Since 1965, the Institute of the Consolata for Foreign Missions, originally from Turin and present in 28 countries, has had a mission among the Yanomamis in Brazil. The mission is currently led by the Italian priest Fr. Corrado Dalmolego, assisted by three women religious of the Institute’s female branch.
In a recent interview to the Internet portal Religión Digital,1 the Consolata missionary provided interesting details about his conception of a mission and his missionary activities, hoping that his example would serve as a model for the Vatican’s upcoming Pan-Amazonian Synod in October. His astonishing statements were accepted and endorsed by another missionary, the Madrid-based priest Fr. Luis Miguel Modino, active in the Diocese of São Gabriel da Cachoeira in the state of Amazonas (Brazil).
To understand the significance of the opinions expressed by Fr. Dalmolego, one should put oneself in the context of the Yanomami culture, in which he carries out his missionary activity.
The Yanomamis are an ethnic group composed of 20,000-30,000 indigenous people who live a primitive life in the rainforest. They live in the Mavaca River basin, along the tributaries of the Orinoco River, and in the Parima mountain range. This region straddles the south of Venezuela and the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Roraima. The Catrimani Mission of the Missionaries of the Consolata is located next to the river of the same name.
The natives live in small villages of 40 or 50 people. However, they are actually nomads who hunt with bows and arrows and grow a few crops on land that lasts two or three years. When the land is exhausted, the villagers plant elsewhere.
Their clothes are worn only as ornaments on their wrists and ankles, or as a ribbon around their waists. Upon entering puberty, the men of the tribe usually have several women, including teenagers. Men regularly consume the “Epená” plant or ferrule, which is a hallucinogenic substance. Shamans also use it in healing rituals as a means of identifying a disease by communicating with spirits.
Health is the biggest problem, especially infectious and parasitic diseases such as malaria. The leading cause of death among the Yanomami is malaria followed by hepatitis, diarrhea and tuberculosis. Respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis, are common; often suffered repeatedly every year. The almost nonexistent habit of cleaning and caring for their teeth (they do not brush) makes dental care a chronic problem.2
Infanticide is one deeply rooted “tradition” among the Yanomami. The mother carries it out when she moves away to give birth. She can then either welcome her newborn or kill the child by burying it alive. Infanticide eliminates children born with malformations or as a form of sex selection (males are preferred as a firstborn child). If twins are born, only one is allowed to live. If the two are males, the weaker one is killed. Twin killing is done simply to avoid taking care of two children simultaneously, as the children breastfeed for three years on average.3
The Yanomami have a haughty and warlike character.4 When warriors kill, they acquire the social status of unokai. Those who kill more enemies acquire greater prestige and more women. To attack villages of other tribes, they form alliances with strangers rather than with close relatives. Their war booty involves marrying sisters or daughters of their allies.5
One primitive custom of this ethnic group is ritual cannibalism. In a collective and sacred ritual funeral, they cremate the corpse of a dead relative and eat the ashes of the bones, mixing them with “pijiguao” paste (made with the fruit of a kind of palm tree). They believe that the deceased’s vital energy lies in the bones and is thus reintegrated into the family group.6 A Yanomami who kills an adversary in enemy territory also practices this form of cannibalism to purify himself.7
The missionary Fr. Corrado Dalmonego has been living in Catrimani for 11 years. Thus, he knows the Yanomami well. He sums up his attitude toward their religious beliefs as a culture that lives out “the experience of their own religiosity and spirituality.” Fr. Dalmonego believes that they can “even help the Church to cleanse herself perhaps from schemes, mental structures that may have become obsolete or inadequate.”
First, Fr. Dalmonego speculates that the Yanomami can help the Church to “defend this world” and to “build an integral ecology” by “establishing bridges between traditional knowledge and the modern, ecological knowledge of Western society.”
Secondly, the Yanomami can help the Church to improve her structures and exercise of authority so that the Church should “pay attention to how indigenous peoples live their community experience, social relations and leadership structures. For us, Yanomamis are witnesses that enable us to appreciate this value of community life,” the missionary says.
Finally, the Church is enriched “by research done on shamanism, mythologies, different knowledge, visions of the world, and visions of God.” This is because strong moments of dialogue help missionaries “discover the essence of our faith, often disguised by ornaments and cultural traditions.”
One form of spiritual enrichment is the Yanomami’s ability to “tend to put things together,” that is, they can invoke the God of the whites without giving up their own beliefs. “They do not give up but simply appropriate something else. Why should you not do this also as a Church?” the Consolata missionary asks. “On the one hand, this can be branded as syncretism or relativism,” he concedes. However, he concludes that “We do not own the truth.”
This new conception of the Church’s evangelizing action is thus reduced to a mere exercise in inter-religious dialogue. Fr. Corrado Dalmonego brags about an astonishing fact that any traditional missionary would consider a most bitter failure. He celebrates the fact that he is the director of “a mission of presence and dialogue,” in which no one has been baptized for 53 years!
For this reason, the Catrimani mission is serving as a reference point for the Vatican’s Pan-Amazonian Synod in October, because it is considered to be “a prophetic presence for the Church, which listens to the peoples.”
