Monsignor Giuliano Frigeni

Giuliano Frigeni: “Our cry”

Why is the life of indigenous peoples at the center of the Church’s attention? The interview with the Bishop of Parintins who, before participating in the October synod dedicated to the Amazon, will be at the Cultural Centre in Milan on 24th September.
Alessandra Stoppa

Thirty-four million inhabitants, 39 peoples, of whom over 10 have yet to be contacted or choose to live in isolation. A territory of 4.8 million square miles, where 240 languages are spoken. Along the rivers and in the forests there are indigenous peoples boasting a magnificent variety of cultures, but also brutal violence and billion dollar interests that often act with impunity. Pope Francis, in calling for a synod of bishops on the Amazon from October 6th to October 27th, stated that he realized the region’s importance at the Aparecida Conference in 2007. Until then, it had been a distant reality for him, a world of the imagination, as it can be easily for us as well.

Traces asked Bishop Giuliano Frigeni, a PIME missionary in Brazil for 40 years, and for 20 bishop of Parinins, how the cry of that land and those peoples concerns everyone. In fact, the documents prepared for the synod speak of an area in which “the great questions of humanity emerge.” The social and environmental crisis of the Amazon raises questions for the entire world about models of development and production, but above all calls the Church to reflection and asks her for conversion. It is “the opportunity to present Christ in all His liberating potential” for the human person. The great outlook opened by Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) will be put into action by the method of the synod, as the preparatory document for the synod notes: “New paths for evangelization must be designed for and with the People of God who live in this region.”

Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the general rapporteur of the synod, often quotes a Brazilian song: tudo está interligado, como se fôssemos um–everything is interconnected, as if we were only one thing. The synod is significant not only because the Amazon is an important (but threatened) source of oxygen and biodiversity for the entire planet–whose rescue requires “structural and personal changes by all human beings, by nations, and by the Church”–but also because the Amazon, as cardinal Hummes says, “can bring new lights to the Church in Europe and the world.”

Why is the Amazon important for the Church?

Paul VI was the first to realize the Amazon’s importance, after the Second Vatican Council. At the 1972 Santarém meeting with all the bishops of the area, a follow-up to the 1968 Conference of Medellín (subsequently followed by the Puebla Conference in 1979), the pope understood that the problems of the region were a very serious concern for the Church and the world. First of all, the Amazon is reflected in the first chapter of Genesis: the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the water, and animals... it is the beauty of creation. It is also reflected in the third chapter in which God created human beings. If human beings remain humble and accept the task of caring for the creation that God entrusted to them, they discover that it was given to them to be at their service. Here we call her “mother earth.” Mother: she who gives you life and nourishes you. It is a relationship of love.

Could you describe this relationship?

I just told some seminarians who have arrived for a few days of mission: “You must learn that here, things move slowly.” This is not out of laziness, but because the river goes slowly! If the waters of the river ran quickly, they would drag us all to the ocean, and we would not be able to travel upriver. Instead, it goes slowly, and makes everything fertile. At times the river overdoes it; it rises and reaches homes, but so slowly that people invented the maromba: they raise the floor a yard, a yard and a half, and live for a month or two bent over so as not to hit their heads on the ceiling, waiting for the river to subside. Three-hundred-year old trees fall and by doing so leave space for tens of other trees, which in time grow. This slowness is the equilibrium of the ecosystem. The great forest is so wondrous! But you discover it only if you live it from within. There is the companionship of the song of the uirapuru, whose music has been compared to that of Bach: when it sings, all the other birds go silent.

Why does the Amazon concern all of us?
The Amazon teaches us that the economy must not be the commander of humanity. Today life is determined by those who have money and power, those with the loudest voices. Looking at this reality offers us the opportunity to put ourselves in an attitude of listening, and to earn a simpler life, which does not mean traveling by bicycle, but rediscovering the defense of life! It is to live a human life, the life that is here, like that in any other part of the planet, so that it not be sacrificed for profits and gain.

For you, what is the Amazon?
For me, it is school, school, school. It teaches me the riches that the Lord has put on this earth, and that man, in his intelligence and freedom, for love of himself and his wife and children who will come after him, should take care of it. As I said in 2002 at a meeting with then-Cardinal Ratzinger: the indios, the caboclos, the ribeirinhos are people like me. They make mistakes. They get angry. What can help them? That the gospel enter their lives, in order to ac- company them in living the responsibility that God has given them. As John Paul II said in Redemptor Hominis, those who do not encounter Christ do not know everything that is within the human person. These peoples also need to know Christ, to be able to love Him, to be protected, and as Church to be a wonder, as the first Christians were. The Amazon gives me back this origin of everything.

The synod will center on violence against the environment and indigenous peoples: deforestation, expulsions from villages, illegal occupations, predatory mining, the dumping of chemical waste, criminality, human trafficking... The reports of local Churches denounce systematic violations of fundamental human rights.
Today more than ever, projects that are the fruit of greed and speculation, of a purely economic vision, are evident–usurping, invading, destroying, poisoning the rivers. Yesterday I saw over 30 trucks loaded with very long tree trunks: they were being transported who knows where with the permission of who knows whom. There are very serious problems. But it is important not to be swallowed up by those who only want to save nature and have no interest in women and men. The Church is not called to “baptize” everyone. The cry of the Amazon must be listened to and inserted into the human and intelligent vision of Laudato Si’.

Is there a risk of mythologizing nature or the “good savage”?
The Amazon needs the gospel. We cannot reduce ourselves to being defenders of nature or culture. This would be the failure of the synod. Instead, the synod is a journey of incarnation. It is not true that cultures exist on their own, that they are “pure.” The first miracle Jesus performed was to restore joy to a bride and groom, because even the love of a man and a woman is incomplete without His presence. Evil is man’s choice to try to be equal to God. But man is not God, neither in the Amazon, nor in Cairo, Tokyo, or New York. Evangelizing is remembering this, and stating clearly that God is not disinterested in the fact that man is wounded by or wounds others. The synod must reawaken the Church’s responsibility to evangelize, not merely to save the forest and aboriginal culture, but so that the light of Christ may make the vocation of these people and this land greater, truer, and more beautiful.

What do you learn from “your” people?
When one of our missionaries who had founded a school for the indios had to return to Italy, I wondered what should be done with that school. So I called together the parents, and 600 indios came. I bought five cows to feed them and we spoke for four days. At a certain point it seemed to me that we were repeating the same things, but a former student told me, “In every speech, there is a different adjective, verb, and emphasis.” So I asked him, “When will we finish?” He said, “When everyone is absorbed in the discussion and by their need to listen to each other.” Dialogue with these people does not involve a vote in which the winner commands the others. Their method is to listen.

This is the same watchword for the synod.

Yes. I learn this from them. I believe that for 30 years, Jesus listened. He listened to Mary, Joseph, the people, the scribes, and the pharisees. He added the newness, which was Him- self, and His deeper gaze, capable of overcoming evil. In relationships and in trying to listen to each other, there can be evil, the need for my idea to prevail. A seminarian who is of the Sateré-Mawé ethnicity wrote: “In the seminary, unlike with my tribe, there is too much noise. The people do not listen to each other. I miss the silence. In silence, you understand better what is important.”

What does it mean to live mission there?

The first thing is that a missionary never goes into the communities alone. There is always a small “team” so that it is clear that no one person is the owner of the gospel, but that the gospel is an experience of relationship between those who have been sent. “As the Father sent Me, so I send you.” Jesus came from an experience of communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and grew up in the communion between Mary and Joseph. Mission does not happen because you are competent: Saint Paul was very intelligent, but he always went with companions. I was sent here without even knowing what the Amazon was, but I arrived with a friend, Fr. Massimo Cenci. He was the rector of the seminary. I always listened to him and today I think about what he told me 30 years ago: here, young people live their relationship with their family exactly as with nature; that is, the mother is the focal point. This is a very serious thing. In fact, when Fr. Massimo saw that they attached themselves to him the way they were attached to their mothers, he knew that he had won them over, meaning that they started out from themselves as men, and he accompanied them in being faithful to what they wanted. There is a continual battle against the image of the priest as the “village head,” so that the people do not obey us, but rather Christ, who be- came man for us.

The pope, in the face of the danger of spiritual “colonialism” involving an exportation of Western models, reminded us in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.” Will the synod also rethink the theme of inculturation?
The gospel is not a super-culture. It is the presence of God who comes to save all that is true, beautiful and just in every culture, and to correct what is not good. I believe that we must wager on the formation of women and men whose encounter with the gospel has given them an awareness of human life, the economy, and ecology. This is a different thing from labor union leaders, associations in defense of the language, or for the protection of feathers or ways of painting yourself.

At the synod, there will also be discussion about the growth of evangelical and neo-Pentecostal groups.
This is a very strong reality. Many Catholics, not sufficiently sure of their own faith, have followed them. I always look to what Benedict XVI told us about this topic. He invited us not to argue with them, but to do a deeper work, because the problem is a weakening of the awareness of being Catholic. The problem is not proselytism, but a testimony that gives life. So he told us not to speak badly of them, but to speak badly of ourselves, who end up defending the forest and forgetting the gospel and the truly human journey of Laudato Si’.

You have ordained twenty priests in twenty years. What do you think about the need for autochthonous priests, for a Church with “an Amazonian face”? Cardinal Hummes said in an interview that “the indigenous Church is not created by decrees. The Synod has to open the way to start off a process that has sufficient freedom and that recognizes the true dignity of each Christian and each child of God. This is the greatness of this Synod. The pope knows how historical it can be for all the Church.”
I’ll tell you a story. Among my faithful, there is a married man, the father of seven sons and a daughter: two of his sons are in the seminary because their parents travel by canoe for eight hours to take the children to a catechism meeting and back. They’ve done this for over 20 years. He and his wife learned from missionaries to be missionaries. I bring my seminarians to that man’s home and say: look at him! He is not a priest; he is a father. We have to show young people these witnesses.

In order to respond to the lack of priests and the need for the sacraments, there is discussion of divisive themes: the role of the laity, possible new forms of ministry, and the ordination of married men or even of women. And it is said that one must keep in mind that in the indigenous culture, celibacy does not exist.

The indigenous people know very well what it means not to marry out of love! Celibacy entered into history as an imitation of Christ. It did not start because of canon law. The Church chose to live it in order to be more similar to Christ. We know very well that in other Catholic rites there are married priests. But, this said, the problem is not finding “the solution”: the first problem is consciousness, as in the case of that father I described.

The Pope urges us not to fear new things, and invites you bishops to be courageous.
If the Church decides that in the Amazon it is be possible to evaluate whether to ordain married men, I will obey. Mission can push the Church to “go out of herself” to meet particular needs. It’s an entirely different thing to think, “Oh, finally, priests can get married! Finally, women can be priests!” No. This is a question of finding married men, fathers of families, who have an extraordinary awareness and experience of the Church. In front of such men, the question of ordaining them can arise. I’m going to the synod to obey what we will hear. The Amazon speaks in its silence and in the voice of those who love the land and people, not in that of those who love their own projects, be they to destroy the forest or the Church.