Once an Illegal Alien, Now a Priest

Father Joe Pereira Works With Sri Lankan Faithful in Italy

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ROME, FEB. 12, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Joe Neville Pereira slept in stations and underground passageways. He knew hard work and the precariousness of life as an illegal immigrant.

Now, an ordained priest, he celebrates Mass every day in the Eternal City.

«I spent five years on the streets,» Father Pereira recalled. «It was hard, but I earned what a minister does in my country: enough to pay the debts I incurred, in order to be able to leave and find accommodation for my relatives until I returned home.»

His Italian adventure did not end with his return to Sri Lanka in 1988, however. A native of that country (formerly Ceylon), he first emigrated to Italy in 1983.

«Once I paid my debts, I began studying pastoral theology in Freiburg, and was ordained priest,» he said. «Then my country´s bishops´ conference asked me to return to Italy to take care of immigrants. I know [their] problems … well.»

Now, Father Pereira is in Italy legally. He lives on the outskirts of Rome in a neighborhood known as the Infernetto, a residential center where he had worked until August 1987.

«I really earned a lot of money, an amount I could never have earned in my homeland,» he recalled. «First of all, I had to get rid of my debts. It cost me about $7,000 to come to Italy, and I had to pay this back. Then I had to think of my relatives. One earns enough, but life is very hard.»

He had to sleep with «eight or 10 people in two rooms with only one bathroom,» he said, and he constantly worried about obtaining a resident permit.

The hardest part was from the moral standpoint. «Husbands and wives must live separately, often far» from one another, he said. «The children are left at home, without a father or mother, or with only one [parent], because there is that hope of obtaining well-being, which has forced many to leave.» In this situation, one can end up by forgetting God, he said.

Today, Father Pereira is the pastoral coordinator of the Sri Lankan community in Italy. He estimated there are at least 30,000 Sri Lankans in Italy, 75% of them Catholics. He added, «I believe the majority will never return to their homeland.»

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