Zilda Arns: Nobel Nominee, Quake Victim, Saint?

Interview With Sister Mary Helen Arns

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By Michaela Koller

FORQUILHINHA, Brazil, FEB. 22, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Over a month after Zilda Arns, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and founder of the International Pastoral da Criança, was killed in the Haitian earthquake, many people are mourning her loss.

One of her siblings, Sister Mary Helen Arns of the Scholastic Sisters of Our Lady, told ZENIT, “My sister’s death was a blow for my family and for the whole of Brazil.”

The aid worker’s efforts in the pastoral care of children in Brazil and worldwide has led many to honor her, and some to speculate on a possible cause for her canonization.

Zilda Arns Neumann grew up in a family of 13 children. Mary Helen was one of three sisters who entered the religious life. Two brothers also followed this vocation as Franciscans, and one of them, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, became the archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil. He is now retired.

Born to German immigrants, Arns lived in Brazil, where she married and raised her own six children. She was killed Jan. 12 at the age of 75 in the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
 
Sister Mary Helen, who lives in Zilda’s birthplace, Forquilhinha, in southern Brazil, spoke to ZENIT about her sister’s legacy.
 
ZENIT: We know through Sister Rosangela Maria Altoe, international secretary of Pastoral da Criança, that your sister, Zilda Arns Neumann, met death in the Sacre Coeur church of Turgeau, in Port-au-Prince, because of the collapse of the roof. Could you say more about this?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: Following a conference for 150 persons, the majority of whom had left, a priest wanted to know more about Pastoral da Criança.

She and a group of priests stayed talking in the church, the place of the conference, when the earthquake struck, and fifteen of them lost their lives with Zilda.
 
ZENIT: What were your immediate reactions, and those of Pastoral da Criança, when the terrible news of her death was confirmed?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: It was an immense shock not only for our family but for the whole of Brazil.

It’s very difficult to talk about this event. The Eucharist was celebrated in all parishes, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida.

The majority of the coordinators of Pastoral da Criança, over these 27 years, knew Zilda personally or through television.

Everywhere Zilda’s death was announced: the media, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, text messages, the Internet. Many persons gave a testimony about her life and mission, among them, Bishop Angélico Bernardino [retired bishop of Blumenau] with the title “Who Received Zilda in Heaven,” and Archbishop Walmor de Azevedo, of Belo Horizonte, who wrote a very lovely article for [the Portuguese edition of] ZENIT: “Zilda Arns — for the Faith.”
 
ZENIT: How will Pastoral da Criança continue now?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: Three years ago Zilda handed over the national coordination to Sister Vera Lucia Altoe and assumed the international coordination of Pastoral da Criança, which has already spread to 20 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Zilda also founded Pastoral da Pessoa Idosa [Pastoral Care for Elderly Persons] in the national arena.
 
ZENIT: How is the present expansion of Pastoral da Criança going?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: Pastoral da Criança is already active in 272 diocese of Brazil, in 7,000 parishes, 42,000 communities, with an “army” of 260,000 volunteers, 92% of whom are women, who support 1,985,347 poor children, 108,342 pregnant women, of 1,553,717 families.

In the beginning more than 50% of children in Brazil suffered malnutrition; now it is 3.1%.

In 1983 infant mortality was 82.2 out of every 1,000 children born alive. Today it is 13 out of 1,000 in the poor communities supported by Pastoral da Criança. The data is from Zilda’s last conference in Haiti.
 
ZENIT: How successful are the efforts to make Zilda Arns Neumann a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, post mortem?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: In his address during the funeral wake, Roberto Requião, governor of Parana asked the Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was present, to be determined in seeing that Zilda is granted the Nobel Peace Prize. The president responded affirmatively.
 
ZENIT: Voices must already have been raised, even in the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, on the possibility of opening the process of beatification, right?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: It was a bishop who spoke to the media about this.

The bishops’ conference never makes big decisions outside the general assembly, with all the prelates.

Even though many religious and laymen are talking about this, it is too early to judge. “Revista Veja” called her “a saint in life and a martyr in death.”

We know that the Church acts slowly and with care in the case of beatification and canonization, and that with time.
 
ZENIT: Meanwhile, lay venerations already are appearing, honoring Zilda’s name. Could you say more about this?
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: Yes, a park in São Paulo was inaugurated with the name Zilda Arns Park. It was given this name the day of Zilda’s burial. It is in the Grimaldi Garden neighborhood, near Avenue Sapopemba.
 
ZENIT: We thank you for your words and wish to express to you again our condolences.
 
Sister Mary Helen Arns: Thank you for your sympathy for the death of my dear sister Zilda.

May the Holy Spirit always dictate to you as he did with the great Apostle Paul. After 2000 years, we still read his letters with great fervor.

It is a question of saving our planet and the people of God for a better world. I am sure that Zilda has contributed to this and that she will still do so.
 [Translated by ZENIT]

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