Fr John Raju Nerella is an Indian priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) who has been in Brazil for the past 16 years serving first forest communities before moving to plantations (fazendas), and eventually landing in the slums (favelas) of São Paulo.
Speaking to AsiaNews about his missionary vocation, he said
that at first "I did not know that I would be sent abroad. I wanted to
be like PIME missionaries who had come to India to do good. I also
wanted to follow the example of my father, when I was a child, used to
take me with him to the villages to lead prayers."
Recalling his time evangelising among families of the Amazon, he
said, "I had gone there for them, to bring Christ to these people. But
little by little, even though they did not realise it, the natives were
making me more human."
Fr Nerella, 47, is originally from Annadevarapeta, a small village in
the diocese of Eluru (Andhra Pradesh). He says he is "the fruit of the
PIME mission in India" since he was among the first local missionaries
to be admitted into the congregation through the initiative of Fr Benito
Picascia, former regional superior in India.
As a child he "breathed" the work of the mission because his father,
who was married in a ceremony led by PIME priests, did "some theological
training, a kind of diaconate (without ordination) to be ad tempus
catechist and took me with him when he went to the villages to lead
prayers. He did it for 45 years: he can be called a missionary."
The missionaries "created everything in Eluru: schools, the church,
help for the population," the clergyman said. At the age of 14-15 years
he went to see Fr Picascia, and told him that he had a "spiritual
desire". From that moment his phase of discernment began, lasting 20-21
During this time, he studied mathematics, physics and chemistry,
which for him "are crucial, along with the philosophy, for religion.
Because rationality and spirituality form the perfect combination for
In August 2000, he was ordained priest and his superiors immediately
told him that he would go to Cambodia. But he asked to be sent to
"I am Asian,” he explains, “I have lived in Europe for my education,
and I was hoping to go to Africa or Latin America. I wanted to bring
Asia to a faraway country."
A few months later, in January 2001, he got his wish, the Amazon
forest of Brazil, a country with profound ethnic, social and development
differences, especially between cities and country. Here, he spent the
next 16 years.
"My first mission,” he notes, “was in the north, Macapà, where PIME
established the local diocese. Here, the Church was involved in the
first evangelisation among the people living on the banks of the Amazon
River and its tributaries. I worked in all pastoral outreach domains:
catechesis, biblical training, baptisms, communions, weddings. The work
was exciting; I was full of energy and desire to do things."
Gradually, he admits, a certain “empathy developed between us and I
realised that I was changing. I had gone there for them, but it was the
natives who were shaping me as a man and a priest. They made me more
What triggered the involvement with the locals, he says, "was my way
of doing things. I did not have the pretension of going there to teach,
placing myself on a pedestal. I started at their same level; I lived
with them; I ate with them."
Later, starting in 2005, Fr Nerella worked in the State of Mato
Grosso, on local plantations (fazendas). "Here the mission was harder
because the area where I operated was far and wide. Catechesis was
difficult because people are spread over larger areas, so when we went
to the fazendas to teach the catechesis, we did it for everyone, young
and old, together."
In 2008 he was transferred to the State of Paranà, where
evangelisation changed again.
"This is n urban environment, with an
educated population. Here, missionary work had to keep up with society,
becoming more 'intellectual', using the most advanced means of
For the next three years, the PIME missionary worked in prisons and
trained a group lay people to visit detainees and their families,
"Because families should not to be abandoned. If they improve their
lives even the inmates are more serene."
Finally, in 2011 his last move in Brazil is to the favelas or slums
of São Paulo, home to millions of people. In the megacity, the mission
was centred mainly on youth and families.
What prompted him to go on mission abroad "was the example of PIME
Fathers, who came to India to do something good for others, for me."
However, “in addition to the example of the Italian priests, going on
a mission means to bear witness to one’s faith in Christ. If you don’t
have faith, you don’t move. If Christ doesn’t push you, you don’t get to
make such a decision. It is a choice against the flow, almost an
anti-gravitational force compared to the forces of life, society, that
tell you to desist."