Memories of a mission

In 1963, a group of six Irish Spiritan priests set out on the long missionary journey to Brazil to work in a number of already established parish communities in the country’s interior.

The move was in response to Pope John XXIII’s appeal for missionaries to Latin America to combat communism and counteract the inroads of evangelical sects, seen, in part, due to the scarcity of Catholic priests on the continent at that time.

Among the first group to arrive in Brazil was Fr Patrick Dundon CSSp (77). “There was a real buzz about Latin America at the time,” the Dublin born missionary told me, admitting he had secretly hoped to be one of the newly ordained Spiritans chosen to go.

The Pope’s call

“I was fired up by the Pope’s call and the new need for missionaries to the continent, so I was really thrilled when I heard the news I was going. It was the sense of newness and adventure that excited me. It really was pioneering at the time,” he said.

Despite the 22-day-long boat journey to Brazil and the difficulties of communication upon arrival, Fr Dundon claimed “home never entered our heads”, while the arrival of a further 32 Irish priests during that decade contributed to establishing a “tremendous family spirit”.

The veteran missionary described his time in Brazil as “a gift”. “It was a joy to have lived to see the Church being what it was called to be,” he said.

It was not all plain sailing however for Irish missionaries in Latin America. Two revolutions were brewing in Brazil when the Spiritans arrived on the scene; one on the political level and the other in the Church.

The political revolution occurred suddenly. In a bloodless coup d’état, the army, supported by the middle class and backed by the US, overthrew the government on April 1, 1964.

Human rights

Human rights were severely violated under the oppressive military regime that ensued for the following twenty years. The Spiritans, however, were to take a stand for social justice and, in doing so, earned the respect of the poor and oppressed as defenders of their rights.

Dubliner Fr Phil Doyle CSSp (77), was reunited with confrères in São Paulo last month for the first time in over 35 years, and remembers living in the country during the military dictatorship.

“In those days people who worked with the poor were considered subversive. They did not want us making the poor conscious of their reality,” he informed me.

Fr Doyle spoke about the great spirit of the Brazilian people despite many of them living in extreme poverty. “The people I worked with often had nothing other than four pieces of cardboard in a Favela (slum). It was poverty at its worst but despite it all they had hope. We were just another link in the chain to help them continue,” he said.

The years of the dictatorship were, paradoxically, years of growing influence for the Church with the Brazilian people. The welcomed return of these much loved missionaries following decades pursuing missionelsewhere is testament to that fact, as is their unceasing affection for Irish Spiritans who never left.

Fr John Horan CSSp (76) arrived in Brazil just after the close of the reforming Second Vatican Council, when “changes were just beginning”.

Exciting years

“They were exciting years to be a missionary,” the Tipperary native admitted.

Latin America was quick to implement the new model of Church as ‘the people of God’ proposed by the council, which saw the laity as co-responsible for spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps more important again was the Conference of Latin American Bishops held at Medellin, Columbia, in 1968. That meeting committed the Latin American Church to the ‘option for the poor’ and denounced oppressive social structures.

Fr Horan noted that there was also a move away from theorising theology at that time, towards a new more practical method. “You saw the reality of the situation, judged what was happening and then you would try to act,” he said.

The retired missionary spoke about the difficulties he experienced during the early stages of the Spiritan mission in Brazil. After just two years in the country he was thrust into a community as parish priest, which was too early in his opinion. “I didn’t have the pastoral experience in a foreign country just yet. I wasn’t able to read certain situations, the culture or the politics,” he admitted.


However, looking back now, he believes “strong relationships” with parishioners helped him survive.

“Brazil is a place where everyone suffers, even the priest. You can’t be afraid to get your shoes dirty,” he said. “It was all for the service of the Church,” he added.

Early in the 1970s a decision was taken to gradually phase out pastoral work in rural Brazil and move to serve migrants in the rapidly expanding periphery regions of large cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife.

“It was a case of moving to where the need was greater,” according to Fr Vincent McDevitt CSSp (73) who arrived in Brazil in 1971. “It was difficult at first, but the reason for the move was to meet the challenge of suffering in the cities,” Fr McDevitt said.

“City life was a totally new experience for most of our priests who were of rural origin. In the small towns where we had been you were immediately recognisable, whereas moving into the periphery of the big cities it was easy to become lost in the middle of it all,” he said.

In those early years, Irish Spirtians in Brazil participated primarily in pastoral work in small basic ecclesiastical communities which would be handed over to the relevant diocese at a later stage once certain standards had been met.


Further developments in later decades saw the congregation specialise in other methods of evangelisation including formation, spirituality, youth leadership and counselling, while continuing their ministry to the poor.

The order has now been out of direct parish administration in Brazil since 2012 which “has allowed the congregation the flexibility and availability to see mission outside the box”. That’s according to Formation Director and Group Leader of the Irish Circumscription in Brazil, Fr Maurice Shortall CSSp (49).

“The role of the Spiritan today is not to do the work of a diocesan priest,” he said, rather “to see new areas of mission in the world”.

Looking to the future, Fr Shortall believes the congregation can continue to make a significant contribution provided there is “closer collaboration and integration with the Brazilian province”. “I think we can bring a lightness and a missionary dimension to the province, and a certain creativity to seek out new mission for the Spiritans,” he said.

The Brazil based Superior is unconcerned by a shortage of vocations. “It’s not about how many parishes you are able to staff or territories you are able to hold down. It’s about people who are attracted to living as a religious missionary in the Spiritan tradition,” he said.


Spiritan Vocations Director, Fr Brendan Foley CSSp agrees that “it’s not a numbers game”. Rather, he sees it as “small mission steps towards sowing seeds of vocational awareness to the Church and missionary life”.

Fr Foley is more concerned with the quality of leadership in the Church “that leads to ministry formation for lay people”. “The quicker we get into that realm of faith based living and allow lay people to come forward to assume their roles, the quicker the church will breathe on two lungs,” he said.


Lay leadership has been at the heart of the Irish Spiritan’s mission in Brazil and has been one of the greatest contributing factors to the congregation’s successful evangelising efforts.

From what I have witnessed during my time in São Paulo, the Irish Spiritans have an unrivalled ability to engage lay people in active ministry within the Church and to animate young people in such a way that they are not merely products of mission, but become agents of mission themselves.

The Irish Spiritans have given a voice to the laity in Brazil over the past 50 years and, in doing so; have contributed to liberating the Latin American Church from crisis of clericalism that has infiltrated the Church elsewhere.


The Church in Brazil has admittedly transgressed in recent years under consecutive conservative hierarchies. However, the hope among the Brazilian people now is that under the current papacy, the Church in Brazil can return to its foundational roots, which Irish missionaries have been instrumental in developing.

Irish Spiritans have been present in Brazil during the some of the most vitally important junctures in the country’s struggle for enlightened faith, freedom, justice and peace. Their immense contribution to date will undoubtedly ensure their presence there for years to come.