Saint Brendan’s Voyage

Saint Brendan the Navigator (484-577 A.D.) is the patron saint of boaters, mariners, travelers, whales, portaging canoes, elderly adventurers and two Irish dioceses, Kerry and Clonfert.  His feast day is celebrated on May 16.  Brendan is chiefly renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed.  It is recorded he took two voyages; the first unsuccessful, the second (565–573 A.D.) is recorded as The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot

Brendan was born in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the west of Ireland.  When he was one, he was handed over to the care of the nun, Ita, when she lived at the foot of Mount Luachra. Ita of Killeedy was known as the “Brigid of Munster” and sometimes called “the white sun of the women of Munster.”  She was a skilled organizer, herbalist, and teacher. Brendan remained with her until he was seven. He regarded Ita as his foster mother and treated her with reverence and affection. He came to her for advice and guidance throughout his life.  One story states that after his first five years of wanderings, Brendan returned to Ireland and went to see Ita. “O my beloved,” she said, “wherefore hast thou tried without my counsel? Thou wilt not gain the Land of Promise borne in the hides of dead beasts. Thou wilt find it in a ship made of boards.” He went to Connaught, built a wooden ship, and embarked on his famous voyage. 

According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Brendan was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The Irish monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years.  One of his companions is said to have been Saint Malo, the namesake of the historic port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.  The idea to sail in search of the promised land of the saints came from Barinth, the abbot of Drumcullen, a distant relative of Brendan’s. Barinth told him about a wonderful isle, a place where there was no hunger, thirst, or darkness.  Brendan was determined to find it. There were 13 voyagers (12 original apostles, plus 1) and Brendan. At the last minute three other monks begged to be taken along.  Brendan consented, but predicted that while one of them would come to a good end, the two others would perish miserably.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot is one of several wonder-voyages or sea tales of the Irish known as the “Immrama.”  These voyage stories describe the hero’s series of seafaring adventures.  Besides Brendan’s tale, four others have come down to us:  the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of the Boat of Ui Corra, and the Voyage of Snedgus and MacRiagla. Unlike the Voyage of Bran, where alluring women figure prominently, Brendan and his crew do not encounter any females on their trip. Not one. Only men and boys—very monk-like. 

During the Dark Ages (500-1000 AD), Irish monks ventured across Europe and into the North Atlantic in pursuit of spiritual and religious missions.  They reached the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroe Islands.  They may have even reached Iceland.  Was it faith that made them step into a boat and hope they would find the Isle of the Blessed; or did they have prior knowledge of lands to the West from Scandinavians or others?  It’s possible that fishing boats, traders or a raiding party was blown off course during a storm and made an accidental discovery. Brendan’s voyage is part chronicle, allegory, explanation, and sea yarn. It contains a lot of mysteries, which makes it fun to try to identify different lands and creatures.  Two that particularly appeal to me are “Jasconius” and “Paul the Hermit.”

Jasconius

Jasconious is a giant sea creature that appears several times in the Voyage of Brendan the Abbot. The monks first thought Jasconius was an island, and went off to cook some fish to eat, leaving Brendan with the boat. “…and no sooner was the fire hot and the fish beginning to boil, than the island began to quake and to move like a living thing, and there was great fear on the brothers and then went back into the ship leaving the food and cauldron after them, and they saw what they took to be an island going fast through the sea, and they could notice the fire burning a long way off, that they were astonished. They asked Brendan then did he know what was the great wonder, and Brendan comforted them, and he said, “It is a great fish, the biggest of the fishes of the world, Jasconye his name is…”

Jasconius or Jasconye was most likely a Right whale but could have been a Humpback or even Sperm whale. Various cultures and ancient peoples had many legends surrounding the Leviathan, a gigantic and fearful sea creature found in the Book of Jonah in the Bible.  The Fastitocalon, a giant sea turtle, lured sailors to rest on its back, and then drowned them. In the Latin Physiologus, written in the second century AD, the creature is called an Aspidochelone.  The Christian scribe who compiled the Physiologus included plants, stones, animals and fabled, fantastic creatures, each with a moral or allegorical background. In the folklore of the Greenland Inuit, there was a similar monster called Imap Umassoursa, which also disguised itself as an island, and killed its prey by tipping over and spilling them into the sea. More likely mariners, hunters, or the curious attempted to stand on or get near the creature and were pulled down in its wake when it dove. Vikings also had many stories about giant whales or kraken monsters that would attack ships.

Paul the Hermit

Brendan finds “Paul the Hermit” living on a small circular island. Paul says he is 140 years old. For his first 30 years on the island, he was fed by an otter, who brought him a fish and firewood for cooking every three days.  For the last 60 years the hermit subsisted only on the waters of a tiny spring before the entrance to his cave home. He had no clothes except for his own hair which was long and white.  He was 50 years old when he first arrived on the island.

