“After serving communities in the Amazon rainforest, Macau was like a new beginning”: Fr Rafael Vigolo

Marco Carvalho

You worked as a missionary in Peru and in the Amazon before coming to Macau two and a half years ago. I assume these must have been very different experiences.

Fr. Rafael Vigolo: Yes. But, perhaps I can start by introducing myself and tell you about what my life has been like so far. I am Brazilian, I am a Comboni Missionary, and before entering the seminary, I graduated in mechanical engineering.

Did you work as a mechanical engineer?

Fr. R.V: I worked at the same time I was studying and, then, briefly after I graduated. I had already done some vocational assessment tests and soon after I finished, I enrolled in the seminary. I went to Peru where I remained for about seven years. It was a very beautiful experience, an experience I came across amongst the Peruvian people. It allowed me to get to know Peru a lot better. It is a very beautiful country, with a very diverse culture and a way of partaking in the life of the Church which is very different from the way I would later find here. After that, when I concluded my training in theology, I was sent back to Brazil. I lived for four years in the Amazon.

In the state of Rondônia…

Fr. R.V:  In Rondônia, yes. In the Amazon region, as you know, there are many rivers. The most famous of them all is the Amazon River, but there are many other tributaries. There I was given the opportunity to tend to the spiritual needs of the riverside communities of the Amazon rainforest. These are very small communities, but the people who live there are very welcoming. They all have a big heart despite the countless needs that they have. Soon after, I was told by my congregation to look after the needs of the young people, especially with regard to vocations. I visited and got to know different places in Rondônia and in the Amazon rainforest where I managed to get to know the local youth and their expectations. We created a youth group with whom we went to several different places. We took them to visit the local population; they had the opportunity to experience the very same challenges that we, missionaries, do. That was a beautiful experience, both for them and for me.

Keeping in mind the experiences you had in Peru and in the Amazon rainforest, how different is the experience of faith that you found in Macau?

Fr. R.V: Latin America, which comprises Brazil, Peru and other countries, is a Christian region. Most people there are Christians. A large number are Catholics and others are evangelicals of different denominations. Here, in Macau, when I arrived, I understood that I would be dealing with a different reality. The local Christian community ranges between 5 to 8 percent of the population. The vast majority of people follow the traditional religions and, most of the time, they don’t even have the same perception of ​​faith that we do. For us missionaries, and for me in particular, Macau was like a new beginning. It was like entering a very different world. The challenge was not only the culture; it was not only the language, no matter how demanding it is to learn it. The challenge was entering another culture, having as a starting point our faith and all the things that we are, with one purpose in mind: to proclaim Jesus Christ. In my case, I am a Comboni missionary, but all of us, Christians, are missionaries in one way or another. Jesus gave us this mission to proclaim the gospel, to help people to get to know God. As a missionary, I feel called. I have a deep desire to help, to try to introduce Jesus to all those that don’t know about him yet, so that they can find in Jesus the source of life, the source of light, the source of true happiness. Another interesting difference that I have noticed is that Latin American people are generally baptized when they are children. I was baptized when I was six months old. Here, most Catholics are baptized when they are adults. I often ask them how did it came to be, how did they become interested in knowing more about the Catholic faith, how they began to participate in the affairs of the Church and finally decide to enter the catechumenate. A few of them told me that they studied at a Christian school or that they had a friend who invited them to come to church. But what touches me the most is that many people report a personal transformation, a before and after Baptism. One of those people told me: “I used to think a lot about myself. I sought to earn money, and I was not happy. I had a strong stance with people and after I got to know Jesus better, after I completed my walk of faith, my life changed for the better, and now you can see the kind of person I have become. I’m a more hopeful, more open person.” This person, in particular, has done very important work to help others and to pass on the faith. These sort of testimonies shows us the beauty of faith.

Fr Rafael Vigolo, vicar of the Church of St Francis Xavier, Mong Ha, spent four years tending to the spiritual needs of the riverside communities of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (Image: mv1103825921 at Pixabay.com)

This conversion process, I wouldn’t say it is more truthful, but is it more meaningful?

