When the saint from Ipanema goes surfing

Friday 20 March 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — first day of spring (hooray!) 

When I say I keep my thumb on the pulse of popular culture, dear readers, by “culture” I mean worldwide culture. This entails tracking multiple and varied sources. My most recent copy of Surfer Today is a good example. In it is an article concerning the Vatican and a surfer dude. “What’s this?” I asked myself. I soon found related information on the Catholic News Service. Then Father F. X. Wallace slipped me an article on the subject he had clipped from the venerable Wall Street Journal. Indeed, my interest has now been piqued. How could I have missed this major cultural and religious phenomenon? Here it is in a nutshell, on the remote chance that you may still be in the dark on this matter: The late Guido Schaffer, M.D., a transitional deacon from Brazil known as Anjo Surfista (Surfer Angel) may eventually be declared a saint of the Catholic Church. 

Guido was born May 22, 1974 in Volta Retonda, Brazil, the son of husband-and-wife physicians. To no one’s surprise, in 1998, he himself graduated from medical school. As a physician, he dedicated himself to working among the poor of Brazil, especially the indigenous people. He served with the Missionaries of Charity (founded by Mother Teresa) in providing medical care for the homeless. Dr. Guido Schaffer enjoyed surfing in his spare time. Some say that for Guido Schaffer, surfing was a form of prayer, a wordless communing with God. Guido Schaffer was a very religious man and often conducted prayer services on the beach. Before I try this new form of contemplation, I would first have to learn to swim. On second thought, perhaps I had better stick with the Rosary. It seems much safer.

There came a point in life when Dr. Schaffer suspected God was calling him to the priesthood. Eventually, in 2002, he broke off his engagement to be married and began preparing for the priesthood at a Benedictine monastery. In 2008 he continued his studies at St. Joseph Seminary in Rio de Janeiro. He hoped, after ordination, to work among the poor as a priest and medical doctor. In 2009, just weeks before his ordination to the priesthood, he died in a tragic accident. While “hanging 10” with a group of surfer buddies, he was struck by the surfboard on which he was riding and drowned. He was 34 years of age at the time.

On the day of his Mass of Christian Burial, the Church of Our Lady of Copacabana was filled with 2,000 bishops, priests, religious Sisters, medical professionals, young people — and of course the sick and homeless. They all recognized him as a young man who deeply loved God and neighbor. His tomb soon became a place of pilgrimage. Miraculous healings began to be claimed through his intercession. By request of the people, Holy Mass was scheduled monthly at his grave.

In May 2014, exactly five years after the death of Guido Schaffer, the archbishop of Rio de Janeiro formally petitioned the Vatican for permission to open his cause for beatification and canonization. A stack of documents and testimonials were included with the petition. 

The request was reviewed by various Roman Dicasteries. No objections were raised. In January of this year, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome informed the Archbishop of Rio that nothing stood in the way of proceeding with the process (Nihil Obstat).

The Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro has now established a tribunal to handle the case of the alleged surfing saint. Information is being collected. All of Dr. Schaffer’s writings, public and private, must be reviewed. A postulator has been appointed. I imagine it will be difficult to find a “devil’s advocate” to argue against his canonization but they need to find one somewhere. 

The task is this: the tribunal, in union with the archbishop, must render a judgment as to whether or not Servant of God Guido Schaffer, M.D., has shown heroic virtues (all of them, not just four out of seven: faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude). If the ruling is affirmative, back goes the case to Rome. You can, by the way, circumvent the “heroic virtues” clause by dying as a martyr for the faith, but accidental drowning does not qualify.

Meanwhile, the body of Servant of God Guido Schaffer has been transferred to the Church of Our Lady of Peace in the resort town of Ipanema. Outside the church hangs a large banner featuring a photograph of Guido Schaffer wearing blue surfer’s shorts, riding a wave and staring off into the distance. 

The process of canonization is time-consuming, intensive, extensive, and expensive — and for Servant of God Guido Schaffer we’ve only just begun (as they used to sing at weddings in the 1970s). 

Personally, I think the canonization of Guido Schaffer would be an inspiration to today’s young people. It means you can be young and holy at the same time.

Now they tell me.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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