RIO DE JANEIRO — Born and raised in China before immigrating to Brazil, Father José Li GuoZhong had never personally experienced World Youth Day before last summer. Nor has he been present in a city hosting the FIFA World Cup.

Now, after welcoming more than 100 American pilgrims at a multinational English-speaking catechesis last July, Father GuoZhong and St. Francis Xavier Parish are preparing for the second of two of the world’s most popular international events in a span of just 11 months.

When the 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Brazil on June 12, the parish and most of the other 263 churches in Rio de Janeiro’s Archdiocese of St. Sebastian won’t be changing Mass schedules, hosting pilgrims or standing with Pope Francis on Copacabana Beach.

But Father GuoZhong and other archdiocesan priests discussed with the Register the Church’s role in the world’s largest sporting event this year and how the legacy of the Holy Father’s 2013 visit is guiding the archdiocese and some of its most prominent parishes nearly one year later.

"World Youth Day left us a great legacy, and we need to continue that mission," proclaimed Bishop Luiz Henrique da Silva Brito, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Sebastian, in a January memoir titled "A Year of Great Opportunities."

As the archdiocese continues its WYD mission, some of the city’s Catholic leaders offer varying thoughts on its place in the World Cup.

Most, like Father Paulo Roberto, pastor of Rio’s historic Our Lady of Exile Church, believe that, as an integral part of the city’s roots and culture, Catholics should be actively involved in celebrating and participating in the event.

"Perhaps equally as much as soccer, Rio de Janeiro is about Catholicism and being a beautiful, welcoming place to others," Father Roberto said in Portuguese. "That means we need to offer ourselves fully to the needs of our visitors."

Father Ramon Nascimento, pastor of Divine Holy Spirit Parish and the head director of more than 60,000 WYD volunteers last year, agrees. A lifelong Carioca (a native of Rio de Janiero), Father Nascimento says the event is part of the Church’s current mission, as stated by Bishop da Silva Brito.

"Soccer can help us understand — in the same way you have to work hard to be a great athlete, you have to work hard to be a great Christian and live the faith," he said. "And great Christians strengthen us as a Church."

 

WYD Memories

Father Nascimento greeted Pope Francis several times during WYD, including the welcoming of the Holy Father at Rio’s Galeão-Antônio Carlos Jobim Airport and his farewell encounter with WYD volunteers.

The opportunity to meet and be close to the Pope, Father Nascimento attests, was a life-changing experience for him and several other archdiocesan clergy members.

"It was incredible learning to understand his attitude," Father Nascimento said, "and very inspiring to our priests."

Father Silmar Fernandes, pastor of Rio’s Old Cathedral-Our Lady of Mount Carmel of the Ancient See, met Pope Francis just once, before the Way of the Cross on Copacabana Beach.

"We spoke little because we were so impacted by his humble and fearless presence," wrote Father Fernandes on his parish’s website, next to a picture of himself with the Holy Father and Cardinal Orani João Tempesta. "I saw the golden days of Pope Francis in Rio, with the youth colored with a taste for a new world."

Both Father Fernandes and Father Ivo Müller, guardian of St. Anthony Convent, declined to comment on any connection between the Church and the World Cup. Father Müller says God’s presence in sports is complex.

"It’s a very complicated issue," he said, "but visitors who come to St. Anthony will come because of their faith and a curiosity in the historic part of the city."

Other pastors, like Father GuoZhong and Msgr. Sérgio Costa Couto of the Church of the Glorious Hill, hope their parishes can serve as welcoming places for tourists.

"If people are looking for a Catholic church, we want to be here for them," Father GuoZhong said, "but the World Cup is a sporting event — not necessarily a religious event."

"We’re here as more of a spiritual presence, a place of welcoming, if people want to come here," Msgr. Couto added. "For example, people can come here to celebrate Masses in other languages."

Rio de Janeiro’s Police Pacifying Unit (UPP) has pacified nearly 250 favelas (slums) since the state initiated the program in 2008 to combat drug trafficking. But rebel forces of sophisticated drug-dealing organizations, like Comando Vermelho, have contributed to increased violence in the most populous favelas, Rocinha and Maré, as the city prepares for the World Cup. Since February, five police officers have been killed.

State-wide protests that began last summer continue in Rio — over everything from World Cup spending to bus-fare hikes. Some, like a February protest in Rio’s central train station, even turn violent.

Though the interviewed clergy all said Rio’s violence is being exaggerated by the international press, they emphasize the need for prayer among the city’s poorest and most violent residents.

"It’s very, very alarming," Father Nascimento said. "Brazil, like other countries, has economic and social challenges right now, and we’re praying for our city."

"We’re praying for all people in need of God’s peace," Father GuoZhong added, "whether here in Rio, in Brazil or abroad."

Father Marcus Vinicius is the archdiocese’s pastor of sports ministries, appointed by Cardinal Tempesta in 2012. An avid soccer fan, Father Vinicius organizes events within the archdiocese’s 264 parishes, promoting peace and sportsmanship among diocesan youth and families.

"My goal is to bring faith to sports and sports to faith," Father Vinicius said. "Because of the World Cup, we’ve had more children and more families interested in participating in our activities."

St. Sebastian’s sports outreach slogan is a tweet posted by Pope Francis during World Youth Day: "May sports always be a means of exchange and growth, never of violence and hate. #Rio2013 #JMJ."

Father Vinicius’ group is also one of several archdiocesan sports ministries participating in Brazil’s Copa da Paz (Peace Cup) — a World Cup social campaign with a goal of incorporating the country’s national sport with Catholicism.

The campaign, according to its project director, Ricardo Pantoja, will take place in Rio and other World Cup host cities, São Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Salvador. Copa da Paz will include an estimated 250,000 participants from around the world and consist of nearly 50 events, ranging from sporting competitions to organized peace dialogues and prayer.

Endorsed by Brazil’s government and financed by World Cup sponsors, the campaign is also designed to support FIFA’s social theme for the 2014 World Cup: "For a world without guns, without drugs, without violence and without racism."

Said Pantoja, "We want to use the World Cup to mobilize our Catholic society and to promote peace and brotherhood among all of its members."

Chris Kudialis writes from Detroit. He attended WYD 2013 in

Rio de Janeiro and reported on the event for the Register.