The Evangelization Model of the Pan-Amazonian Synod: A Mission that Baptized No One in 53 Years of Operation

Since 1965, the Institute of the Consolata for Foreign Missions, originally from Turin and present in 28 countries, has had a mission among the Yanomamis Indians, currently led by the Italian priest Corrado Dalmolego, and assisted by three women religious of the same congregation’s female branch.

Fr. Corrado Dalmolego

In a recent interview to the internet portal Periodista Digital [1], the Consolata missionary gave interesting details about his conception of mission and his missionary activities, hoping that his example would serve as a model for the upcoming Pan-Amazonian Synod. His astonishing statements were assumed and endorsed by another missionary, the Madrid-based priest Luis Miguel Modino, active in the Diocese of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, State of Amazonas (Brazil).

Fr. Luis Miguel Modino

In order to understand the significance of the opinions expressed by Fr. Dalmolego it is advisable to first place oneself within the context of the Yanomami culture, in which he carries out his missionary activity.

The Yanomamis are an ethnic group composed of 20,000 to 30,000 indigenous people who live in the rainforest in a very primitive way, concentrating in the area of the Mavaca River basin, along the tributaries of the Orinoco River, and in the Parima mountain range, a region straddling the south of Venezuela and the states of Amazonas and Roraima in Brazil, where the Catrimani Mission of the Missionaries of the Consolata is located, next to the river of the same name.

The natives live in small villages of 40 or 50 people. But in fact, they are nomads who practice hunting with bows and arrows and grow a few crops that last two or three years. When the land is exhausted, the villagers grow a new plantation somewhere else.

Catrimani Mission

Their clothes are minimal and worn only as ornaments on their wrists and ankles, a ribbon around their waist. The men of the tribe usually have several women, including teenagers from their entrance into puberty. Men usually consume the “Epená” plant or ferrule, which contains a hallucinogenic substance also used by shamans in healing rituals to identify a disease by communicating with spirits.

Health is the community’s biggest problem, especially infectious and parasitic diseases such as malaria, which is the main cause of mortality among the Yanomami, followed by hepatitis, diarrhea, tuberculosis, as well as respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis, which they suffer repeatedly every year. The almost nonexistent habit of cleaning and caring for their teeth (they do not brush) makes dental cavities a chronic problem.[2]

Infanticide is one of the most deeply rooted “traditions” among the Yanomami. It is carried out by the mother, who moves away to give birth and either welcomes her newborn or kills him by burying him alive. Infanticide is practiced to eliminate children born with defects, or as a form of sex selection (males prefer women and to have a male as their first born child; if twins are born, only one is allowed to live, and if the two are males, they kill the weaker one), or simply to avoid having to take care of both simultaneously (they breastfeed for three years on average).[3]

Infanticide

The Yanomami have a haughty and warlike character,[4] and when they kill they acquire the social status of unokai. The more warlike ones, who manage to kill more enemies, have greater prestige and more women. In order to attack villages of other tribes, they form alliances with strangers rather than with close relatives, and their war booty is to marry sisters or daughters of their allies.[5]

One of the most primitive customs of this ethnic group is the practice of ritual cannibalism: in a collective and sacred ritual funeral, they incinerate the corpse of a dead relative and eat the ashes of their bones, mixing them with “pijiguao” paste (made with the fruit of a kind of palm tree), because they believe that the deceased’s vital energy lies in his bones and is thus reintegrated into the family group. A Yanomami who kills an adversary in enemy territory also practices this form of cannibalism to purify himself.[6]

This brief narrative makes clear that the Yanomami are far from meeting the standards of Rousseau’s noble savage

However, for the missionary Corrado Dalmonego, who has been living in Catrimani for 11 years and therefore knows them well, “with the experience of their own religiosity and spirituality” they can “even help the Church to cleanse herself perhaps from schemes, mental structures that may have become obsolete or inadequate.”

First, the Yanomami help the Church to “defend this world” and to “build an integral ecology” by “establishing bridges between traditional knowledge and the modern, ecological knowledge of Western society.”

Secondly, they help to improve her structures and exercise of authority so that the Church should “pay attention to how indigenous peoples live their community experience, social relations, the organization of leadership.”  “For us, Yanomamis are witnesses that enable us to appreciate this value of community life,” the missionary says.

Finally, the Church is enriched “by research done on shamanism, on mythologies, on different knowledge, on visions of the world, on visions of God,” because strong moments of dialogue help missionaries “discover the essence of our faith, often disguised by ornaments, by cultural traditions.”

One of the forms of that spiritual enrichment is that the Yanomami “tend to put things together,” that is, they invoke the God of the whites without giving up their own beliefs. “It is not necessary to give up but simply to appropriate something else. Why should you not do this exercise, have those experiences also as a Church?” the Consolata missionary asks. “On the one hand, this can be branded as syncretism, relativism,” he concedes. But he concludes by saying that, at any rate, “We do not own the truth.”

As a result of this new conception of the Church’s evangelizing action as a mere exercise in inter-religious dialogue, Fr. Corrado Dalmonego brags about an astonishing fact to which his interviewer refers and which any traditional missionary would consider a most bitter failure: he has directed “a mission of presence and dialogue” in which “after sixty years, no one has been baptized”![7]

Even more seriously, Fr. Dalmonego states that “all those he knows who have worked there admire this way and have participated and dedicated their lives, years and work, they value this way of action which [he] would not reduce to a silent testimony because when you talk you speak, when you talk you announce.” But he insists on excluding any idea of “proselytism” and says that one should “not confuse announcement with what is considered conversion.”

It is precisely in this sense that the Catrimani mission could serve as a reference in view of the Pan-Amazonian Synod because “it is a prophetic presence for the Church, which has been listening to the peoples, a presence that is criticized or misunderstood and branded as omission.”

