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Preaching truth to power: the São Paulo priest standing up to Bolsonaro

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 Júlio Lancellotti is an outspoken champion of homeless people – a cause that makes him unpopular with Brazil’s authorities


In 2017, most Brazilians were still unfamiliar with the name Jair Bolsonaro. But for Júlio Lancellotti, there was already cause for concern in the reactionary rhetoric of the man who would be elected president two years later under the slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.”

“I am astonished that a homophobic person like Bolsonaro appears on the presidential ballot,” said the priest during mass on 7 March of that year at St Michael the Archangel parish in São Paulo’s East Zone. The sermon, in which he also preached against rape culture and sexism, was typical of the man who has devoted his life to fighting injustice, often finding himself targeted by conservative politicians as a result.

An openly leftwing priest who embraces revolutionary ideas – the 72-year-old has demonstrated arm-in-arm with anti-establishment “black bloc” protesters and believes hotels should provide free rooms for homeless people – Lancellotti seemingly represents the antithesis of everything Brazil’s president stands for. He was even sued by Bolsonaro for moral damages because of his March 2017 mass (a judge dismissed the claim).

An elderly man in a facemask, white lab coat and yellow apron pushes a shopping trolley of food
Fr Julio Lancellotti pushes a shopping trolley while distributing food in the Mooca area of Sao Paulo in October. Photograph: Ian Cheibub/The Guardian

But Lancelloti’s run-in with the authorities began long before Bolsonaro took office. As a novice in the late 1960s, he was expelled from the seminary for “bad behaviour”, as he describes it.

He says the seminary where he first studied, in the city of Araraquara, was “very conservative”. His days were marked by censure and abusive punishments. “I was beaten with a bamboo stick, I was forced to kneel on corn grains … one day, a priest said I asked too much in class, that I was very critical. They kicked me out.”

After this episode, Lancellotti spent years away from the priesthood. He graduated from a course in education in 1978, started working with juvenile offenders and soon became a thorn in the side of the authorities.

“I refused to accept the torture I witnessed against young people. I felt I was being tested all the time by those who were aligned with the government,” he says. It was during these years that Lancellotti met progressive priests who were actively engaged with the children’s rights cause, and in doing so rediscovered a sense that social justice was possible within the Roman Catholic church. He resumed his theological studies and, in 1985, became a priest.

Since 1996, Lancelotti has coordinated the pastoral commission of homeless people in São Paulo, which helps about 35,000 people in the district. He describes being pepper-sprayed, spat at, and punched in the stomach by São Paulo’s municipal guard while helping homeless people in 2018.

Lancelotti says the Covid pandemic has worsened the living conditions of São Paulo’s homeless, while the ultraconservatism of the Bolsonaro era has fuelled what the priest describes as “aporophobia” – a fear and rejection of the poor.

In August, São Paulo state deputy Janaína Paschoal praised the military police after they blocked the homeless commission’s access to an inner-city area nicknamed Cracolândia – “Crackland”.

Advocating for homeless people is the focus of Lancellotti’s activism, but not its only cause. He does not hesitate to take a stand for controversial groups such as those involved in black bloc tactics at demonstrations. “The best guys I have ever met. The purest, the truest. They have been tortured and criminalised unfairly,” says Lancellotti, who helped secure the release of some of the demonstrators from jail in 2013.

Lancellotti, in his white coat, leans over a homeless man lying in a sleeping bag on the pavement
Lancellotti, in his white coat, leans over a homeless man lying in a sleeping bag on the pavement
Fr Lancellotti talks to a homeless man sleeping on the street while he distributes food in the Mooca area of São Paulo. Photograph: Ian Cheibub/The Guardian

He remains a popular figure for many. His phone rings throughout the day, and he is kept busy with calls – whether it is a media request or speaking to a fellow activist.

An avid social media user, the images he posts while helping homeless people can bring happy results. “Families from all over Brazil have been able to find relatives who were believed to have disappeared,” he says.

He has even inspired a federal bill. Approved by the senate on 31 March last year, the “Júlio Lancellotti bill” aims to ban the practice of putting stones and iron spikes in underpasses – a measure adopted by mayors to prevent homeless people sleeping there. Now back in the lower house and waiting to be revised, the bill is a reminder of the day Lancellotti took a sledgehammer to the stones that had been placed in a São Paulo underpass.

Lancellotti’s present focus is on lobbying city hall to carry out a more responsible census. According to the priest, the last one in 2019 did not accurately record the number of homeless people in São Paulo – which leads to policies that are incapable of solving the issue.

Envisioning a better future for Brazil is still hard for Lancellotti. “Anyone who takes office after this monster [Bolsonaro] won’t be able to restore everything he destroyed in culture, health and education – even in 10 years,” he says, adding: “The Bolsonarismo didn’t appear overnight, and won’t be beaten overnight.”

In a country riven by violence and hatred, he concludes, the only way forward is through “dialogue and love”.

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