October was dedicated as the “extraordinary month of mission” by Pope Francis and for me it certainly was.
I left for Brazil at the end of September and returned the end of October. It had been 4 years since I was last there. I had worked in Brazil for 6 years and had been going back every two years, for a month at time, sometimes with a small group to “dip their toes” into the reality of that immense nation.
First stop was Rio and the city’s most iconic landmark, the Cristo Redentor – Christ the Redeemer statue reminds us of the importance of the Christian faith as it overlooks the city with outstretched arms. Rio is the city of contrasts which is home to all. From Favelas to Five star luxury apartments, from street vendors to streets flanked by designer shops, from the poor to the prosperous….Christ looks down on them all, and, I am sure praying that “thy Kingdom come and thy will be done.” For God’s Kingdom is a far cry from the Kingdoms we have built up on earth.
“Rio” means river and it wasn’t long before I was back on the rivers where I worked in the Amazon region of the state of Pará. I spent some time catching up with people in the Parish of Our Lady of Peace, where I had worked. It is a Parish in the Diocese of Abaetetuba made up of 72 islands, 60 base communities – the model of Church here, 700 square kilometres and 40,000 inhabitants. The Church survives because of the laity. Catechists, community coordinators, collaborators, all make sure the pastoral dimension of the community is alive and well. Through the various ministries, initiatives, projects, and activities the lay people ensure the community is responding to the directives of the Parish and of the larger Brazilian Church and addressing the needs of the people.
It was also a special moment as the Synod for the Amazon was taking place in Rome at the same time and so there was much hope and prayers around for the meeting and especially considering the environmental disaster currently engulfing the forest and its people due to short-sighted and selfish Government policies.
The second Sunday in October is the feast of our Lady of Nazareth, Patroness of the Amazon. Two million pilgrims take to the streets of Belém to walk behind the small image of Our Lady praying for favours or in gratitude for prayers answered. Our small group walked behind the image for nearly 6 hours as it made its way from the Cathedral to the Basilica. It possesses miraculous qualities and the faithful walk, some on their knees, in praise or in petition to the Virgin of Nazareth. This is another river – a river of pilgrims, families, young and old, able and disabled, all colours, classes, saints and sinners recognising the mother of the Saviour and seeking her help in bettering their lives, however that may be. Brazilians love marching be it in procession or in protest, and so it was a moving day and very humbling to see the faith of so many in their hearts… and in their feet!
From there I went to the arid North East of Brazil, to a place called Jericoacoara, a coastal village in the Ceará state and from there down to South Bahia around Porto Segura, the landing place of the Portuguese and of the first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in Brazil. I travelled to Coroa Vermelha to the place where the first Eucharist on Brazilian soil (519 years ago) was celebrated and again it was very special. I spent time reflecting on the positives and negatives of the arrival of the Europeans and of the Christian faith, and although we may criticise the methodology of those first missionaries, in their hearts they were obeying the mandate of Jesus “Go out to all the world and spread the Good News.” A mandate still as valid today as when first proclaimed.
I then headed back up north to my old stomping ground of Belém and Abaetetuba, via the capital Brasilia, where in the Cathedral I prayed for the a dramatic change in the corrupt Brazilian politics, a redistribution of wealth among the Brazilians, an end to the slash and burn policies in the Amazon, more respect and tolerance of those on the margins, especially the indigenous Brazilians, and that the faith of the Brazilian peoples bear fruits in the creation of a more just, equal and compassionate society. These prayers could be for our own country too and our world, but in Brazil, the country of stark contrasts, it is more obvious and just seems to be ongoing.
The theme of the extraordinary missionary month was “Baptised and Sent”. Being back in Brazil reminded me of our common call to be missionaries by virtue of our Baptism…wherever we may be. And so for me leaving the tropical rainforest at 33 degrees to return to the torrential rain of 6 degrees, reminded me that mission is where you are and it’s who you are!
The Kingdom envisaged by God is still a way off and so may the extraordinary mission month remind us of the extraordinary mission that we all share, at all times, wherever we find ourselves.