UBERLANDIA, Brazil — When Pope Francis visits Rio de Janeiro from July 23 to 28 to celebrate Catholicism’s World Youth Day, among the millions of pilgrims thronging to the city, one man will have walked an epic 1,850 miles to see the pontiff.
Four months ago Fabio Mateus, 37, gave up his day job as an office administrator, in the small town of Trairi in the northeast state of Ceara, to make the unprecedented trek south to Rio.
He’s strolled through states of Pernambuco, Bahia and Minas Gerais and past more than 70 cities and towns. On Sunday, after 123 days on the road, he told GlobalPost he was in Petropolis, in Rio de Janeiro state, and has less than 80 miles to go before he reaches his destination. He expected to reach the city of Rio by Thursday.
“When I get there I will join hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims and we will form an amazing prayer chain in preparation for meeting Pope Francis,” Mateus, who is a father of 8-year-old twins, says.
More than 2 million people are expected at the pontiff’s first foreign visit hosted by Brazil, a country recently racked by violent protest and riven by social tensions. Brazil has the world’s highest number of Catholics, but Catholicism here is quickly losing believers to other Christian denominations.
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics says 73.6 percent of Brazilians were considered Catholic in 2000. By 2010, the figure had fallen to 64.6 percent of the population. In the same period, Brazil’s evangelical population increased from 15.4 to 22.2 percent.
That trend’s occurring across Latin America, where millions are leaving Catholic pews for both more conservative Protestant churches and to take part in fast-changing societies open to abortion, gay marriage and other shifts that the Vatican despises.
Mateus has witnessed Brazil’s historic drift from the faith of its Portuguese settlers. "Two years ago, I saw my friends leaving the church in my community, especially the young people, and it made me feel so disheartened,” he says.
“So I prayed and asked the Lord what I could do to help. The answer came in a revelation: The Lord told me to walk to Rio de Janeiro to meet the pope and through my faithful journey to show people that God is alive. That I should use the journey to preach, to spread the word as a Catholic and to pray on the way,” Mateus explains.
Without prior endurance training or a pedometer to count his steps — he has lost nearly 15 pounds — Mateus says he simply crammed his backpack with spare sneakers, a rain coat and hat and, with his wife’s blessings, set out on March 15.
He compares his progress to the New Testament apostles who traveled thousands of miles to spread the Christian doctrine. His steps, however, are made along dangerous motorways with speeding oncoming traffic during the days and nights.
“At first I used to get lots of hand signals from drivers saying I was crazy, especially as I refused to accept lifts. The scariest moments have been when I’ve had to jump out of the way because, on at least two occasions, drivers have deliberately tried to run me over,” he says.
Growing media attention has helped change people’s attitudes. Now they stop to take photographs with him and drive out of their way to bring him food and drink.
He has also been able to keep in touch with his family through regular updates on Facebook and has amassed a growing army of supporters.
Mateus’ daily routine consists of walking Monday to Friday for 10 hours a day, averaging around 24 miles. Every weekend he stops to recuperate and keeps a daily dairy of his experiences. He's now on his second pair of sneakers and says so far he hasn’t suffered any pain or swelling in his feet.
Before leaving his hometown, his local parish priest gave him a signed letter of recommendation asking every Catholic church along the way to welcome the parishioner.
However, it has not always been the door opener Mateus expected.
"Some have helped, quite a few have turned me away," he admits. “I have had to string my hammock up between trees and sleep by the roadside during the night or if I was lucky a kind person has given me a place to stay.”
No doubt, meeting the pope would be a huge thrill for this epic trekker.
“If that happens, I will explode with happiness,” Mateus says. But he believes that by the time his journey ends, his spiritual mission will have been accomplished.
“I’ve met thousands of people and I have preached the word of the Lord along my concrete journey to every single one of them,” he says.
Nevertheless, like many he is hoping that the visit of the 76-year-old Argentinian, Latin America's first pope, who has already proved popular thanks to his humble manner and personal touch, will revitalize the faith and inspire many to return.
As for this pilgrim’s return journey to Trairi in the north, Mateus this time plans to take a well-earned rest, and put his feet up on a three-day bus trip back home.