No, not soccer – football!
While the U.S. calls the game soccer, 180 million Brazilians and the rest of the world call it football. As a Columban missionary priest in Brazil, I know first-hand how much Brazilians love football. The Brazil national football team is the most successful national football team in the history of the World Cup with five championships and is the only national team to have played in every World Cup. In addition, Brazil will act as the host country for the World Cup in 2014.
Columban Father Colin McLean lives and works in Brazil. Read more stories about Brazil:
One Saturday night in August 2009, Marcelo Batista, one of the married deacons from our parish, and I were present at the first training session we organized with the aim of forming a parish football team, which would participate in a tournament with seven other parishes in our deanery. I had long wondered how we could reach out to the over 90% of our parish population who do not have regular contact with the Church, despite being baptized Catholics. A parish football team seemed like a good idea.
At a deanery meeting, I suggested that a football competition would be a good a way for us to engage more personally with parish youth, especially men, who do not come to Mass. We invited some good footballers we had seen in local games as well as other interested youths to try out for the new team which would then represent the parish. Eighteen young men came to the initial session, nearly all of whom are not regular churchgoers.
Since that first meeting, more footballers have approached us wanting to participate. During our preparations for the tournament, I occasionally sent out a small leaflet to our parish team footballers. The leaflet included quotations from the New Testament (the Gospel parable of the talents, St. Paul’s letter about athletes training to win the prize, for example), and explanations of what is a parish and deanery. We came in third place in the first deanery tournament, which was played on an inside court with fewer players than occupy a normal football field.
Unfortunately, we are not having too much success in a local tournament with teams from nearby communities. Our team has plenty of stars, but what we want to achieve is for them to pull together to form a star team! However, our long term aim of reaching out to young men who have little contact with the Church is starting to bear some fruit. A couple young men now participate in our Sunday Eucharist; a couple more have indicated they would like Marcelo or me to baptize their children.
And another young man introduced me to his fiancée and said that soon they would approach me to officiate at their wedding. Three of our players, Andre, Fernando and Anderson Lima Rocha, are siblings who come from a family of six brothers. Anderson served as an acolyte at Mass. I say served because the family has since moved to another area, but the brothers are happy to keep playing on our parish team. One day when I was passing by Anderson’s house, he asked if I would like to go in and meet his parents. I stopped the car and went into the house. I will never forget his father’s words when we were introduced: “This is the first time a priest has come into my house!” There and then I told him I would return for longer chats on occasions. Unfortunately, I never saw him again. He was ailing at the time and shortly afterwards was taken to the hospital where he died. I decided to keep my promise by visiting the houses (mostly rented rooms) of each of his sons.
The brothers all lived very close to one another which made my job a lot easier. Getting to know them all, I became very impressed to see them constantly in each other’s presence. The social life of one was, more often than not, the social life of all six, and they were very happy in each other’s company – playing football together, going on outings and sharing a beer together. Never before had I seen a family that close and united. As I discovered, they also have plenty of differences and arguments among themselves, but this in no way destroys their sibling friendship.
More and more, I am convinced that we have to be creative in our attempts to bring about the reign of God on earth. And we have to find the right language. Jesus didn’t get to know His fisherman companions by waiting for them around the synagogue, and He didn’t meet any of them at the temple during prayers or worship. He got to know them and their language by walking along the beach to where they tended their nets, fishing with them, crossing the lake with them (even in storms!) and cooked their fish with them on the beach. Jesus entered into their world, learned their fishing language and then He called them to be fishers of men and women. I believe we have to do the same.
Fr. Colin McLean lives and works in Brazil.
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of the ‘Columban Mission’ magazine.