The year 2021 marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival in Latin America of the first Franciscan Conventual missionaries. Brazil was their pioneering site for the implantatio ordinis [“implantation of the Order”]. When this stalwart band of brothers from the Immaculate Conception Province of the USA (now Our Lady of the Angels Province after union with St. Anthony Province in 2014) settled in the Rio Comprido sector (barrio) of Rio de Janeiro, the country’s capital had not yet been moved from there to the futuristic new federal district of Brasília. In the passage of time since the capital moved, Rio Comprido has suffered a deteriorating infrastructure, and is surrounded by three impoverished and violence-ridden “communities” [formerly called favelas– a term for “slums” that is no longer regarded as “politically correct”]. Our friars of the Custodial curia and the attached parish church of St. Francis are regarded by the locals as a true oasis of peace in the midst of a complicated neighborhood, where people have simply learned to keep out of harm’s way when the bullets begin to fly. One of those bullets has now been surgically removed from door next to my guest room in the friary – no worse for wear! Yet, among friars and people in Rio Comprido, a spirit of determined resilience prevails. I am reminded of it several times a day as I look out the friary window at the 2300-ft. Corcovado peak with its statue of Christ the Redeemer. “Corcovado” in Portuguese means “hunchback.” In a sense, we are all flawed “hunchbacks,” and our Lord is the “Hunchback’s Redeemer”! A symbol of Rio’s resilience is a young classical guitarist named Renan Francisco (pictured with Friar James), who composes music and also teaches it to poor children. During my days of canonical visitation at the friary, the 14th to the 16th of August, as he does during all my visits, Renan stopped at the house to chat with me in English about his favorite Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, who wrote “I consider my works as letters I’ve written to the posterity without expecting an answer.”
Across the city from the Curia is Costa Barros, one of the most challenging neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Our friars have a parish with six communities, each having its own church. On the day of my visitation, the 17th of August, the friars explained that they have no telephone or internet, because all these utilities are under the control of “bandits.” Local people use the term “bandits” to denote the cartels which control nearly every aspect of life in Costa Barros. One friar described his experience of having to pause Mass for a half hour, while he and the whole congregation ducked for cover as gunshots erupted in front of the Church. Yet, amidst the brutality of Costa Barros, there stands something utterly extraordinarily – a creative new “museum of graffiti,” a type of school which attempts to re-channel the energy of youth towards something positive. The friary-pastor took me there to meet the inspiritng “Graffiti Boy [Pichador] of Rio” – André Rongo (pictured with Friar James). Twenty years ago, André was arrested for spray-painting graffiti on the statue of Pope John Paul II in front of Rio’s Cathedral. The Cardinal Archbishop Eugênio de Araújo Sales met with him, and (reminiscent of the saintly bishop in Les Miserables), told André: “You have a great artistic talent. You must use it for good not bad.” Those words changed André’s life. He would spend an hour with me talking enthusiastically about his conversion to Christ, and his projects for using the artistic mode of graffiti to decorate and adorn his city, not vandalize it. One of his stunning artistic works depicts a graffiti boy encompassed by a divinely illumined light bulb, pointing his finger to heaven, and flying a kite of hope. Andre calls Christ “the Great Recycler,” adding “and I’ve been recycled!” Now I have started using this new title for the iconic statue of the Redeemer on the humpy-backed Corcovado.
This city of about 135,000 people, situated in the lake district about two hours’ drive from Rio de Janeiro, is one of the earliest foundations of the Immaculate Conception Province missionaries. It is also our largest parish, with an astonishing number of 24 “communities,” each having its own church. Of all the stops in the itinerary of my canonical visitation, my two days in Araruama, the 18th and 19th of August, were the most poignant. This was one of the cities devastated by the merciless ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its effects remain starkly evident. Many people, including whole families, succumbed to the virus in Araruama. Our own beloved confrere +Frei José Luiz Magalhães, OFM Conv. was one of Araruama’s Covid-19 victims. Strict city regulations required him to be buried with other Covid victims in a separate cemetery established by the prefecture, reminiscent of medieval plague times. Four of us friars visited this Covid graveyard, but we were prohibited by the police from entering. So, we stood on the periphery, where we chanted the Salve Regina for José Luiz and the hundreds of others buried there – graves marked by simple wooden crosses row on row. The city was in lockdown for a few months, and all of the churches were closed. Nearby, the friars and I went to offer Mass with the Poor Clare nuns, who along with our parish, were an anchor of solace for the grieving families of Araruama.
Custodial Definitory Meeting
A canonical visitation normally ends with a meeting of the Minister Provincial, the Custos, and the Custodial Definitory (pictured here). Thus, after my visitation of all eight house (five friaries and three filial houses) in the Custody, I then convened with the Custos and Definitors in Rio Comprido on Friday the 20th of August. For several hours, we discussed all of the following topics impacting the life of the Custody: a) fraternal life, in which the primacy of God and supernatural charity need to be the Custody’s first priority; b) ministries, including its diversification, with parishes, teaching, the eremitical experience in Andrelândia, and the service to the poorest of the poor in Costa Barros; c) vocational animation as the Custody’s second priority; d) formation (initial and continuing); e) the Custodial Statutes; f) finances and self-sustainability issues; g) new initiatives of collaboration with the Mother Province of Our Lady of the Angels. After the meeting concluded, the Custos and I went to Rio’s Metropolitan Cathedral to pray in thanksgiving for the whole canonical visitation. Conically shaped like a honeycombed beehive (but in my view actually resembling a badminton shuttlecock), the modernistic Rio Cathedral has solidity. It dwarfed the Custos and me as we prayed in its crypt for the solidity of the Custody facing its future.
Technically, the Casa de Formação São Francisco de Assis (House of Formation) in Brasília, where the Custody now sends its friars for their post-novitiate initial formation, need not have been included in the official itinerary of canonical visitation. It is a canonical site belonging to a different jurisdiction, the Province of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Brazil. However, I decided to visit there, anyway, in order to assess the formation program and to meet individually with the three young friars of our Custody who study there: Frei Fernando Pereira de Andrade Júnior, OFM Conv., Frei Ricardo Elvis Arruda Bezerra, OFM Conv., and Frei Jesus Rodrigues do Amaral, OFM Conv. (pictured with Friar James). The lads surprised me by going to a special tea shop, so they could assure that a decent and proper “cuppa” would be shared among themselves with their Minister Provincial. For three days, from the 21st to the 23rd, we four paused at 4:00 PM for our fraternal “tea fest” – and other times as well. Among the pastoral apostolates nearby, in which the local friars engage, is the Brazilian version of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s Niepokalanów – the Santuário Jardim da Imaculada (“Garden of the Immaculate” – pictured at right), where a vibrant media and evangelization ministry is flourishing. The parish friary next to the formation house nearly killed me with kindness – highlighted by a meal of roast boar! In the seminary chapel, where I celebrated Mass for the whole formation community (about 30 friars) the sanctuary has a stunning image of St. Francis embracing not only Jesus on the cross, but an “everyman friar” whom the Seraphic father draws close to the Lord (pictured below). Truly, at every stop of my canonical visitation, I felt like that “everyman friar” embraced by Jesus and Francis, through the goodness of my Brazilian brothers.
- Rio Custody – Canonical Visitation of Minister Provincial – Part I
- Provincial Visit – Custódia Provincial Imaculada Conceição do Brasil (Our Province’s Immaculate Conception Custody in Brazil)
- Honoring +Dom Elias James Manning, OFM Conv. | Our Lady of the Angels Province, USA (olaprovince.org)
- Solemn Vows of Friars Jesus and Ricardo