An expected two million Brazilians will flock to Rio de Janeiro from all over the country next week to see Pope Francis when he visits South America to celebrate the Catholic World Youth Day.
One man has probably put the most distance beneath his feet, though, by walking almost 2,000 miles from his hometown to Rio de Janeiro, at the behest of God.
“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,” the pilgrim said, according to GlobalPost. “That I should use the journey to preach, to spread the word as a Catholic and to pray on the way.”
Fábio Mateus, a 37-year-old factory worker, has traveled an awe-inspiring 1,850 miles by foot. He began his journey in his hometown of Trairi in the state of Ceará on March 15 and was scheduled to arrive in the city of Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, over four months later.
He could have easily driven to Rio, or taken a bus there, but he said he wanted to follow God’s command.
“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 told GlobalPost on Sunday.
Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, but the numbers have been decreasing in recent years. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 73.6 percent of Brazilians were classified as Catholics in 2000, but, 10 years later, the number went down to 64 percent. Meanwhile, the evangelical population increased from 15 percent to 22 percent in the same time period.
These numbers reflect a movement taking place all over Latin America, as more and more people are leaving Catholicism to pursue other beliefs.
“Two years ago, I saw my friends leaving the church in my community, especially the young people, and it made me feel so disheartened,” Mateus told GlobalPost. “So I prayed and asked the Lord what I could do to help.”
Mateus has traveled through the Brazilian states of Pernambuco, Bahia, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. When he set out on his journey, he had planned to arrive at his final destination, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian, on July 15.
He said he is three days later than planned, though, because of rain and exhaustion.
After walking an average of 24 miles for 10 hours every weekday for the past four months, it is no surprise that Mateus had to take some time to rest. He reserved weekends for recuperation. He said he has lost 15 pounds since beginning his trek.
Mateus said he did not formally prepare himself for the journey, and merely stuffed his backpack with a rain coat, hat, towel, clothes, and an extra pair of sneakers before setting off.
With his wife’s hard-earned approval, the father of 8-year-old twins, Igor and Iago, left to obey God’s word, but he keeps the family updated via Facebook.
Mateus said that when he started his journey, drivers on the busy and dangerous Brazilian motorways were not very aware or forgiving of the traveler. But thanks to attention from the media, people started to stop and take pictures with him and give him food and water.
Before leaving, his priest gave him a letter of recommendation to hopefully encourage other churches along the way to open their doors to him. But the letter was not entirely effective.
“Some have helped, quite a few have turned me away,” Mateus said to GlobalPost. “I have had to string my hammock up between trees and sleep by the roadside at night or, if I was lucky, a kind person has given me a place to stay.”
Since Mateus does not have any family in Rio de Janeiro, he will reside in a convent during his stay for the Papal visit.
“To see the Pope is already a big deal,” Mateus told Fantástico, a subsidiary of the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. “If I can talk to him, squeeze his hand, I will explode with happiness.”
When it’s time to return home, Mateus said he will forgo the journey by foot and instead prop his feet up on a three-day bus ride.