The diocese of Rio Branco covers a vast area of over 104,000 km2 in the west of Brazil. Large areas of the diocese lie in the rainforest; it is an impenetrable region, with vast distances and many places accessible only by river boat. Of the approximately 602,000 inhabitants of the region around 450,000 are Catholics. There is a grave shortage of priests here, with just 26 diocesan priests and 28 priests from the religious orders to minister to so many people.
Fundamentalist sects are spreading rapidly, even into the jungle regions, led by preachers with the flimsiest of training and plentiful financial resources, who promise the people miracles.
Perhaps the best-known figure in the Catholic Church in this region was until recently the Italian missionary Father Paolino Baldassarri, who worked for almost 70 years in Brazil, most of this time in the Amazon region. He died on 8th April 2016 at the age of 90, already acclaimed as a saint by the people. Even at the age of almost 90 he continued to travel long journeys deep into the rainforest in his simple boat, in order to minister to the people. He always wore a life jacket and motorcycle helmet on these journeys, for he could not even swim. Even at this advanced age he also continued to practise as a doctor, treating and helping innumerable people.
When he first arrived in the region, almost half a century ago, he almost succumbed to malaria in his very first week. But miraculously he survived and soon began visiting the riverside settlements in the rainforest in a simple wooden canoe. Owing to the shortage of priests, many families had more or less abandoned their Catholic faith, and Father Paolino brought them back to it. By the time he died, the people in his parish were 100% Catholics. In one of his letters he wrote that in these isolated jungle communities “the seed of the Kingdom of God is real, which in the towns is concealed by our notions of enlightenment and progress and our dominant and all-powerful television.”
His example shows just how vital is the presence of priests among the people and what good fruits their ministry can produce. And yet it is becoming harder and harder to find missionaries from abroad. For one thing, most of the religious communities in the Western nations are experiencing fewer and fewer vocations, but on the other, Dom Joaquín Pertíñez Fernández, the Bishop of Rio Branco is also very conscious that what is needed is native Brazilian priests, who are accustomed to the challenging conditions of the rainforest regions.
(Some of the seminarians with the bishop © Aid to the Church in Need)
At the present time there are 16 young men from his diocese who are training for the priesthood. The diocese is poor and so Bishop Joaquín has turned to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for help. ACN have promised to assist Bishop Joaquín with a grant of $9,600.
The vital work of Catholic charities like Aid to the Church In Need provide a lifeline to the Church wherever she is poor, persecuted or threatened. Please help our work by donating online or send your donation to Aid to the Church in Need, PO Box 7246 Baulkham Hills NSW 2153. Ph: (02) 9679-1929