By Fr. Ace Valdez, PIME
What follows happened to Fr. Ace Valdez, a PIME Missionary in São Paulo, Brazil. “On Sunday, a young man tried to rob me. It was from my chance meeting – which took place on the feast day of St. Francis – that I understood something more about my being a missionary in this large city.”
Last Sunday, I was attacked, but I am fine. In the first incident in the two years since I came to Brazil, a mugger approached me. I experienced the aggression in broad daylight, at three in the afternoon. After celebrating Mass in the suburbs of São Paulo in the morning, I went downtown. I took a walk, a simple stroll since the center is almost empty on weekends, especially Sundays. I did it very carefully, wearing a mask and avoiding any crowds. I like walking in the center because I can see the heart of the city and its people. As I walk, I put on my headphones and listen to the radio. I like to listen to Brazilian music on the radio to enrich my vocabulary and the beautiful music of this country.
Towards the end of my walk, I wanted to stop in the cathedral. I did not enter through the main entrance because there were too many people there. So, I walked to the building’s left side, where the side door is usually open. I was about to enter when a young man suddenly approached me; he told me that he was robbing me and that he wanted my cell phone. He had seen me putting the headphones in my pocket before entering the church, so he knew that I had one. I got scared and told him not to do it because I was a priest. At this, he insisted more and proceeded to put his hand in my pocket, grabbing hold of my cell phone. I resisted for fear of losing all the important contacts I had in it and, once again, telling him that I was a priest; still, he insisted.
Then, unexpectedly, a cathedral security guard appeared and saw what was happening to me. A third time, I said aloud that I was a priest, and this time the young man relented. He asked me, “Are you really a priest?” I said, “Yes, I am. I can show you my cassock and my ID card that says I am a priest.” Looking me in the eyes as if to assess the validity of my claim, he replied, “No, no, I will take your word for it.” He let the phone fall back into the bottom of my pocket. Then, with a hug me, he repeatedly asked me for forgiveness. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, brother,” he said, looking at me and waiting for my response. I answered him, “I forgive you.” With my response, his attitude changed completely. He continued to hug me and, once again, asked for forgiveness. Thankfully, his original threats were just that, as he was neither violent nor armed to commit violence. The only damage done was to my now broken headphones.
The cathedral guard now wanted to confront the youth and started cursing him while approaching. The young man justified himself to the guard, saying that the assault did not occur inside the cathedral. I urged them both to stay calm to prevent any further threats of violence. I was struck with the courage to ask my assailant why he wanted to rob me. “I am hungry,” he answered. I asked him his name and, upon learning it, I gave him the dignity of calling him by his name. “Okay, Felipe, if you want, I’ll buy you some food. Do you know a place where we can get a bite to eat?” (On Sundays, most of the restaurants downtown are closed). “Yes, I know where to go.”
Once again, I dared to trust him to take me to a safe place. He brought me to a Lanchonete (a kind of bar where they sell hot dishes) on the cathedral’s opposite side. He told the waiter “baião de dois and bife, (rice with beans and dried meat and a thin steak, a typical northeastern Brazil dish). While the waiter was heating up the food, he turned to me and said, “Father, I’m starving. Can I also have a coxinha (a kind of Brazilian orange) and a drink?” I approved, and the waiter brought the orange, which he devoured in a heartbeat. He sat looking reflectively for a moment. “Father, I am really sorry. Will God forgive me?” Felipe felt the burden of guilt for having attacked a priest, which made sense since Brazil is a country with a Catholic majority. “Of course,” I answered, “as long as you never do evil things again.”
Felipe is one of the 25,000 homeless people scattered throughout the State of São Paulo, and he lives right at the center. While we were still waiting for his food, I asked him to tell me his story. He told me that he was eighteen, yet he lived on the street for a long time; according to him, his parents abandoned him. During our conversation, I showed him my cassock and told him that I had been in the suburbs to celebrate Mass that morning. He spontaneously commented that he thought I was Chinese. We both laughed. I told him that I was a foreigner, a missionary priest from Asia. I took off my mask and showed him “the priest’s face” that he had wanted to attack so that it would remain in his memory. Then, I put the mask back on; it was time to leave. Passing in front of the cathedral, he said goodbye and hugged again. Then, with a penitent look, he added, “Father, will God forgive me for what I have done?” I was moved, I felt compassion, and I thought; “How come such a young man lives in these conditions?” I said to him once again, “Yes, God forgives you, but don’t attack people anymore.”
He left happily with the container of food in his hand. I watched as he walked away, then I walked again to the left side of the cathedral and went in to thank the guard who had helped me. I approached the Blessed Sacrament altar to thank Jesus that nothing serious had happened to me, but above all, to pray for that boy. I had lived out the word of God for that Sunday (Is 5:1-7, Phil 4:6-9 and Mt 21:33-43): “To be a disciple of Jesus who bears good fruits, fruits of goodness amid iniquity; fruits of justice amid injustice.” With God, nothing happens by chance. All this happened on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, and I truly lived his prayer:
Make me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love
Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in You
Where there is error, let me bring Your Truth
Where there’s despair, let me bring hope
Where there’s sadness, ever joy
Where there is darkness, let me shed Your light.
Oh Master, grant that I may not seek
So much to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love with my whole self.
For it is in giving that we receive;
in pardoning that we are pardoned;
in dying that we are born into eternal Life.
All this happened to me on the day after Pope Francis signed his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (All Brothers). I have not yet read it but, perhaps, a small part of his message had already sought me out. I didn’t write all this not to be praised, nor do I even intend to give a romantic version of what happened. I don’t want such experiences to happen to anyone else. I didn’t do anything heroic; on the contrary, I was thoroughly scared. I shared this experience that will be part of my missionary life forever as a message; that we can overcome evil acts only by doing good ones. I found courage and trust because I confided in the Lord, who is always in our midst. On that day, He made me an instrument of His Gospel. “The only Gospel that many people will ever hear might be the good example of our life,” said the great Brazilian Bishop, Msgr. Helder Câmara. We, missionary disciples, are chosen and sent out to proclaim the Gospel with our lives and to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.
There is hunger in the world, today;
hunger for bread and justice, Lord
Take our hands, we want to serve
with you, build the Kingdom
We will walk with your love and grace, Lord,
New sky, new song, we will proclaim
Mold our mission with Your fire,
launch us into the adventure
Hands that break the bread; we consecrated as we go.
(“Consagrados a ti” Cristobal Fones, SJ)
Do not be afraid; Brazil is a beautiful country, and the Brazilian people are welcoming and joyful. This little “encounter” with Felipe did not discourage me. On the contrary, it added meaning to my being a missionary here in an urban setting. On that Sunday, I met the Lord. “Life is a mission. Here I am, send me!”