By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Growing up in southern Louisiana fostered in Fr. David Romero, SJ, a deep and abiding love for the outdoors and God’s creation. The warm, humid temperatures, the rivers and generous expanses of undeveloped land prepared him for his current home in the Amazon. Based in Manaus, Brazil, he is the provincial’s delegate for the Apostolic Preference of the Amazon – one of five regions within the Brazil Province of the Society of Jesus.
“The Amazon area is where I feel most at home,” he says. “South-central Louisiana has a particular rhythm of life that’s not too dissimilar to the Amazon region. Like in Louisiana, in Brazil we spend most of our time outdoors. We eat a lot of fresh fish, rice and beans. The whole lifestyle is geared to the warm, humid climate. I feel right at home.”
Father Romero was first assigned to Brazil for theology studies as a Jesuit in formation. He fell in love. He has served in Brazil continuously since his ordination to the priesthood in 1991.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, and the Jesuit province includes the entire country. That’s just over 400 Jesuits across more than 3 million square miles. So, the Brazilian provincial has delegates for critical areas: formation, elderly Jesuits and the Amazon region – Fr. Romero. His assignment is to accompany both the 45 Jesuits and the various Jesuit apostolates in the area.
Part of Fr. Romero’s job is to visit the ten Jesuit communities in the region on behalf of the provincial. His other responsibility is to promote the importance of the Amazon and the need for safeguarding it against anything that endangers it: illegal mining activities, farming practices that destroy the rainforest, illegal lumbering and hydroelectric dams that produce energy but destroy the habitat. Those are just some of the activities that threaten the Amazon’s ecosystem, a network important not only for Brazil and the continent, but the whole planet.
The Amazonia’s Importance to Us
The Amazon River journeys through nine countries — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — with about 60 percent in Brazil. But the Amazon’s importance extends far beyond these nine countries. It impacts the life of the whole planet through its roles in the water cycle and the Earth’s atmosphere.
The massive numbers of trees in the rainforest draw up water from the earth, then release it into the atmosphere, where trade winds move it across the continents.
Those same trees exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, which helps to regulate temperatures, counteracting the greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere.
These critical processes are interrupted by deforestation.
According to Greenpeace.org, over the past 40 years, the Brazilian Amazon has lost more than 18 percent of its rainforest — about the size of the state of California — to illegal logging, soy agriculture and cattle ranching.
Threats to the rainforest are threats to the entire planet.
Fortunately, many people are becoming conscious of the need to protect the Amazon and its amazing diversity of life. Brazil has been leading the way for ecological preservation. And the Jesuits of Brazil are part of the movement.
“The Jesuits are here in the Amazon region as a sign of the commitment of care assumed by the entire Jesuit province for everything that represents this sacred territory as a gift from God to the world,” Fr. Romero says.
“Part of our presence here as an Apostolic team is to preserve the Amazon, to promote the common home. Part of my job is promoting the Amazon so that even people who don’t live in this region come to value and recognize the importance of the Amazon and learn from the indigenous people how to live with nature, how to live with creation in a peaceful harmonious lifestyle.”
More than 400 different cultures of Indigenous peoples call the Amazon home. They have lived there for centuries, and their presence is not a threat to the ecosystem, as developed society is.
“The indigenous people are in harmony with nature,” Fr. Romero said. “They learned to cultivate this connectedness and this respect and realize we’re called to care for all of creation.”
The indigenous people’s respect for nature means they don’t pollute the rivers. They don’t overkill the animals they hunt for food. They rotate crops to avoid depleting the soil. They find the sacred in nature.
“They have this wisdom that’s passed on from generation to generation,” Fr. Romero says. “They live in harmony with God’s creation and have a deep, profound respect for it.”
Brazilian Jesuits work with the indigenous peoples in a variety of ways, including identifying other indigenous groups who want to remain outside society. These remote groups avoid contact with others to maintain the lifestyle their people have lived for generations and because they don’t have immunity to many common diseases.