Fr. R.V: I wouldn’t say it is a more truthful faith because we, too, in our countries, have many people who identify a lot with Jesus, who are giving their lives for their beliefs. I am not talking only about priests and sisters. The most important aspect of faith, of Christianity, is that we can live our daily lives according to our faith and, first and foremost, through love and compassion, we try to build a better society for everyone, to propagate the word of Jesus Christ, because that’s where everything began.  But in Macau I have noticed that the local Christians, especially those who really live this conversion process to the fullest, once they conclude it, they are very faithful, they are very committed. They have a lot of conviction, and we cannot forget that it is often difficult for them to live their faith. Sometimes they are the only person in the family who is a Christian. This aspect – of being able to live with the others, knowing that we are different – is of no little importance. It is very important to live our faith, but we need to be aware that we cannot impose our faith. Faith is a gift from God. It is a gift that God gives each and every one of us, but we chose how we live this process. Each person lives his process in his own way. But let me tell you a little about the work we carry out in the Saint Francis Xavier parish and about what I found here. The Catholics here – many of these people are very committed to the parish. Last year we held an exhibition about the history of Mong Ha. The history is not very long, but it reveals a very beautiful path. One of the things that caught my attention was the fact that parishioners were deeply involved in this whole process. This exhibition made it clear that many of the parishioners love this parish and they are eager to dedicate their time to the pastoral life of the parish. I am also working with the catechesis group. We have a group of catechists, about 15 to 20 catechists, who are very dedicated. They are offering their own time, their knowledge and their attention to our children. The work they do, they do it with great dedication. I admire these catechists a lot. But apart from the catechesis group, we have a group of young people who, after they were confirmed, decided to help with catechesis. We call these young people si dou si, that is, assistants or small catechists.

It is quite important, this work being done with the youth?

Fr. R.V: Indeed. One of the dimensions that I am trying to foster here in the parish is this issue of what to do with young people.

Which ends up being almost a vocation of the Comboni Missionaries. The Comboni Missionaries have always paid a particular attention to the youth.

Fr. R.V: Yes, we see it as a necessity. In my case, due to the previous experiences I had, first in Peru and then in Brazil, I feel that I have a special affinity to conduct this work with the younger generations. When I first came to Macau, I realized that unfortunately we do not find in many parishes, generally speaking, a space for young people. This is actually a problem of the Universal Church. Four years ago, the Synod of Bishops was dedicated to the younger generations. The Church understands we need to give space to the younger generations. One of the challenges that we face, as a Church in general, is that, especially the confirmed, once they finish their spiritual formation and they are confirmed, they have the tendency to leave the Church. They will study and do other things. Sometimes, parents are concerned about how they can help their kids and the Church also shares that concern. We had a beautiful experience here in Mong Ha parish. Last year, with the group that was confirmed, we started a small group of young people, the Perseverance Youth Group. Everything is new, so to speak. But, for me, this pastoral experience is something that is giving me a great joy. There are three other people in the parish – another three parishioners – who lend a helping hand. Now, the group has about 15 young people and the most rewarding aspect about it is that everything indicates that they are enjoying this experience.

Is this a sustainable project? I believe this year’s Confirmation ceremony was held recently in Saint Francis Xavier parish. Will the young people who have just been confirmed join the group?

Fr. R.V: That is our intention. On Sunday, June 5th, I had the joy to preside over the Confirmation ceremony at our parish. It was the first time we did so because normally it is the bishop who presides over the celebration. But Bishop Stephen authorized us to hold the ceremony on the Pentecost feast. Eleven youths were confirmed. In order to prepare these young people for the Confirmation ceremony, we had a one-day retreat, which was a very beautiful experience. We went to Coloane and we spent the entire day with them. It involved a great deal of preparation. I took them there, together with their catechist and the three parishioners, who have been working with the group I told you about, and two other young women, who work as assistants in the parish. We took them there in order for them to understand that Confirmation is saying “yes” to Jesus: “Lord, I want to follow you. Jesus, I want to follow you.” Jesus calls us by our own name and we, now, more mature, at 13, 14 years old, we can already say: “Yes, my Lord. I want to follow you. I want to be a Christian, I want to live the faith.” On June 5th, as I told you, we had the Confirmation ceremony. It was a very beautiful moment, and out of these eleven young people who received Confirmation, six will join this group of young people and four others will become members of other groups in our parish. Some of them will become catechesis assistants themselves. In other words, our wish is that the youth in our parish can become active members of our community.

