Seeking the ‘Church of the poor’ in Brazil

Cathal Barry visits missionary projects in Sao Paulo

When western Catholics visualise the Church in Latin America they very often picture a vibrant scene full of bright young people confidentlybearing witness to their faith. This is true to a certain extent, at least in poorer areas of South America. However, the Latin American Church is not without crises.

I have been in São Paulo, Brazil for almost a week now visiting projects established and run by Irish missionary priests working in what is one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. The Spiritans, known to most as the Holy Ghost fathers, do phenomenal work in São Paulo, evangelising some of the world’s poorest in the city’s slums, tenements and prisons.

National youth rally

On Mission Sunday, October 20, I attended the national youth rally in São Paulo along with around a thousand other young Catholics. Wowed by the large numbers at first, the unimpressed faces of my guides informed me that all was perhaps not so well. Apparently the thousand or so youths that turned out for the march to Sao Paulo’s Catedral da Sé was disappointing compared to previous years when up to 15,000 young people would throng the city’s streets celebrating their faith. Given the some 17 million people residing in São Paulo, a thousand young Catholics is admittedly not much to boast about.


Questioning the fall off, I was told the overly conservative hierarchy just do not appeal to the masses here in a country so steeped in Liberation Theology. I understand the Archbishop of Sáo Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer is well liked among the wealthy and those based in the city where conservatism is somewhat centralised.

However, beyond the massive metropolis, out in the peripheries, Sáo Paulo’s poorest are used to a different type of Church. A Church, as Pope Francis has said, “for the poor”.

“There is too much distance between the cardinal and the people,” one young man from the peripheries told me. “He needs to walk with the poor,” another girl said.

Speaking to others confirmed that the problem of clericalism is clearly not just confined to Europe and has already begun to sweep Latin America too.

However, the hope here is now that Pope Francis is on the scene, his understanding of Latin America and love for the poor will eventually filter from the top down. That, combined with the continuing work of missionary priests such as the Irish Spiritans, will surely provide the perfect antidote to clericalism in South America, and ensure the Faith here for years to come.


Football and the favelas

Hosting the FIFA World Cup next year followed by the Olympic Games in 2016 will undoubtedly do great things for the Brazilian economy, generating a fortune for the tourism industry at least. However, intensive construction as part of work to revamp the countyís infrastructure before the major sporting events begin has seen slums demolished and communities displaced after literally being bulldozed out of their own homes.

S„o Pauloís favelas are just some of the slums being levelled in Brazil by civil authorities attempting to clear the way for the construction of massive stadiums, shopping malls and multi storey car parks to meet FIFAís lofty demands.

Within these slums are communities that have existed for decades. They are home to some of the worldís poorest, people whose lives could be drastically improved if even a fraction of the substantial investment being made to make S„o Paulo World Cup worthy was redistributed and invested in them.


Memories of the Spiritans

I have enjoyed grappling with Portuguese during my time here in Brazil and have on occasion been struck by the beauty and power of certain expressions and phrases which do not really compare when translated into English.

Given I am here as part of the Jubilee celebrations of the Irish Spiritansí mission to Brazil, there has been a great deal of talk about the past among the priests who are enjoying being reunited with old friends and bringing old memories back to life again. One missionary described it as ëfazendo memÛriaí, which translates literally ëdoing memoryí. The phrase in Portuguese, however, captures the true sense of memory, not merely the retelling, but the reliving of the memories, of which these missionaries have so many.