Pan-Amazon Synod cemented greater recognition of women and work they do for the Church

In Brazil, women have long served as lectors and catechists in places like the Amazon region, where many are de facto religious leaders in remote communities that suffer from a severe shortage of priests, writes Lise Alves.

In Brazil, women have long served as lectors and catechists in places like the Amazon region, where many are de facto religious leaders in remote communities that suffer from a severe shortage of priests. And although the 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod did not directly authorise women to serve as deacons, it did formally acknowledge the work women do for the Church in the region.

“I believe that the Synod gave us more confidence and more recognition from the Church to do this work,” says 64-yearold Angela Thereza Correa de Almeida, coordinator of ecclesial communities at the Archdiocese of Santarem located in the Amazon region.

Almeida, who has been working for the Church since 1978 says that because the Archdiocese encompasses a very large region in the Amazon, there are communities that receive visits from priests only once a year. “Many of these communities, however, are just as active as those that receive more frequent visits from priests and bishops, all thanks to the work done by laypeople,” explains Almeida.

According to data from the Archdiocese of Santarem, there are approximately 450,000 people living in the area served by the Archdiocese, but only 48 priests to serve more than 900 Catholic communities.

Almeida explains that although these communities don’t often have the celebration of the Eucharist, they do have the celebration of the Word conducted by lay people, and in vast majority by lay women. “The richness of our Church here is the richness of this active participation of these lay men and women,” notes Almeida.

Almeida says that the acknowledgement by the religious regarding the importance of the work of the laity, including women, also increased after the Synod. “I wouldn’t say it’s 100% clergy but a lot of them are now more understanding and better accept what we do,” she says.

“We see that in the communities we work in, the vicars themselves are helping us. Before, we used to go and do our work without support. Now we have more support,” she adds. Sr. Rose Bertoldo, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, agrees.

“I think it (Synod) helped bishops and priests, who have not always fully supported an ample discussion about the role of women in the Church, reflect and rethink the issue. I don’t know if everyone converted but the Synod created greater awareness,” says the religious who has been working in the Amazon region for the past ten years and is current executive secretary of the Northern Regional 1 of Brazil’s Bishop Conference (CNBB).

Synodal process

According to Sr. Bertoldo, the entire synodal process gave more visibility to the voices of women in the Amazon, especially the voices of women from grassroots churches. “The suggestions taken to the Synod were, in fact, what women thought and were already encountering when working for the Church in the Amazon. It gave impetus and greater recognition to the role of women in the Church,” she says.

Adviser to REPAM (Pan Amazonian Ecclesial Network) and Caritas in the Amazon region, Marcia Maria de Oliveira says that while the recommendations of the Synod may have led to a deeper reflection by priests and bishops about women’s role in the Church, for Catholics in these remote communities, the official recognition of the work did not make much of a difference. “People often say, ‘ah, today Mass is with Ms. Ernestina’ (the community teacher, who is also a catechist).

When we ask if it would make a difference if Ms. Ernestina was ordained, they say there is no need, as she already celebrates Catholic rites in the community,” says Oliveira. In other words, says Oliveira, the change was really an institutional issue.

“The role and importance of these women to the Church, which the Synod acknowledges, already exists. The Synod just led priests and bishops to legitimise this representativeness further,” she notes.

Oliveira, however, believes that one of the most positive results of the Synod was the increased discussion about women in the Church. “Before the Synod, we already had some women’s groups linked to the Church, carrying out gender studies and discussing the protagonism of women in the organisation,” she says.

“After the Synod, these groups have become even more encouraged to discuss issues relating to the role women play in the Church,” says Oliveira, member of a group which suggested issues to be discussed at the 2019 Synod.

During the preparation for the Synod, says Oliveira, REPAM-Brasil conducted a study which indicated that 73% of the Catholic leaders of peripheric communities, including distant indigenous and riverine communities, were women.

“Among indigenous people, even more so,” she says. “In certain communities of the Macuxi indigenous people, in Roraima state, 82% of catechists are women, including women who have been catechists for 40, 50 years, since the first mission of Consolata missionaries in that region in the 1940s,” says Oliveira.

Another encouraging result, says Oliveira, is the creation of new discussion groups about the issue in the Amazon region and in other parts of Brazil. “At the level of REPAMBrasil and REPAM PanAmazonica alone, we had the emergence of three new groups that now discuss issues such as the female diaconate and the protagonism of women in ministerial services,” she says.

Female diaconate 

Church groups, like those linked to the CRB (Conference of Religious of Brazil) or specific congregations such as the Franciscan Catechist Sisters, in Mato Grosso state or the Little Sisters of Mother Paulina, in Sao Paulo, were inspired by the Synod and the discussion they are having about female diaconate and ministries in the Amazon region to start discussions of their own, adds Oliveira.

The role of women in the Church in the Amazon has been changing, but very slowly, says Sister Bertoldo. “Three years after the Synod, we already gained some ground. We recommended, for example, that each local church begin discussion and reflection on the issue of women’s ministries in the Church,” says the religious.

“The Church will never have a single, common opinion, because the Church is diverse. But now we have an opportunity for change and it’s up to us to do something about it. These processes are in our hands now,” concludes Sr. Bertoldo.

Lise Alves is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has contributed to Englishlanguage news outlets across the world, including The Rio Times, Catholic News Service, The Lancet, The Guardian and National Catholic Reporter. She has also worked as a radio journalist for Monitor Radio, Deutsche Welle and Vatican Radio.

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