Testimony from a poor part of the world that has much to teach us

The Eucharist and Social Challenge

Vilson Groh


The following article comes from the Archdiocese of Florianapolis in South Brazil. A priest shares his experience of carrying out his ministry for the past 34 years in some of the poorest areas on the outskirts of the city. As well as his own generous and concrete effort he has set up a network of support, dedicated to promoting life and dignity for the most marginalised. We asked him to tell us in what way the Eucharist was a source of unity for his work out on the peripheries of society, so in harmony with the Magisterium of the Church in Latin America and with Pope Francis. We include some extracts from the original much livelier version of his story!

The Church in our Continent is privileged to have the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) - in this sense I think we are pioneers - working alongside the national episcopates. A series of General Bishop Conferences have been able to take place, named after the cities in which they were held: Medellin, Puebla, Santo Domingo, Aparecida.

All, including local bishops, are committed to living the new evangelization, taking into account the social and cultural reality of our people, particularly in urban areas. With regard to Brazil, the Bishops Conference published a document a few years ago on the Christian ethics of overcoming poverty and hunger. Drawing on the thought of Fathers of the Church, it highlighted the contradiction between celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday and not taking seriously the need to alleviate poverty. It’s well known that Pope Francis invites us to see in the face of the poor "the suffering body of Christ" (EG 24). As priests, we cannot but ask ourselves how do we connect with this reality and how do we see the Eucharist in relation to our neighbour, especially the poor and hungry. Hungry for bread, beauty and life.

Jesus in the Eucharist: the door is open 24 hours a day

On a hillside overlooking the city of Florianopolis a multitude of the poorest type of houses has mushroomed. My own house too, modest and with no door key, is situated in that area. During the day, there is always someone who comes in for coffee or something to eat, so much so that we always set an extra place at the table. Our open door is a sign of openness towards the community of that district; there is always a spare place for whoever knocks at the door. It is also a way to remind us that the Eucharist 'never closes'; it is there for us 24 hours.

Our faith teaches that the Eucharist is a source of communion. This is not something abstract; it is very concrete, it means generating a strength that comes from being united. In practical terms it means all our needs are shared - the need for a fridge, for food, clothes, money. We not try to 'own' the things that should belong to everyone.

On the paten that I use for Mass, I have inscribed the Gospel phrase from my ordination: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me a drink...” and so on until the final words "whatever you have done to the least, you have done to me". So when I place the bread for the Eucharist on the paten, I see these words and they help me remember not to waste the opportunity I have today.

A lady from our district asked me one day, "Do you know, Fr Vilson, why Jesus wanted to remain in the Eucharist? It was so that no one would feel alone or an orphan". Another lady, who came from the city to be of service to our community said that Jesus is like a mother, who before dying, thinks of what she can give to her children: she then added: "I believe Jesus wanted to remain present in a sacred form, because he was thinking "this is how they will still have me".

For me personally, I am very fond of how Teresa of Avila saw Jesus in the Eucharist as "her companion". In my very modest house, I am fortunate to have a tiny chapel with the tabernacle present and a kneeler. When I return home, at the end of the day, to sleep, I feel that Jesus is there waiting for me, and that I rest my head next to him, rather than in front of the TV or internet, or anything else.

The Eucharist: the cry of humanity

The Eucharist has always been at the centre of my everyday life and my story. For me it’s closely linked to another reality: Jesus crucified and forsaken. When Chiara Lubich wrote that in the cry of Jesus crucified he felt abandoned by the Father, she did not simply wish to write something meaningful, but to communicate her deepest, most intimate experience.
Jesus forsaken is not simply an 'idea' for us to think and reflect on; he is a reality: he is all that 'is not', all that is 'discarded ' in this world characterized by the logic of capitalism. We need to look at the social reality with 'mystical' eyes, as if Jesus was looking at it, and to understand that it is only through him that we can understand and live the Eucharist at a deeper level. When we celebrate we hold out the Body of Christ to the people. And that host contains the whole community, the wounded body, the cry of millions and millions of people.

That cry is a force that mobilizes us, capable of bringing together people and groups, going beyond social classes to weave a net among us all. That cry of abandonment uttered by Jesus, which echoed over the whole earth and through the ages, demands a response: 'Share'. Share the bread that satisfies physical hunger and every other sort of 'hunger' in our lives. In Jesus's cry, so closely connected to the Eucharist, we can rediscover things in a new way: the society in which we live, our public administration, the life of the Church and our own life too.

Recently, I found myself alongside someone living on the streets who is a journalist and a poet. At a certain point, he said: "I remember when you began helping people on the street". What made you come and be with us on the streets?". I replied because it was a contradiction for me to celebrate Mass every Sunday in the Cathedral and then go outside only to find 70 - 80 people homeless and without food. How could I just go home? "Have they nothing to eat?" I would be asking myself.

