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from issue no. 04 - 2007

«The man of charity and peace»

Thus the Chamber of the Senate of São Paulo defined him. Listened to by the civil authorities as much as the ecclesiastic ones. Venerated by all the people. The story of the confessor Friar Antonio de Sant’ Anna Galvão, the first native Brazilian saint. An interview with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

Interview with Cardinal José Saraiva Martins by Stefania Falasca

«This man is so necessary... most precious for all this city and the villas of the harbor-office of São Paulo. All go to him to ask advice, all want to benefit from his virtue, all the inhabitants of the city would not bear the absence of this religious even for a moment... » This letter, dated 17 April 1798, was signed by no less than the Chamber of the Senate of São Paulo, the supreme institutional authority of the then Portuguese colony. It was addressed to the Provincial of the Order of Saint Francis and the reason for the letter is clear: we want the religious to remain. And it is certainly not an ordinary event that the supreme civil authority, with the consent of the whole population, asks of his superiors that a friar remain forever in that city and that monastery. And not only that. Even the ecclesiastical authority of São Paulo did not hesitate to make the same request. Such was the unanimous esteem, the respect and the trust which he enjoyed. Reports say that in all the history of the ancient Province of São Paulo the case of this friar is unique, since only in his regard did all the people, believers and not, by the wish of the civil and ecclesiastic authority, insist that he not be transferred for any reason «but remain to continue his activity, an example of a life totally given over to the good». But who was this friar? The testimonies of his contemporaries tell us: «He is the man of charity and peace». And that judgment has continued throughout the centuries and comes from all the people. Vox populi, vox Dei. Friar Antonio de Sant’Anna Galvão, a Franciscan, was born in Guaratinguetá in 1739 and died in 1822, the year of Brazil’s independence. He is the first native Brazilian Blessed to be canonized. And it was Benedict XVI who proclaimed him Saint in São Paulo on 11 May. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, Cardinal José Saraiva Martins was present at the solemn ceremony, and we ask him...

A child praying before the image 
of Friar Antonio de Sant' Anna Galvão 
in the chapel of the Mosteiro da Luz, Bairro da Luz, São Paulo

A child praying before the image of Friar Antonio de Sant' Anna Galvão in the chapel of the Mosteiro da Luz, Bairro da Luz, São Paulo

