SÃO PAULO – Announced as one of the 21 new cardinals that Pope Francis will create on August 27, Brazilian Archbishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of Manaus is expected by many in the region as the voice of the Amazon in the Vatican.
As Secretary General of the Brazilian Episcopal Conference between 2011 and 2019, he followed all the preparatory work for the Amazon Synod, which took place in the Vatican in 2019, but his contacts with the region began years earlier.
Born in 1950 in the state of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, he was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1978 – by Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, his cousin – and in 2005 he was ordained bishop, appointed to the prelature of Sao Felix do Araguaia.
Located in the state of Mato Grosso in the Amazon, São Félix do Araguaia is a notoriously conflicted area where peasants and indigenous peoples have always been attacked by large landowners. The prelature was administered by the bishop of Catalan origin Pedro Casaldáliga since 1971.
A liberation theology activist, Casaldáliga was known for his persistent advocacy of the poor and his criticism of power structures, including within the Church, which sometimes caused friction.
“After Bishop Casaldáliga resigned, the Apostolic Nuncio asked him to leave São Félix when Steiner arrived,” Bishop Edson Damian recalled from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas state.
Steiner not only told Casaldáliga to continue living in the prelature, but also announced that they would live in the same house, Damian said. “He kind of showed that he and Casaldáliga share the same ideas.”
Steiner’s tough stances on pastoral and social issues have helped make him a strong voice in the media, said Spanish-born Fr. Luis Miguel Modino, communications officer for the North 1 Regional Chapter of the Episcopal Conference.
“It is not a bishop who sits on the fence. When he speaks, people hear him. Since becoming Archbishop of Manaus, he has delivered a strong and prophetic message,” he said. Node.
Steiner has faced two major crises since 2020: growing rainforest devastation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both have been compounded by political movements supporting President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies, who have downplayed the severity of the pandemic and encouraged economic development in the rainforest.
The record number of forest fires in the Amazon in recent years has had a severe impact on Manaus, the region’s main urban center with more than 2.2 million inhabitants.
People from the surrounding area suffering from smoke-induced illnesses are often sent to town, and displaced riverine and indigenous communities often travel to Manaus in search of work.
Once COVID hit, Manaus became one of the epicenters of the pandemic in Brazil. The general lack of healthcare infrastructure in the Amazon region caused the flooding of thousands of patients in the city’s hospitals, which quickly collapsed.
Federal and state inaction has made the situation worse. Instead of responding to the emergency, Bolsonaro’s administration sent so-called “prevention kits” to Manaus – drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, whose effectiveness in treating COVID has not not been scientifically proven.
“The president even said that it was not the task of the federal government to send oxygen to Manaus. How is it possible? It’s absurd. We see that the limit to ignorance has been lost, the limit to actions against the population has been lost. They were elected to take care of the people, but that’s not what’s happening,” Steiner said later in an interview with the Brazilian news site. Tutameia.
Despite his steadfastness, Steiner “proved his ability to avoid political polarization and continued to exercise peaceful leadership,” said Fr. Zenildo Lima da Silva, rector of the seminary of the Archdiocese of Manaus.
“He wasted no time responding to his detractors. He has worked with the church to organize giving campaigns and to obtain national and international aid. Thus, Manaus centralized relief in several other regions of the Amazon,” da Silva added.
During the worst phase of the pandemic, Steiner organized spiritual assistance for patients and families of the dead in church communities and funeral homes. At the same time, it participates in the distribution of medicines and medical equipment.
“He was so worried about the whole thing. Once I saw him personally helping unload a truck with oxygen bottles,” Modino recalls.
Steiner usually gets his hands dirty, although he doesn’t like publicizing this approach, Modino added. “He has promoted the pastoral care of the homeless a lot in Manaus and sometimes participates in the distribution of hot meals,” he said.
In April, Steiner was named president of the Special Episcopal Commission for the Amazon. He is also vice-president of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon Region (CEAMA).
“He has a deep commitment to the poor and to the Amazon. Bishop Steiner is committed to a synodal and ministerial path, which can face the current challenges of the Church,” said CEAMA member Sister Laura Manso.
Damian said that since the synod on the Amazon, many church members in the region have been waiting for a local cardinal.
“Cardinals speak directly to the pope. Pope Francis is worried about the Amazon and will certainly listen to Steiner on themes like deforestation, land invasion, disrespect for indigenous peoples,” the Bishop said.
Da Silva said Steiner’s appointment as cardinal will further expedite the implementation of some of the decisions of the Amazon synod.
“He is very involved in the debate on new ministries,” he said.
At the same time, he will be able to bring some of the elements of the Amazon church to the global church.
“The Amazon debate is not only about the Amazon for the Pope. This is about the dynamics that the Amazon church can indicate for the church as a whole,” da Silva said.
The pope’s nomination of Steiner is a sign of such a prospect, Modino said.
“Manaus is not a major reference in the Brazilian ecclesial sphere. But the importance of the Amazon for the church and for the world is gigantic now,” the priest said.