Rev. Sergio Santos, the new Brazilian-born pastor to Edmonton’s Portuguese community, has had his share of challenges as a pastor in Rio de Janeiro – one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
He recalls taking cover when gunshots from gang warfare blasted outside his church.
“Shots were ringing from all over. I didn’t know what to do,” said Santos, who had only been pastor for two weeks at the Jesus of Nazareth Parish in the Maré neighbourhood.
“There were a lot of drug traffickers, tough gangs, violence. It was a very dangerous area.”
Gunfire broke out twice during Mass in the three years Santos was pastor there, from 2014 to 2016. Father Santos recalls watching his parishioners rush to opposite sides of the church. It reminded him of Moses parting the red sea.
“I shouted to them, ‘God will take care of us. Please, sit back down!’ And I continued celebrating the Mass,” he said. “Eventually we learned to get used to the violence. It was reality.”
Today, 34-year-old Father Santos has a much more peaceful reality, but faces new challenges such as enduring his first Canadian winter and honing his English language skills.
Santos left his homeland to become the new pastor for Our Lady of Fatima Church in northeast Edmonton, which serves a largely Portuguese congregation. He celebrated his first Mass in Canada on Aug. 18. The parish offers three masses in Portuguese and one in English each weekend.
“It’s very important to me to better my English, because I want people to understand what I say,” Father Santos said. “Sometimes I will listen to an English word over and over and write it down in a Portuguese way because it helps me pronounce properly.
“When I start speaking my English homily, sometimes I am thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, people are not understanding a word.’ But when the Mass is ended, everyone tells me I’ve done a good job. I’ve been very welcomed here already.
“The Portuguese people are very welcoming, especially in times of lunch and dinner,” Santos said with a laugh. “It’s always another plate, and then another plate, and then ‘Please Father, have some more.’”
Santos’ parish duties have left little time to be homesick for Brazil, where he first heard the call to the priesthood at 14. That vocation remained in his heart ever since. He was ordained in 2012, at age 25.
He spent the first two years of his priesthood as a pastor in the city of Campinápolis, in central Brazil, before being assigned to Rio de Janeiro. While he has visited other countries such as the U.S., Chile and Italy, his assignment to Our Lady of Fatima Parish is the first time his ministry has taken him outside of Brazil.
Santos began studying English last year, with hopes of broadening his opportunities as a priest and seeing more of the world. His studies proved fruitful. In April, Santos was offered the position at Our Lady of Fatima. Father Santos knew little of Canada outside of pictures of mountains, snow and the northern lights, but he gladly took the opportunity.
Roughly 300 parishioners attend Mass at Our Lady of Fatima each week, and Santos hopes to grow the parish with an increased focus on social media and family visits. His dream is to bring Brazilian seminarians to the parish to help them learn English and experience priestly life as soon as next year.
With Father Santos as pastor, Antonio Brinco hopes the parish will grow.
“We’re very proud of it,” said Brinco, who has been a parishioner since 1989.
“All of our work to keep this parish going – the maintenance, the feasts we host around Feast of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Fatima and a few others – it’s all volunteer. We want to keep this church alive. We’ve been doing it for so long and it keeps us together.”
Santos left Brazil just before the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region gets underway Oct. 6-27. The synod will identify ways to increase the Catholic Church’s presence in South America, particularly among the 400 Indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
The synod’s working document, Instrumentum Laboris suggests the Church consider ordination of older married men from within these tribes as a way to address the lack of priests and the great distances in the Amazon. The region encompasses nine countries, more than two million people and 200 different languages.
However, Father Santos doesn’t see that as a solution.
“There have been so many saints and so many priests that made great sacrifices,” he said. “They were willing to renounce, to be alone and sacrifice their lives for God. It should be the same now. The solution, I think, is to refresh priests’ minds of this.”
Santos sees missionary work in the Amazon as a monumental task, but he believes it would be difficult to find married men who can spread the Gospel in this area with the same fervour as a priest.
“To bring the Church to the Amazon will be very hard,” Santos said. “The access to these regions alone can require many days of travelling and long trips by ship or boat. Principally, they should bring young priests into the Amazon, because it is a long and difficult journey to take.”
After his own long journey to Edmonton, Father Santos hopes to experience his first Alberta winter.
“People keep telling me to wait until the winter, then I will see the real Edmonton,” he said. “I look forward to it. I’ve been told the first few times I will think the snow looks very beautiful, but after two months it will be ‘Oh no, not snow again.’”