In the spirit of a Franciscan Pope
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
By Ricardo Moraes
It was Palm Sunday in Rio’s cathedral when I found them in a small group wearing their simple, traditional robes, with short hair and beards, praying, concentrating, amidst hundreds of other Catholics. I’m talking about the Franciscans, young followers of Saint Francis of Assisi who on some occasions I had seen roaming the city, almost invisible, helping Rio’s poor.
I knew nothing about them, but with the election of a Latin American Pope and his chosen name of Francis, I began to do some research. Apart from what I learned from the Internet and through phone calls to a monastery, there wasn’t a lot more information available. The Franciscan orders have existed for centuries around the world, but I wanted to know more about those youths who one monk had told me are the “Church’s rebels.”
I stood observing them during an important moment in the mass, with their eyes tightly shut and very serious faces. I really wanted to photograph them, but with so many people around me I didn’t want to disturb the mass. I waited, and when the mass finished I was finally able to talk to them and introduce myself. Their serious looks disappeared and with smiles they told me that I would be very welcome to visit them in their home.
It was a short conversation in which I barely explained that I wanted to do a photo essay about their lives motivated by the election of Pope Francis, and asked them how they felt about the papal choice. One of the brothers told me, “It’s a confirmation of all that we believe.”
The following week I was finally able to meet the fraternity named “O Caminho,” or “The Way,” divided into two houses, one for the sisters and one for the brothers, in Campo Grande about 50 kms (31 miles) from the center of Rio. I arrived in the early morning as they performing the first daily prayer. I was well received and allowed to photograph as they prayed. They weren’t at all bothered by me working, and never lost concentration.
After their prayer session I met all of them, and then I was introduced to two homeless men who lived with the brothers because they had no place else to live. One thing I quickly learned was that the Franciscans refer to the poor as “children,” or individually as “son” and “daughter,” and any poor people who live with them are called “favorite” son or daughter. Among the favorite sons on my first visit to The Way, were Paulo and Alexandre.
The Franciscans had breakfast together, praying before and after, and then they got ready for the first pastoral activity of the week, which was offering haircuts and shaves to the homeless in the city center. The first brother I spoke with at length with was Jose Damasio, 29, who had been in the fraternity for just a year. He asked me about my work and was anxious to know if I could write about their dreams. Then he explained that their biggest dream was to have a farm where they could help the poor and drug addicts.
We met up with the sisters in Campo Grande’s marketplace and began the the day’s tasks. Well equipped with gloves and disposable razors, they began to groom the homeless. The “sons” who were most vain went for the beard cut and shave. Among the curious pedestrians stopping to watch was one elderly woman who commented, “It takes the love of God to do something like that.”
As the Franciscans worked, brother Jose talked to me about other missions of the fraternity in which they help prostitutes and prisoners. He explained the during their contact with the “children” it’s most important to show them the affection that they never had, and that sometimes they will even sleep on the streets to keep them company.
I thought that could be a great picture story, but then I learned that the Franciscans stopped staying overnight on the streets after several violent incidents with crack addicts and vigilantes who attack the homeless to try and expel them from their neighborhood.
As we returned to their home, brother Antonio, who is 29 and has been in the fraternity for more than four years, gave me a more thorough description of their work. He said, “This is our Nazareth, and what we do is live as Jesus lived for 30 years of his life.” When I mentioned my interest in photographing them, he said, “We live an ordinary life, a simple life, there is nothing extraordinary in our lives.” I commented that more and more a simple life becomes something extraordinary in the world we live in today, and that being so simple is what’s different.
And that was what I saw on my visits to the fraternity – a well-defined routine with many prayers worshiping the Lord and dedicated to the poor. Brother Antonio told me that they are followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, as well as of Saint Clare, besides other saints, without hiding the joy over Pope Francis’ election. This happens to be the Franciscan year in which the saint is being studied, remembered, and honored by his followers.
On one of my visits Antonio invited me to a special mass in which girls who were already in the group as apprentices would receive their mini habits as a major step by becoming what they call “aspirants.” During the sermon some of them came close to tears, but when they stepped up to receive their habits, general commotion broke out.
Families and friends embraced them with tears of joy and pride. That was when I understood the importance of that moment for youths who are on the road to becoming nuns, a great goal in their lives.
They always made me feel comfortable, especially with the phrase “feel at home.” They impressed me by never showing any sign of vanity. I can’t remember the last time I covered anything without someone asking me to see their photo on the back of the camera. The girls sometimes seemed shy in front of the camera, but never did anyone ask to see what I was doing.
The last day I spent with them was during one of their nighttime rounds when they would take food to the “children.” At least that was what I thought we were going to do, but it turned out to be much more. After walking a few miles with a pot of soup and bread, the Franciscans reached a garden across from a church where there were several homeless people.
Sister Clara, 21 years old and always smiling, helped one of the homeless “sons” light a bonfire to cook some fish that he had acquired. After serving soup the Franciscans sat with the rest to chat and take turns playing guitar. Sister Clara, very naturally and with affection, sat on the bed of a “daughter” who was trying to sleep, and sang religious songs along with brother Placido and other Franciscans.
Right after that I said goodbye, and was thinking about everything I had seen and experienced with them. What made me happy was seeing how they acted naturally with the poor on their missions. Nothing they do is premeditated, nothing shows they are feeding their egos nor using their religion for personal satisfaction.
Their attitudes and daily lives confirmed everything Antonio told me, about how they live ordinary lives and how they need the strength of their faith to continue. But more than that, they live for brotherly love. As it says in the prayer of St. Francis, I can say I met young people who bring joy where there is sadness and above all, want to love more than be loved.