History: The District of Brasil traces its origins to a meeting of the Council of the Society in Wellington in 1980 (CS 80). At this meeting it was decided that the Society of Mary would begin a new form of mission experience, known as implantation. The idea was that the Society of Mary would offer its charism to a particular local Church in the hope that, with local vocations, the Society of Mary would become established where it had not previously existed. Two countries were chosen for this new experience The Philippines and Brasil.
The first four Marist, including Michael Mahoney of the New Zealand Province arrived in Sao Paulo just before Christmas in 1981.
The Purpose: We are called to bring to birth the Society of Mary in Brasil, the largest Catholic country in the world. For that reason all our current works were chosen with this goal in mind and each of them expresses something of Marist values that we desire to model to young Brasilians interested in being Marists.
Curitiba: Curitiba is a city of 1.8 million people in southern Brasil. In this city we work in the area of Campus ministry at the Pontifical Catholic University of Parana. Not only does this ministry express our commitment to education, but as the University belongs to the Marist Brothers, we also wish to model working together with other branches of the Marist Family.
Curitiba also has our House of Initial Formation. Currently there are 10 students at different stages of formation. Fr José Roberto Furtuoso coordinates activities in Curitiba.
Sao Paulo: Sao Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world with 17 million people and more and more people flooding in daily. At Campo Limpo the Marists assumed a parish 15 years ago. In reality it was a “parish” only on paper at that time. We have taken up the challenge to build up the Church where it did not previously exist and now the community is fully autonomous. In fact in the area originally given to the Marist there are now three parishes due to the ongoing internal migration of Brasil. At the end of this year we plan to devolve to the Diocese one of these parishes and progressively do the same with the other two. We see our task as Marists to build up and then move on to more needy areas. As missionaries we cannot become too comfortable.
Belo Horizonte: Belo Horizonte is our Theologate house that currently has 6 professed Marists students who study either with the Jesuits or in another Institute that offers formation geared to religious who see their future in full time pastoral ministry. Fr Barry Malone, from New Zealand is the Rector and Fr Al Puccinelli of the United States is his socius. A young peruvian Marist priest, Fr Miguel Angel Contreras SM is also in residence. He is studying with the Jesuits for a Masters degree in Sacred Scriptire. Given the shortage of priests the community helps out in diocesan parishes during the weekends.
A Marist Mission in Bahia, Brazil
The word “Brazil” evokes many ideas and images of an exotic tropical country filled with beautiful beaches and an exuberant Amazonian rain forest threatened unscrupulous, land hungry farmers. But, as with any country of continental proportions, any such description barely touches the variety of cultures and realities that go to make up the rich mosaic of this land.
Since 1987 the Marist Fathers have been working in the remote rural semi-arid region of Brazil known as the “Sertao”. Poverty, hardship and constant drought form a perpetual backdrop to this mission in this abandoned part of the country. Over the years prolonged drought has forced many off their lands and into the favelas (slums) of the large cities such as Sao Paulo (17 million), Rio de Janeiro (12 million) and Brasilia (4 million) where for US$ 150 a month they have built skyscrapers and mansions for the rich and wealthy.
The Diocese of Caetite, where the Marists work, is the size of the Netherlands (42,000 km2.) and has 33 parishes. Four Marists take care of four parishes in a pastoral region of around 7,800 km2. The population of the area that is predominately Catholic, numbers 60,000. On average, each parish has, apart from its central church in the town, around 30 rural communities. There is no lack of ministerial opportunities both for the priest and an increasing number lay people who are assuming leadership in the local church and communities!
One of the parishes which nestles into a small valley running down from a tabletop mountain and then spills out over the surrounding plains is called Palmas de Monte Alto. The town had its official beginnings in 1742 when a local beef baron, Fransisco Perreira de Barros, built a small church on the rise above the valley and dedicated it to Our Lady, Mother of God and Men. He had a large wooden statue, over two meters high, carved in Portugal. Unfortunately on his return from Salvador 850 km away with the newly completed statue he died and so was not able to see his dream fulfilled. That statue is still here today and is revered by the local community as their saint and protector.
From its glory of former days only the church, the statue and a few colonial mansions survive.
The unemployment rate in the parish is over 60 percent according to official government statistics and the average income per capita is around US$ 1000 a year. The effects of grinding poverty can be seen everywhere, in the town and in the countryside. Every year in February and March bus loads of young men and not so young leave the town for the interior of Sao Paulo State where they cut sugar cane in conditions that are a little better than slavery. They return in November and December with miserly savings to brighten the Christmas of families left behind. The Vincentians of the parish run campaigns so that at least the poorest families have a little rice and beans in the pot over the holiday period. Currently there are 94 families on their list of the desperately poor just in the town alone.
Although there is much suffering the people are friendly and eagerly welcome priests into their homes. For them it is a special moment and they frequently ask for blessings of the religious objects that are often found on a small altar in the corner of the main living room. Due to the infrequent visits of priests in the past – and it is still true today – most religious practices are associated with the Family Rosary and Novenas in preparation for Saints Feast Days which is an excuse to bring the whole community together to celebrate. Often the priest might come once a year to bless weddings and baptize children. It was also an opportunity for rudimentary catechesis.
There are thirty-four communities in the rural area of Palmas de Monte Alto some as far away as 60 km from the town down narrow windy dirt tracks. When it rains most are cut off due to the water and mud for as long as three months. Each community is different and in different stages of development. Some have fine chapels, whereas others celebrate in the shade of a large tree in front of a community leader’s house.
One community in particular is famous in the region because all are descendants from African slaves and they have preserved the ancient chants and “rezas” (prayers) from former times. The death of an elderly member of the community is very important to them. They keep a constant and prayerful vigil from the time it is decided that the person is on death’s door. No one – they say – should pass over to the next Life alone. Sometimes these vigils might last for months. The community takes turns to watch over and pray for the person 24 hours a day. After the death there is another series of rituals and prayers to be observed. The singing and chanting of this community might easily be made into a World Music CD such is its force and emotive power.
With so many people to attend too it would be easy to become totally immersed in the sacramental nature of priesthood, but there still much to do in the area of education in the faith and the formation of lay leadership so vital for a church that must function without the presence of a priest and the Eucharist. Currently in Brazil, every Sunday, 70 per cent of Catholic celebrations happen without the presence of an ordained minister. Normally the communities gather for a Celebration of the Word and for those lucky enough to have an Extraordinary Minister of Communion, a Communion Service. In the parish lay people do all the preparation for the sacraments and there are special Ministers to accompany bereaved families.
Another project which continues to be of vital necessity in this region that is castigated by prolonged and severe droughts is the building of large 16,000 litre (3,500 gallons) water tanks. By a simple system of gutters and pipes the rain water during the rainy season – December to February – is collected and is generally sufficient to provide clean drinking water throughout the rest of the year. Each tank costs around US$ 500 to build with the locals supplying the labour. So far, with funds collected by the Marists, 60 of these tanks have been built. Another 60 in the region have been built with local government funds. There has already been a notable reduction in the number of children hospitalized with water-bourn disease and without a doubt many lives saved. Those who are able to repay the cost of the materials do so over a three year period so that others can benefit from clean water too.
There is never a dull moment in the Mission and always plenty to do. It is a real privilege to be able to live and work with the people of the Sertao.
Our team in Brasil is truly an international one with Marist priests from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, The United States, Mexico, The Congo, Germany and Italy.
After nearly 30 years of ministry all the indications are that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the Society of Mary will not only come to birth in Brasil but will flourish here.
- Paddy O’Neil