Among that army of worthy winners, there is one man who missed out on a medal in Rio. A burly, blunt Franciscan priest, originally from Germany but now a Brazilian. Frei Hans Stapel, who has spent several decades in Brazil, helped to found a drug rehabilitation program called Farms of Hope.
There are more than 60 fazendas or ‘Farms of Hope’ in Brazil and around the world. They are supported by many generous donors, among them the pastoral charity Aid to the Church In Need (ACN). Frei Hans is the president in Brazil of ACN. His mission – to wean addicts off drugs and bring them back to a full life – embodies such a different attitude to addiction from that we are witnessing in the Philippines today.
There is a very strong emphasis on spiritual renewal at the farms. There is very early Mass and a lot of prayers. But as the first stages of addiction are beaten, the recovering residents provide support and advice based on their own experiences to the new arrivals . At any one time there will be 2000 in rehabilitation across the 60 fazendas.
They are run as commercial farms so that the residents have genuine productive work to sustain them.
The success rate for rehabilitation is very impressive – well over 85 per cent will leave the program and not fall back into their old addictions.
The Farms of Hope have kept close to the popes in recent times. Benedict visited the on his trip to Latin America.
In June of this year in Rome, Frei Hans visited Pope Francis, a fellow Latin American. In a truly medal-winning performance, Frei Hans cajoled, convinced or charmed the Holy Father – it is not clear which – into recording a message on the priest’s iPhone.
He said: “We men and women need God’s mercy. But we also need each other’s mercy. So I invite all of you together with Aid to the Church In Need to do, everywhere in the world, a work of mercy but one that stays. And don’t be afraid of God’s mercy. Mercy is God’s caress.”
When Pope Francis spoke of a work of mercy that stays, he highlights the need for creating permanent structures to deliver the works of mercy. That is what ACN does and no doubt why the Holy Father publicly supports it – a very rare endorsement.
In the past year, ACN worldwide collected more than $160 million to fund 7000 pastoral projects in more than 140 countries. The projects cover a very wide range of pastoral works.
They provide the funds to build and repair the roofs and walls of convents which are home for the nuns who deliver basic medical and nursing care in all of Africa and much of the third world.
In 2014 alone, ACN supported the work of nearly 10,000 nuns in third world and Eastern European countries. Our immediate neighbours in New Guinea and Timor rely heavily upon the work of the sisters to provide basic nursing care for others and newborns.
By many small donations, Toyota trucks and motorbikes have been able to replace the boots which both lay and religious wear out in bringing pastoral care anywhere and everywhere in remote areas.
ACN provides the means to direct Mass stipends for the souls of the departed. Many priests living on the edge of poverty are sustained in this traditional way. One in nine priests worldwide now receives practical support through ACN. Every year it distributes well over 1 million offerings raised from Catholic communities in the 22 countries where it operates.
The emphasis is on practical help, many small works of mercy from the 400,000 donors around the world. There have been however some major projects. In the past three years in the Middle East it has funded emergency housing, schools and churches built at a safe distance from invading armies.
These are acts of solidarity from those of us who are safe and secure to our poor and persecuted fellow Christians fleeing persecution in Syria and Iraq and beyond.
The pope summed up the mission in two powerful phrases. ‘A work of mercy, but one which stays.’ Works of Mercy depend on the permanent presence of devoted lay and religious, who will feed the hungry, care for the sick, shelter the homeless. So do the givers and the receivers experience ‘God’s caress’.
As for that non-existent Olympic Medal, Frei Hans deserved one just for capturing the pope’s simple and deep message on his iPhone.