The Jesuits work to find these remote people and work with other organizations to try to protect them.
“We want to respect their freedom and try to protect their separation,” Fr. Romero said. “That includes protecting the areas in which they live from illegal miners or lumber mills. It’s not the Lone Ranger approach, though. Instead, we share our resources, our experiences, our knowledge and work together with others against the threats.”
The Jesuits in ministry with Indigenous peoples are transformed by a worldview that is so different from the anthropocentrism common in the rest of society, but so close to the Jesuit ideal of finding God in all things. They learn to walk with the Indigenous people; they learn from them, learn to cultivate their sense of connection, their respect for creation.
Sharing the Indigenous Worldview
In early 2020, then-provincial Fr. Ron Mercier asked Fathers Romero and Brian Christopher, SJ, to lead the province’s biannual retreat, with a focus on how the Universal Apostolic Preferences are being lived out in other countries. The COVID pandemic turned this retreat into a virtual experience, but it instigated a new way of looking at the Spiritual Exercises for Fr. Romero.
“I read a lot on eco-theology, and I was able to work this ecological dimension into the Spiritual Exercises,” he said.
He used Jesus’ parables on crops, seeds and water and found tremendous ecological connections. In the third week, when the Exercises focus on Christ’s passion, he pointed to how the planet and its most vulnerable creatures are suffering from exploitation, disrespect and abandonment.
“St. Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation states that the human is created just like the rest of the created world. We begin there,” Fr. Romero said.
Since then, all the retreats he’s given have been ecological retreats – the Spiritual Exercises with an ecological dimension.
“In Laudato Si’ (Pope Francis’ encyclical), the phrase that’s repeated is ‘everything is connected,’” Fr. Romero said. “It’s one thing to think that, but it’s another thing to feel that. To really feel that we’re part of God’s creation, as well as the trees and the rivers and the fish and the animals and insects and the sun and the moon and the stars. It’s sort of a Mystic experience to sense this connection. To really feel, to experience this connection.”
Synod of the Amazon
In October 2019, all eyes were on the Amazon during the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. It was one step in Pope Francis’ agenda toward greater care for our Common Home.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013. He released Laudato Si’ in 2015. In 2017, he convoked the Synod of the Amazon, with the intention of finding “new ways for the evangelization of that portion of the People of God, especially the indigenous, often forgotten and without a perspective of a good future, also for the cause of the crisis of the Amazonian Forest, lung of fundamental importance for our planet.”
After the Synod, the pope released Querida Amazonia in February 2020. This apostolic exhortation included his hopes:
- I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.
- I dream of an Amazon region that can preserve its distinctive cultural riches, where the beauty of our humanity shines forth in so many varied ways.
- I dream of an Amazon region that can jealously preserve its overwhelming natural beauty and the superabundant life teeming in its rivers and forests.
- I dream of Christian communities capable of generous commitment, incarnate in the Amazon region, and giving the Church new faces with Amazonian features. (Querida Amazonia, ¶7)
Following the Synod, there was a sense of momentum in the Amazon, Fr. Romero said. “And then the pandemic came and all of a sudden, all of this interest in the Amazon sort of took second place to the health concerns.”
But Fr. Romero and the Jesuits of Brazil never lost their focus on the protection of the planet and the Indigenous peoples. Their mission is to “evangelize in the light of ‘integral ecology,’ defending and promoting the different forms of life according to the Ignatian charism in the essential aspects of the option for the poor and the care of the common home, having as a fundamental basis the promotion of faith and justice through the triple reconciliation with men, with creation and with God.” (https://paamsj.org.br/)
In addition to their work on behalf of Indigenous peoples and the planet, Jesuits in Brazil also have traditional ministries in schools, parishes, retreat centers and social ministries. They work with migrants, especially from Venezuela, which neighbors Brazil, to help with their resettlement. And they are investing in a school for solar energy where community leaders can learn how to use solar energy as a concrete step in caring for the common home.