Spiritan projects

Cathal Barry visits missionary projects set up by Irish Spiritans in Brazil

The slums of São Paulo are like no other place on Earth. They are home to some of the world’s poorest living in harsh conditions against a backdrop of violence and corruption.

Drugs and disease are rampant within these Brazilian shanty towns, while cramped living conditions ensure there is no escape for their imprisoned inhabitants.

Maze-like streets seem to narrow as you navigate your way further into the heart of these favelas (slums). The reverberating sounds of samba coupled with the wafting smell of Brazilian barbecue begin to dim the din of traffic and the outside world.

As these slums seem to swallow you whole once you are inside, a sharp pinch is regularly needed to remind yourself that this is reality.

The favela's of Vila Prudente on the outskirts of São Paulo's city centre are shunned even by the Brazilian police who don't dare to enter. However, for Co. Sligo born Spiritan missionary Fr Michael Foody (65), these slums are a second home.

Fr Foody is responsible for Small Basic Christian Communities within the Pastoral areas of Nossa Senhora de Aparecida and São José.

The Aparecida favela is all consuming. Closely stacked iron containers and wooden shacks prevent any sunlight from penetrating the slum’s flimsy walls. The damp darkness inside seems to engulf you and gives the immediate impression you have just stepped into an underground community.

However, deep inside the imposing shanty town, at the heart of the community, is a small Spiritan built chapel. This is where the favela’s faithful come to celebrate Mass and where young Spiritan seminarians provide catechetical classes for slum children.

A similar project has been established by the Spiritans in the São José favela where the congregation have built a large church and a community centre dedicated to the much loved ÓscarRomero.

Despite the graffiti daubed slum walls, the church and community centre have been left untouched, such is the respect for the work of missionary priests like Fr Foody, who considers the opportunity to work with some of São Paulo's poorest a dream come true.

"Having a presence in the favela is very important, so I spend a lot of time visiting families and making friends with the people,” Fr Foody told me.

“Through my work I'm realising my dream of an option for the poor in the context of my congregation. Having the ability to do that at this stage of my life is extremely fulfilling," he said.

While work at the coalface remains a priority for Irish Spiritans in Brazil, many toil tirelessly behind the scenes constantly campaigning for improvements to the standard of living in SãoPaulo’s city slums.

Movimento da Defensa da Favelada (MDF) is one such Spiritan project established to protect and support SãoPaulo’s slum dwellers.

Founded on the three principles of presence, resistance, and solidarity, MDF works with over 5,000 people from 50 urban slums in São Paulo.

The project engages in a number of activities such as training for community leaders and supporting the setting up of local committees in the slums so that they can campaign for their right to decent living conditions.

The organisation was the result of a “flash of inspiration” to Dublin born Spiritan, Fr Patrick Clarke, in the aftermath of his first favela experience. He was stuck by the poverty people were forced to live in and immediately set about trying to form an organisation that could bring about some much needed improvements to people’s lives.

Hesitate to burst on the scene with a readymade solution; Fr Clarke first established contacts within slum areas and facilitated prayer meetings for various communities.

The willingness of participants to open up meant the prayer meetings provided the ideal forum for listening and, in time, Fr Clarke became ideally placed to ignite solutions generated from within the favela, solutions that had the input and agreement of the entire community.

“I wanted to be part of the solution rather than the instigator,” Fr Clarke told me. “The idea was to help people become empowered and let the people gradually make the changes that were appropriate and necessary for their own lives. MDF grew from there,” he said.

Since its foundation, MDF has been responsible for a drastic improvement in living conditions particularly fighting for land rights and improved housing quality for many of SãoPaulo’s favelas. Since then the project has developed, embracing education, literacy, civil rights, and culture.

“MDF is a grass roots movement that’s very close to the people,” Fr Clarke said. “It fills the vacuum between an absent state and a people whose representative are in many cases corrupt or not even present.  It’s an important space in the socio-cultural environment where people can have a voice and be listened to.”

Ecology is another issue close to Fr Clarke’s heart. He notes the ecological question is a lot more complex in the peripheries of large cities like São Paulo where “people living in squalor are condemned to die”.

Sao Paulo, according to Fr Clarke, is a city “ready to blow up with so much injustice, impoverishment and marginalisation”. “You cannot call that an ecological OK,” he said.

In an attempt to shed light on the question of ecology in a city like São Paulo, the Irish Spiritans have also built a rural retreat centre just outside the city called Sitio dos Anjos.

‘The City of Angels’ is availed of by shanty town dwellers and local basic communities for days of relaxation, prayer and ecological experience. Here groups of slum children and adults alike can come and be inspired by nature and other simple things many of us take for granted.

For many who may have never experienced life outside their immediate area, Sitio dos Anjos provides a space to develop an awareness of the world and of a life of hope beyond the reality of severe poverty and extreme violence slum dwellers are constantly subjected to.

Fr Gorge Boran CSSp is another Irish Spiritan who has provided an invaluable service to the poor in Brazil for decades. He founded the youth leadership formation centre, Centro de Capacitação da Juventude (CCJ) in 1976.

This project aims to contribute to the education of youth living in social exclusion in São Paulo and other urban areas throughout the country. Its main objective is to train committed and capable leaders through their parishes and to gradually develop a countrywide network of committed faith leaders.

At present CCJ supports a network of 25,000 youth groups, and achieves this through social networking sites, as well as through face to face opportunities and outreach. CCJ is staffed by a large network of lay volunteers, as well as having a small co-coordinating team. Hundreds of young people from parishes across the country participate annually in its courses.

In addition, the courses strive to improve job prospects for unemployed youth and aim to enhance their self-esteem, participation in community life and enjoyment in proclaiming their faith to their peers.

Among the main activities are: vocational and skills training; workshops on leadership and social responsibility as well as faith formation and pastoral skills.

It is hoped that through the work of this youth network, young people get a second chance and can divert away from all the social problems associated with the marginalisation of youth, including anti-social behavior, unemployment, alcohol addiction, drug trafficking, teen pregnancy, bullying and leaving education prematurely

These are just some of the outstanding projects established by Spiritan missionaries in Brazil.

It was an exceptional privilege to witness firsthand the phenomenal contribution of the Irish Spiritans not only to the building up of the Church in Brazil, but to the lives of so many of the country’s poorest as well.

In true missionary spirit, however, they would never accept such praise or acclaim. As the oldest Irish Spiritan in Brazil, Fr Patrick Leonard (88), put it: “We are merely unprofitable servants. We have only done what we have been called to do.”