São Paulo’s gringo hero: Michael D to honour Dublin priest

Fr Pat Clarke to be among 10 recipients of Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad – for his work with the poor of a São Paulo favela

Fr Pat Clarke: ‘The whole capitalist system is a sophisticated seduction machine. You think you are being liberated by things which are actually enslaving you.’

Fr Pat Clarke: ‘The whole capitalist system is a sophisticated seduction machine. You think you are being liberated by things which are actually enslaving you.’

 

Walking through Vila Prudente favela with Fr Patrick Clarke can take some time.

It is not that this is one of São Paulo’s biggest shanty towns or the Dubliner is slowing down now he is in his eighties. His long strides are sure as he makes his way through crooked alleyways that at times are so narrow the sky is just a sliver overhead.

It’s just he keeps stopping to say hello and shake the hand with everyone who doesn’t stop him first for a quick word. And after more than four decades working with some of the poorest people in the southern hemisphere’s biggest city it seems every resident in Vila Prudente knows the man they call “Pa-tree-key”.

“Everyone here loves Padre Patrick. He is very dedicated to the people, no matter what their religion,” says pensioner Audenora Ferreira Espindula. Ask residents what he has done to win such affection and some will cite the local cultural centre, others the rural retreat where local kids often enjoy their first encounter with nature or perhaps the community’s creche that now looks after 150 children while their parents spend long hours working for extremely low pay. He was instrumental in setting up all of them, often with the help of donations from back home.

This life’s work which is representative of a remarkable generation of Irish missionaries is now fading into history, but will be recognised on Thursday [November 21st] when the Spiritan priest will be one of 10 recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad from President Michael D Higgins.

When he arrived in Brazil in 1977 he found an altogether different institution 

Clarke was born in Dublin’s Liberties in 1937 and raised in a conservative Catholic Church. When he was ordained in 1965 – after studying philosophy in UCD and completing a masters in Boston – that church was only beginning to come to terms with reforms of the second Vatican Council.

But when he arrived in Brazil in 1977 he found an altogether different institution. It was one caught up in the enthusiasms of liberation theology with its famous “option for the poor”. If the church back in Ireland was conservative, in Brazil it was radical at a time when being so was dangerous.

The country was still in the grip of a repressive, right-wing military dictatorship. If in neighbouring Argentina the Catholic hierarchy provided moral support for its dictatorship, in Brazil things were very different. Many bishops were among the regime’s most prominent critics and the generals viewed with suspicion Catholic priests and nuns abandoning settled parishes to live and organise in religious “base communities” among city slum dwellers or landless peasants and indigenous peoples in the countryside.

Like many of the Irish missionaries of his generation who came to work in this Latin American church Clarke joined the migration “from the centre to the periphery”. He choose Vila Prudente as the centre of his pastoral area and believes his family’s time living in an Irish ghetto in Manchester helped prepare him for his work with favelados, who are regarded by many of São Paulo’s more fortunate residents with a mixture of contempt and fear.

“I think it was in me all along, being an underdog,” he says. “But I don’t know if Manchester is why I identified so much with here because it does replicate in some sense an experience of mine with regards to suffering others’ preconceived notion of who you are.”

Even so it took him time to win the trust Vila Prudente residents. Espindula sings his praises now but back in the 1970s and 1980s her father was a local power broker in the community’s residents’ association, a body that acted as the regime’s eyes and ears in the community. Such people viewed the gringo missionaries showing up with suspicion, viewing them as a threat to their control over the local population.

In deciding how to approach the community Clarke followed the advice of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire whom he met at a symposium in Paris before coming to Brazil. The two men formed a firm friendship that deepened after Freire’s return from exile in 1979. “He told me that first I had to be a fly on the wall. ‘Don’t just bring in the solution to whatever you see.’ ”

Clarke and his colleagues went on to win the trust of locals 

Freire asked the young missionary to bring him a list of 22 words that he most commonly heard when in the favela. “When I did he said: ‘That is the universe you have to fit into now.’ ”

From those first building blocks Clarke and his colleagues went on to win the trust of locals by entering their universe and speaking their language.

Their first great success was an epic five-year project to install a sewage system for the favela. “The rats would be scurrying between your feet and when visiting people’s homes I would try to sit by the door because you would get less of the stench from the vapours coming up through the dirt floor,” he remembers.

Fr Pat Clarke is greeted in the street by one of his devoted parishioners.
Fr Pat Clarke is greeted in the street by one of his devoted parishioners.

The problem was residents did not expect anything different or think they deserved better. The missionaries had to approach the matter in a roundabout way in order to change attitudes. “So I used to ask them if the rats had been christened. This kind of thing had never occurred to them before.”

The success of the sewage project won them acceptance and provided the momentum that would drive adult literacy programmes, the creation of the cultural centre and the creche among a host of other social projects.

At their heart they all have the same objective: to empower São Paulo’s socially excluded. The goal was not just to provide favela residents with the social services to which they have a constitutional right, but to equip them with the means to organise and fight for them.

These days the enthusiasm sparked by the liberation theology generation has dimmed

Today among the activists of the Movement for the Defence of Favela Residents, which Clarke helped found, are university graduates who first had their political consciousness awakened in youth groups run in favelas by the missionaries. For many Brazilian conservatives such activities are tantamount to subversion.

But these days the enthusiasm sparked by the liberation theology generation has dimmed. In Clarke’s pastoral area it is harder to involve young people in activism than in previous years. “Before we would get 50 or 60 at a youth meeting. Now sometimes you would get two.”

In part this is due to the inclusion of communities like Vila Prudente on the bottom rung of contemporary consumer culture, something that was barely imaginable for their parents. “Many now think being able to buy things is a form of inclusion,” he says. “But the whole capitalist system is a sophisticated seduction machine. You think you are being liberated by things which are actually enslaving you.”

Some of the liberation theology generation blame the Vatican’s conservative turn during papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for draining energy from the Latin church. The two popes viewed liberation theology as impregnated by godless Marxism and many priests and nuns in Latin America left the church to focus on political and social activism, some even taking up arms to do so.

I am here to walk with the people and the Gospel is central to that

Though still a rebel activist Clarke believes the question is how to have a social dimension that does not dilute theology. “It is about getting the balance right. A social worker is a very important person but I am not here as a social worker. I am here to walk with the people and the Gospel is central to that.”

As he says goodbye to his congregation after his last Sunday Mass before the long trip to the Áras, this veteran of a deeply engaged but ageing generation of Irish missionaries is not much inclined to dwell on the fact that for the foreseeable future at least there will be no one from Ireland following in their footsteps because of the lack of vocations back home.

“It doesn’t disturb me really,” he says matter of factly. The work in Vila Prudente will continue. Clarke’s new colleague is a young Spiritan priest from the Cape Verde Islands who did part of his training in Ireland. Everything is connected, he says, citing the recently canonised saint Oscar Romero, a hero for many followers of liberation theology.

“He talked about how nothing you are doing is ever complete. Of its nature it is just a stepping stone to somewhere or someone else and in time what you have tried to do has its worth but don’t think you’ve finished the job. It’s sobering but it is kind of liberating. Why would anyone want to pretend they were the final answer? It would make you too serious.”

And with that he puts on his GAA cap and heads off down Rua da Igreja, named after the church he helped build, standing on a street he helped pave, greeting everyone he passes.

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