Just a few days ahead of the presidential elections in Brazil, with the country sharply polarised between the two candidates, Fernando Haddad and Jair Bolsonaro, the Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer has warned in a pastoral message of the grave responsibility that this electoral process imposes on the electorate. “Voting should never be marked by hatred, anger or irresponsibility in regard to the common good. Voting is a matter of conscience, and the time has come for each one of us to play his part, so that Brazil may become a better nation following the elections. Ultimately, this is the one thing that matters.”
The Archbishop’s words have a particular relevance, given the fact that Brazil is numerically one of the most Catholic countries in the world (with 172 million Catholics), yet at the same time one of the most violent, with over 60,000 homicides a year – a figure that represents approximately 12.5% of all the homicides in the world.
The elections to be held on Sunday have created barriers, fostering a climate of discord that is dividing the population, setting family members, friends and even the federal states against one another. It is a time of uncertainty and fear. Yet at the same time the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference has reminded Catholics of the importance of this electoral process. Already back in April this year, the bishops published a document, “Involvement and Hope” (Compromisso e Esperança), in which they reflect on the 2018 presidential elections.
In one of the central messages of the document, the bishops urge “the Brazilian people to transform this difficult moment into an opportunity for growth, abandoning the paths of intolerance, apathy and cynicism.” To this end, the bishops call on “the ecclesial communities to embrace, in the light of the Gospel, the political dimension of the faith, in the service of the Kingdom of God.” In their message, the Brazilian Bishops emphasise that hope must always prevail, despite the day-to-day difficulties. “While keeping our feet firmly on the solid ground of reality, we are moved by the hope which commits us to transcending all the ills that afflict our people.”
ACN Brazil is very much involved in promoting the pastoral and social outreach of the Church in the country and is making the very effort to overcome the difficulties to which the bishops refer in their document Compromisso e Esperança. It is a task that dates back to the decade of the 1960s, when Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of ACN, sent copies of his famous book, They Call Me the Bacon Priest to various bishops around the world.
A copy of this book found its way into the hands of Cardinal Jaime Câmara, the then Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. The Cardinal read the book and in thanking Father Werenfried he urged him to include Brazil in his pastoral mission. He wrote: “In Latin America we are not yet a persecuted Church, but this could well happen to us also. If one day we were persecuted, you would help us, because that is your mission. But if you help us now, it will work out cheaper.”
As a result of his appeal – and in response to a request from Pope Saint John XXIII – ACN’s work in Brazil began, almost as a response to a challenge. Father Werenfried himself travelled to Brazil, visiting the vast favelas, where he was deeply moved at the sight of so many hungry people living in such inhuman conditions. In his famous “Letter to Christ” – a kind of prayer written at the feet of the great statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro – he writes of the impossibility of remaining indifferent to all that he has seen. “What I have seen in this part of the world is a scandal. Your Church here is more vulnerable than anywhere else in the world.”
Since that time ACN has funded over 6000 pastoral projects in Brazil, many of which have at the same time brought direct social benefits. For example, the construction of churches and enclosed convents in some of the remotest and most disadvantaged regions, which are often the trigger for infrastructure projects supplying drinking water and electric power, or the provision of vehicles for priests and religious, who bring with them education and medical care into places where otherwise nobody is keen to invest.
Or again through providing modern river boats to navigate the immense river network of the Amazon basin. Before ACN stepped in to help, many priests were forced to travel in old and dangerous boats, in some cases having to make voyages of up to 100 hours duration in order to reach the many scattered riverside communities.
To this day – and thanks to the prophetic vision of Father Werenfried, who understood from his first journey to the country that it was essential to help this important big nation – Brazil is still one of the major priority countries for ACN and among those receiving most aid from the foundation, which thereby remains faithful to its founder’s commitment.