ROSARIO, Argentina — Bishop Eugenio Coter, an Italian missionary in the Amazon region of Bolivia since 1991, has a great sense of humor: you ask him for a picture of himself and he sends you one in which he’s holding a sloth.
Coter has led the Apostolic Vicariate of Pando since 2011. It is a 64,000 square mile region with 260,000 people, 60,000 of whom live in 450 communities deep in the Amazon rainforest. To travel from one community to another, the clergy and religious use small planes, boats, jeeps and motorcycles.
The bishop spends a month a year living on a boat, but he says it’s “lucky” because on most pastoral visits he ends up staying in a tent or someone’s cabin.
Poverty, crime and COVID
The main source of income for the inhabitants of this region comes from the jungle, with almonds, plantains, acai and other fruits being the main products.
However, Coter says there are other “industries” of a more criminal nature, including “seasonal human trafficking”, a criminal enterprise that peaked in 2020 when thousands of Haitians and Cubans entered the region – they marched from Guyana, crossing Brazil and Bolivia as they headed for Chile. The “coyotes”, says the bishop, take advantage of the desperation of the migrant. Some of these criminals are also drug dealers, another illegal industry in the Pando region.
COVID-19 also wreaked havoc on the region’s economy: more than 800 people died and their families had to work hard to pay the average cost of their treatment, which the Prelate estimated at $500.
A Protestant Catholic Church
The “heavenly” challenges of the region are undoubtedly even greater and more difficult to meet: with only 12 priests – including him – only 30 masses are said each weekend. In addition, there are 180 celebrations of the Word of God. Despite all their efforts, some communities can go more than a year without hearing Mass.
“If we applied the percentage of priests per square mile that we have in the Vicariate to Vatican City, there should only be half a priest in residence,” Coter said. Node. “The sacraments of Reconciliation and of the Anointing of the Sick will disappear for lack of ordained ministers.”
Hence the hopes he had placed in the 2018 Synod of Bishops meeting on the Amazon region, which many believed would provide concrete answers to this question.
“There were two very high expectations for the synod: on a religious level and on a civil and environmental level,” Coter said. Node.
There are nine countries with territory in the Amazon Basin, often called one of the “lungs” of the world. It is constantly threatened by human exploitation.
He noted that several important environment ministries came out of the meeting, but they did not address the fact that at least 60,000 people in the Vicariate, who live in rural areas, do not have regular access to the sacraments.
“The sacramental situation was not resolved in the synod,” he said. “The pope did not want to assume the risk of fracturing the Church through overtures that could have jeopardized its unity. He was more concerned with the unity of the Church than with the sacramentality of a response.
However, the bishop argued, “every theological study tells us that there is no Church without the Eucharist. The fact that it is not available makes us a Protestant Catholic Church, because we lack the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
A partial response, thanks to the pandemic
“The pandemic has led Pope Francis to indicate that during this extraordinary time, confession is not only done through the ministry of a priest, but people can ask God for forgiveness before a crucifix,” he said. . “My pastoral team has promoted penitential celebrations without a priest, where people ask God for forgiveness.”
Coter acknowledges that even if it is not a “doctrinal definition”, Francis’ indication is close to a “community sacramental confession”. The Church responds to this need with this celebration.
Regarding the Eucharist, however, “the answer is pending,” he said. “There was a lively debate at the Synod about the role of these sacraments in the salvation of souls. And there was no response. »
However, the pope has asked the bishops of the Amazon to work on an “Amazonian rite”. Coter leads the 15-person commission working on this. In 2021, the commission met five times online, studying the history of Church rites and reflecting on the meaning of ministry. Moreover, with the help of a group of anthropologists, they studied the cultural issues that should be part of an Amazonian rite.
“We have identified that we will probably work in a common matrix, but it will be differentiated according to the different cultures of the Amazon, of which there are 250,” Coter said. “We must achieve the Amazonian rite through a culture in which everyone feels identified, but allowing that at the level of the ecclesiastical provinces elements of the local culture are incorporated.
“The pope asks us to use the Amazonian rite as a way to work towards a response that goes beyond the debate of married or single priests,” he said. “But we have to keep thinking, because it’s an open question.”
The work of the commission, he predicted, will take at least another two years.
“There are not many visible signs yet, but more than 100 people are working to give concrete answers to many questions raised by the Synod,” Coter said.
Solutions to the Three Sacramental Problems
Coter also reflected on the fact that in the Amazon there is a “plurality” of ministries, with a pastoral animator, a catechist, the “resantes” who say the prayer of the faithful, those who work in the ministry of welcoming , setting up the space, most often, under a tree (but never in a private residence), and those who bring something to share afterwards.
“As part of our pastoral plan, we have prepared people to become extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, to bring it to communities that are no more than two hours from the parish” , he explained. Something they have worked hard on is to make it clear that, despite the presence of the consecrated host, the celebration of the Word is not a Mass.
Regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Coter said, he believes the solution within the Amazon reality is the communal celebration of penance. In this regard, he thinks that Francis has taken a “very small but fundamental step”: the recognition of the ministries of catechist, reader and acolyte.
“These three recognized and celebrated ministries of the laity, in the absence of the priest or deacon, constitute a true presence of the Church,” Coter said. “The Church, theologically, is the fundamental sacrament of salvation: the action of the Church as sacrament.”
With regard to the anointing of the sick, the bishop maintained, we must continue to work because “if we do not do something, we will forget that it exists in the ecclesial tradition”.
“We risk that, if we do not reactivate its importance in spiritual life, the first sacrament that will disappear will be that which accompanies suffering as an experience of Christian human maturity,” he said.
Regarding the Eucharist, he identified two elements: the Pope’s concern to generate division in the Church and to create a localized response to the extraordinary situation that the Amazon is experiencing.
“We have to move forward, and we shouldn’t be afraid to move forward,” he said. “Without rushing, without trying to universalize it as an answer.”
“Let’s hope that at the local level, in the Amazon, this can soon materialize, with a careful vision of the universal Church in the face of the fact that there is a specific region that is deprived of the Eucharist”, he said. he says.
“It is interesting that COVID has brought this situation to the European and American Church, which has closed churches forcing the virtual celebration of Mass,” Coter said.
“People realized that they lacked the Eucharist as a community to celebrate. I laughed, because it is for us the usual reality. It’s good that COVID has caused this for others to understand that when we say it’s necessary to celebrate the Eucharist, it’s not just a theological issue, but a sacramental and experiential issue of being Church” , said the bishop.
“We need the Eucharist to be truly Church, a community gathered in the memorial of Jesus.”
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