After nearly two years of preparation, Father José Almy Gomes, 40, almost wasn’t ready for Pope Francis’ World Youth Day pilgrimage to Rio de Janeiro.
A student at Rome’s Patristic Institute Augustinianum from 2003 to 2007, Fr. Almy was the pastor of St. Dominic’s in Perdizes – a rural neighborhood of São Paulo. He worked from June 2011 to August 2012 organizing a group of over 100 international pilgrims, including 20 Americans, for a three-week Catholic dream experience: seven days of tourism and cultural immersion in São Paulo, a week of mission work in Rio’s favelas, and seven days of WYD celebration on Copacabana Beach.
His only hope, for the sake of the project’s success, was not to be transferred before then.
But in February 2013, fewer than five months before WYD, Rio’s Archdiocese of St. Sebastian came calling. Fr. Almy was directed to Our Lady of the Rosary parish – just two blocks from where Pope Francis would stand on Copacabana Beach.
Shaken by his transfer, Father Almy faced the immediate challenge of building his new parish’s volunteer efforts almost completely from scratch.
“We had just one volunteer signed up when I arrived,” he said in Portuguese, his native language. “World Youth Day just didn’t seem very important here.”
Located in the Rio favela of Babilônia, Our Lady of the Rosary has long been a controversial setting in the heart of a neighborhood searching for a faith identity.
Of Rio’s 976 recognized favelas, Babilônia is among the most famous for its violent history. A subject of the internationally popular Brazilian film “Elite Squad,” the favela was governed exclusively by Rio de Janeiro drug-trafficking cartels for nearly 80 years before government police pacification forces took over in 2009.
According to Father Almy, residents lived amid frequent gunfire and constant law changes when new cartels assumed control of the neighborhood. Babilônia’s laws included a 6 p.m. curfew and restrictions on religion. Violators of the law were often executed.
Favela law nearly shut down Our Lady of the Rosary, as Mass was permitted only on church grounds. For three years before pacification, priests were prohibited from celebrating Mass in public areas or visiting Babilônia’s residents in their homes.
“To pray here with residents, the archbishop would have to ask for permission from a 17-year-old boy guarding the favela entrance,” Father Almy explained. “And the boy would normally grant permission, but only if priests used archdiocesan automobiles to enter the neighborhood instead of their own.”
Though the majority of Babilônia’s residents are Christian, their beliefs are often radical and come from a variety of cultures from across the world, says Father Almy. Popular religions within the favela include Pentecostalism, practiced only by an estimated 11-15 percent of all Brazilians and the Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomblé and Umbanda, practiced by less than five percent of the country’s population.
Among Babilônia’s Roman Catholics, Father Almy emphasizes the need for a stronger spiritual formation to fight a “magical” view of Christian faith. The combination of extreme devotionalism with non-Catholic beliefs such as reincarnation, he says, has mixed Catholicism with other favela customs and traditions.
“Spiritually, our community needs to have a stronger Catholic proximity,” he said. “It’s important … to have an accurate spiritual education.”
He refers to Our Lady of Fatima, whose statue passed through Babilônia as part of a three-year celebration in Brazil for its upcoming 100-year anniversary in 2017, as an example. In honoring the Virgin Mother, Father Almy stresses the importance of thinking, beyond pure devotion.
“It’s important to be devout, to pray the Rosary, but also think beyond the image – what did Mary do? What qualities did she have that we can imitate?”
To educate residents, Father Almy is exercising new legal rights for Babilônia clergy members: the freedom to evangelize and participate in the favela’s community. His involvement includes celebrating Saturday Mass in Babilônia’s community centers, attending interfaith community meetings, bi-weekly visits to residents’ homes, and leadership in new seasonal church activities such as prayer of the Christmas Novena and neighborhood participation in an annual Emmaus Walk.
“My goal is to speak the language of our neighborhood and give a rationalized perspective,” he said. “I want to translate a high-level of theology into a language that’s more accessible, and being a consistent presence is one way to do that.”
Making it to WYD
With just one volunteer registered fewer than five months before World Youth Day, Fr. Almy put his new parish to work. Forming WYD community groups among Our Lady of the Rosary’s 300 parishioners, he began celebrating weekly Saturday Mass in Babilônia, and by May 2013 had recruited an additional 10 WYD volunteers from the favela.
Though the parish’s efforts were growing, Father Almy still felt unprepared to host the 70 French and Portuguese pilgrims scheduled to lodge in the parish two months later.