Such missionaries apparently do not care about what Jesus Christ may say when He sees His mandate to go and evangelize all peoples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” unfulfilled. Instead, they seem to listen to David Kopenawa,9 a Yanomami leader, who claims the Catrimani Mission was right in not contesting the Yanomami culture or condemning shamanism.
Hence, the Italian missionary believes the coming Synod is very important as a means to open people’s eyes to the Yanomami message since everyone’s attention will be fixed on the Amazon.
These sentiments seem entirely in sync with the plans of the Synod organizers. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, stated at the press conference presenting the Preparatory Document for the Special Assembly next October that his objective is “to find new pastoral paths for a Church with an Amazonian face, with a prophetic dimension in the search for ministries and more appropriate lines of action in a context of truly integral ecology.”
Aware of the rather cryptic character of his statement, Cardinal Baldisseri added: “It is Pope Francis who shows us the way to understand the expression ‘Amazonian face.’ In fact, in Puerto Maldonado, he says: ‘We who do not inhabit these lands, need your wisdom and knowledge to enter, without destroying the treasure that encloses this region, echoing the words of the Lord to Moses, ‘Take off your sandals, for the ground you are treading is a holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5).’”10
Cardinal Baldisseri continues, “as Pope Francis has said, the task of the new evangelization of the traditional cultures living in the Amazon and in other territories requires lending the poor ‘our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them’ (Evangeli Gaudium, No. 198).”11
More specifically, this communication with God takes place through shamans. In its subsection titled “Spirituality and Wisdom,” the preparatory document affirms that the “various spiritualities and beliefs” of indigenous peoples “motivate them to live a communion with the earth, water, trees, animals, with the day and the night” and that “the wise elders, indiscriminately called warlocks, masters, Wayanga or shamans—among others—promote people’s harmony with one another and with the cosmos.”12
The care of the environment, the document affirms, is one of the main areas where this ecclesial learning must be fulfilled: “The ecological conversion is to assume the mysticism of the interconnection and interdependence of all things created. … This is something that Western cultures can and perhaps should learn from traditional cultures in the Amazon and other territories and communities on the planet. They, the peoples, ‘have much to teach us’ (Evangeli Gaudium, No. 198). In their love for their land and their relationship with the ecosystems, they know God the Creator, source of life. … That is why Pope Francis has pointed out that ‘it is necessary for all of us to be evangelized by them’ and by their cultures.”13
The Consolata religious missionaries at the Catrimani Mission can sleep in peace. Pope Francis will not reproach them for not baptizing any Yanomami in 53 years. Perhaps they should become apprentice shamans and take a course on Yanomami rituals by David Kopenawa…
Last updated May 18, 2019.
- Dévora Margarita Marchén, Impacto socio-educativo de la misión salesiana entre los Yanomami del Alto Orinoco, https://www.monografias.com/trabajos75/impacto-socioeducativo-mision-salesiana-yanomami/impacto-socioeducativo-mision-salesiana-yanomami2.shtml.
- The German Erwin Frank has been studying the indigenous populations of America for 30 years. A professor at the Federal University of Roraima with a Ph.D. in anthropology, he has been researching the Amazonian Indians, and especially the Yanomami, for ten years. In an interview with Folha de S.Paulo, he said yesterday that infanticide is a tradition deeply rooted in the Yanomami culture. “This expresses the woman’s autonomy in deciding for the life or death of the child and functions as a form of selection for malformations and for the sex of the children,” he clarified. https://www.atini.org.br/infanticdio-nos-yanomami/.
- Débora Margarita Marchán, op. cit.
- Judith de Jorge, “La guerra de los Yanomami: lucha conmigo y me caso con tu hermana,” El País, Oct. 28, 2014, https://www.abc.es/ciencia/20141028/abci-guerra-yanomami-lucha-conmigo-201410281215.html.
- Jesús María Aparicio Gervás and Charles David Tilley Bilbao, Endocannibalism in the funeral rituals of Yanomamo´s people, at http://www5.uva.es/trim/TRIM/TRIM8_files/TRIM8_4.pdf.
- Joanna Overing, “Images of Cannibalism, Death, and Domination in a ‘Non-Violent’ Society,” Journal de la société des américanistes, Vol. 72, 1986, p. 151, in https://www.persee.fr/doc/jsa_0037-9174_1986_num_72_1_1001.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a philosopher from Geneva. Among his fallacies was the idea that man was born into an ideal state of nature in which he operated according to his instincts. Rousseau’s term for this proverbial character was the “noble savage.” Over time, Rousseau hypothesized, those instincts were corrupted by contact with society and religion.
- David Kopenawa is known as the “Jungle’s Dalai Lama” and acts as the international spokesman for the Yanomami. In his highly publicized travels through Western capitals, he says he is advised by “xapiri” (spirits of the Amazon jungle).
- “Nuevos caminos para la Iglesia y para una ecología integral. Documento preparatorio del Sínodo de los Obispos para la Asamblea Especial sobre la Región Panamazónica”, n° 13, http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/es/bollettino/pubblico/2018/06/08/panam.html.
- Ibid, No. 6.
- Ibid, No. 13.