Your Eminence, according to the reports of his contemporaries, Friar Antonio Galvão was esteemed by the people and his fellow friars, by the civil authorities as much as by the ecclesiastic ones. What did he do to earn such unanimous admiration?
JOSÉ SARAIVA MARTINS: Frei Galvão was an Alcantarine Franciscan who lived in poverty and obedience. A simple friar. Simple in everything: in person, in work, in his writings. What he did has been described as follows «No imposition, no ostentation, nothing to make an impression, nothing to demand». The strength of his virtues and the witness of his life attracted people and kindled the atmosphere where he lived. So much so as to render his presence precious and irreplaceable.
Friar Galvão was born in 1739 and died in São Paulo on 23 December 1822. In that period remarkable historical and religious events occurred in Brazil and in São Paulo...
SARAIVA MARTINS: Yes, it embraces an age that goes from colonialism to the transformation into empire and up to the first months of independence. And it is a history marked by the presence and action of the missionaries of the Catholic Church, including the Franciscans, who during the Enlightenment government of the Marquis di Pombal suffered heavy restrictions. São Paulo was a harbor-office at the time, then a province, dependent on Rio de Janeiro. It was the point of departure for the bandeirantes-descobridores, the prospectors for gold and precious stones. Often at war in defense of the territory from the Spanish or raids on the natives for slaves like the blacks imported from Africa. In this difficult context the influential figure of this man of God emerges «recomendável pelas suas virtudes» and above all for his charity that led him to share the anxieties and the hopes of those of his people still oppressed by slavery and human and social degradation. It cannot be doubted that it was indeed his boundless charity that insured that the people of São Paulo wanted him to spend his life in São Paulo. They could not do without him, as the letter of the Chamber of the Senate of São Paulo attests: «He was the aid of the poor», «the consolation of the sad...».
A point of reference in fact...
SARAIVA MARTINS: After studying with the Jesuits in Belém and joining the Franciscans in 1760, he spent his life in São Paulo. His personality and immense learning were immediately noticed by his superiors, who burdened him with many responsible tasks, by cultured and ordinary people who «listened to him with great trust and came from far-off regions to seek him out in their needs». They sought him for his reputation as a man of peace, «in order to bring peace to discords, to the families and also in order to arrange temporal transactions», the documents tell us. From 1768 on he assumed the delicate task of door-keeper, preacher and confessor at the convent of Saint Francis and from that moment on it was to be his main activity: that ministry of the confessional that he exercised until the end. It is in the convent of the Franciscans who in the “Recolhimento Nossa Sehnora da Conceição da Luz”, the convent of nuns founded by him as laus perennis in 1774, in the heart of São Paulo, that his tangible work remains today. He expended all his energy on its construction and died there at 84, in a miserable little bed, laid on the bare earth behind the tabernacle of the church.
In short, what sort of person emerges?
SARAIVA MARTINS: A well-defined, straighforward, honest, courageous person, of a clear intelligence that enabled him to be always attentive to the needs of those put in his charge and ready to seek the most effective remedy; a personality that reveals its strong temperament when, for example, it came to denouncing injustice, in the defense of the weak and those suffering the abuse of power, as is demonstrated also by the stance he took in 1780 in the clash with the captain-governor of São Paulo, a stance that led to the resignation of the same governor.
What episode are you referring to?
SARAIVA MARTINS: In 1780, Captain Martim Lopes de Saldanha, infamous for his bullying, condemned a soldier to death for having slightly wounded his son after the latter had beaten him up. An unjust action, that provoked the reaction of the people of São Paulo. Among the defenders of Caetaninho there was also frei Galvão, who took the soldier’s part denouncing the governor’s abuse of power. Despite the protests the soldier was still executed. And, not satisfied, the Captain condemned frei Galvão to exile. The order for the friar was peremptory: he was to leave São Paulo within twenty-four hours. But the news of the ban on frei Galvão spread immediately throughout the city, once again the entire population mobilized, and a crowd of armed men surrounded the house of the governor. The captain, faced with a popular uprising, had no alternative but to revoke the sentence of exile. And as soon as the order was revoked, people left to seek out frei Galvão and bring him back to the convent. «The beloved holy father has been found. The city can now sleep calmly because it has its great treasure back». This is reported in the documents.
While still alive the reputation for holiness that surrounded him was enormous...
SARAIVA MARTINS: Indeed, it should be emphasized that the reputation for holiness is what stands out as the main feature of frei Galvão. In life, in death and post mortem. Down to the present. The evidence is of a living devotion, unchanged and unbroken. He was always greatly venerated in São Paulo and throughout Brazil, as the popular credence in the “pílulas de frei Galvão” also demonstrates.
And what would they be?
SARAIVA MARTINS: They are the papelinhos, scraps of paper like candy wrappings with a Latin inscription invoking the Virgin Mary. It’s a form of devotion that derives from an episode in the life of frei Galvão. Since then the thousands of faithful who go to pray and ask favors at his tomb take home and swallow these pills made today by the nuns of the “Mosteiro da Luz”.
The house in which Friar Antonio de Sant' Anna Galvão was born in Guaratinguetá

The house in which Friar Antonio de Sant' Anna Galvão was born in Guaratinguetá

In expressing their evaluation of the cause the theologians emphasized how the appeal of this priest, this simple man who loved and was loved by the people, can be of particular benefit to Brazil, a country in which today many pseudo-prophets are trying to draw people into the sects...
SARAIVA MARTINS: Frei Galvão, certainly, did the opposite of what the “gurus” do. Yesterday’s and today’s. He became extraordinary living the ordinary life of a priest, as it could then have been in those circumstances and as it can be today, without artifice and fatuous promises, without “special effects”. Frei Galvão is one of those souls who become great before God and men in humility and the perfect fulfillment of the Christian duties, without upsetting people with apparently extraordinary happenings, and succeeded in entering the hearts of people to such an extent that he has remained there through the centuries.
The importance of this cause can therefore be summed up as...
SARAIVA MARTINS: The importance of this cause, also at this moment in the life of the Brazilian Church, lies in demonstrating and confirming the value of a priestly life lived evangelically and spent apostolically for the glory of God in the service of his brethren, above all of the poor, of the neediest. Brasiliensis Ecclesiae decori praeclarissimo. In frei Galvão the people, from whom he comes and to whom he belongs, have found a model, a stimulus for good, for charity, for prayer.
So, what is the significance of this canonization?
SARAIVA MARTINS: This canonization is a historic act. A historic date. He is the first native-born Brazilian saint. A Brazilian through and through being raised to the honors of the altars of the universal Church. A man of charity and peace. And then, let’s not forget, Brazil is also the country with the largest Catholic presence in the world. And I might say that it was practically scandalous that till now there has been no native-born Brazilian canonized as saint as a sign of the multitudes of its children who have stood out and, at the same time, as distinguished fruit of evangelization.

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