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A Conclave's Remote Reach

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page A19

The cardinals meeting beneath Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" to choose the next pope are seeking divine guidance, but I doubt there's a man present who doesn't realize he's at the heart of the best political story in the world right now. Will they choose a Third World pope and recognize demographic reality? Return to tradition and name an Italian? Will it be a conservative or a progressive? Would a black African pope play well to the faithful?

The cardinals' decision, though, is important beyond the political and even beyond the spiritual. It will have a tangible impact in the most unlikely places. As the cardinals filed into the Sistine Chapel, I thought of a reporting trip I once took to a mission in the remote Amazon.

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Did I say remote? I should have said basically inaccessible. To get there took a three-hour flight from Brasilia, then three punishing hours in the back of a pickup truck on a potholed asphalt road, then two more hours on a narrowing dirt track until we stopped at a river. I noticed that there was no bridge.

On the opposite bank stood a striking figure -- a tall man, tanned and muscular, in a -shirt, cutoffs and work boots. A cigarette dangled, movie-style, from his lips. He was a Catholic priest, the Rev. Guglielmo Damioli, and for a decade he had ministered to the Yanomami Indians.

We rafted our supplies across the river -- as I waded through the murky water I tried not to think of what might be down there, eyeing my bare legs -- and then loaded them into Damioli's truck, which was just what Indiana Jones would have driven, a vintage rattletrap that looked as if it might have survived the desert campaigns of World War II. It was dusk when we reached our destination: Mission Catrimani.

As we pulled up, dozens of Yanomami materialized from the shadows. All were naked or nearly so; each man or boy toted a weapon, either a spear or a bow and arrow. The Yanomami eagerly embrace selected modern technology they get from outsiders -- nylon fishing line and steel hooks; razor-sharp machetes; the occasional pair of rubber flip-flops. Otherwise, they live contentedly in the Stone Age.

The most important building in Damioli's shipshape, comfortable compound was a hospital, built to resemble a traditional Yanomami communal lodge. The two nuns who lived at the mission with Damioli were trained nurses, and the mission's primary work was medical.

Gold prospectors had invaded the Yanomami lands, polluting the rivers and bringing disease. The night I arrived, a malaria-stricken little girl named Lorena lay near death in the hospital. (The missionaries had given the Indians Christian names, although the Yanomami didn't use them.) I watched as the nuns administered modern remedies and then stepped back to let a local shaman perform his cure by candlelight.

I never saw Damioli prosyletize. He accepted the Yanomami's customs and mores, except one: When a Yanomami woman gave birth to twins she would abandon one baby and let it die; Damioli had persuaded the Indians to give the shunned babies to him, and if the mother refused to accept the child it would be taken to town for adoption.

Damioli was excited about one piece of news: His superiors at the Consolata Missionaries in Rome had agreed to spend more than $1,000 to buy a prosthesis for a Yanomami man who had lost a leg and was unable to hunt or fish. Before I left the mission, Lorena, the little girl with malaria, made it through her crisis and began to improve -- whether from the nuns' medicine or the shaman's, who can say?

The missionaries lived a hard life. Predators and poisonous snakes were nothing compared with the bicho do pe, a tiny parasite that burrows under your toenails and causes excruciating pain. For three nights I slept with my boots on.

At dusk Damioli would celebrate Mass. Amid the screech and chatter of unseen monkeys, as far from the modern world as you could get, the nuns would raise their sweet voices in song. It was one of the most poignant sounds I have ever heard.

That was what I thought of as the crimson-clad cardinals began their deliberations. The Roman Catholic Church is unique in its size, complexity and reach. It is able to deploy people with enough stamina and self-denial -- and, yes, enough faith -- to spend years in the middle of the jungle, bringing worldly succor to people who otherwise would perish. That's one big, undeniable reason why it matters whom the cardinals choose.

Even to people, like the Yanomami, who don't know the pope exists.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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