At dusk in this small indigenous village, Antelmo Pereira calls Catholics to prayer, changes into a white robe and leads a religious service that is the closest thing the faithful in this remote part of the Amazon can get to a proper Mass.
Speaking in the indigenous Ticuna language, he leads a recital of the Lord’s Prayer, reads a passage from the Gospel of Matthew and delivers a sermon on accepting Jesus into one’s heart, as cicadas chirp loudly in the jungle that lies just beyond the recently built Catholic church.
Pereira, 61, has been a part-time missionary for the past 15 years, volunteering his time on weekends to visit indigenous communities that rarely see a priest. He leads prayer services called Celebrations of the Word but cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions from Catholics in the isolated places that he visits because he’s married, has nine children and cannot become a priest.
But that could change if a proposal to ordain married men in remote parts of the Amazon gains traction at a gathering of bishops that opens at the Vatican Sunday.
More than 100 bishops from South America will convene at the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. The meeting will discuss social and environmental problems faced by the inhabitants of the Amazon but bishops are also looking at ways to introduce changes to official ministries to better serve Catholics in this part of the world.
One item on the agenda is a proposal to study priestly ordination for older men who have good standing in their communities and are preferably of indigenous origin, “even if they have an established and stable family.”
While the proposal would be novel for the Latin Rite church, there are already married priests in Eastern Rite Catholic churches and in cases where married Anglican priests have converted.
Nevertheless, the proposal has set off a firestorm of criticism of Pope Francis, with opponents accusing synod organizers of heresy for even introducing debate on the centuries-old tradition of a celibate priesthood in the Latin Rite church.
On the ground, however, the agenda and focus on the needs of the indigenous have been welcomed.
Since 1970, the number of priests around the world has remained steady, hovering at 400,000 to 415,000, according to Catholic Church figures. But the world’s Catholic population has doubled to 1.3 billion, leading to shortages of priests in some parts of the globe.
In remote Amazonian communities that are only accessible by boat, villagers can go months without sacraments that only priests can celebrate, including communion and confessions.
“We have to think if the way that we have structured our ministries, the way in which men and women participate in the church must remain as it is or if some changes must be made,” said Bishop José Javier Travieso, of San José del Amazonas in northern Peru.
His vicariate in the Peruvian Amazon covers an area the size of Portugal, but only has 14 priests to serve a population of approximately 140,000 Catholics.
Because of the shortages, some clergy have begun training lay members of their parishes to perform Celebrations of the Word that are similar to Mass but don’t include the consecration of the Eucharist, which can only be celebrated by a priest.
In Belém do Solimões, a small indigenous town on the banks of the Amazon River, Capuchin Friar Paulo Braghini has trained seven members of his parish, including Pereira, who has also been training to be ordained a deacon, a position open to married men.
On the third weekend of every month, the friar, Pereira and dozens of missionaries leave Belém and fan out into villages that are located deeper in the jungle.
Ercilio Gaspar, a public health worker in the village of Novo Cruzador, realizes it’s not the same as Mass, but said he’s happy with what the missionaries have accomplished. “For us, Antelmo (Pereira) and his team are like our priests,” he said.
But in other villages along the Amazon River, some churchgoers support the ordination of community elders.
For Policarpa Bautista, a Ticuna leader in the Colombian village of Ararara, sustaining the faith is important, especially given that evangelical churches are gaining a foothold in the region.
Bautista said evangelical missionaries preach against indigenous rituals that can involve drinking large quantities of fermented beverages and revering the spirits of the Amazon jungle.
Catholic missionaries are supportive of these traditions, Bautista said.
“We have been Catholic for a long time, and having two churches will divide our communities,” Bautista said.
But Catholic conservatives argue that the church would be abandoning its own beliefs if it begins to ordain married men to make up for priest shortages.
Even one of Francis’ top advisers at the Vatican, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, said he’s “skeptical” about the married priest proposal and suggested Francis shared his skepticism.
Ouellet praised the evangelical value of the celibate priesthood, noting that indigenous people were first converted to the Catholic faith by celibate priests whose decision to sacrifice a family was a powerful and visible “confession of faith.”
His view is shared by some of the more vocal opponents to the synod.
Pereira, who is a member of the Ticuna tribe, and would be a clear candidate for ordination if Pope Francis decides to pursue the reform, said he wanted to become a priest when he was in his 20s, before he had children.
But he was discouraged because the nearest seminary was a couple days away by boat and he hadn’t finished elementary school, which made the priesthood unlikely.
That barrier is gone. Pereira completed his basic studies and obtained a university degree in his 50s, majoring in Ticuna language studies.
He teaches Ticuna at the elementary school in Belém do Solimões and recently helped translate a children’s catechism book into the indigenous language. “This is a strict path that not everyone is willing to follow,” he said. “In my community we need more people to announce the word of God.”