ROSARIO, Argentina – For sports fans around the world, Lionel Messi is known as a record-breaking soccer player who’s won virtually every award there is, including the Ballon d’Or and the Golden Shoe, and he’s also the all-time top scorer in Spain’s competitive La Liga. The only trophy the Argentine striker is missing is the World Cup.
Yet for some 15,000 children in Mozambique, Messi isn’t synonymous with success and honors but breakfast.
Messi knows something about children needing help, since he was once forced to emigrate to Spain as a child to receive medical treatment that would allow him to become a professional soccer player. It was natural for Messi to respond, therefore, when Argentine Missionary Father Juan Gabriel Arias, who’s been living in Mozambique for over six years, reached out.
Back in 2014-2015, Arias met an Argentina “power couple,” TV presenter Julian Weich and his wife, who’ve long been known for their willingness to help others. It was their commitment to help the priest in his mission which led them to present the project to the Lio Messi Foundation, run by the father of the soccer player.
The foundation helps Arias distribute a daily high-protein meal that helps fight malnutrition in 40 schools in the Gaza province. The project- and the mission- is based in Mangundze, a rural town home to some 80,000 people. There’s no direct access to drinking water, nor is there the possibility of accessing gas, sanitation, or electricity.
Only 1 percent of the state’s population has electricity and the percentage of illiteracy is 66 percent in men and 77 percent in women.
At a national level, nearly one in two children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. According to UNICEF, chronic malnutrition, beyond contributing to infant mortality and poor childhood health, also has a detrimental impact on school performance and household income, and it also perpetuates an inter-generational cycle of deprivation.
Yet in Mangundze, thanks to the initiative that’s been going for four years, malnutrition has gone down, and school enrollment up. Children want to go to school, and parents force them to walk close to 4 miles each day, to guarantee their kids are properly fed and educated.
According to Arias, it’s common for children in rural Mozambique to eat once a day, and during the draught months, once every two days: “The Breakfast Program is something really good, that has changed the lives of everyone here,” he told Crux on Saturday, on the eve of the Vatican-sponsored World Mission Sunday, marked this year Oct. 18.
During World Mission Sunday, Catholics from around the world are urged to pray for the Church’s evangelizing efforts and are also invited to support it through a special collection in every parish.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, back in spring Pope Francis set up a special fund to help churches in poorer countries deal with the pandemic and its economic fallout. As Archbishop Giampietro Dal Toso told reporters in Rome this week, many of these churches live simply from the Sunday collection, and without it are struggling.
As of mid-October, a total of more than $1.85 million has been approved for 250 projects, he said. Catholics in Spain, France and South Korea contributed the most to this fund, “but countries like Rwanda and Bangladesh also have taken up ad hoc collections to show their participation.”
Arias spoke with Crux from the Vatican, where every year since 2013 he’s spent a week staying at the Santa Marta residence, the residence where Pope Francis lives. The tab is picked up by his friend, who personally invites him for a week where he gets to “pray, study, rest, and hang with the pope.”
The two have known each other for years, and the head of the Catholic Church is in a way responsible for Arias being in Mozambique. Back when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis sent the young priest and others for a six-month experience as a missionary in Africa. Arias said his “mind was blown” by the experience.
Experience as a missionary is something Francis wants to promote. In fact, as of February of this year, it’s mandatory for the Catholic Church’s “diplomats” –priests trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy- to have a year-long experience serving as missionaries.
“I never leave empty-handed,” Arias acknowledged of his visits to the Vatican. “If it wasn’t for the pope’s help, I know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the enormous structure of the mission in Mangundze.”
But seeing this is not the only mission the pope helps sustain, Francis’s occasional largesse – one year it was a truck the priest needed to move through the area – is not enough. Hence knocking on doors of the Messi foundation, which made it easier for Arias to ask other enterprises for help.
“As a missionary, it’s very important to have the help of the Messi foundation,” he said. “I was first here for three years beginning in 2003, and I had no external help, beyond that of a few friends who would help me buy gas or food to sustain myself. Back then, though less experienced, I was as committed with this mission as I am now: without any external help, things are even more challenging.”
“They believed in me, even though they barely knew me,” Arias said, noting that before receiving the greenlight, he was visited by a film crew and a photographer, who had a 10-day experience of the life in the mission. “They saw what we were doing, which didn’t include any major projects, but was very seriously carried out, and they decided to help.”
Some believe missionaries wear a “halo of holiness,” Arias said, but insisted he’s “far from perfect, both as a person and as a priest.” Yet he acknowledged that reputation makes it easier when he needs to ask for help.
“I don’t believe we’re holier because we’re missionary priests, but I know that many are moved to help after seeing us give our lives to help those who live in extreme poverty,” he said. “I know there are even those who don’t agree with the hierarchy or who have little respect for the Catholic Church, but they still believe in people, and they chose to trust people. On the list of those considered ‘trust-worthy,’ we’re pretty high up.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma