Fr. John Boles writes about the Columbans’ response to Pope Francis’s dream of promoting evangelisation and justice in the world’s greatest rainforest. This article features in the Sept/Oct 2021 issue of the Far East.

“I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.
I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.
I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.
I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features.”

Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia

In the introduction to his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ‘Querida Amazonia’ or ‘Beloved Amazonia’ of February 2020, Pope Francis outlines his dreams for the Amazon region – a multinational and interconnected whole, a great biome shared by nine countries. He explains how he is addressing the Apostolic Exhortation to the whole world so as to awaken their affection and concern for that land which is also ‘ours’, and to invite them to value it and acknowledge it as a sacred mystery.

Even before the Pope convoked the Synod on the Amazon in 2019, and issued his dramatic exhortation, Columbans in South America were engaged in campaigns to support the local Church, and to protect the ecology and peoples of the Amazon against injustice and exploitation.

In one initiative, Columbans – both foreign priests and Peruvian lay missionaries from the capital, Lima – have been reinforcing local Christian communities in the aptly named jungle locality of Monabamba, ‘The Place of the Monkey’ in the ancient Quechua language.

Monobamba is a truly glorious place. It is not located in the steamy Amazon Basin, but in what in Spanish is known as Ceja de Selva – ‘The Eyebrows of the Jungle’ – that part of the rainforest which clings to the slopes of the Andes mountains. Thus it combines the rich vegetation of the Amazon with the spectacular views of the high sierra.

The history and people of the area are as varied as its geography. “An Amazon… where shine cultural forms as diverse as humanity,” writes the Pope, and this is certainly the case with Monobamba.

Before the Spanish arrived, the native inhabitants were under the rule of the fabled Inca Empire. Once the conquistadores from Spain drove the Incas out and left the indigenous population to be decimated by disease, people from the highlands began to drift down to the ‘Jungle Eyebrows’. Then, in the mid nineteenth century, the president of the young Republic of Peru, Ramón Castilla, encouraged immigrants from central and southern Europe to settle the territory. Most came from Germany, but there were also Austrians, French and others.

In the case of Monobamba, they were Italians! They cleared portions of the jungle and established fruit, sugar and coffee plantations. When I visited the area I was welcomed by the mayor, a fourth generation Italian rejoicing in the surname ‘Murgi’.

So far this paradise has escaped the threats menacing the rainforest further down in the basin, those of reckless and often illegal logging, mining and oil drilling resulting in deforestation, pollution and the displacement of indigenous peoples. However, the local Church does need help. Villages are small and widely dispersed. Roads are awful, and often impassable after heavy rain. Priests and religious are few in number.

The plan of the Pope and bishops is to train and support lay catechists in each settlement, who can keep the Faith alive by celebrating liturgies, undertaking religious education and preparing people for the sacraments.

These are the efforts that the Columbans are supporting. On my visit from Lima, I was privileged to accompany our lay missionaries as they journeyed from hamlet to hamlet, often on foot, in order to identify, train and encourage these local leaders.

The challenge is enormous but, with God’s help, we can rise to it, and in so doing maybe fulfil Pope Francis’s fourth and final Amazonian dream “of Christian communities” that might “bestow on the Church a new face, with Amazonian features.”

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