By Very Rev. James McCurry, OFM Conv.

A traumatic robbery disrupted my canonical visitation of the Franciscan Order’s Custody of the Immaculate Conception in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The desperate situation occurred at our inner-city Friary of St. Francis in the city’s Rio Comprido neighborhood, on Friday afternoon, Nov. 18. Though “all the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed” (Sean O’Casey), I was deeply impressed at the way the local friars in Rio rose to unrehearsed heights amidst the frightening chaos of the friary invasion.

The violent experience in Rio Comprido echoed events of eight centuries earlier when St. Francis of Assisi himself was beset by roadside robbers. His biographer Celano records that, afresh from the drama of his renouncing of patrimony before the Bishop of Assisi, the exuberant Francis was beset by highwaymen on his way to Gubbio. As the scalawags accosted the little poor man, throwing him into the snow, he boldly proclaimed, “I am the herald of the Great King” (1 Celano 16). Similarly in Rio, the little poor friars of today bore witness to the “Great King,” as two masked gunmen invaded their friary and harassed the Custos Fr. Ronaldo, along with his Definitory Council and Custodial Bursars!

Here is how the eventful day in Rio unfolded. I had spent most of the morning and afternoon meeting with the friars who comprise the Definitory. After several hours discussing my impressions at the end of my Canonical Visitation, I left the meeting room. A few minutes later, the Definitors heard a knock on the door. Abruptly, two masked and gun-toting invaders burst into the room and took control. Marching their friar-victims into the library next door, the villains methodically enacted their plan. The hoodlums ordered the friars to empty their pockets. Collecting watches, mobile phones, and the friars’ meager valuables, the scoundrels were relentless. One pressed his gun against Fr. Carlos Charles’ head when the latter hesitated a bit in removing the cherished Tau which had hung around his neck for the past thirteen years. The knaves then forced the friars to kneel, and roughly tied their hands behind their backs with plastic bindings. The thieves stole computers and other electronics from the friary. Mercifully no one was hurt, beaten, shot or killed. The whole traumatic episode lasted 30 minutes.

All the evidence points seemingly to the culprits being two of the workers hired that week to fix the friary’s leaking roof. They knew the friary layout only too well. Wearing hoods over their heads, they kept yelling at the friars not to look at them, perhaps fearing recognition. Their pre-meditated burglary even entailed their bringing enough plastic bindings to subdue several of the resident friars whose comings and goings they had been observing throughout the week. Indeed, that very morning, I myself had actually exchanged brief pleasantries with the selfsame laborers, albeit using English. During their captivity, Fr. Paulo Sergio would beg the villains not to bother with the foreign Provincial who did not speak Portuguese and would be unable to understand their commands. The rapscallions were unimpressed.

One of the dastardly desperados sent the other to search for me as well as any other friars. The varlet coerced Fr. Claudio, with a gun at his back, to go door by door down the passage where each of our rooms was located. The ruffian sacrilegiously covered himself with a red chasuble so that our neighbors would take no notice if they chanced to look at the twosome through the corridor of friary windows. Ironically visible in the far distance overlooking the whole violent scene stood Rio’s iconic statue of “Christ the Redeemer” atop the Corcovado.

At this point in the drama, the protective hand of Christ the Redeemer surely did manifest itself. When the gunman pushing Fr. Claudio reached my door, I was sitting at my desk starting to do some emails. I had just finished praying my Rosary on a new set of beads that Fr. Paulo Vicente had brought to me from Jerusalem. I heard the door handle rattle, but it was locked from the inside. Actually, I do not even remember having locked the door; I had simply put the key in the lock so that I would not forget it. When no knock followed the rattling, I assumed that a friar had gone to my room by mistake. Surely if the gun-toting brigand had knocked, I would have left my desk and innocently opened to the door to him. Post-factum I reflected humorously that the unsuspecting burglar should count his lucky stars; for I would have had to bombard the malefactor with Miraculous Medals! Or worse, shown him my fists (which are “registered” with the Pope), and restrained the goon’s hands with my Jerusalem rosary! A small bit of humor eases distress.

On a truly serious note, however, I remember that my Granny often said, “God’s help is nearer than the door!” So too is the Blessed Mother’s intercession. A flurry of knocks did eventually pound on my door a while later. When I opened it, the whole lot of my breathless confreres was standing there in a daze, their wrists still red, creased, and chafe with abrasions from the tight bindings from which they had broken loose. Their faces showed visible relief in finding me alive and well. They had feared that far worse may have befallen me.  I remain profoundly touched to know that my traumatized confreres’ first thought after freeing themselves from their fetters was of their Minister Provincial. I have a lump in my throat as I recall the poignant scene!

By the following morning, two aftereffects of the friary invasion were palpable: (1) The friars’ shock and trauma were giving way to pensive reflection. (2) Prayers for the poor misguided hoodlums were already underway.

The Custos, Fr. Ronaldo, himself shared with me how he spent much of the night reflecting on death and “eternity.” Close encounters at the other end of a gun barrel can lead one to reflect about life hereafter! Only the previous Sunday, I myself had preached in Petropolis to the postulants, aspirants, and vocational queriers about St. Francis’s “perspective of eternity.” Curiously, it was right before St. Francis was attacked by robbers that he had consciously adopted a new life-perspective of eternity: “Hitherto, I have called you, Pietro Bernadone, my father; henceforth I can say in honesty: ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” (St. Bonaventure, LM II,4). Consciously claiming the Heavenly Father’s “perspective of eternity” as the new vantage point from which he would orient his whole life, St. Francis was ready to confront whatever challenges might beset him – even nasty hooligans on the way to Gubbio!

St. Francis came to realize that everything in life “touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity” (Sean O’Casey). So too did we friars in Rio: With Franciscan hearts fixed firmly forward on the ideals of the eternal Kingdom, we are praying for the grace to reaffirm our commitment of heralding the Great King on earth – with courage and hope: “While we have time, let us do good!” (Galatians 6:10).

Meanwhile, what are we to think about those two poor and wretched creatures who terrorized our Rio friary? A few hours after the trauma, the Rio friars and I reflected that the robbers still have souls made in the image and likeness of God. Not to be dismissed merely as reprehensible reprobates or slippery so-and-so’s, those desperate gunmen are more to be pitied than pilloried. Prayers for them, more than curses, are far likelier to win the grace of their conversion, or at least their final repentance.

One can only speculate about the deplorable circumstances of life in the favelas of Rio which may have provoked the hooligans to break the Seventh Commandment. I keep wondering whether these two lads ever had mothers or fathers who showed them love. How did they learn to survive amidst the violence and gangland pressures of inner-city Rio? Have they been pressed by life’s disadvantages and high-powered cartels to embrace drugs and crime? Does not human weakness sometimes tempt even the noblest souls to lie down with dogs? Is it not sadly true that “He who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas?” Have they ever heard that God loves them? So many unanswerable questions! I wish that I could have dialogued with the pair about such things. At least we can pray for them.

Please join me in prayer for the friars of Rio. Please join the Rio friars and me in prayer for the tormentors. We commend them to the loving mercy of “Christ the Redeemer” – the Great King! May the Lord save us all!

Very Rev. James McCurry, OFM Conv.
Minister Provincial, Our Lady of the Angels Province
12300 Folly Quarter Road
Ellicott City, MD 21022