A Brazilian cardinal who seems almost bulletproof, having survived two robberies at gunpoint and a shootout between police and armed men in the last two years, proved June 22 that he’s also basically fearless by spending his birthday eve roaming the streets of Rio de Janeiro, celebrating it with the homeless.
Cardinal Orani João Tempesta, archbishop of Rio, which in 35 days will host the Olympic Games, celebrated his 66th birthday on June 23.
On the eve of the occasion, and “grateful to be able to celebrate another year of life,” he went out to Rio’s downtown area late at night carrying clothes, blankets, milk and coffee, offering them to some of the thousands who live in the streets, far from the lights and glamour of Copacabana, one of the world’s most famous beaches.
According to a statement from the archdiocese, Tempesta was able “to learn up close about the reality of those who live and sleep on the streets.”
The communique, posted in the diocesan website along with some pictures, also said that with the initiative the cardinal was giving personal witness to the Holy Year of Mercy, inviting his flock to practice the corporal works of mercy, such as clothing the naked.
With this gesture, Tempesta chose to mark his birthday in a similar fashion to Pope Francis, who celebrated his 77th birthday by having breakfast with a group of Rome’s homeless (and their dog), and the following year instead of receiving gifts he gave them out, asking a group of volunteers to distribute sleeping bags among those who live in the streets of the Eternal City.
Tempesta was appointed to Rio de Janeiro by Benedict XVI in 2009, and in 2014 Francis made him a cardinal.
In 2013, Tempesta welcomed Francis during his first international trip when he visited Rio for World Youth Day, a five-day rally often described as the Catholic Olympics, because they happen every two or three years in different cities.
Defined by many as a pastor who lives among his flock, Tempesta, like the rest of Rio’s over six million citizens, hasn’t been immune to the growing violence, which in 2015 alone took the life of 1,202 people.
In September 2014, three armed men stopped his car in the central neighborhood of Santa Teresa, stealing photographic equipment, the cardinal’s ring and crucifix, and even the robes of a seminarian who was in the car. They had intended to take the car, but upon recognizing their victim, decided against it.
Less than a year later, in July 2015, as he was returning from celebrating Mass, he was once again carjacked at gunpoint, but this time the robbers took the vehicle, together with his crucifix and ring, leaving Tempesta and the three people who were with him on foot at the city’s sprawling North Zone.
Mere days ago, on June 10, he was caught in a gun battle between policemen and drug dealers near a favela, Brazil’s infamous shantytowns, as he was headed to the local airport. Once again, he escaped without injury, despite the 10-minute shootout.
“These are situations I share with my people,” Tempesta said after the last violent event.
“Where the people of God are, where the people of Rio de Janeiro are, I am there too, sharing their suffering.”
“But I live for the day in which we become closer to each other, as signs of peace, brotherhood and mercy, [so that] Rio de Janeiro isn’t known for its natural beauty and history, but for its people who love and care for each other,” he said.