Great rivers of grace: Vocation ministry in the Amazon region of Brazil

Great rivers of grace: Vocation ministry in the Amazon region of Brazil

By Nancy Schramm O.S.F., c

The Amazon rain forest has been the center of attention for many environmentalists in recent years. For me, an American Franciscan sister who has spent more than half of my life in this area, it is of an even greater importance. The Amazon area and its people have taught me many important things about life in general and about my life as a consecrated woman in particular.

Since arriving in 1978 with the idea of “helping” the Brazilian people, I have worked at many things, but vocation work and youth ministry have always been a priority. I believe deeply in our Franciscan life and in the witness that a consecrated woman can offer to her people.

Base communities help foster vocations

Naturally vocation work cannot be disconnected from the way people experience the church. The style of church here in northern Brazil is dominated by base Christian communities, which are similar to the early Christian communities to whom St. Paul directs his letters. I believe that church base communities continue to give a valuable witness to God’s kingdom here on earth. In fact statistics show that the majority of religious vocations in the north come from the CEBs (Comunidade Eclesial de Base, or Church Base Communities). My parish, St. Francis Xavier Parish in the city of Bacarena, is connected to eight base communities in the city and some 55 communities spread throughout the jungle area and Amazon River islands. Each community has its patron saint and chapel where the life of the community is centered. On Sundays each community holds a Celebration of the Word and Life with a special emphasis on the Bible. In the island and jungle communities, our two priests visit only three times a year, so the Sunday celebrations are a valuable space for the laypeople to exercise their talents in the celebration of the Word. The city communities usually have a monthly Eucharistic celebration, but the lay leadership continues to be very important. Each community has its own catechetical program, although there is a parish coordination team which gives formation and orientation to the communities.

According to the leadership available, many of the communities have other ministries, dedicated to youth, children, the sick, tithing, etc. Once a year the communities celebrate their patron saint with a week (or more!) of festivity, including novenas, visits to the families, special preaching, and the selling of typical foods in the community hall. It is a wonderful way to build relations with the members of the community, as well as raise funds for the community’s needs.

The face of the base communities is changing, however, in the large city areas of northern Brazil. In Belém, for instance, the base communities have become more centralized in the parish and less active on the base level. City people tend to worship less by geographic parish than by where they feel better, making it difficult to create the same bonds of community living that the interior can still nourish. Also, according to the beliefs of the parish priest, the role of laypeople can vary greatly. I have visited parishes where the adults and youth have important leadership roles in all the aspects of parish life. But also I have visited parishes where the adults are mere “cows at the feeding trough” (as we say in Portuguese), simply bowing their heads, saying yes to the priest.

The form of parish life in which young people participate directly influences the type of religious life they seek. In this world of globalization and mass media, our young people are very much like those in the rest of the Western world. They harbor the characteristics of post-modernity: desire for immediate personal satisfaction, individualism, lack of long-term life projects, desire for the sacred, etc. But when they have been raised in the base communities, they come with certain leadership qualities that influence their choices in life. They are accustomed to being part of decision making in the community. They have organized gatherings and celebrations where they have been the leaders. They are aware of social problems that affect their communities (although they most often feel impotent to change society), and they desire friendship and love (although they are most insecure in this area).



The Vocation Itinerary Process includes these steps, which are developed over one-to-two years.

1. The Awakening Moment The young person becomes aware that she or he has a calling in life, a mission. Human development is emphasized and reflected on.

2. The Seeking Out Moment The person participates in a vocation group where various themes are discussed, such as the calling of baptism, basic theology and different types of vocation.

3. The Cultivating Moment Depending on which vocation the young person is attracted to, a sister, priest, or married person begins to accompany her or him.

4. The Deepening of Relation Moment The young person seeks a more mature relationship with God, and in the case of a religious vocation, seeks to understand the charism of the religious institute.

5. The Decision Moment The young person comes to a conclusion and seeks to begin a discernment experience, such as entering a formation house.


Youth ministry and good role models

While parish life is critical to the formation of young people, youth ministry also plays a role. Brazil has a national youth ministry organization which has proven to be an important instrument in forming Catholic youth. The main objective of this ministry is to help young people be the protagonists of their own history and to evangelize other young people to do the same. Young people need to realize that they are responsible for their lives and their decisions. They have a special mission in the church to help other young people come to these same conclusions. They journey with adults who give witness to this ideal and show them that, in fact, they can contribute to changes in the world.

