Priest irks Brazilian right with social justice mission

By Carlos Meneses Sanchez

Sao Paulo, Sep 22 (efe-epa).- Father Julio Lancellotti has been the target of threats and intimidation since he began working to improve the lives of Sao Paulo’s homeless population more than three decades ago.

But he refuses to let a defamation lawsuit filed by Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president since last year; the coronavirus pandemic; or any other obstacle get in the way of his mission to combat inequality in Brazil.

The 71-year-old Lancellotti, whom some of his fellow Catholic priests label a “communist,” takes to the street every day to attend to this metropolis’ most vulnerable population, though now during the pandemic he does so wearing a mask, gloves and face shield to ward off infection.

“I’m striving to be coherent with what I believe,” he said humbly in an interview with Efe.

But his charitable efforts are not appreciated at all by some residents and business owners in Mooca, a middle-class district where Lancellotti serves as a parish priest.

“They’ve said countless times, ‘Death to Father Julio,’ ‘That priest has to die,’ ‘He has to go,’ that “I’m ruining’ the neighborhood…” Lancellotti said.

The most recent incident occurred last week, when an individual shouted from a motorcycle, “Father son of a b____ who defends drug addicts!”

He also has been a thorn in the side of Brazilian politicians. In 2017, the rightist Bolsonaro sued Lancellotti after the priest described the then-lower house lawmaker as “male-chauvinist, racist and homophobic” during one of his homilies.

That lawsuit is still pending.

The priest now accuses the current head of state of allowing blazes to rage unchecked in the Pantanal (the world’s largest tropical wetland area) and the Amazon region, where there have been an increasing number of forest fires since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.

“I’m still alive because I think I haven’t irritated (people) as much as I need to. If I’d upset them more, I’d have died at age 33 like Jesus,” he said.

As soon as the 7 am Mass ends, entire families gather at the door of Lancellotti’s church in search of assistance.

“Everything grew worse with the pandemic; all of the poverty was exacerbated,” said the priest, who also is coordinator of the Sao Paulo Archdiocese’s homeless population pastoral.

Inequality became more apparent than ever, according to Lancellotti, who insists the root cause is not the current health emergency and pandemic-triggered lockdowns but rather longstanding “privileges, corruption and predatory development” that increasingly serve to exclude the poor.

During one of the priest’s walks to a nearby charity facility, he is accompanied by two volunteers who push carts with blankets, masks, food and basic necessities.

Along the way, some homeless people walk up to Lancellotti. The priest stops to listen and speak with them, a simple gesture but one deeply appreciated by a largely neglected group estimated to total 24,344 people, according to the latest census by the Sao Paulo mayor’s office, which says it provides assistance to nearly half of that population.

Between 2015 and 2019, a five-year period in which Brazil suffered a deep recession and a tepid recovery, the number of people living on the streets soared by 60 percent in Sao Paulo.

“They’re so accustomed to being mistreated that violence against them became commonplace,” said the priest, who was a great admirer of late Spanish-born Brazilian prelate Pedro Casaldaliga, a well-known exponent of liberation theology who passed away last month in Sao Paulo state.

Around 500 people wait at the door of the center for a free breakfast. Everyone seems to know Lancellotti, who helps distribute the aid with the help of Sao Paulo city officials.

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