(Photo: Ann Brennan)

By Br. Kevin Cawley, Ph.D.

Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement and Laudato Si’ animators gathered at St. Francis Xavier Church in lower Manhattan, NYC, on Sunday, April 21, 2024. They hosted Sr. Imrã Laura Vicuña Pereira Manso, a member of the indigenous Kariri people of Brazil, the daughter of migrant parents, and a religious of the Congregation of the Franciscan Catechist Sisters, a graduate in anthropology and specialist in social psychology. Sr. Laura was in New York to participate in the United Nations Forum for Indigenous Issues being held at UN Headquarters April 15-26. Br. Kevin Cawley of Edmund Rice International and Iona University was a member of the group that spent the afternoon in dialogue at this gathering.

Several members of the group assembled afterward for this photo with Sister Laura (center). To the right of Sr. Laura is Felipe Witchger, the translator and initiator of the event. He is active with the Economia Francesco and is Co-Founder of the Catholic Impact Investing Collaborative and Co-Founder of the Francesco Collaborative.

Sister Laura and other women activists met with Pope Francis in June 2023. In the conversation with the Pope, the activists did not fail to highlight the socio-educational and socio-pastoral reality of Amazonia, with an “emphasis” on the mission and ministries of women in the Church.
Concerning this last point, Imrã Laura reported, they all agreed that “there can be no going back” on the mission that every woman has been carrying out in the Church for a long time: “The woman is this maternal face of the Church: Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a woman who is at service. And women in the Church are those who bring about the changes that promote the evangelization of the Church.”

“Without a doubt,” the nun explained, “we women are present in countless communities, encouraging and motivating people not to lose faith and the meaning of life. But the service we render to the Church is not recognized, generating tensions that could be overcome with the recognition of new ministries for women according to the urgency of the socio-pastoral reality of the Church in Amazonia”.

Sr. Laura focused her remarks on the connections of Indigenous peoples to the land – “we come from the land; we are part of the land.” Women generate life and Amazonia is a hope for life for all humanity- it is “a womb of humanity” – the others being the Canada boreal forest and the Congo basin in Africa. During the recent Synod on the Amazon, when indigenous engage in the larger dialogue it is the periphery speaking to the center. The synod was able to gather all the threads from the territory, including its many contradictions and the message was carried most noticeably by thousands of women. We must acknowledge that the Synod is not the End. It is THE WAY. It is an antidote to the disease of clericalism.

Sr. Laura is a vice-president of CEAMA, the Ecclesial Conference of Amazonia, a body that was formed as a result of the Synod of the Amazon and with the support of REPAM, an ecclesial network led until his death by the late Cardinal Claudio Hummes. Cardinal Hummes was close to Pope Francis when they served on the Bishops Committee in Latin America and famously reminded Francis at his election to the Papacy, “Do not forget the poor.” CEAMA was born five months after the publication of Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation on the Pan-Amazonian Region. CEAMA accompanies the struggles of the people and demands respect for the Amazon territories and their fundamental contribution to the world, taking into account all the wealth the region possesses. There is still a long way to go, but the women are on the frontlines carrying out this “process.” Because of the tensions in the area over deforestation, Sr. Laura takes precautions while carrying on her work with the Karipuna indigenous group.

Discussion revealed deep concerns about the Congress of Brazil being very much in the mold of the former President Bolsonaro despite the efforts of current President Lula da Silva to reverse some damages to the environment. Nancy Lorence of Metro NY Catholic Covenant asked about the problem of dams which continue to threaten Indigenous communities. Local land grabbing continues, and governments continue to plan more and more large dams that displace indigenous, especially along rivers. We know that developing countries in Asia, South America, and Africa possess significant untapped hydropower potential. Globally, at least 3,700 large hydropower plants with a capacity of more than 1 MW and 82,800 smaller plants are operating, under construction, or being planned.

Sr. Laura asked the group to keep pressure on governments to make commitments to Indigenous peoples. Her ask: keep pressure on the Church to gather the Indigenous next year at COP30 in Brazil to exert their influence and press the UN to take more decisive action on their behalf. Sister Laura made a point that women in the church that she works with were especially grateful to the Holy Father for these documents: Evangelii Gaudiam, Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti (and Laudate Deum most urgent most recently). Women and men must be in solidarity to push back against the forces that threaten to weaken the COP 29 and COP30 with false solutions. The Indigenous continue to call for the freedom to live on their land without interferences or threats. Invaders take our lives and our lands but they cannot take away our dreams. The prophetic Church must continue the struggle and continue to speak for these peoples and these lands.

Also present at this meeting was Casey Stanton, founder of the Discerning Deacons organization, who along with Co-Director Ellie Hidalgo, work to connect the Amazon folks working on this issue to people in the U.S. who are also interested in the issue of women deacons.