Marajó, evangelizing the rivers

More than an island Marajó is an archipelago. It has hundred of islands and rivers. The island of Caviana, for example, has approximately 100 km. in length and 50 in width. Here one finds abundance of water and forests. Its innumerable rivers serve as highways and boats are the normal means of transportation. Out of the 9 parishes of the mission only 7 have their own boats, which are used for pastoral and ministerial works among the basic ecclesial communities spread all over the forests.

Since the time when the first bishop, Gregorio Alonso took possession of the Mission in Soure on October 19, 1930 – which was later administered by Bishop Alquilo Alvarez – up to the present and under the administration of another Augustinian Recollect Bishop José Luis Azcona, wide path has been paved, many objectives have been realized, although the fact remains that still much have to be done if indeed Marajó has to become a Church that is able to stand on its own feet.

For purposes of history I would like to recall that the Holy See entrusted the Mission of Marajó to the Province of Saint Thomas three years after the same province received the Mission of Lábrea. This speaks much of the spirit of the mission that exists in the Province and which should continue to live, thus contributing to that rich missionary history of the Order. We cannot deny the great number of missionaries who were sent to this territory and the important pastoral work that has been realized and is continually being exercised in this mission field.

The history of the Prelature can be divided in two phases. The first phase covers the time from its creation until the year 1977, and the second, from the year 1977 to the present. Why is it that 1977 marks the division of the history of Marajó? What important event occurred that year? It was the time when that pleasant and fresh air called, the basic ecclesial community, entered Marajó.

1930 – 1977, the “desobrigas”

Ever since the beginning, missionaries had to face a lot of difficulties: the density of the forest, the harshness of the climate, poverty, tropical diseases, illiteracy, etc. Mission works began as practiced during that time: catechesis, preaching, and sacraments. We can say that it was a Church that gave priority to the administration of sacraments. The missionaries did not remain in centers of the mission, waiting for the people to come; they felt they were sent to go to the peoples scattered in the forests, and whose salvation was their main preoccupation. Inspired by the parable of the Good Shepherd, the missionaries looked for those sheep lost in the immense waters and forests, exercising the well-known “desobrigas”, wherein peoples received the sacraments and then were exempted from the obligation to receive them annually.

The Catholic faithful, who lived in the forest, would wait for the missionaries in those places and meeting points that were usually agreed upon. Normally encounters were done in the houses of family friends and collaborators of the missionaries, who lovingly welcomed the priests and the people. The faithful would come in small boats, rowing for kilometers, braving the heat of the sun, the rain and storms, hunger and other difficulties. The missionaries would even find more hardships since they had to travel for months. Earlier they also rowed small boats, later, they used sailboats.

In Marajó during the wet season, the rains are heavy. In summer, the heat is intense. Every trip done by the missionaries was besieged with difficulties. One can imagine how it was for a sick missionary to travel for medication from their place to the nearest city. Those assigned in Chaves had to contend with the added difficulty caused, for example, by the “pororoca” – the great swelling of the rivers in the Amazon, etc.

We, the missionaries of today, recognize and with great admiration the heroic life of the religious and priests of the first era of the “desobrigas”. At present our boats are more secure and comfortable. In two centers where boats are not used, roads have been much improved. Urban centers have better doctors, medicines, etc. And there are much fewer dangers.

1977 – 2009, basic ecclesial communities

And why are they called, basic ecclesial communities? What is the meaning? They are called, communities, because the members endeavor to live together (“convivence”) and have a life of sharing. They meet, they know each other, they live Christian fraternity, share, and they feel they are friends. They put their faith, their talents and time in common. They help each other and journey together. They are ecclesial because they have the sense of being church, that is, their being people of God. They live in communion with their pastors. They celebrate the sacraments.

