Fr Renato Chiera has been working in the favelas, or depressed areas, of Brazil since 1978. An Italian missionary, he calls himself a street priest who tries to be a Christian in the peripheries of the world alongside those no one loves. In 1986, he founded the “Casa do minor”.
Renato Chiera is first and foremost a farmer, the son of farmers. He was born 77 years ago in a poor family of eight children.
He comes from Roracco, a small town in Piedmont, Italy. When he was 8 years old, he says he dreamed of being like Saint John Bosco. At 12 years of age, he entered the seminary to become a priest. He wanted to live his life for others. As soon as he was ordained, he felt that his heart was “restless,” that he wanted to “go out into the world.” He says he had the privilege of living before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. “I felt a little compressed in my diocese,” he says. “I dreamt of wider horizons”.
The Bishop of Mondovì suggested he go as a missionary to Brazil, to the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu, a large and often violent suburb of Rio. That was in 1978. Since then, Fr Renato’s heart has been dedicated to Brazil, and to those discarded by society.
Fr Renato resigned from the philosophy department where he was teaching, and entered the geographical and existential peripheries of the Baixada Fluminense. He says he was “attracted by Jesus, who suffers and cries out his abandonment in an uprooted, hopeless and unloved people.” Here he felt he had found his place and his Church.
“I discovered the drama and tragedy of children who were unloved, wounded, condemned to a life of violence, drugs and an early death,” he says. Certain events marked him deeply: like the story of the teenager he calls “the Pirate.” Fr Renato had offered him refuge when the boy was being chased by the police. But they found him anyway, and shot him down on the wall of the priest’s house. “I did not come to Brazil as a priest to dig graves,” says Fr Renato, “but to save lives.”
He made up his mind some time later, when another boy visited him and told him how 36 children had been murdered in the parish that month alone. The boy said that he was next on the killers’ list: one of the “marcados para morrer” or “candidates for death.”
With no one else offering to help them, Fr Renato felt he could see the face of Jesus in the faces of these children and that he had to do something. He had to be the father, mother, and family they never had. He had to be the loving presence of God for those who were unloved and alone. And so his new adventure began.
These children have been abandoned so often and by so many: their families, schools, society itself, those in power, even the Churches. They wander the streets, their eyes staring at nothing, like the living dead. Everyone has rejected them; they are foreigners in their own land, uprooted, with no points of reference, no sense of direction, no dreams and no future. For them, the street is everything, and nothing. They are the result of a cruel and exclusive society, which has forgotten how to love, ignores their basic humanity, and prefers to eliminate them, rather than suffer the accusatory tone of their silent voices.
Everything has been stolen from them: their right to be children, to have a bed, or food, to play and dream, to have prospects and a future. They are the mirror of a society with deeply twisted relationships. They are a cry of pain and horror. The sight of them is like a photograph that reveals the dark side of society. Nowadays they no longer even live on the streets as before: they seek the safety, sense of belonging, and visibility of the world of drug dealing. There they are ready to give their lives, to kill and to be killed: because that is what the law of these criminal environments demands.
When Fr Renato looked at this tragic “photograph,” he understood he had to act, to offer them an alternative, a community where they could find a family, love, education, a profession, a future and, above all, dignity. That is how the “Casa do menor” was born.
Father Renato Chiera doesn’t regret leaving the chair of philosophy, on the contrary. Along his chosen journey, he sits on another chair and learns another philosophy. He feels realised as a street priest, as a priest of the “cracolandie” (ndr: city of crac, of drugs) that are his new cathedrals.
It was there that he met God, who embraced the living flesh of Christ, put himself in adoration of “bleeding hosts” who cried out for abandonment and sought a presence of love, of prospects, of the future. Sometimes they are satisfied with even just a hug or a candy. In the street and in the “cracolandie” they recognise daily the result and the consequences of a split society, of the decline of a civilisation.
The “Casa do menor”
The “Casa di menor” is now present in four states in Brazil. It is a community that will not abandon its children. Instead, it reminds them they are beloved children of God.
In the 33 years of its existence, more than 100,000 children have been welcomed, 70,000 have found a job and can look forward to a future. Fr Renato often says he would give his life “to save even one child or adolescent.” The “Casa do menor” has already inspired a family of consecrated persons called “Familia Vida.” A family for those who do not have one. Several members of this “Familia Vida” were once abandoned street children themselves. This new community represents a guarantee for the future, “but it cannot be reduced to a simple NGO,” says Fr Renato, in a reference to the many speeches Pope Francis has given regarding on the role and mission of the Church.
An act of love
The greatest need of the children and young people there is the need to feel loved. Those who lack it are unable to love one another. They are ready to destroy everything, including themselves. Which is why they cannot be parents or build a future for themselves.
The “Casa do menor” responds to this need by giving these children and young people a home, a family, a job, and the opportunity to fit into society and the world of work. Many of them are regenerated in their relationship with God. They rediscover Him as a faithful presence in their lives, one that never abandons.
Fr Renato recalls a young man who arrived at the “Casa do menor” with head wounds after his father tried to kill him by closing him in a manhole in the street. On Mother’s Day, he asked Fr Renato if he could go and visit his mother. “I bought her a shirt to show her I love her,” he said proudly. When he returned home, he was devastated: his mother was dead. After a moment’s thought, the young man turned to Fr Renato and handed the shirt to him instead: “You are my mother now,” he said.
When you ask Fr Renato to talk about the children who have entered the “Casa do menor,” he becomes an inexhaustible source of stories. He can talk to you for hours about the young people he has helped on the streets of Rio.
One story involves a boy involved in drug dealing. Fr Renato used to encounter him on and off for six years in the drug infested neighbourhood where the boy lived. Then suddenly one day the boy turned up at the “Casa do menor.” “Father, I’m here,” he said. “I want to help you and I want to start a new life.” Today he too is a member of the “Familia Vida,” where he is in charge of a community of “moradores de rua,” the homeless victims of drug abuse.
With thanks to Vatican News and Silvonei Protz, where this article originally appeared.