I haven’t been in Macau for a very long time. I’ve been here for two and a half years. Before coming to Macau, I was in Hong Kong studying Cantonese, an ongoing process that is quite arduous, quite tough. Persevering is what matters. The same can be applied in working with the youth. Something I’ve noticed when I visit the local Catholic schools is that most of the students take part in the Mass. They know how to answer the priest’s words, they know how to pray, but at the time of distributing the Holy Communion, only three, four or five join in, depending on the schools. A few schools have a larger number of Christians. But for many of these young Catholics, living the faith is a challenge, I think. The child sees himself or herself as different among so many other children, and as teenagers – and we all went through this stage – we often find it difficult to be different, because we want to be approved and accepted by the group. Our tendency is to mold ourselves to the others, to join in with the others, under a very natural process of wanting to be loved and accepted by the others, by our friends. By working with the youth in the parish, I also realized that every parish needs to work with its young people. I hope that each parish can nurture its own group of young people and call it Perseverance or whatever name they choose. By doing this, the Church is offering these kids the opportunity to realize by themselves that they are not alone: “Oh, these friends of mine are also Christians, they are also Catholics. I am not a strange species, so to speak.” It’s a wonderful thing that they can make friends with each other, that they can see their faith grow stronger together. If we don’t do this, they will end up following other paths and it won’t be half as easy to interest them in the word of God.

What sort of specific challenges did you find here in Mong Ha?

Fr. R.V: The challenges that I found are not exclusive to the Catholic Church in Macau. They are also felt everywhere else in the world. They are related to something that Pope Francis has been giving a great importance to. The Holy Roman Pontiff talks a lot about mission: he asserts that we are missionaries and that the Church must evangelize. We, as a Church or even as a parish, we have the tendency to take care of our community, which is something of a necessity, but we find it more difficult to spread the gospel outside, to work so that other people may get to know Jesus. And sometimes, I recognize, we don’t really know how to fully announce the process of evangelization, how to proclaim Jesus. I think we need to be able to remain open to a certain novelty, but also to be concerned about how we can go out and meet the others. We need to go out and meet those that are different. We need to learn how we can deliver to them the gospel according to their own experiences.  This requires of us that we manage to adapt, that we can remain in communion and to proclaim the gospel, but things are not always so clear and so obvious. It’s important that we help Christians strengthen their faith so that they too can become missionaries.

When the baptism celebration was over, I said to one of these kids, the youngest ones: “Congratulations, congratulations.” And his answer was something like, “Oh, now I can help with the Mass.” It was a very beautiful moment.

– Fr Rafael Vigolo

You were talking about conversions. Do you notice more people approaching the Church? Do you notice more adults being baptized?

Fr. R.V: Statistically speaking, I have no data. But at Easter we had the joy of baptizing 23 people. Twenty adults were amongst them. We even had a case in which two children were baptized together with their mother. A third child was also baptized at the same time as her mother. One of the children has a very curious story. Last year, during the summer break, we came up with the idea of playing basketball twice a week with the kids. A few children joined this initiative, and so we played basketball with them. I got a little closer to this family. Once, the mother came and accompanied the children and we started talking. Earlier this year, I found out that the three of them had joined the catechumenate, and I learned that they were going to be baptized at Easter. On Holy Saturday, we had a very beautiful celebration. I think more than 500 people attended the ceremony. I’m not even sure how we managed to accommodate so many people in the church. When the celebration was over, I said to one of these kids, the youngest ones: “Congratulations, congratulations.” And his answer was something like, “Oh, now I can help with the Mass.” It was a very beautiful moment. The mother was sort of worried because he is still quite small. But I told her, “Oh, why don’t we let him try!” And the others said, “Oh no, no. He’s too small.” And I ended up saying to Father Peter: “He really wants to assist the priest during Mass.” And Father Peter said, “So if he wants it that bad, let’s let him.” And he started to work as an acolyte two weeks ago. He has started from an early age to participate. These are beautiful experiences…

Concerning catechesis, what is the current panorama like?

