Women’s foundational contribution to renewal

The Amazon, women making church

 Amazzonia, donne che fanno Chiesa  DCM-007
01 July 2023

“As invisible as they are indispensable”. The Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America -an unprecedented experience celebrated in Mexico City in November 2021- summarized the condition of women in the Church of the Continent with these two adjectives. The numbers confirm the foundational role of the female aspect: there are more than 600,000 catechists, and there are close to one million pastoral agents engaged in education alone. Everyday life, however, underscores how much lay and religious women are still relegated to the ecclesial periphery. It is precisely for this reason that the Assembly resolutely called for the “inclusion of women once and for all in the liturgy, in decision-making and theology”.

Despite the richness of feminist and women’s theological reflection, it is the liturgical sphere in which, arguably, the presence of women has become most significant. It is precisely in the liturgy, moreover, that the Council’s process of incarnation in the immense region between the Rio Bravo and Tierra del Fuego pursued by its bishops since the General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate in Medellín in 1968 is concretely revealed.

There are two pillars of renewal: the inculturation of rites and practices and women’s dynamism. In both cases, rather than a codified project it was a response that grew out of confronting the Latin American reality. On the Continent, indigenous people make up 8 percent of the population, African Americans 20 percent, and virtually everyone is the result of mestizaje, the mix of ethnicities, peoples and cultures that followed the Discovery-Conquest. On average, with more than 5,500 faithful per priest, there is almost three times as many as in Europe, moreover, it is the laity and, above all, laywomen who carry on the Christian communities for whom the Sunday Eucharist is of crucial importance. Since presbyters are in short supply, the Mass is often replaced by the celebration of the Word.

Fr. Paolo Maria Braghini, an Italian Capuchin missionary, who for nearly 20 years has lived in the Brazilian Amazon, says, “In the villages of Belém do Alto Solimões, there are so many ministers. In addition, they are the ones who preside over the liturgy, from the initial sign of the cross to the final dismissal. Even when I manage to go and celebrate, I let them lead and and give the homily, while I limit myself to the consecration of the Eucharist. This is a place where the transmission and care of the Catholic faith made by the lay is crucial. It is good that the faithful are protagonists. Indeed, the women faithful, since female pastoral agents are fundamental here, and this not only because of their large number. They are dynamic, strong, creative, and resilient. It is right for them to have due recognition,” the cleric emphasized. In addition, they are now finally getting this recognition. The watershed was the Synod on Amazonia that was celebrated in October 2019 and culminated with Querida Amazônia. The final document, taken up by the exhortation, called for the revision of the Motu proprio Ministeria quaedam so that women would be allowed access to the reader and acolyte ministries. The pontiff accepted this invitation in January 2021. It was two Amazonian women – Ecuadorians, Aurea Imerda Santi and Susana Martina Santi, of the Quechua people - who were the first official women readers and acolytes in the Catholic Church. Magnolia Parente Arambula, an indigenous woman and missionary from Nazaré in the Colombian Amazon, says, “It was a beautiful gift. Among us Ticuna are women who guard the Catholic faith. Now, however, we feel the Church recognizes and values us.” A village with 1,017 inhabitants on which gravitate a galaxy of community-satellites of a few dozen people that, over the past ten years, Magnolia has been evangelizing. “And I get evangelized”, she adds. The Ticuna liturgy has distinctly feminine traits. “Especially at funerals and the vigil that precedes them, women lead the prayers and songs. As for the Eucharist, the faithful are entrusted with the offertory, in which they bring as gifts to the Lord their work, in the form of small handicrafts or agricultural products. Finally, in the “high times” of the liturgical year, such as Christmas and Holy Week, many of the rites are celebrated by women”.

It is not easy to talk about “Amazonian liturgy”. The forest is home to 400 cultures and languages with different understandings of life and faith; therefore, with different ways of “entering the gaze that God has on us,” as Romano Guardini defined liturgy. For this reason, the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon (CEAMA), the fruit of the post-synodal journey, since 2020, has initiated an in-depth study process in order to find the lowest common denominator that is meaningful for all the native peoples of the region. The basis, real and not merely theoretical, for the elaboration of a proper Amazonian rite that could be added to the other 23 from which Catholicity is composed. As explains Eugenio Coter, an Italian transposed to Pando, Bolivia, where he is vicar apostolic as well as representative of the Amazonian bishops in the presidency of Ceama, “Rite does not mean only celebrations. It gathers habits, customs, cosmological and anthropological views. That is why we cannot be in a hurry. The first step was to form a commission of bishops, anthropologists, pastoralists and begin fieldwork. The analysis started in Manaus, Brazil, the heart of the Amazon. Then it will be repeated in the dioceses before we can arrive at something to propose ad experimentum”. The model is that of the Zairean rite. The same one that also inspired the Mexican episcopate, which, at the last general assembly, decided to submit to the Holy See a proposal to include in the Mass some rituals proper to the Mayan culture. It was formulated by the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, where more than 70 percent of the population is indigenous. In particular, there are three suggested adaptations: the first, an opening prayer led by the principal, an indigenous layperson of mature faith whose authority is recognized by the community; the second, a traditional dance after the communion; and third, the service of “incense-givers” to mark the rhythm of the celebration. Concludes Cardinal Felipe Arizmendi, who is among the promoters of the Misa Maya, “It is a primarily female role. Including it in an official way is a small recognition of the evangelization action that gives sap to our communities. Nearly sixty years later, inculturation and empowerment of women are the two paths on which the Council continues to walk in the Continent”. 

Journalist with the Italian daily, “Avvenire”