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story.lead_photo.caption Cardinal Michael Czerny holds a copy of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation "Querida Amazonia" written by Pope Francis during a press conference at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Roman Catholic priests, deacons and bishops across the Amazon voiced surprise, resignation and reluctant acceptance of Pope Francis' refusal to allow married men to be ordained priests, saying their faithful will continue to be deprived of Mass and subject to competing evangelical churches that have made inroads in the region.

Francis sidestepped the issue in his big document on the Amazon released Wednesday. While he officially presented recommendations by the Amazon's church hierarchy to consider ordaining married permanent deacons, he refused to endorse the idea as a way to address an acute priest shortage in the region, where the faithful can go months or years without a Mass.

That didn't rule out the proposal entirely, but it certainly didn't embrace it, as many had hoped Francis would after a three-week synod in October at the Vatican devoted to the plight of the world's largest rain forest and its indigenous peoples.

Ferney Pereira, a 30-year-old deacon from the Ticuna indigenous group, was surprised Francis didn't explicitly address the issue of married priests. Currently, priests find their way to his village -- accessible only by boat on the Amazon River and home to about 1,000 people -- just once every several months.

"We need more priests to deliver the sacraments," Pereira, who is unmarried, told The Associated Press by phone from his village, Nazareth. "Our cathecists are able to do some work, but we really need more priests to accompany indigenous communities."

Meantime, neighboring villages are visited often by evangelical missionaries and Jehovah's Witnesses, who have preached against indigenous rituals and managed to convert some people.

Dom Erwin Krautler, an Austrian bishop who has spent the past 55 years in Brazil's Amazon, has long defended the view that married men should be eligible for priesthood. Now based in Altamira in Para state, he says there are 30 priests for a diocese the size of Germany and about 800 far-flung communities.

Itinerant priests don't have the same relationship with local communities as those who live there, such as evangelical pastors, he said. Faced with the rapid expansion of evangelicals in Brazil, bishops in the region realized the church needs a deeper bond, or, as Krautler calls it, an "Amazonian face."

In the 1970s, Brazil was more than 90% Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. That number has plunged as evangelical faiths gained ground and, in the most recent census of 2010, was below 65%. A December survey by pollster Datafolha of almost 3,000 Brazilians found just half declared themselves Catholic, and some experts say Catholicism will be overtaken by evangelical faiths in just over a decade.

Omar Mateo, a priest at the Senor de los Milagros Sanctuary, said he attended a meeting with the archbishop of nearby Guayaquil on Wednesday to analyze how many permanent deacons there are in each of Ecuador's Amazon vicariates. Five of six have none.

That finding underscored that the problem isn't prohibiting married deacons from becoming priests, but a widespread lack of people pursuing church leadership roles in the Amazon. Pope Francis, in a footnote to his "Beloved Amazon" letter, noted that local missionaries tend to go to Europe or the U.S. rather than remain in their own vicariates in the Amazon.

Only 29% of Catholics in Ecuador agreed that priests should be allowed to marry, according to a separate 2013-14 survey by Pew. That was the least among countries with Amazon rainforest after Peru, where 28% backed the proposal. Support was highest in Brazil, at 56%.

Information for this article was contributed by Manuel Rueda, Diane Jeantet, Franklin Briceno and Gonzalo Solano of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/15/2020

Print Headline: The Amazon struggles with pope's message

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