They also feel they are missionary communities, sent to evangelize. They are basic communities because the members are persons who are humble. Many of them are “caboclos”, illiterate, people who are lacking in culture but with a great wisdom that allows them to know the mystery of God. Among them there exists no discrimination of any motive. Each community, ethnically speaking, is like a rainbow: a mixture of different colors in a marvelous harmony of acceptance, understanding and communion.

Every person finds a space to express his opinion, to work, discover one’s talents and to place them at the service of the brothers. The bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean said: “In the basic ecclesial communities we find the privileged means of new evangelization and the means to help the baptized live as authentic disciples and missionaries of the Christ” (AP 307).

Church of Afuá.
Justice, denunciation and martyrdom

This fact, pastorally very important, happened as a consequence of the post-counciliar reform. It was at this time when Frs. Jesús Cizaurre and Juan Antonio González established the basic ecclesial communities in Afuá. Not long after, other parishes like, Breves, Portel, Anajás, etc., opened their doors to these communities.

With them there entered in Marajó renewed airs of ecclesial life. It was a different way of being Church. With Vatican II as inspiration these communities were then being widely spread in Latin America. At the same time, they were presenting the Church as the people of God and where the laity found the important role they play in the Church, with all their rights and obligations. It was like a return to the origins, to the roots. It was the Church that appeared in the Acts of the Apostles: a Church-community.

The communities express a Church that is more fraternal, nourished with the word of God and with the Eucharist and is present in the social life. It is a missionary and prophetic Church that announces and denounces. As such, it is persecuted, washed in the blood of many martyrs. It is a Church where the lay themselves occupy their space, being very sensitive to the values of fraternity, of human rights, justice and peace; and a Church with preferential option for the poor.

From “I” to “We”

This model of Church founded in the communities corresponds to that Church dreamed about by Jesus, in which fraternity is a very important value. It is a different kind of Church. It is not an “I” Church but a “We” Church. It is not a Church where I procure to save myself rather, it is a Church where I endeavor to save myself with my brethren, a Church where every one is determined to achieve the salvation of all. It is a Church wherein all members live and work in this world as disciples and missionaries of Jesus; where the laity are no mere spectators but are protagonists and they assume their own responsibilities. And the parishes become not only centers of worship, but also schools of faith and evangelization.

They are a family where all feel they are brothers and sisters and live as such. In this way, each parish intends to become a community of communities, or, to be a big community of small communities that function accordingly. After all, community life is one of those axes that must be procured in the Church, following the words of the bishops of Brazil: “Let our faithful become Christian communities, where they are welcomed and esteemed as brothers and sisters. It is necessary that the faithful really feel they are members of an ecclesial community and are co-responsible for its growth.

This will afford them greater commitment and dedication to the Church” (Ap 226 b). All the missionaries who work in Marajó are convinced and are enthusiastic about the basic ecclesial communities, the number of which has grown approximately to 500.

Native clergy

After 79 years of hard pastoral work in Marajó many goals have been achieved and many more are to be pursued. In spite of many hardships, the missionaries are aware of the great challenge and this work, which must be realized by every one, should be continued. At present the Mission walks firmly toward that day when it could become a diocese. For this purpose the two seminaries in the Prelature play a very important role.

The minor seminary with 11 formands is located in Soure, where you also find the Episcopal see. And the major seminary, with 7 students, is in Belem. In the Prelature there is also at present one candidate for diaconal ordination. One priest is dedicated fully to the promotion of vocation; and a pastoral plan for vocation was established for the Prelature. Starting from the year 1990, when the first native clergy was ordained, the work of evangelization was done jointly by Augustinian Recollects and diocesan clergy. They attend to 9 parishes and the two seminaries.

The number of diocesan priests has been increasing and they now assume the pastoral care of parishes. In April this year the Order of Augustinian Recollects gave to the bishop the parish of Afuá, where 30 Recollect missionaries served in a span of 63 years. All the parishes were administered by the Augustinian Recollects ten years ago. Now it’s a different reality, which is good news, for after all this is the finality of the mission: to become a Church that is well established, capable of walking with its own feet and of being administered mostly by its own native priests. Although things move in the right direction, more years are still needed for all this to happen.