Brendan asked him about how he came to the island.  Paul told him his story: “For forty years I lived in the monastery of St. Patrick, and had the care of the cemetery. One day when the prior had pointed out to me the place for the burial of a deceased brother, there appeared before me an old man whom I knew not, who said, ‘Do not, brother, make the grave there, for that is the burial place of anther.’ I said, ‘Who are you, father?’ ‘Do you know know me?’ said he. ‘Am I not your abbot?’ ‘St. Patrick is my abbot,’ I said. ‘I am he,’ he said; and yesterday I departed this life and this is my burial place.’ He then pointed out to me another place, saying, “Here you will inter our deceased brother; but tell no one what I have said to you. Go down on tomorrow to the shore, and there you will find a boat that will bear you to that place where you shall await the day of your death.’ Next morning, in obedience to the directions of the abbot, I went to the place appointed, and found what he promised. I entered the boat, and rowed along for three days and nights, and then I allowed the boat to drift whither the wind drove it. On the seventh day, this rock appeared, upon which I at once landed, and I pushed off the boat with my foot, that it may return whence it came, when it cut through the waves in a rapid course to the land it had left.”

Was he deranged to push off the boat; or was he full of faith to obey his vision and abandon himself to his fate?  The story of Paul the Hermit’s relationship with the otter is similar to the tale of St. Cuthbert and the Otters. Both men had otters help and comfort them in their spiritual trials. Because of the presence of the otter, we know Paul’s island cave probably wasn’t more than a mile from land in Scotland or northern Ireland.

Is there any truth behind the story of the Voyage of Saint Brendan? Could it have really happened?  British historian and explorer Tim Severin set out to follow the legend. In 1976 Severin built a replica of Brendan’s currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools and materials, the 36-foot, two-masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with leather throng, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease.  Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada.

He sought to prove Brendan’s voyage by undertaking a similar journey following what is known as the “stepping stones” route: following trade routes to and amongst and beyond the islands of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland to Nova Scotia. Severin’s re-creation of the voyage helped to potentially identify many of the legendary sites in the story: the “Island of the Sheep,” the “Paradise of the Birds,” “Crystal Towers,” “mountains that hurled rocks at the voyagers,” (volcanoes) and the “Promised Land” of the saints. The patch of sea they described as being in a semi-solid state may have been ice floes and slush.

The voyage of the Irish monks across the Atlantic and back was significant for the next group of transatlantic voyagers: Norwegians. Did Irish monks reach North America in the 6th century? It appears they did, and the stories of their sea voyages inspired Norsemen to set out for new lands farther to the west. Vikings first traveled to Greenland in the 8th or 9th century; and Leif the Lucky (Leif Eriksen) established the first Viking settlement in “Vinland,” in the 10th century. Brendan the Abbot discovered the “New World” almost 1,000 years before Columbus.

The abbot, Barith, Brendan’s distant kinsman, was his inspiration to travel to the Island of the Blessed.  Barith had traveled there and returned to Ireland. Who told Abbot Barith about the fabled lands to the west? 

Read the Brendan manuscript here.

Chapter Synopsis of the Voyage

1.Barinth tells of his visit to the Isle of the Blessed, which prompts Brendan to go on his journey.

2.Brendan assembles 13 monks to accompany him.

3.They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.

4.Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan’s sacred numbers.

5.They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food offered) and an Ethiopian devil.

6.One latecomer admits to stealing from the mysterious island; Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer; the latecomer dies and is buried.

7.They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.

8.They find an island with some sheep; eat some and stay for Holy Week.

9.They find the island of Jasconius, celebrate Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.

10.They find an island that is the “Paradise of Birds.” The birds sing psalms and praise God.

11.They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, who have magic loaves of bread, do not age, and maintain complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.

12.They undertake a long sail after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1-3 days, depending on the number of cups each man drank.

13.They find a sea in a semi-solid state.

14.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of the Blessed.

15.A sea monster approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea monster approaches, bites the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the flesh from the dead creature.

16.They find an island of three choirs of monks who give them fruit, and the second latecomer remains while the others leave.

17.They find an island of grapes and stay there for 40 days.

18.They see a gryphon and bird battle.  The gryphon dies.

19.They journey to the monastery of Ailbe again for Christmas.

20.Many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.

21.They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks. They realize it is a whale.

22.They pass a “silver pillar wrapped in a net” in the sea.

23.They pass an island of blacksmiths who throw slag at them.

24.They find a volcano, and demons take the third newcomer down to Hell.

25.They find Judas Iscariot sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the sea, and learn it is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.

26.They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived for 60 years. He wears nothing but his hair and is fed by an otter.

27.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.

28.They find the Promised Land of the Saints.

29.They return home, and Brendan dies.

 

 

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.” 

 

 

 

 

 

Sins Against Nature and Creation

In February 2019 Pope Francis told moral theologians that it was rare, in the sacrament of reconciliation, to hear someone confess to an act of violence against nature and creation. “We do not yet have an awareness of this sin.  It is your task to do this.”

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.

 

 

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.