“I thought people here were still closed to the Holy Spirit in the months before World Youth Day, like no one really wanted this experience.”
But as FatherAlmy’s community groups continued to grow, so did Babilônia’s participation in WYD-related preparation. By July, Our Lady of the Rosary had 15 registered WYD volunteers, and an additional seven parishioners offered to help out part-time.
To make the church suitable for visitors, Father Almy used parish funds to rent eight bathrooms, adding to Our Lady of the Rosary’s single bathroom, and solicited food donations from the parish.
“Food was probably our biggest concern. We wanted to at least be able to offer snacks to our pilgrims.”
As parishioners divided responsibilities, food donations picked up, and it appeared that the church would have enough food to feed all of its WYD visitors.
But when Our Lady of the Rosary opened its doors to pilgrims on July 19, it wasn’t 70 French and Portuguese pilgrims, but 141 that arrived expecting WYD lodging. An additional group of French journalists also lobbied for a spot at the parish, in hope of easy access to Copacabana Beach.
“It was difficult. We thought we were pretty well-organized, but there was certainly confusion at the start.”
With more pilgrims than parish space available, some visitors were left to sleep on the floor in Our Lady of the Rosary’s church and in Babilônia community centers. As demand for lodging picked up, favela residents also stepped in. A total of 45 pilgrims were given housing by Our Lady of the Rosary parishioners in Babilônia, the neighboring favela of Chapéu Mangueira, and the surrounding neighborhood of Leme.
Most importantly, Father Almy attests, the combined effort of the parish and community successfully provided lodging and food for everyone who asked for it.
“Who are we, as the Church, to say no to someone in need? We always asked ourselves, ‘what can we offer so that other people can be taken care of’? We may not have had the resources right away, but we provided for everyone that needed our help.”
After eight decades of violence, a favela once known for suppressing Catholicism had played a key role in the success of one of WYD’s most relevant host churches in Rio’s largest ever Catholic event.
“I was happiest about the way people were welcomed here,” Father Almy said. “I think the way our community opened it arms to our visitors was the most important thing.”
Lasting lessons and mission
The success of WYD 2013 has brought a greater awareness of Pope Francis’ teachings to Babilônia and Our Lady of the Rosary, according to Fr. Almy. As Catholic residents grow stronger in Catholic faith formation, he believes the Holy Father’s presence in Brazil and his Latin American roots provide for a closer connection with residents and parishioners.
“I think the pope’s effect, more than anything, was that people here learned to see themselves in him and really love him. He knows how the church here functions and the perspective of our people.”
Lucia Kiris, one of the parish’s 15 registered WYD volunteers and host of two French pilgrims, agrees, adding that Pope Francis’ messages of acceptance and welcoming are becoming more characteristic among the favela’s residents.
“He reminds us to stay true to our identities,” she said, “as grateful, caring, and loving people.”
Another Babilônia resident, David Bispo, owner of an internationally-awarded restaurant in the favela, attests to a lasting spiritual impact from WYD that remains nearly 11 months after Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Rio.
“Pope Francis passed a strong energy through here, a happiness and a simplicity,” Bispo said. “His presence rings strong in our neighborhood and across all of Rio de Janeiro.”
As the community’s pastoral presence, Father Almy continues to celebrate weekly Saturday Mass in the favela, attend community faith dialogues, and make visits to sick parishioners’ homes. His presence, Fr. Almy says, is based on WYD’s mission to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
“After WYD I decided, from now on, I’m really going communicate the Word of God to all of his creatures,” he said, “because through dialogue, a person grows closer to others and makes friends. Then, after, that person can listen and teach.”
He speaks especially about a weekly women’s community group, composed of eight Babilônia residents from Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian communities, among others. Though often criticized by non-Catholic group members, Father Almy values the chance to facilitate conversation and to clarify misunderstandings among group members.
“These opportunities only exist because I’m present there,” he said. “Because I studied the Word, I studied theology, I can give people a stronger perspective. This small contact is important, because if I wasn’t there, people wouldn’t be able to ask these questions.”
Thanks to WYD, his involvement in the community, and improvement in basic amenities available to residents — such as computers and internet access, Father Almy says more people in Babilônia follow Pope Francis on a consistent basis, and he’s receiving more questions than ever about the Holy Father’s teachings.
“Even if I don’t talk about the pope, they still ask about him. When I’m asked, ‘Pope Francis said this, what does it mean?’ I’m honored to answer. The fruits of WYD gave people here a new, more positive vision of the church — a vision we needed for a rationalized, authentic view of the Catholic faith.”