In Peru, lay missionaries minister to the destitute of the Amazon rainforest
THE VICARIATE OF SAN JOSÉ DEL AMAZONAS lies in the far north of Peru, in the Amazon rainforest, close to the border with Colombia and Brazil. There are no roads, and the main routes of travel are the major rivers like the Amazon and the Napo and their tributaries. Most of the villages and settlements lie scattered throughout the rainforest, far from the only city in the region, the capital Iquitos. The state is practically absent here, levels of education and healthcare are among the lowest in the entire country and there is a great sense of insecurity caused by drug trafficking and human trafficking.
In this frontier forest region, 59 Catholic lay missionaries are supporting the 14 priests of the Vicariate in their pastoral ministry to the indigenous population in a territory the size of Ireland and Portugal combined. The missionaries come from Mexico, Poland, Canada, Colombia, Spain, Brazil, and India. There are also Peruvian missionaries. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been helping their work here for more than 25 years. Help is badly needed, especially right now, as the Bishop of the Vicariate of San José, José Javier Travieso Martín explains; an economic crisis is worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this region, “the people not only cannot contribute anything fir the support of their Church, but indeed very often need support themselves, as we were able to see once again during the pandemic, which continues to afflict us in this land,” the bishop said in a message to ACN. The reality is that the healthcare system “has been abandoned” and the people are “left to their fate,” he said.
Thanks to the help of ACN, it was possible to cover the basic food needs of 20 of the missionaries in 2020. Today, another 14 sisters and seven lay missionaries need our support, to obtain basic necessities, including food and healthcare.
The vicariate has 16 mission outposts. These include a leprosy center, a hospital, 16 healthcare centers on the Rio Napo, four schools and two boarding schools, and two rehabilitation centers for the disabled. The missionaries are responsible for running the parishes and mission stations and to provide pastoral care to dozens of outlying communities. Because of the shortage of priests in the region, lay missionaries also preside at Liturgies of the Word, help train local catechists and give catechetical instruction, in addition to working in the family apostolate and the pastoral outreach to the indigenous peoples.
Gabriel Grégoire is one of the lay missionaries supported by ACN. This Canadian missionary is working in pastoral and social ministry, although because of the pandemic, he is unable to undertake any of the usual work. He helps to clean and disinfect the churches and leads liturgies when the local priest is visiting other communities. He also sits on the Vicariate’s finance commission and helps with the Legion of Mary, visiting the sick in their homes and various other centers to pray with the people.
Another Canadian missionary is Alain Lacroix. He runs an automotive workshop set up by the Vicariate in Iquitos, where he helps maintain the vehicles for the mission in Tamshiyac. At the same time, he helps anyone who needs help with their vehicles and is able to offer employment to people who come looking for work.
There are also missionary families, like the family of Antonio Romero, who, together with his wife Mónica Adriana and their three children, has come here from Mexico to help. He also explains to ACN all his work now is overshadowed by the pandemic. “There are the calls for support and counsel at the death of a family member, the sickness of others—knowing there is no medication, not even paracetamol or medical alcohol; the shortages of food, the fact that oxygen, which was once pure and free in the rainforest, we now have to buy at a cost of [more than a dollar] per 350 cubic feet. There are people with a family member dying who can find no one to lend, rent or sell them an oxygen cylinder.”
Another lay missionary helped by ACN is a Polish woman, Dominik Szkatula, the coordinator of pastoral outreach to the indigenous peoples, who has been living in the country since 1982. During the time of her pastoral apostolate she has lived in a number of villages, caring for lepers and defending the rights of the indigenous peoples. After 30 years of experience as a missionary and catechist, she assures us: “I know from my own experience that we can all play an active part in the saving mission of Christ. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate, because in Amazonia you can live closer to God, and by working with the simple and humble people living here, you can actually touch Him.”
—Ximena Rondon & Maria Lozano