How the Pope Brought God to Drug Addicts

Interview on Brazil’s «Farms of Hope»

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil, SEPT. 6, 2010 ( When Benedict XVI visited Brazil in 2008, one of his stops was at a center for recovering drug addicts. A young patient later recounted what the experience meant for him: Not even my family wants to see me, he explained, but the Pope comes to see me and others like me.

The papal visit to Fazenda da Esperança (Farm of Hope) was a highlight in the development of the Gospel-based centers. Their history, in fact, starts with a simple decision to love made by a Brazilian youth.

José Correa, the director of the Brazilian office of Aid to the Church in Need, recounts some of the history of the centers and details of the papal visit in this interview given to the television program «Where God Weeps.» The program is sponsored by the Catholic Radio and Television Network in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, which has been supporting the Farms of Hope for some 10 years.

Q: Can you give us a little bit of a history and context: What are the “Farms of Hope” or as it is known locally, the Fazenda da Esperança?

Correa: It was born out of an act of love. This shows how sometimes a very small act that one makes may have enormous consequences. A young man, a member of a parish in the city of Guaratinguetá in São Paulo, would go to work every day passing by a sidewalk where a group of drug addicts would gather. Everybody knew that they were using drugs in that place and people tried to avoid passing along that sidewalk. This youth was very devout and a good Christian and he decided to go through the group and to greet them and then from his greetings he started conversations and every day he talked more to them and he became friends with them.

One day one of the drug addicts asked: “Why are you so happy? Every day that you pass by here we see that you are so happy.» And he told them about his faith and that this made him happy. This drug addict said: “I would like to be like you. How can I do that?» And so he brought him to a priest — a Franciscan missionary from Germany, Father Hans Stapel, and they decided to start to live in a sort of small community. Two more addicts who also wanted to get out of drugs later joined and out of this very small act of love — this youth passing along the sidewalk — was born probably the biggest work for drug rehabilitation in the world today.

Q: Father Hans Stapel, this German missionary, said that it is a combination of spiritual work and manual or physical work. Can you tell us about this healing process? How does it come about?

Correa: Sure. That is the beauty of the process that the Fazenda has these youth go through. To summarize it in two words, it’s a process of conversion. They bring these young men and women to God and this makes them get out of drugs. They work hard in the fields. They work with animals — which is very healthy for them to take care of animals. They pray a lot over there. They start the day every day with holy Mass and something very beautiful: Every day the leader of each  Fazenda chooses one sentence from the Gospel and they are told to try to live that sentence particularly well during the day. At the end of the day they have a meeting where they all get together to discuss how the day went and they tell the others how they tried to live that sentence of the Gospel.

Q: Father Hans said at one point, it was like a kindergarten for the soul because, as I understood in speaking with him, he said the drug addiction is actually the symptom. What needs to be healed is the wound on the heart from abuse, or from divorce often; that these wounds on the heart are the real work of healing that needs to take place?

Correa: Exactly it’s like that. The people that arrive there are very wounded and spiritually empty and this is what brought them to drugs. The causes are varied, but quite often they have family problems: They did not have the proper family education, they don’t have values or Christian principles — none of anything. And in the Fazenda they — first of all they feel what it is to be loved by the others so they do a lot of these small acts of love for each other, to help each other, to help your neighbor, to help the one who is in need closest to you, and this helps a lot in the process.

Q: Benedict XVI’s visit to one of the drug rehabilitation centers in 2008 was a joyful event. Papal visits are usually completely filled with political and social obligations and yet he took time to go to the middle of the countryside to visit this Farm of Hope, these young recovering drug addicts. What do you think inspired him to do that?

Correa: That visit was outstanding. He stayed in Brazil for six days. His main objective was the opening of the bishops’ conference and the main event in São Paulo: the public Mass for the people. He did not accept invitations to go elsewhere. He received literary hundreds of invitations to see everything and he declined all of them with the exception of the Farm of Hope.

Q: Why?

Correa: Because of the extraordinary work of the Farms of Hope.

Q: He had heard about them before?

Correa: He had heard about them before and he received a letter signed by 2,000 young people who were healed from drug addiction through the conversion at the Farms of Hope. He was very impressed with that letter and decided to see it for himself. So they [the Brazilian government] were willing to organize enormous events with 200 bishops, governors, politicians and all sorts of figures and he asked them to please cancel all of these because he wanted only to see the young addicts who wanted to get out of their drug habits. He wanted just to have a personal encounter with them, and this happened.

Q: What was the reaction of the young people when the Pope came to see them?

Correa: Oh! I can only describe it with one word: they became wild; for them it was unbelievable. I become emotional just remembering one young man telling us, a group of visitors there: “Even my family does not want to see me. I was rejected by my own relatives and now the Pope came to see me and to see the others like me.» So he was crying and was full of emotions thinking of that. It was extremely beautiful to see the reaction of the young people to the Pope’s coming.

Q: There was another story of a young girl that you were telling me a bit earlier who also experienced a conversion?

Correa: Yes it’s a nice story. She told me the story herself. She is from Bahia, northeast Brazil. She was a non-believer, and was very heavily into drugs. She wanted to get out of her drug habits just to get a better life. She had recently arrived at the Farm of Hope in the northeast and was not converted yet. She was a non-believer at the time of the organizing of the trip to São Paulo to the main farm where the Pope was to visit them.

The other young people were excited about the trip to São Paulo to see the Pope but she said: “No I’m not going. I’m here to get out of drugs. I do not want to see this man coming from Rome. I do not have any interest in what he is going to say. I’m not a believer. I’m going to stay here.» The others insisted that she should come, saying it would be nice just to be there with the other people; why don’t you come?

Seeing that she was going to be alone because everybody was going, she decided to come along. When she was there she said that she was filled with emotions and could not contain her tears; to see the love that the Pope showed to them; to see the eyes of the Pope full of love looking at them.

At the end of the visit, against the advice of his security, he decided to go down to the crowd of young people to mix with them, to greet them personally, and at that moment she said: “I got converted; at that moment I believed in Jesus because this man was representing Jesus and I understood the love that God has for us.» She converted and went back a new woman.

Q: What was the impre
ssion of the Pope? Did you hear any reaction of his impression following his visit to the Fazenda?

Correa: It’s hard to talk to the Pope privately to see what his personal feelings were. But one can guess what they were by the fact that after the trip, he mentioned various times in formal speeches the unforgettable visit to the young people there in the Farms of Hope. He points to them as an example of how the Gospel, the Word of God can heal people, and can help people with their problems.

Q: I was in Brazil with you at that time when the Pope was visiting, and afterward I had the opportunity to speak to Father Hans Stapel and asked him the same question. He confided to me; he said: “You know, afterward I went to the Holy Father and I greeted him and I said: ‘Thank you Holy Father for having brought heaven down to earth.’ And the Holy Father turned to Fr. Hans and said: ‘Thank you for allowing me these two hours of joy.’ So I think it was mutual and an extraordinary gift that happened.

Correa: It was quite clear from all the pictures and the videos made during the visit that the Pope was extremely happy. You could feel that he was happy to see all that.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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