Pope appoints first cardinal from Amazon rainforest


When the Brazilian Archbishop of Manaus Leonardo Steiner kneels before Pope Francis on August 27, the Brazilian cleric will make history as the first cardinal from the Amazon region.

“Communities feel that the gap between Rome and the Amazon is now smaller,” Steiner told The Associated Press in a written interview. “Perhaps this is the reason why the people of Amazon are delighted with the move of Pope Francis.”

Steiner attributed his selection to four of the pope’s priorities: the desire to do more missionary work in the Amazon and attention to the poor; care for the Amazon “as our common home” and as a church that “knows how to contribute to indigenous autonomy.”

Spanning nine countries, the Amazon region is larger than the European Union. It is home to 34 million people, of which more than three million are indigenous, of about 400 ethnic groups, according to the Catholic Church.

Thereby, there is a religious lens to see the fierce environmental struggles taking place in the region: The Catholic Church’s social environmental agenda is a contentious issue with Brazil’s many Pentecostal churches. These people have a powerful caucus in the Brazilian Congress and have accepted the pro-agribusiness caucus in the National Assembly. Both Pentecostalists and livestock proponents belong to President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right political base.

Cardinals are the most senior clerics under the pope. Often called “red hats” because of the color of the skull cap, they act as the Pope’s advisors. More importantly, they together choose each pope, the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

To church watchers, it should come as no surprise that Francis has finally appointed an Amazonian cardinal, given the region’s importance to his pontificate and the attention he has received. show.


Francis was first moved by the plight of the vast Amazon basin in 2007, during the Episcopal Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, according to Brazilian priest and historian Jose Oscar Beozzo. At the time, Francis was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and helped write the official report of the conference. The final text advocates the conservation of both the Amazon and Antarctica.

Pope Francis then dedicated the entire Synod, or meeting, of bishops from the region in 2019. In an environmental awakening, crystallized in his 2015 encyclical “Praised Be,” he advocates the conservation of the area’s biodiversity and portrays indigenous peoples as guardians of the forest. In 2018, he also visited Madre de Dios, an area in the Peruvian Amazon devastated by illegal logging and logging.

The pope appointed Steiner archbishop of Manaus shortly after the Amazon Synod concluded, tapping a Franciscan friar who clearly shares the same characteristics and ideology as the pope’s name, St. Francis. The pope may have noticed Steiner because he holds a prominent position in the Brazilian bishops’ conference and was secretary general of the bishops’ conference from 2011-19. He also holds many Roman degrees, having served as general secretary of the Pontifical Antonianum University of the Franciscan Order in Rome, one of the major Pontifical universities.


The Amazon Synod also drew attention for the theft of three indigenous statues of a naked pregnant woman who were part of a procession in the Vatican at the start of the meeting. Conservative critics fanned the synod’s prayers and idolatry, and early one morning thieves entered a church in the Vatican area, where statues are on display and throw them into the Tiber River.

Francis publicly apologized to the Indigenous leaders present for the theft, and the statues were dredged from the river in time to close the meeting. One was prominently displayed in the hall as the synod fathers voted on the final recommendations.

The main thief, Austrian far-right activist Alexander Tschuguel, has become a well-known figure in the traditional opposition to Francis for his stunt. In the years since, stunting itself has become the crystallization of the loathing conservatives and traditionalists have for this pope, where even crimes are justified. to save believers from his “evil cult”.


The Catholic Church’s relationship with the Amazon began in 1617 when Franciscan missionaries arrived on the Belem coast. Their opposition to the enslavement of the Indigenous peoples strained relations with the Portuguese authorities, who expelled Catholic missionaries from the area three times, the last time. in 1759.

Initially, Catholic denominations required missionaries to learn indigenous languages ​​to work in the Amazon and spread Christianity. The Jesuits went further when they created Nheengatu, a language based on the Tupi Indigenous language adapted with Portuguese words and grammar. For a time, it became the most common language in the Amazon and is still spoken in some regions.

For Beozzo, the historian, Pope Francis is promoting a kind of “patriarchy” in the Amazon, similar to the five patriarchies in places like Jerusalem and Constantinople during the early Middle Ages, an attempt to elevate Amazon’s status in Catholic circles. structure.

The synod, the establishment of the Church Assembly of the Amazon Region in 2020 and now the height of Steiner are all part of Pope Francis’ goal to center the world’s largest rainforest by 2020, Beozzo said.

“His choice begins a very important moment in considering the Amazon as an ecclesiastical region of its own, one that welcomes the prominence of the indigenous peoples of the region.”

Steiner, 71, is one of 21 new cardinals announced by Pope Francis at the end of May. They include Giorgio Marengo, who served as apostolic bishop of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego, and Peter Okpaleke, bishop of Ekwulobia, Nigeria.

Winfield reported from Rome.

The Associated Press’s climate and environment coverage receives support from a number of private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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