Fr. R.V: Here in Mong Ha, we have the great joy of having quite a substantial number of children enrolled in catechesis. There are currently more than 140 children, from the smallest ones to young people aged 13 and 14 years. And we now have the Perseverance Youth Group, which numbers around 20 teenagers. I cannot help but have the feeling that something beautiful is growing in our parish. Saint Francis Xavier is a parish that has many young families, so to speak. We have a lot of middle-aged families, and they are at that stage of life where they have children, they are building their own families. Thanks to the children, we have a very lively environment. If all the children were to come to our Sunday Mass, we wouldn’t have room for the whole community. Five hundred seats would be needed. Unfortunately, children don’t always attend Mass, do they? But, yes, you can see, by the sheer force of numbers that it is a very lively community, a community with a future. It is up to us to take care of these children. It is up to us to convey the faith to them, especially in this era of a great uncertainty about the future. I believe that we should be able to channel energies, to pay attention to young people and children, because they are not only the present, but also the future. Regarding the local schools – such as the Sacred Heart School, which is a girls’ school – we have a very large number of Christians. Sometimes I go there to say Mass. The last time I went, there were a lot of children. Many of those who attended Mass were not Catholics, and schools do a very important job in this regard. During the last two and a half years, I have come to understand that often people – those who are not Christians – have their first contact with faith at school. When they become adults, for different reasons, many of those who had an experience of faith when they were children, in a Catholic school, will later feel compelled to approach and join the catechumenate. Many of the people who are baptized as adults are those who had their first contact with the Catholic faith and with Jesus when they were at school. This work has to be valued and has to be improved. I recently had a conversation with a couple who is going to baptize their children, and it was very nice to be a part of that dialogue. Their three kids are going to be baptized. This family chose a teacher as their godfather. And this teacher, he is doing a beautiful job with the children. One of the children even wrote him a message saying that he was the good shepherd. He was taking care of him, doing the good shepherd’s work. I came to understand that when the teacher loves the children, if he truly loves the faith and if he truly loves Jesus, then he will make an effort to convey the beauty of the faith, so that the children can fully understand the importance of the word of God. But it’s not just about getting the message across to children. It is important to convey it also to their parents. The mother is quite happy and quite encouraging. The father is not yet a Christian, but he is always around. And with his testimony, the teacher helps the whole family. The mission field is quite large. There are many ways to share the gospel. God has given us different gifts, different ways of announcing his word. Last week we celebrated the Pentecost feast. We have to keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is always by our side. We need to understand that the Spirit gives us strength, gives us creativity and gives us the perseverance we need to go forward. It gives us love and the capacity to love people. We trust our lives to God and to the mission he has given us. We are in God’s hands, and we ask that he may accompany us and guide our steps.

I have one last question, related to the experience you had in the Amazon rainforest. Three, four years ago, Pope Francis dedicated a synod to the Amazon region…

Fr. R.V: The Amazon Synod was a very important moment, which helped and valued the Amazon Church. The Amazon – whether in Brazil, Peru, or Bolivia – is a place of missionary work. And why missionary work? We are a missionary Church, and the situation in the Amazon speaks to us. Here we are used to, for example, having two priests working in the same parish. Many regions, many parishes in the Amazon have one or two priests for over a 100, even 130, communities.

Those communities, I imagine, are separated by hundreds of kilometers?

Fr. R.V: Indeed. Many of them are separated by tens of kilometers. It is necessary to travel by car, to travel by boat. Due to the circumstances, we need to place greater value on lay people. One of the positions that we saw in the Synod was precisely this: we need to value, to give more space to the laity. But how do we allow that space to grow? Should we see it as a gift? In fact, I believe that we just have to value the space that already belongs to them. A space that, most of the time, we are not respecting. We, as a Church, we do not encourage lay people to play a greater role in the Church. That Synod, which seemed to be more directed to that part of the world, in fact – if we read, study and analyze what was discussed and talked about – also points to the way missionary work should be conducted in other places. The increased responsibility given to lay people is one of the central aspects of the Synod. This includes caring for nature, for the indigenous peoples, valuing the people and the culture of each place, inculturation – a word that is so important. When the Church acts as a missionary Church, it invites us to discover beauty, to discover and value different cultures. We should not try to impose a culture that comes from outside on a culture that already exists. We should remind ourselves that we have the responsibility to transmit the gospel, to convey the word of Jesus Christ. We should not impose our ideas on the others because the effort would not work. And this is also seen as a necessity: the need for the Church to know and value the other culture, to be open. On the other hand, we also have the aspect of ecology. The encyclical Laudato si is very important. There, the Pope says that we need to think about the next generations: to think about the children that are not yet born, to think about the world we will bequeath to those who are being born now. This is where our cultural perspective comes in. To be able to take care of creation, we need to take care of our way of being first. We need to be careful about the way we value the things of this world. And we often tend to put money and power above everything else. We do not care about nature, we are destroying it, and we are aware that we are destroying it, but we do not have the strength to change our behavior. But it’s a good start. We need to talk about these issues. After I left Brazil, I am no longer in touch with this reality, but I truly believe that, for those peoples living in the Amazon, the Synod was a strong impulse that was given to them. It was also an incentive for the whole Church to open ourselves to the new, to that which is different.