RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — When he kneels before Pope Francis on Aug. 27, the Archbishop of Manaus will go down in history as the first cardinal to hail from the Amazon region.
“The populations feel that the distance between Rome and the Amazon has been reduced,” the future cardinal, Leonardo Steiner, said in a written interview with The Associated Press. “Perhaps that is the cause of the joy of the Amazonian people with the measure of Pope Francis.”
Steiner attributed his appointment to four pope priorities: a desire to increase missionary work and care for the poor in the Amazon; care for the Amazon “as our common home” and be a Church that “knows how to contribute to the autonomy of indigenous peoples.”
The Amazon, which extends over nine countries, is larger than the European Union. It is home to 34 million people, of whom more than 3 million are indigenous from some 400 ethnic groups, according to the Catholic Church.
There is also a political lens through which the ongoing environmental struggles in the region are viewed: the Church’s socio-environmental agenda is a contentious issue for many Pentecostal churches. These have a powerful bloc in the Brazilian Parliament, allied with the bloc in favor of the cattle business. Pentecostals and ranchers are part of the political base of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
The cardinals are the ecclesiastical hierarchs immediately below the pope. Called “red hats” because of the color of their hats, they are the main advisers to the pontiff. More importantly, they are the ones who will elect the next pope, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
Church watchers will not be surprised that Francis has finally named an Amazonian cardinal, given how important the region has been to his pontificate and the attention he has paid to it.
For Brazilian priest and historian José Oscar Beozzo, Pope Francis is promoting a kind of “patriarchy” in the Amazon, similar to the five patriarchates in places like Jerusalem and Constantinople during the early Middle Ages, in an effort to raise the status of the Amazon within the Catholic structure.
The synod, the creation in 2020 of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region and now the elevation of Steiner are all part of Francis’ goal of bringing the world’s largest rainforest to the fore, Beozzo said.
“His election begins a very important moment, to consider the Amazon as a region with its own ecclesial dynamics, which welcomes the leading role of the indigenous peoples of the region.”
Winfield reported from Rome
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