The Pastoral da Criança (the Children’s Ministry)
is a social program
of the Catholic Church in
Brazil. The foundress of the ministry,
Dr. Zilda Arns, has been nominated twice to receive the
Prize. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this service to
poor of Brazil. A leader of the movement describes her experience.
Gustavo is five years old and he grunts when you ask him a
question. Last year, one of his brothers set fire to their
house and Gustavo was trapped
inside. Luckily, he was rescued and survived the fire, but the
trauma caused him to lose his ability to speak.
Sylvia, 6 years old, had awful abdominal pains one day and her
mother brought her to the health post.
The medical personnel spent about five minutes with Sylvia and diagnosed her case as simply a
bad stomachache. They recommended an over
the counter antacid to settle her
stomach. The pains persisted and by evening Sylvia was
fainting. Her mother carried her on
the bus to the nearest hospital where it was
discovered that she had appendicitis. She was rushed into surgery.
Henrique, now 3 years old, could barely walk a year ago because he
was so severely malnourished, weighing only
six kilos. His mother had
abandoned him and a neighbor "adopted"
him. Over the year, she helped to bring
him back to health and today he is still a little unsure on his feet,
but weighs close to 12 kilos.
Rosa, 25 years old, was pregnant with her fourth child and due in
a month. Her husband had just been arrested for
drug trafficking and left her and three kids in a cardboard shack built over the
sewer. She had absolutely no income and was
desperately trying to maintain her
sanity. She later put her newborn up for adoption for fear of
not being able to feed yet another mouth.
These are all people who are accompanied by leaders of the Pastoral
da Criança (The Children’s Ministry). The
Pastoral da Criança, a ministry
of the Catholic Church now celebrating 20 years of service,
accompanies children from 0 to 6 years old and pregnant women who are at risk
of malnutrition. It involves regular visits to the
families, monthly weight checks
to follow the development of the children, distribution
of multimistura (a nutritional
supplement), health care advocacy and
pastoral counseling. In the parish where I work, the Pastoral da Criança
is present in three favelas (shantytowns) and
accompanies over 300 children and a handful of pregnant
women. The parish team is made up of
25 volunteer leaders.
The core of the Pastoral’s work is visiting
families. Part of my job as coordinator is to accompany the leaders on
these visits. It is in these visits that my eyes have been opened and my heart touched
deeply. When you enter into the home of
a family, you are entering into their most
Most often a family will live in one or two rooms, so a
visitor can see their living room, bedroom, kitchen and
bathroom in one quick glance. Once you get into their homes they usually
can’t hide the pain and instability of their
lives. I’ve met mothers who literally
can’t feed their children. Others who, under the stress of unemployment and
an absent partner/spouse, get
drunk and abuse their children.
I’ve met children who are malnourished, play barefoot in the sewer, have infestations of
lice in their hair and scabies on their
bodies. I’ve seen babies with unknown
causes of fever and suspicious coughs. And, I’ve encountered kids
who can’t walk or talk because they’ve suffered from trauma or
persistent abuse or malnutrition.
The leaders are really the heart of the
Pastoral. The amazing part is
that they are all volunteers. Some work a 9-5 job
during the week and dedicate their weekends and free time to the
Pastoral. Through their
initiative, we’ve started several
"mothers’ clubs," where mothers
of children in the Pastoral can go to learn handiwork and meet with
The leaders have helped to find psychological
counseling for mothers and their
kids, have accompanied families through
the bureaucracy of the public health
system, sought help for women suffering
domestic abuse, offered mothers orientation on how to care for their
newborn babies and have listened many, many,
many hours to mothers
(mostly because the fathers are often absent) needing to
"desabafar," which is
Portuguese for "blow off steam."
If it weren’t for the hope and enthusiasm with which the leaders
do their work, I think I would have given up a long
while back. The health situation can seem so hopeless and dire because of the depth of
the problems. The leaders’ faith and
their example have given me the courage
to carry on. Many of them are as economically poor as the
families there are visiting and
accompanying. I often think they are truly
giving from their sustenance and not their surplus.
Angelica Mortel is a Catholic missionary working in the city of
São Paulo. You can contact her sending an email to