Rio 2016: The Evangelization Olympics

September 8, 2016

A guest post from Fr. Athanasius Murphy, O.P., a newly ordained priest of the province who went on a mission trip to Brazil with students this summer. During the month of July I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Brazil. No, I wasn’t going for the Olympics (to spectate or compete). I traveled with a group of American and Brazilian Catholic students and missionaries to a northern region of Brazil called Marajo. There we divided our time between a very poor city called Belem and some small communities in the Amazon rain forest. In both the urban and rural areas we would visit families and bring the sacraments to groups of people who may not have seen a priest in their area in at least a year if not longer. During my time as a chaplain for this group of student-missionaries, there was one big lesson I gained from the trip to Brazil: the importance that family has in the Christian life. The two regions of Brazil that we visited were very poor. The urban area had houses in disrepair with garbage filling the streets. The rural areas we visited in the Amazon rain forest were more secluded and peaceful, but the people still lived in material poverty. A whole family would live between two to four rooms of a wooden hut with a steel or palm-branch roof. If someone became seriously ill it was very difficult, if not impossible, to find the medicine and expertise required to get better. But the people suffered from more than just material poverty. It was also in the family unit itself. In all the regions we visited, many of the families were missing fathers.  At times uncles or grandparents would fill in the role of parenting, but it was still tangible in the face of the family members, especially the children, that a father-figure was missing. Sometimes we’d visit a mother with many children who all had a different father, with none of those men present or providing for the family. When we started to discover this pattern in the families we visited, it changed our approach in our ministry. We’d speak about the importance of love in the family, and God’s role as our heavenly Father. It’s possible for a family to show love without the language of words, we’d say. This was especially helpful to us because many of the American students knew little to no Portuguese, and so conversing in words with the Brazilians was at times difficult. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t show them love. That didn’t mean we couldn’t act as their brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers, in the family of Jesus Christ. Sometimes you just need to be present to those around you, and that’s enough to show a familial love. One time we were all out in the Amazon rain forest at night and there was a big festival going on for the patron saint of the river community where we were staying. The community was filled with people enjoying the festival in a large building. But I noticed there was one little girl who was standing off the side leaning against the porch of a house by herself. She looked very unhappy. While my Portuguese wasn’t that great, I said hello and asked if I could sit with her. Another one of our missionaries came over, who was a native Brazilian. As she talked to the little girl she found out that the girl’s father had just died two weeks ago, and that she felt very scared and alone. The Brazilian missionary and I comforted the girl as best as we could. She didn’t have to be alone at this festival, but what can you say at that moment? It’s a tragedy for a little girl to lose her father. With the missionary’s help, I told the little girl that as a priest or “padre” I could be her spiritual father. I could show her how much God her father loves her, and that she doesn’t have to feel alone. The little girl began to crack and smile amidst her tears. She gave me and that missionary a warm hug. I was happy to see that this girl was finding her extended family in the body of Christ. God has so many gifts for us to receive from him, but the greatest and first gift he gives us is our membership in his divine family as his sons and daughters. This mission trip to Brazil taught me how important God’s paternal love is for us, whether in America or Brazil. Christ is our brother who has made us his brothers and sisters. And even if our own families at home are not perfect or are missing something or someone crucial, it is because of Christ’s love for us that we are part of one family. And that is why we can always say “Our Father.”

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