Jesuits host pre-synod meeting on Amazon in Lethem Guyana

Cardinal Hummes (r) with Pablo Mora SJ in Guyana in 2016
Cardinal Hummes (r) with Pablo Mora SJ in Guyana in 2016

Fr Jim Conway SJ is returning to Guyana this week to help run the pre-synod meeting of the eastern region of Amazonia. 

Pope Francis announced the Synod on the Amazon following his trip in January to Porto Maldonado in Peru, when he expressed grave concern for the indigenous peoples and the ecology of the Amazon region.  The pope appointed a pre-synod council to prepare consultation documents to which interested groups respond, and which are analyzed to inform the synod working documents and agenda.

The pre-synod meeting of the eastern region of Amazonia is part of this consultation process and the Jesuit parish of St Ignatius Lethem in the Rupununi district in the interior of Guyana has been chosen as the location.

Consulting remote communities

Paul Martin SJ, former regional superior of the Jesuits in Guyana, has been travelling over the past six months to nearly sixty remote indigenous communities scattered across the Pakaraima Mountains and Rupununi savannah, and straddling the border with Brazil, to present the pre-synod consultation documents.  Each village has chosen two delegates to attend the four-day meeting in Lethem which is expecting to host around 200 people, including several church dignitaries  led by Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, president of the Pan-Amazonian Church Network (REPAM), who first visited Lethem in 2016. This month he will be joined by Cardinal Pedro Baretto SJ, Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru, and three bishops: Francis Alleyne OSB, Bishop of of Geogetown Guyana, Karel Choennie, Bishop of Suriname and Emmanuel Lafont Bishop of Cayenne, French Guiana.

Strategic importance

Fr Jim spent five years working with Amerindian communities in the Amazonian interior of Guyana, and during this time was actively promoting the REPAM network and the Jesuit Amazonian project  in which Jesuits of the region are collaborating to protect the world’s largest eco-system – and its peoples – from destruction.

Jim Conway SJ in Guyana“When we first started talking to the indigenous people about the pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, nearly four years ago, they were amazed that the pope had written about their needs and concerns.  They have been discussing this ever since and will contribute enthusiastically and thoughtfully to this consultation. It is great to think we will be hosting this huge meeting in Lethem.  When I first went to Guyana it wasn’t considered important within Amazonia, but in fact it has a unique strategic place in the Pan-Amazonian scheme because it is the only country which links the Amazon to the Caribbean.  When the Bishop and Cardinal travelled here we were able to explain that Christian accompaniment of the indigenous communities had been continuously present for over a century and there is a well-established network of lay ministers.”

Pope Francis chose the theme for the Synod “ The Amazon: New paths for the Church and for integral ecology,”saying “We have to break with the historical paradigm that views Amazonia as an inexhaustible source of supplies for other countries without concern for its inhabitants.”

Feeding the 200

The church of St Ignatius Lethem was built in 2016 “the first round church in Guyana” explained Fr Jim, “the community wanted the new church to be round like the Amazonian benab – the traditional meeting room for the village council and community decision-making.” 

In order for the village to accommodate an extra 200 people for four days of pre-synod consultation  the people are constructing a new temporary benab which will serve as a conference room but also sleeping accommodation at night. 

“Many of those who travel from the remote areas will bring hammocks and sleep in the benab,” commented Fr Jim.

The Lethem Jesuit community numbers six Jesuits, assisted by four Ursuline sisters.  Feeding such a host will be challenge but also a source of joy. Fr Jim recalls “last time, when the Cardinal visited in 2016, the village killed three cows and 700 people were fed.  All food is shared – we call it “warippau” which literally means “eat up”, people are very generous and take hospitality on a large scale very much in their stride.”

The Pan-Amazonian Synod will take place in Rome in October 2019.

Read more on the context and aims of the Synod on Thinking Faith