Parish Life in the Brazilian Amazon

By Fr. Don Kirchner, C.Ss.R.

In the midst of the Amazon jungle, the Redemptorist light shines brightly.  In a country larger than the size of the continental USA, the Redemptorist Vice Province of Manaus serves a diverse and rapidly changing region of Brazil.  As Redemptorists strive to love and grow the faith of the country, it is the surpassing love and devotion to Our Blessed Mother that is the most common path, leading people deeper into the faith.

Fr. Don Kirchner, who served in Brazil as a missionary for many years, had the joy of returning to Brazil for a ‘working vacation’ this past winter.  This is the second in his two-part report on the Vice Province of Manaus.

The spiritual home of the Manaus Redemptorists is the large and thriving parish of Our Lady of Aparacedia (Our Lady Who Appeared in the Waters) in the city center.  Every year, more than ten million pilgrims visit the parish and its shrine.

Parish Missions are enormously popular. Every Tuesday, beginning at 5:00a and occurring every hour, the parish hosts Devotions in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.  More than 1,000 people pack each service throughout the day.

In Brazil, the tactile senses of religion take prominence.  People gravitate toward the real – things that can be touched and held.  This extends to their finances as well.  Fr. Don describes the prevailing cultural attitude that 10% of your earnings is God’s money – to give anything less is stealing from God.

Back in the 1970s, church life was much more informal.  Often times, the catechetical classes provided the major hub, drawing in more youth than we could count.  We’d often see the kids lead their Mom & Dad back to church.  These programs grew into youth groups, organized parish schools, and vocational programs.  More often than not, Redemptorist schools were responsible for the first high school graduates from all of the little river towns.

One of the long-time missionaries from the US, Bro. Leo Patin, began St. Gerard Majella’s Trade School in the 1970s, raising a generation of street kids to productive careers.  He taught carpenters, plumbers, electricians and more.  His fervent lobbying got Petrobras, the giant oil company, to donate computers.  How amazing it is that kids in the middle of the Amazon jungle were learning to work online at the same pace as American students.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Bro. Leo was preparing the next generation of computer technicians.

Explosive growth has occurred in Manaus since Redemptorists first arrived in 1947.  The city itself has grown from 200,000 to over a million in the last 30 years.  A new suspension bridge over the Amazon has shortened the drive to its sister city of Manacapuru from eight hours to barely more than one.  In 1968, that city was only two thousand people; now it’s 80,000—going on 100,000—with countless new parishes to serve the community.  Expansion westward is occurring right now.  Just as the former St. Louis Province in the US grew to cover the west coast, Redemptorists are now working over one thousand miles west of the city of Manaus in the states of Acre and Rondonia.

A new power plant in Manaus has brought electricity to most residential neighborhoods, allowing for such modern household luxuries as electric lights and refrigeration.  The majority of the current generation have at least two-year college degrees, while many of their parents didn’t finish high school.

Parishes too are becoming modernized.  Air conditioning, once an unheard-of luxury, is now on the edges of affordability.  As many churches have found out, “if you build it, people will come.”  Air conditioned churches see significantly higher attendance, and as attendance goes up, so do the tithes to cover more than offset expense, generating more funds for missions.

Yet for all of the growth, it’s difficult to tell if life is actually better.  70% of the workforce receives wages the equivalent of the Brazilian minimum wage—$100 per month—or below.  Government assistance is a big deal, as the cultural attitude looks for official assistance rather than church-run social programs.  As cities grow, the incursion of the sins of modern life follow.  Alcohol, drugs and pornography are widely available.  Ironically, as the coastal developed cities drive the modernization of Brazil’s economy, the interior suffers as lower skill job flee the country to poorer countries that offer even lower wages.

Brazil passed its own Homestead Act, reminiscent of the westward expansion days of the mid-1800s United States.  Over the past few decades, more and more people have moved from the arid northeast of the country westward into the Amazon region and its fertile land.  The population expansion has brought new opportunities and shifting cultures.  The small, isolated village way of life along the river is slowly fading as people are drawn to new, modern communities with more diverse job opportunities.

These new residents have brought fertile fields with them – for vocations.  Our missions along the river may have dried up, but our seminaries have filled up.  As the cities grow, so does the demand for parishes, and the Redemptorist focus has adapted to meet this growing need.

Often times, the transition splits families apart.  Families come into the city from the jungle in search of health care, education, and especially work.  Yet, all too often, work is hard to come by.  The father may then leave his family, returning to the jungle to work as a farmer, hunter or fisher, while the mother and kids remain in their new setting, adding what they can to the meager wages he sends back.

At this present time, there’s a shadow over Brazil.  In the past year the president was impeached, and many prominent senators are under investigation.  The dual hosting of the Olympics and World Cup temporarily provided construction jobs, but now those thousands of workers are laid off, with unused stadiums and massive public debt left behind.  No one is quite sure who is in charge, or what the future of the country will bring.  Hope, as always, is found in the Lord.

What makes missionary work in Manaus so difficult for outsiders?  The discussion always begins with the oppressive climate – the daily heat and humidity in the equatorial Amazon area take a toll.  Add in the unique foods and culture, and it can takes months and years of adjustment not just for foreigners, but even for those simply from other regions of Brazil.