Msgr. Ulrich Steiner: “I hope to be the voice and gesture of Pope Francis in the Amazon.”

Tomorrow afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, during the Consistory, Pope Francis will proceed to the creation of the new cardinals with the imposition of the biretta, the presentation of the ring and the assignment of the Title or Diaconia. Among them will be Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, Friar Minor and Archbishop of Manaus, Brazil.

Br. Gustavo Medella, Vicar of the Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception in Brazil, interviewed him for “Franciscan Morning.” 

Msgr. Ulrich Steiner said he was taken by surprise by the announcement, spoke about Franciscan spirituality and the challenges facing the Amazon, especially on the issue of the environment. 

Archbishop Ulrich Steiner was born on November 6, 1950, in Forquilhinha, SC. He entered the Order of Friars Minor on January 20, 1972 and was admitted to the Novitiate of the Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception of Brazil. On January 21, 1978, he was ordained a priest at the hands of the Franciscan Archbishop of São Paulo, Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns, his cousin. On Feb. 2, 2005, he was appointed bishop of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia in Mato Grosso, being ordained on April 16. On May 10, 2011, he was elected secretary general of the CNBB (Brazilian National Episcopal Conference), and on Sept. 21 of that year he was appointed auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Brasilia. On April 20, 2015, he was re-elected secretary general of the CNBB. His term ended on May 10, 2019. On Nov. 27, 2019, Pope Francis accepted the resignation request submitted by Archbishop Sergio Eduardo Castriani from the pastoral governance of the Archdiocese of Manaus (AM) and appointed Archbishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner as the new archbishop.

Pope Francis, during the Regina Coeli prayer on Sunday, May 29, announced your appointment as one of the Church’s new cardinals. How did you receive this news?

With surprise, because I was not contacted beforehand, there was no official communication that I would be appointed, and I was not following the Pope’s prayer that day, because on Sunday mornings I speak live on a radio station in Manaus, Radio Difusora. So, I learned about it through other people and it was a surprise, a pleasant surprise. What can I say? The joy of the peoples of the Amazon region! I did not think that for them the appointment of one of their bishops as a cardinal for the Amazon region was so important. It is as if they also feel included in this occasion.

What does this choice mean for the Catholic Church in the Amazon?

Pope Francis has always been interested in the Amazon. Whenever the presidency of the CNBB, of which I was a member, visited him, he always addressed the issue of the Amazon. The pontiff even convened a synod for the region. So, the Pope really cares about the Amazon, the Church in the Amazon, but also about the whole reality that makes up this vast region. Then, in the document “Querida Amazonia,” he addressed the different dimensions of a great reality, as “four dreams” that he has for this region. I think that with my appointment, being here in Manaus, Pope Francis thought of the Brazilian Amazon. I don’t consider it my merit, I don’t have any, but he is the one who cares about this region. I hope to respond to this call by being his voice and gesture here in this region of the Amazon.

In practice, what are the new commitments and tasks that come with your selection as Cardinal?

It will depend on the Holy Father. But the closest commitment is the trust he has in me, representing the Amazon, to be someone who can collaborate with him in his ministry. He said, “I appoint you so that you can help in the exercise of my ministry as Bishop of Rome.” I hope to be able to give that collaboration, being here in Manaus, and I also hope to help Pope Francis implement the guidelines he expressed in the document “Querida Amazonia.” 

Msgr. Leonardo, you are a friar of the Province of the Immaculate Conception and a blood relative of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who is also a fellow citizen of yours, having both been born in Forquilhinha (SC). You were ordained bishop by Archbishop Paulo. How did Bishop Paulo inspire your mission in the Church as a bishop and will now inspire you as a cardinal?

I owe a lot as a person, as a friar, as a bishop, to the formation, to the education I received in my family, but also to the education I received in the first school, a school run by religious women. A school that was born through the initiative of the small community of Forquilhinha, a school that Cardinal Paulo also attended. I also owe a lot to the formation I received in the Province of the Immaculate Conception, in its seminaries and then especially in the studies of philosophy and theology. I think Cardinal Paulo and I have these two basic elements in common: a family and religious formation coming from the community, from the school we attended, but also a formation coming from our Province. 