Thanks be to God, Brazil has many current examples of religious who have given their lives in dramatic and not so dramatic ways, helping our young people realize that they can overcome the many obstacles of modern life. Notre Dame Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered here in Pará in February 2005 because of her stance against cutting down the rainforest and in favor of more equitable land distribution. She is having an influence on our young people. She is an example of faithfulness, having refused to return to the U.S. after receiving death threats, because she knew her people were not being protected either. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the death of Sister Adelaide, a Divine Love sister who was also murdered in Marabá, Pará for supporting the local unions against the large land owners. Father Josimo is another inspiring example. He was a young priest who gave up his life for desiring a land of justice and peace. In our state alone, over 300 men and women who are not famous have lost their lives in the many social struggles. Young people in the base communities reflect upon these examples and are inspired by them.

Religious life in Brazil today

Formed by their parishes and youth ministry and inspired by religious role models, some young adults carefully consider religious life. They face a great variety of communities when they do. It is difficult and perhaps unjust to put people into categories, but to better understand the church here, Brazilian theologians have labeled the “scenes” of the Catholic Church here. There is the traditional scene, the Charismatic scene, the doctrinal scene and the liberation scene. Some parishes are highly influenced by one particular scene, and others are a mixture. Religious life is no different. Since the 1970s the “insertion movement”—which coincides with liberation theology—has greatly influenced religious life. During these years many religious communities concluded that they were distant from God’s poor and heavily involved with those who were not interested in the kingdom. So they decided to “insert” themselves into the lives of the poor by actually living in poor neighborhoods. The key question became: With whom should we use our human and financial resources—our energies, our talents and knowledge? Liberation theology calls for a direct and visible commitment to God’s poor, who are the elect of the kingdom. The strategy and methodology of Jesus is very clear. He walked, taught, lived and revealed himself among the poor of Palestine.

Many large religious communities then began leaving their educational and health institutions to live geographically among the poor, choosing a life of witness and solidarity and not of great works. Small communities of two or three religious were founded in city slums. In the Amazon areas small communities were founded in the rural areas where the sisters and brothers lived near the poor of the interior. Today, 30 years later, two very different ways of living religious life still exist: in the large institutions and in small communities near the people. Many communities have experienced years of tension and conflict because of this. Some communities have overcome most of the conflict, believing that both ways have their value and witness in today’s world.

Lack of faith in religious life and in celibacy

The issue of new membership here in northern Brazil is still very interesting in relation to these models of church and religious life. The majority of those seeking religious life are poor young people from the base communities. Statistics from the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations show that Brazil has one of the most unequal distributions of material wealth in the world. The rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. The richer classes emphasize careers as doctors, lawyers and business persons to their children, especially to their sons, while the poorer classes realize that their children are unlikely to have access to such careers. Occasionally a poor person does manage to get through the university, but the percentage of those who do is very low. A priest psychologist who worked with many religious communities once said that religious should be aware of what the middle and rich classes think of religious life. They want their children to attend our schools to receive an excellent education. But these parents do not believe in our life as religious. Nor will they encourage their children to think about a religious vocation.

While wealthy Brazilians are cool toward religious life, celibacy raises problems that cut across social class. Young people today need models who inspire and demonstrate that a life of self-giving fulfills the human person and helps one to become truly a loving member of society. Yet this is a difficult message here. Brazilian culture is one of open sexuality and much confusion about love, sexuality, friendship and affectivity. Premature pregnancies are becoming a common fact. Recently our local newspaper ran an article about this issue, interviewing a 15-year-old boy who was to be a father for the second time. A self-giving life of chastity so as to love in a different way appeals to young people, although many believe it is not possible. Many older people also do not believe in religious chastity. A senior woman who belongs to the Apostolate of Prayer once asked me sheepishly, “C’mon, Sister, tell me the truth. Aren’t you Father’s woman?” She had difficulty believing that I could be faithful to my promise of chastity for life. Nonetheless, a wholesome, faithful witness to loving chastity continues to attract young people to religious life.

Promoting religious life

In the midst of these realities, where and how does a religious community organize and plan vocation promotion? Most of our religious communities rely on the witness their women and men give in parishes and base communities. Congregations with institutional works, in particular the large Catholic schools, frequently have vocation youth groups that meet about once a month to reflect on various themes. But once again the number of young people who actually decide to enter religious life is very small. Many dioceses in this area have a loosely organized parish vocation ministry. Usually a sister, a married couple, sometimes a priest or a diocesan seminarian form this team and organize vocation reflection gatherings. This has proven very helpful, especially when the team is open to true discernment and has an objective of helping young people to discover their vocations.

