SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A Catholic priest in Brazil has caused an uproar for referring to President Jair Bolsonaro as a “bandit” during an online celebration of Mass.

Father Edson Tagliaferro of Artur Nogueira, a municipality in São Paulo State with 50,000 inhabitants, during homily on July 2 said that a priest must say whatever God requests him to say in homily, regardless of a possible negative response from the congregation.

“If we see, for example, that the government sucks, shouldn’t a priest say that the government sucks because the people don’t want to hear it?” Tagliaferro asked rhetorically.

The priest then criticized Bolsonaro’s management of the COVID-19 crisis. Since May, when Dr. Nelson Teich resigned as Minister of Health after serving for only a month, the country doesn’t have a medical expert in charge of the crisis, since the acting health minister is  General Eduardo Pazuello, who is not a healthcare expert. Since March, Brazil has had 1.9 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and over 74,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The populist president – who modeled much of his 2018 presidential campaign on Donald Trump’s successful 2016 run – has drawn criticism for downplaying the pandemic, comparing the coronavirus to “a little flu” and resisting calls to implement nationwide social distancing measures.

“[This is] A country that already have 60,000 dead [the number on July 2] due to the pandemic and we still don’t have a Minister of Health. What do you want me to say? What everyone says? ‘He [Bolsonaro] doesn’t work because they [the Judiciary and the Congress] won’t let him.’ No! It’s because he sucks! Bolsonaro is worthless. And those who voted for him should confess and ask God’s forgiveness for such a sin they committed, because they elected a bandit as president,” Tagliaferro said.

Father Edson Tagliaferro. (Credit: Screen grab.)

The priest’s comments have been shared thousands of times on social media and have caused strong reactions from both Bolsonaro’s supporters and his detractors.

On July 5, Tagliaferro mentioned the controversy during Mass, saying that his previous homily “had been taken out of context,” but reiterated his criticism of Bolsonaro.

“I want to make it clear that it’s not me who doesn’t like Bolsonaro. The world doesn’t like Bolsonaro. The world is worried and is mocking Brazil because of our president,” he said.

Tagliaferro also said Bolsonaro “preaches violence” and that Brazil is subjected to the “misdeeds of a wacky person.”

On July 6, Bishop José Roberto Fortes Palau of the diocese of Limeira released a statement concerning Tagliaferro’s words.

“Unfortunately, part of the homily […] reverberated in the media due to the use of inadequate terms to refer to His Excellency the President of the Republic. Father Edson Adélio Tagliaferro recognizes that he went overboard in his wording and apologizes to His Excellency the President and to everyone one who felt somehow offended,” the statement read.

Two days later, a group of priests called Padres da Caminhada (Priests who walk) released a letter of support to Tagliaferro, saying his speech “was not political, but theological.”

“Like the prophets and Jesus, Father Edson denounced the oppression and negligence to which the Brazilian people is subject. It’s not possible to stay impassive, indifferent with so many deaths, specially the ones of the poor and forgotten,” the letter read.

The priests said that they “rejoiced with [Tagliaferro’s] prophetic voice, which stands up to denounce all this project of death that is being implemented [in Brazil].”

“Know that you are not alone. Always count on us and on our solidarity. And we also thank the good God, who does not allow the prophecy to die. He continues to evoke men of courage and commitment,” the letter said.

According to Father Antônio Manzatto, one of the letter’s signatories, the idea of the group was to show the Church and the Brazilian society that Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative discourse isn’t the only one that currently exists in Brazil. “There are discordant voices and they’re willing to come to public,” he told Crux.

The letter has already been signed by at least 700 hundred Brazilian priests from all over Brazil and abroad. A few bishops also signed the letter.

“Father Tagliaferro has been attacked since his homilies went online. We wished that he felt that there’s a presbyterial community by his side and that he’s not being attacked alone,” Manzatto explained.

According to Manzatto, Tagliaferro’s comments weren’t impertinent. “The fact is that we still don’t have a minister of Health.”

Tagliaferro declined to comment on the controversy.