan-Amazonian Region is invited to find new ways of developing the Amazonian face of the Church and to respond to situations of injustice in the region, such as the neocolonialism of the extractive industries, infrastructure projects that damage its biodiversity, and the imposition of cultural and economic models which are alien to the lives of its people.”

“In this sense, Vatican II reminds us that all the People of God share in the priesthood of Christ, although it distinguishes between common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood.  This gives way to an urgent need to evaluate and rethink the ministries that today are required to respond to the objectives of “a Church with a native face.”

“It is necessary to identify the type of official ministry that can be conferred on women, taking into account the central role which women play today in the Amazonian Church. It is also necessary to foster indigenous and local-born clergy, affirming their own cultural identity and values.  Finally, new ways should be considered for the People of God to have better and more frequent access to the Eucharist, the center of Christian life.”

The Synod’s preparatory document cites a wide swath of church documents, three provide the biggest stamp:

  1. Laudato Si – (“Praise Be to You”) The 2nd encyclical of Pope Francis has the subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home.” In it, Pope Francis critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, and laments environmental degradation and global warning. It calls on the peoples of the world to act. The encyclical was published on June 18, 2015.
  2. The Aparecida Document – This document summarized the 2007 meeting of CELAM—the regional Episcopal Conference of Latin America and the Caribbean. The meeting was held in Aparecida, Brazil, and was chaired by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.  In the document, the Latin American bishops expressed what they believed to be keys in keeping Catholicism alive and relevant in Latin American.  Those “keys” included a preferential option for the poor and marginalized, and a serious concern for the environment.
  3. Pope Francis’ January 19, 2018 Address to the Indigenous People of Amazonia at Maldonado, Peru – During his trip to Chile and Peru, Pope Francis met and addressed thousands of native Amazonians in an indoor stadium at Puerto Maldonado, a city on Peru’s Amazon frontier. It is the capital of Madre de Dios, a region plagued by illegal mining and human trafficking. In his remarks, the pope noted that the “native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present.”  He spoke about threats from extractive exploitation, environmental contamination and illegal mining. He also addressed the oppression of native people by certain policies and movements under the guise of preserving nature that deprive them of their land, natural resources and livelihoods.  Pope Francis promised participants to affirm a “whole-hearted option for the defense of life, the defense of the earth and the defense of cultures.”

There are several key players in the development of the Synod Council and preparatory document. Since I don’t read Spanish, and there is very little coverage of South America by U.S. journalists, I may have missed a few names but I believe I netted the biggest fish.

Pope Francis

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina on December 17, 1936, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on March 13, 2013, when he was named 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergoglio, the first pope from South America, took his papal title after St. Francis of Assisi of Italy.  The first Jesuit pope, Bergoglio was ordained in 1969, and from 1973-1979 was the provincial superior for Argentina.  Prior to his election as pope, Bergoglio served as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998-2013.  He was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001.  In his six years as pope, Francis has championed the world’s poor and marginalized people, emphasized mercy over rules, and been actively involved in environmental advocacy and political diplomacy.

“We are not faced with two separate crisis, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

 Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri

Cardinal Baldisseri has served as general secretary of the Synod of Bishops since September 21, 2013.  He introduced and explained in depth the Amazonia synod’s preparatory document during the Vatican press conference on June 8, 2018.  Hand-picked by Francis to reorganize the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Baldisseri is a veteran of the Vatican diplomatic corps.  He has served as apostolic nuncio to Paraguay, India, Nepal and Brazil (2002-2012). In Brazil, he negotiated an agreement regulating the juridical status of the church.

“Although the theme refers to a specific territory, such as the Pan-Amazon region – and this is why we speak about the “Pan-Amazon Synod” – the reflections that concern it go beyond the regional context, because they regard the whole Church and also the future of the planet. These reflections are intended to bridge to other similar geographical realities such as, for example, the Congo basin, the Central American biological corridor, the tropical forests of Asia in the Pacific, and the Guarani aquifer system. This great ecclesial, civic and ecological project allows us to extend our gaze beyond their respective borders and to redefine pastoral lines, making them suitable for today’s times. For these reasons too the Synod will be held in Rome.”

 Cardinal Claudio Hummes

Pope Frances chose Brazil’s Cardinal Claudio Hummes to serve as regulator general of the October synod on Amazonia.  The nomination of the 84-year-old retired archbishop of Sao Paulo was announced at the Vatican on May 4, 2019. The regular is responsible for providing a comprehensive outline of the synod’s theme at the beginning of the meeting and for summarizing the speeches of synod members before work begins on concrete proposals for the pope.  Cardinal Hummes was a former perfect of the Congregation for Clergy and has been a close friend of the pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires. Cardinal Hummes currently serves as president of REPAM, or the Red Eclesial Pan-Amazonica (or Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network.)  Founded in 2014, REPAM is a network backed by the Latin American Bishops Conference to promote the rights and dignity of people living in the Amazon.  Caritas Internationalis is a founding member.

“Back in 2015 the pope started to tell me, “I’m thinking of convening a meeting of all the bishops of Amazonia. As of yet, I don’t know what type of meeting or assembly, but I think that it could even be a synod.” He said to me, Let us pray about it together, and he began to speak to the bishops, to the episcopal conferences of the Amazonian region, about how to have an assembly, and so in his heart there grew the idea of a synod, and eventually in 2017 he convoked it.  We have worked hard for the synod, and we will continue to do so in this very important service for the future.  The synod serves to find and trace new paths for the Church.”

 “We know now there is another step to take: we have to promote an indigenous Church for the indigenous peoples, to help give birth to and nurture the growth of an indigenous Church. The aboriginal communities that hear the Gospel proclamation in one way or another, and that embrace it, which is to say, they welcome Jesus Christ, have to be able to ensure that, through an opportune process, their faith can become incarnate and inculturated in their traditional reality.  Then, in the context of their culture, identity, history and spirituality, an indigenous Church can arise with its own pastors and ordained ministers, always united within itself, and in total communion with the universal Catholic Church, but inculturated in indigenous cultures.”

 Cardinal Ricardo Barreto Jimeno

A Jesuit, and archbishop of Huancayo, Peru since 2004, Cardinal Barreto is vice president of the Peruvian bishops’ conference.  He is also vice president of REPAM (Red Eclesial Pan-Amazonica).  According to Cardinal Barreto, “new paths” will be defined during the synod, directed toward care for creation and evangelization.

Cardinal Barreto has long been a proponent of environmental protection.  Back in 2005 he told his brother bishops during a synod that bread and wine offered at the altar were no good if the land they came from was not properly cared for. “I said that if we offer bread from land that’s contaminated, we are offering God a contaminated fruit. And the same for wine…I remember that the bishops looked at me as if they were saying, ‘What does the Eucharist have to do with ecology?’”

“Too many people think the indigenous in the Amazon are savages with nothing to teach us. ..as one Amazonian indigenous person told me, the savages are the ones who wear suits and ties and have money because they not only exploit natural resources irrationally but also expel (the indigenous people) from their territories and allow those from the outside to attack their culture simply to profit.”

 General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira

 Augusto Heleno is a Brazilian politician and retired general. He was military commander of the Amazon and chief of the Department of Science and Technology of the Army.  He was chosen by Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, to head the Institutional Security Cabinet, an executive level office of the federal government responsible for assistance to the president on matters of national security and defense policy.

Bolsonaro campaigned on promises to end protections of the Amazon rainforest and limit Brazil’s indigenous peoples’ rights to designate land in the river’s sprawling basin as preserves.  In one of his first acts as president, he gave responsibility for indigenous preserves to the Agriculture Ministry, which is seen as heavily influenced by agribusiness interests.

A major Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo, reported on February 10, 2019 that the synod has become a national concern for the Brazilian government. General Augusto Heleno was quoted in the story as saying, in reference to the synod, “We are worried about it and want to neutralize it.” The government’s strategy for neutralizing the Amazonia synod reportedly includes planting intelligence agents to monitor preparatory meetings and putting diplomatic pressure on the Italian government to intercede with the Vatican to avoid, or at least tone down, criticism of Brazil’s Amazon policies.

“There are foreign (non-governmental organizations) and international authorities who want to intervene in our treatment of the Brazilian Amazon…I’m worried that this Synod is going to interfere in our sovereignty.  We know what we have to do.  We know how to do sustainable development, to stop deforestation.”

Mauricio Lopez

Mauricio Lopez is the executive secretary of REPAM.  He was the one lay person appointed to the Synod Council by Pope Francis. Lopez grew up in Mexico and was educated in Jesuit schools.  He and his wife, who is Ecuadorian, moved to Ecuador over a decade ago.  In 2009, he took a trip to the part of the Amazon basin that sits on Ecuador’s eastern borders.  “I came by bus from the highest mountains with snow,” he described, and suddenly I entered this beautiful place, where I saw the biggest river, the entrance into the Amazon, and how the flora and fauna were always changing as we went down, down, down. The temperature changed radically, and I felt, too, a change within me,” he said.

“The Amazon reality requires us to be a braver and more prophetic church.”

 The Amazonia initiative brings back an echo of my own past. 

Back in the mid-1970s, as a young woman in Alaska, I fought for large tracts of Alaskan lands to be preserved as wilderness areas–national parks, refuges and monuments. I wanted government agencies to insist on environmental protections for areas that were mined, logged or slated for oil and natural gas extraction. The native peoples of Alaska—Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Athabascan, Inupiat and Yupik were different, but each group was deeply connected to the land by a deep love for it, cultural heritage and identity.  One connection was through the subsistence lifestyle—fishing, trapping, hunting and harvesting on their ancestral lands.

During that time, I never heard a religious person—priest, religious sister, bishop, pastoral associate, anyone—speak up for Alaska natives or for wise natural resources management.  At that time, the Catholic church made no connection between Nature and Faith.  I missed having my faith strengthen my environmental activism and support for native land rights; and my love for the land and forest strengthen my spirituality and religious conviction.

It now seems like a dream come true; one I have waited almost 40 years to see. Thank you, Pope Francis, and everyone who is making the Amazonia Synod happen.  I’ll be praying for you and us.