The Eucharistic table and the social justice table

We cannot have this gap between the Eucharistic table on the one hand and the social justice table on the other. As priests we need a certain knowledge of anthropology, theology, economy and sociology, in order to better understand the systems and causes generated by the social situation in which we live. But in reality, ours is a theological presence, capable of tangibly unveiling all that lies beneath that cry and finding the strength within it to renew things, to come together as a whole; to set in motion a process towards the common good of the whole city. As priests, with our celebrations and our relationships built on love, transmitted and lived out in the same way as Jesus, we have the opportunity to bring people and social sectors together; to promote these types of relationships within society in such a way that our Eucharist is not reduced to a mere routine or ritual.

We cannot resign ourselves to social inequality as if it were just inevitable. Working on the streets cannot simply be reduced to the charitable action of offering food and clothing. We need to set up networks that offer places of welcome to the homeless, engaging publically and politically with those who work in this field and with social institutions, all with the aim of helping the homeless to find their dignity and the means to lift themselves out of their situation through work.

Guided by our convictions we have been able to build up a network of 340 people who are paid monthly, 7 different organisations and one institution. Over 5000 children, young people and adolescents turn up at our centres every day. Each year we invest 15 million reals (about 5 million euros) in the project and we collaborate with 80 non-governmental organisations and institutions.

Include not exclude

Our ethos is inclusive: we work with both those who live on the margins and those who live in the city. As we seek to put the reality of the Eucharist into practice in our urban surroundings, we have managed to involve business entrepreneurs in our project, to the extent that for each one of our 7 organisations, there is one business owner linked to it, offering expertise in administration, the generation of profits, and management skills. But first we have to win their hearts. Only further down the line can they give us their assistance. I never ask for money, I invite them to join our discussion on challenges the city faces. This provides an opportunity for them to come out to the peripheries to see our social projects in action. I believe that it is really Jesus Forsaken, hidden behind these projects who 'touches' them.

We try hard to ensure that our work on the margins also has repercussions in the city. One decision was to open a church right in the heart of the city which had remained almost permanently closed. A community then sprang to life around it, including intellectuals, media and press professionals. We celebrate Mass there every Saturday and Sunday so it has become a meeting point between people on the margins and residents from the city People move to and fro between both communities. What do we say to one another? During the homily, no longer than 10 minutes, we share experiences of what we have lived, for example the experiences of a business men and women who have visited the shanty towns. At the same time I celebrate Mass for those who are homeless. Recently, in the Cathedral, there were 200 homeless people who came to Mass.

We have a group for those involved in businesses with whom we discuss both management and spirituality, because management without spirituality is empty; it is also true that spirituality aimed at social transformation will fail without good management. In this way, not only do our organisations grow and improve but they warm the hearts of those who work within them and the church community around them. For example, one of the bigger businesses in the city who wanted to work with us, created a volunteer workforce from within its organisation of 150 workers.

Building relations with Institutions

Recently we 'took over' a neighbourhood within the city with the aim of giving the houses a coat of paint to make them look cheerful, but it was much more than this because thanks to this initiative residents from other 'better areas', including magistrates, employees, mothers and fathers, joined in a concrete project and began to look at the real issues ranging from bare necessities to ecological issues and political involvement.
It would not be possible to make a difference politically if it were not for these networks; they are not there to substitute what the State needs to do, but to ensure that it (the State) carries out its role effectively, co-operating with the networks and other non-governmental organisations concerned with social justice and the common good, in order to create to centres of welcome where they are most needed.

Our efforts need to be sustainable going forwards, especially in areas concerning health, security, urban mobility, and education. Therefore, we have presented a dossier outlining the reality of the situation within the city, and presented it to the Mayor to be assessed. We have also been able to present a request to the Local Council on legal grounds, which will require those in positions of responsibility to submit their plans for improvements in key areas within a 90 day period.

The poor: theological reality and social capital

I would not be able to commit myself to these social projects if it were not for my relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist and His cry of abandonment. With Jesus Forsaken came the prospect of the Resurrection; it is this prospect of the Resurrection that permeates the structures of our network and gives life to our projects.

Our Centres help many who wish to get off the streets. Last week someone told me with tears in their eyes : "I have just been paid my first wages". Ivonete, who took drugs (crack) all through her pregnancy, has now managed to stop and her little baby is 8 months old.

There is one clear dimension in all of this: it’s not enough to equate the margins of the city with the poor; they are 'holy' places (with theological connotations); places of wonder, full of inventiveness. It is not true that favelas are only places of misery, dirt, violence, ignorance, superstition and so on: positive aspects exist that we need to know how to value and treasure; 3 in particular witness to an authentic social capital: the capacity to live with what one has, deep solidarity and great creativity.

Our teams work well because they have strong foundations and structures but I do not think that even this is enough: these realities need to become part of us, always in the forefront. That is why I go out on the streets every Sunday between 11.30 and 2pm to help distribute lunch, clean toilets, and wash floors. We priests do not need to buy a flat, or hold a bank account, or accumulate possessions. Jesus in His cry calls us to reach out to the poor, building relationships that are specifically Eucharistic in nature. By responding to their needs, with open arms, and organized help, we extend the reality of Jesus in the Eucharist and give the world a sign of sharing and sustainability.

The Eucharist pushes me to go ahead, beyond my tiredness, to absorb the pain and suffering of others. When I celebrate Mass I realize that Christ's mystical body, his wounded body and his body which is Trinitarian communion are all fused into one, and the journey starts again.