VATICAN CITY, THE VATICAN – Anitalia Pijachi is about as far from a Catholic bishop as you can get: She's an outspoken, non-religious, Indigenous woman from the Amazonian town of Leticia, Colombia. But for the last few weeks, she's helped shape dialogue at the highest echelons of the Catholic Church.
Pijachi and Indigenous women from the eight other Amazon basin nations have had the chance to speak face to face with high-level Catholic clergy, other Amazonian community leaders, and scientists at the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region (Amazon Synod).
The synod, which ran from Oct. 6-27, 2019, was aimed at finding a way for the Catholic Church to transform itself in the region and help save the Amazon in the process.
For many, the plight of the Amazon was brought into stark relief in August, as images of massive fires in Brazil beamed around the world and #PrayForAmazon started to trend globally on social media. According to analysis of satellite imagery, Brazil deforested 2,970 square miles of rainforest in the first nine months of 2019, an 85 percent increase from the same period in 2018.
Pope Francis has spoken out on this issue for years, culminating in the Amazon Synod, charged with finding “new paths for evangelization and for shaping a Church with an Amazonian face.”
In 2015, Latin America’s first pontiff issued his landmark encyclical, Laudato si', in which he addressed issues of inequality, environmental issues and how humanity can care for its “common home.”
In Jan. 2018, he met face-to-face with Indigenous leaders in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, the first pope to ever visit the Amazon.
Over the past three years, 87,000 Indigenous people from 370 communities have been consulted about what challenges they face. The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Red Eclesial Panamazónica or REPAM), a network started by the 9 Catholic Churches in the Amazon basin that promotes human rights for Amazon peoples, also produced the Pan-Amazon Atlas showing data collected from across the region on violence, health, education, and the makeup of the communities.
Cardinal Pedro Barreto, Archbishop of Huancayo in Peru and vice president of REPAM, was one of the key organizers of the synod and spoke to Latin American reporters about the importance of the event.
“The voice of the Amazon for many has been invisible, now is being made visible,” he said, “These Indigenous peoples are masters in the care of the planet and have an experience that the world urgently needs – there is a climatic emergency, we can’t wait any longer.”
The attempts to bring a more Amazonian face to the Church have not been met with universal acclaim and support. On the Monday before the conclusion of the meeting, Indigenous statues blessed by the pope had been thrown into the Tiber, the river which runs through Rome – allegedly by factions opposed to the synod.
According to the Pan-Amazon Atlas, 66 percent of the Church members in Amazonian communities are women, but only 33 percent of those in decision-making positions are women.
“The structure needs to be changed to give them more spaces for action that correlate with the leadership they really have within the communities,” said Susana Espinosa, the coordinator of the Atlas project.
Mauricio López, Executive Secretary of REPAM said that without women, the Church would have no future, as two-thirds of the faith communities in the Pan-Amazon are “coordinated, accompanied and led by women”.
“There is a debt that the Church has with women,” he said, “Their presence is crucial for the continuity of the presence of the Catholic Church in many, many communities.”
Lopez said there were nine Indigenous women among the 40 women attending the synod – four times as many as in previous synods.
“Naturally, the presence of Indigenous women has completely changed the tone, depth, and quality of the discussions because they took it to a deeper level, with their
profound commitment to daily life and the sustainability of life in their territory.”
The women of the Amazon come to Rome
One of those Indigenous women was Patricia Gualinga, an Indigenous leader of the Kichwa Indigenous community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“Women are the keepers of the biological libraries of the Amazon, through our knowledge of traditional medicines,” she said from the Vatican.
During her four-minute speech at the synod assembly, she called the Church to move away from investing in gold, oil, and other extractive industries that have had such an impact on the Amazon.
Although four Australian Catholic orders divested from coal investments back in 2016, Church-wide movement towards divestment has been slow .
“The Church has been comfortable with investing in the extractive industries, but they have to divest,” Gualinga said.
Another Indigenous, female voice was Yésica Patiachi Tayori, a member of the Harakmbut Indigenous group and an elementary school teacher in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, near the border of Brazil and Bolivia.
At a coffee shop within sight of St. Peter’s Basilica, Patiachi told Sojourners that the presence of women at the synod had been a “golazo” – a very good call.
“I didn’t ask to come here, it was Pope Francis that specifically invited me and the other Indigenous women,” she said.
Her aim, she said, was to make sure that the synod wasn’t just “nice speeches.”
“I wanted those dressed in gold to know the dark side of where it comes from, “ she said, referencing the illegal gold mining across the Peruvian Amazon where 870 square miles of forest was lost in just July 2019 alone.
Patiachi also said one of the main goals of the women from the Amazon region was to show their support for the efforts of Pope Francis.
“We felt like he was trying to paddle this canoe alone,” she said, adding that she saw the elements of the Church opposed to change as being like clumps of branches that could overturn the canoe.
Terror of the bishops
This feeling that the Pope was alone was a sentiment shared by Anitalia Pijachi from Colombia, who used a different metaphor.
“I see the Pope as trying to clear the first trail through the jungle with a machete – having to watch out for roots, branches and wasps,” she said, “It will be up to those who follow afterwards to make a clearer path and build the bridges.”
During her own four-minute speech, the former local education secretary from Colombia shocked many bishops with her direct way of speaking – she is known in many Vatican circles as the "Terror of the Bishops."
“I told them that they don't have to be afraid of women,” she said, her face lighting up, "I told them that before anyone was born, his face passed through a woman's vagina."
Fighting fear was a strong theme for Pijachi.
“The call of Pope Francis is to not be afraid of the changes needed to respond to the socio-environmental problems of today,” she said, “The important thing is that for the first time the Catholic Church allows people to express themselves directly in a space where it wasn’t allowed before … We want the Church to walk with us, the First Peoples!”
Fighting for the future of forests with faith
The synod was only the latest way in which the world’s major faith communities have come together to fight unfolding environment emergencies.
For example, the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative (IRI), a global coalition launched in mid-2017 to fight escalating threats to forests in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America last year was able to bring together scientists, Indigenous groups, and faith leaders in Colombia.
At the end of the synod, all 120 paragraphs of the final statement were voted on by around 170 bishops. All the clauses were passed by more than a two-thirds majority. This included contentious elements like allowing the limited ordination of married men in the Amazon region, and continuing the commission to investigate permanent female deaconships.
“During the votes for each issue, the Pope was mostly supported,” said Pijachi, “It is normal in every human group that there are people who find it hard to understand the changes, however, they are part of the process since they are people who make the work of higher quality.”
The synod has also had other spinoff effects. The day after the synod, Colombia’s environment minister Ricardo Lozano Picón and governors of eight Amazonian states in Brazil and Peru met in Vatican City, to discuss ways they could implement a more sustainable economy in those regions.
After the conclusion of the Synod, Pijachi was much more optimistic about the outcome of the Amazon Synod.
“When I arrived here, there were many with cold hearts, who would not listen, those that don’t know the suffering we face – but this event, to me, signifies a great step for the Catholic Church, for the dialogue about the care of our shared home, to put our shared humanity above all,” she said.