Brazil also has a national vocation ministry team that has developed many useful materials for gatherings and for personal reflection. A Vocation Itinerary Process has been developed which helps a young person evaluate his or her motivations (see the box below). The program requires adult accompaniment, usually a member of the parish vocation team. When these steps for discernment are respected, including a reflection on the various religious charisms, the young person is free to choose. Unfortunately some congregations do not respect the parish vocation teams, making their contact with young people and—before anyone knows, including the parish team—the young person is swept away to a convent or seminary without having taken the necessary steps for a good discernment. Congregations that act this way are usually so worried about numbers that they forget that the young person and her or his happiness is the first concern. This has happened various times in my parish. It is not surprising that most of these young women and men do not remain in the convents or seminaries for long.

Challenges in discernment

A challenge to true discernment that I have encountered frequently here in Brazil is related to the vow of poverty. When I was a young woman seriously thinking about entering the Franciscan community, I recall the tension I experienced in renouncing many material things. I had to renounce my car, my style of clothes, my job, my personal use of money, etc. However, that experience is sometimes reversed here. Because of the poor Brazilian economy, young people will frequently gain economic security they did not have at home when they enter a community. Certain doors are opened to them in relation to studies, for instance. This is why it is so important to follow the steps of the Vocation Itinerary Program at the parish level before a decision is made to enter. Many times people’s motivations for choosing a religious vocation are not clear or are unconsciously connected to other necessities.

Sometimes young men feel pressure from their families to not follow a church vocation. Parents frequently count on the young men to help sustain the family financially, since families are usually large. When a young man feels called to religious life, the feeling that he is abandoning his family when he should be helping can be very strong, making it difficult for him to choose. It becomes even harder when there is no father figure in the family, which is very common here.

Another important challenge for vocation ministry is related to the question of culture. In general the northern part of Brazil has been discriminated against since it is seen as a backward and underdeveloped area. It is truly the periphery of the country. The south of Brazil is the highly industrialized technical and professional center. Until recently little had been done to regain the dignity of the people of the north to value our northern culture, which is a mixture of indigenous, Negro and Portuguese people. During the last 10-15 years many professionals, especially those in education and the arts, have taken tremendous steps to show the beauty and contribution that the north is making to the rest of the country. Still, this feeling of being inferior is imbedded in the very being of our people, including the young. Few religious congregations were founded here in the north (I know of four in the state of Pará), but there are many missionaries from the south of Brazil and from other countries. Most of their formation houses are in the south because they feel that the education possibilities are better there.

During the process of discernment this issue of regional inferiority must be addressed so that the person can truly be free to make a good decision. The regional Conference for Religious (for which I am a board member) has taken conscious steps to improve the formation process, working with the idea of intercongregational formation, so that young people may continue to live in this area as they prepare themselves to discern. I am aware of young people in formation who were sent to the south and returned just because they could not adapt to the vast differences and not because they came to a clear understanding of their vocation. One might think this is a sign of immaturity, but being a minority and discriminated against is not easy for young people.

God grace as abundant as the waters

In the Amazon area, the rhythms of the waters play a very important role in the lives of all of us. The functioning of our parish, taking of produce to market, traveling to and from villages, finding education, health care, etc. –all these depend on the waters being ready to “take” us where we wish to go. The waters are a vital part of our lives, and God’s grace is like the waters—a vital part of our lives and for religious life in particular. We must do our part and give witness to our way of life, but religious vocations will be coming because God’s grace is the source of all vocation.

Many religious themselves are pessimistic about the future of religious life. Vocation promotion is getting harder and harder. It seems that young people have to be tantalized to be attracted to our way of life. In the future, will there be a religious life? Perhaps future forms may be different but, as long as we continue to give witness and to make ourselves available to accompany young people, they will come. We need to trust our good God and be open to God’s Spirit.

At a recent symposium about the Amazon, a well-known sociologist said that the future of the church (and I add of religious life) will depend on our options for living church. Will we be salt, leaven and light? Or will we seek out large numbers, imagining that rules and norms and filling stadiums will make the church grow? The northern Brazil habit of appreciating today’s moment, of sitting outside on a wooden bench to chat with neighbors in the evening, of sharing a small cup of cafezinho (strong sweet Brazilian coffee), of responding that the next village is “right down the path” (although it ends up being two kilometers!) and of believing in God’s project of justice and peace— these cultural characteristics will be assets for discernment to religious life if we can help our young people value who they are as Amazon youth. The grace of God is given in abundance, just as the Amazon waters are abundant.

Nancy Schramm, OSF is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Frankfort, Ill. Throughout her 27 years in the Amazon region of Brazil, she has been involved with parish ministry, youth ministry and formation work. Currently she lives with and accompanies the temporary professed of her congregation. She is on the board of directors of the Regional Conference of Religious and is a coordinator for the School for Formators of Religious Life in the Amazon region.

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