Religious life is still present in Marajó. Aside from the Augustinian Recollects, the following religious also work here: Augustinian Missionaries, Sisters of the Providence from GAP, Sisters of St. Anne and the Daughters of Divine Grace. Also present in Marajó are various charismatic communities and groups of renewal.

The island of Marajó has always been a poor territory.
Death Threats

The island of Marajó, which forms part of the state of Pará and an underdeveloped Brazilian region, has been a poor territory, abandoned by politicians, and with the lowest index of poverty in the whole of Brazil. Lately, this sad situation has worsened, and indications for its future are more pessimistic. The cause of poverty is traced to recent federal and state norms, which have as objective the preservation of the Amazons: prohibition of logging, closure of sawmills, heavy fines on small clandestine factories of “palmito”, etc. All these measures, implemented with much delay, are paralyzing the rural areas that are progressively losing their inhabitants to the city. The urban centers, on the other hand, suffer all the consequences like: high unemployment rate, violence, child prostitution, drugs, alcoholism, etc.

As a result of this development the Church now finds herself before a new reality, she faces great challenges. As an incarnated and prophetic Church with the pastoral obligation to address serious problems, she is committed to denounce – in the name of Jesus Christ – anything that is against the values of the Gospel. We observe very clearly in Marajó these challenging realities.

On one hand are injustices and serious social problems like, lack of employment, much poverty, drug trafficking, alcoholism, very low human development, violence, child prostitution, human trafficking, slavery, hunger, etc. On the other hand, the insistent vexation – I would even say, persecution – that the Catholics suffer from protestant Churches and from sects, who are responsible for the changing religious reality of Marajó. The population of some municipalities in the Prelature is at present 50% protestant.

This peculiar situation clamors that the missionaries come to the defense of human rights, the defense of the poor and the Catholic identity of our people. In summary, that prophetic Church that struggles to transform society from the perspective of the Gospel is converted into the persecuted Church. This explains the threats of death received by Bishop Azcona and another Augustinian Recollect missionary.

The Catholic Church is the Church of the poor, and she is the one who helps the poor.
Together with the poor

The important works realized these last years in Marajó are the social concerns, the main objective of which is to help members of the society who lack education, health care, nutrition, etc. This is a way of mitigating the sufferings of the people by means of social projects. In addition, such projects also involve also the evangelization of the persons who are benefited by the program and an incentive to the beneficiaries to participate in the Church and remain within.

The social projects of the Church contribute much to stop the growth of the protestant Churches and the sects. Many beneficiaries of the projects realize how the protestant Churches and the sects exploit the people. The Catholic Church, however, is the Church of the poor, and she is the one who helps the poor. Social projects have also this important evangelization dimension, and for this the Church is much more valued by the people. And for this same reason, the social projects in Marajó must continue; and the more projects there are, the better.

Missionary spirit

It is true that the Prelature is a particular Church still in the making and that it lacks many things and has many limitations. And even if the Prelature needs much help from the outside, there are nevertheless many positive things that result from many years of mission works. Generally pastoral cares function well, groups are efficient and communities are well organized and with high rate of participation. In most cases parishes are well organized and with good pastoral structure.

In facet other parishes desire to have the vitality of the parishes of Marajó. Here is the 2009 profile of the Prelature. In urban parishes there are 342 catechists with 3,126 persons to be catechized. In the rural area there are approximately 750 catechizers with 10,500 to catechize.

For the Order of Augustinian Recollects, Marajó serves to awaken the missionary spirit in all religious. It has been shown in history: the loss of the missionary spirit in a religious family is consequence of laxity in living out the evangelical counsels. The contrary is true, authentic enthusiasm for and in the Mission reveals the presence of the values of spirituality, of apostolic commitment and fraternal communion.