They apparently do not care about what Jesus Christ would say when He sees his mandate to go and evangelize all peoples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” unfulfilled. Instead, what seems to “encourage the heart” is “listening to David Kopenawa,[8] a Yanomami leader who says that the Catrimani Mission has done the right thing by not hurting the Yanomami, not destroying their culture or condemning shamanism,” and that “this is the message that you [missionaries] have to bring from the God who has sent you.”

Hence, for the Italian missionary this coming Synod is very important as “people’s eyes in the whole Church and perhaps also outside will be fixed on the Amazon” and “the Church would be much richer if there were more experiences like this.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri

This longing seems entirely in keeping with the plans of the organizers of this ecclesial event. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, stated at the press conference presenting the Preparatory Document for the Special Assembly next October that his objective is “to find new pastoral paths for a Church with an Amazonian face, with a prophetic dimension in the search for ministries and more appropriate lines of action in a context of truly integral ecology.”

Aware of the rather hermetic character of his phrase, Cardinal Baldisseri clarified: “It is Pope Francis who shows us the way to understand the expression ‘Amazonian face’. In fact, in Puerto Maldonado he says: ‘We who do not inhabit these lands need your wisdom and knowledge to be able to enter, without destroying, the treasure that encloses this region, echoing the words of the Lord to Moses, ‘Take off your sandals, for the ground you are treading is a holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5).’”[9]

In other words, “as Pope Francis has said, the task of the new evangelization of the traditional cultures living in the Amazon and in other territories requires lending the poor ‘our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them’ (Evangeli Gaudium, n° 198).”[10]

More specifically, this communication is given through shamans because in its subsection titled “Spirituality and Wisdom” the preparatory document affirms that the “various spiritualities and beliefs” of indigenous peoples “motivate them to live a communion with the earth, water, trees, animals, with the day and the night” and that “the wise elders, indiscriminately called warlocks, masters, Wayanga or shamans – among others – promote people’s harmony with one another and with the cosmos.”[11]

The care of the environment, assures the same document, is one of the main areas where this ecclesial learning must be fulfilled: “The ecological conversion is to assume the mystic of the interconnection and interdependence of all things created. … This is something that Western cultures can and perhaps should learn from traditional cultures in the Amazon and other territories and communities on the planet. They, the peoples, ‘have much to teach us’ (EG N ° 198). In their love for their land and their relationship with the ecosystems, they know God the Creator, source of life. … That is why Pope Francis has pointed out that ‘it is necessary for all of us to be evangelized by them’ and by their cultures.” [12]

The Consolata religious at the Catrimani Mission can go to sleep with their conscience at peace: Pope Francis will not reproach them for not having baptized any Yanomami in 53 years. Perhaps they should become apprentice shamans and take a course on Yanomami rituals by David Kopenawa…


[1] https://www.periodistadigital.com/religion/america/2018/12/20/corrado-dalmonego-los-indigenas-pueden-ayudar-a-la-iglesia-a-limpiarse-de-estructuras-obsoletas.shtml

[2] Débora Margarita Marchán, op. cit.

[3] The German Erwin Frank has been studying the indigenous populations of America for 30 years. A professor at the Federal University of Roraima with a PhD in anthropology, he has been researching the Amazonian Indians, and especially the Yanomami, for ten years. In an interview with Folha de S. Paulo, he said yesterday that infanticide is a tradition deeply rooted in the Yanomami culture. “This expresses the woman’s autonomy in deciding for the life or death of the child and functions as a form of selection for malformations and for the sex of the children,” he clarified.

This information is confirmed by anthropologist Ivan Soares, who collaborates with the Public Prosecutor of the State of Roraima. During the Inter-American Seminar on Legal Pluralism that took place in Brasilia in November 2005 at the Escola Superior do Ministério Público da União, in collaboration with the Sixth Chamber of Minorities of the Attorney General of the Republic he reported that Yanomami women have full decision making power on the life of their newborns. Childbirth occurs in the forest, outside the village; in this remote environment outside the context of social life, the mother has two options: if she does not touch the baby or lift it in her arms, leaving it on the ground where it fell, it means that it has not been welcomed into the world of culture and social relations and therefore is not human. Thus, from a native’s perspective one cannot say that a homicide has occurred, because what remained on the ground was not a human life.

[4] Dévora Margarita Marchén, Impacto socio-educativo de la misión salesiana entre los Yanomami del Alto Orinoco, https://www.monografias.com/trabajos75/impacto-socioeducativo-mision-salesiana-yanomami/impacto-socioeducativo-mision-salesiana-yanomami2.shtml

[5] Judith de Jorge, “La guerra de los yanomami: lucha conmigo y me caso con tu hermana”, El País, 28-10-2014,https://www.abc.es/ciencia/20141028/abci-guerra-yanomami-lucha-conmigo-201410281215.html

[6] Joanna Overing, “Images of Cannibalism, Death and Domination in a ‘Non Violent’ Society,” Journal de la société des américanistes, Année 1986, p. 151, in  https://www.persee.fr/doc/jsa_0037-9174_1986_num_72_1_1001,

[7] The actual figure is 53 years.

[8] David Kopenawa is known as the “Jungle’s Dalai Lama” and acts as international spokesman for the Yanomami. In his highly publicized travels through Western capitals he says he is advised by “xapiri” (spirits of the Amazon jungle).

[9] https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/es/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/bal.html

[10] “Nuevos caminos para la Iglesia y para una ecología integral. Documento preparatorio del Sínodo de los Obispos para la Asamblea Especial sobre la Región Panamazónica”, n° 13, http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/es/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/panam.html

[11] Ibid, n° 6.

[12] Ibid, n° 13.