I got to know him more closely after becoming a friar. What always inspired me about Bishop Paulo was his closeness to communities in the peripheries, his care for the poor, and a word he always used in every homily: peace. He was a fighter for peace, a peacemaker, a proclaimer of peace. His way of speaking, his way of preaching, was very evocative. And also his whole struggle in terms of Brazilian democracy. He was an important person, like other bishops, of course. 

What can we expect from a friar minor, from a son of St. Francis, as a cardinal of the Church?

That close collaboration that the Pope expects from us. I hope to be faithful to the magisterium of Pope Francis, and here in the Amazon we have so many issues dear to Franciscans. For example, the issue of the environment is difficult and serious. Also the issue of garimpo [illegal activity of gem seekers, whose purpose is to locate and plunder mineral deposits]. We have rivers where mercury is so present that it threatens the indigenous people who live by fishing and bathing in the river. Mercury enters, upon immersion in water, through the navel. So even breast milk is now contaminated with mercury. Our body is not able to eliminate mercury, and so a very serious problem arises. Indigenous peoples and our river brethren are in danger! As a friar, I hope to give this cooperation to help open our eyes to this reality, which is driven by human greed. There are, however, many other people, thank God, starting with the indigenous and riverine peoples, who have another way of thinking about the environment. 

Our Father St. Francis was the man of simplicity and poverty, of living with little, but also of knowing how to live with the environment, where creatures are brothers and sisters. In this sense, I hope to make my contribution through Franciscan spirituality.

You have already mentioned some serious challenges in the Amazon region in relation to environmental degradation and native peoples. Besides these, what are the other pressing challenges when it comes to the Amazon?

Regarding the environment, we have other difficulties: the issue of deforestation, the advance of the agribusiness sector, but also the issue of mining. Because our region is rich in resources, such as niobium (Brazil is the largest producer of this metal), there is a greed internationally for the Amazon. But there is also greed for timber. We export it, sometimes illegally, and that is why Minister Salles fell. 

The indigenous peoples also feel deeply attacked, while they have enormous wealth, and they feel in great danger from this advance into the Amazon rainforest. Their space, their land, or rather their home, is being attacked and destroyed. By destroying these small peoples, these small groups, we are losing cultures, we are losing lives. 

In addition to this very serious problem, we have the problem of health. Health here is very precarious and, often, to find some extra services, people have to travel long distances to reach the city of Manaus. When, for example, we wanted to transport the body of Dom Alcimar, Bishop Emeritus of Alto Solimões, we took a small plane for more than three hours of flight time. You can imagine the distances. Now, if you travel along rivers, how long does it take? At the time of the pandemic, there was no possibility to provide assistance inside, and Manaus could not support everyone, besides the fact that there was a lack of oxygen.

Another very serious problem we have is that of violence. Here in Manaus there is a lot of violence, the dispute between groups is very strong. And a difficulty that is more characteristic of us, of the city of Manaus, which has more than 2 million inhabitants (half the population of the Amazon), is the issue of the suburbs. It is poor, disorganized, the result of occupation. So, you occupy it, you don’t take care of the environment, you don’t take care of the waterways. And then there is the issue of asphalt, electricity, sewage, which is still a very serious problem. We have not reached 20 percent sewage, drinking water and basic sanitation. So in a city of over 2 million people, you can imagine what it means for our waterways and rivers, what it means for the waste that ends up in the rivers, and what it means for the plastic that, with the lack of waste collection, ends up in the ocean. These are some of the issues that we are concerned about and have been trying to warn people about so that we can move forward and have a more harmonious and peaceful Amazon.

Would you like to leave one last message?

May God bless everyone and may we walk together as a Church. May we, starting from the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, be a presence of peace, a presence that builds and elevates life in its fullness.

Source: Provincia Franciscana da Imaculada Conceição do Brasil – OFM

Read the full interview in Portuguese here