Father Julio Lancellotti was caught by surprise Oct. 10 when Pope Francis personally called him asking about his work with the homeless.
"I picked up the phone and a voice on the other side of the line asked, 'Parla Italiano? Hablas Espanol? Qui e Papa Francesco," the 71-year-old priest told Catholic News Service.
Father Lancellotti, who has led homeless services for the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo for more than 30 years, said he was taken aback by the call.
"I sent a letter to the pope a while back with photos about the (homeless) situation here in Sao Paulo, but I never expected to get an answer. He (Pope Francis) must get thousands of letters per month," he said.
Father Lancellotti told CNS the pope said he had seen the photos and told him he knew of the difficulties the homeless were facing.
"The pope wanted me to transmit to those living in the streets his love and told me to tell them that he prays for them every day. He blessed them and asked us all to pray for him," said Father Lancellotti.
"He also asked me to describe my day," chuckled the priest.
"At the end he told me not to be discouraged and 'Live as Jesus did, always being close to the poor,'" said Father Lancellotti.
People who work with Father Lancellotti say "discouraged" is not in his vocabulary.
"I've seldom seen him discouraged," said Auxiliary Bishop Luiz Carlos Dias of Sao Paulo. "He is out on the streets working with the homeless every day. He has embraced the (homeless) cause and dedicated his entire life to it."
Bishop Dias said the priest is known throughout Brazil.
"Those with nowhere to go seek out Father Julio, because they know he will be there for them," he said.
The bishop said Father Lancelloti's commitment to the homeless and drug addicts has made him a few enemies. "There is a minority who is bothered by the work he does," noted Bishop Dias.
Last year, news of threats against the priest's life made it all the way to the Organization of American States, which urged the Brazilian government to provide protection for the priest. Father Lancellotti, however, said he does not need official protection.
"They (homeless) are always watching out for me, asking me if I need help. I feel protected by them," said Father Lancellotti.
In September of this year, Father Lancellotti received threats from a man riding a motorcycle. "He yelled obscenities as he was driving toward me, but the homeless put their carts in his way and he left," he said.
"It is necessary to help the poor, to accompany them, instead of offending, insulting or threatening those who take care of the poor," Sao Paulo Cardinal Odilo Scherer said days after the incident.
After almost seven months of pandemic, the situation for the homeless has almost returned to "normal," said Father Lancellotti. But this was not always the case. At the start of the pandemic, there was a lot of fear, he said.
"We thought that the virus would decimate those living on the streets. We didn't know what to expect," he said.
The first few weeks were the most difficult in terms of obtaining masks and hygiene products to distribute to the homeless, the priest said, adding, "It was very hard, but we decided from the very beginning that we would not abandon them."
The other problem was the plea by authorities to stay home.
"Where is the home of those who sleep on the sidewalk?" asked Father Lancellotti.
He said that the past few months have been full of hard work but also of great solidarity.
He remembers one particular day, after spending an hour and a half handing out food, he had just sat down to drink a cup of tea when someone called and said there was a man who wanted to speak to him.
"I went toward what looked like to me a very simple fellow, maybe one of the homeless, although I didn't recognize him," he said, pausing a bit.
The man then handed him a $540 check, more than 2.5 times Brazil's minimum monthly wage, and said, "I want you to have this."
"I told him I couldn't take it, but he insisted," he noted, adding, "Like him, many people have shown great solidarity, giving what they could to help."
Father Lancellotti said the pandemic has also given him other abilities.
"Because of the masks, I learned to read the emotions in people's eyes. I can see when they are sad, tired, happy ... just by looking into their eyes," he said.
Pope Francis mentioned the phone call to the Brazilian priest at his Oct. 11 Angelus when explaining the day's Gospel reading about God inviting all to his banquet, rich and poor. "This is what our mother church is about; this is the messenger of God who goes out to the crossroads" to invite people to the Lord's banquet," said the pope.
Although in his Angelus talk, Pope Francis referred to the priest as Italian, Father Julio is actually from Sao Paulo, of Italian descent. Father Lancellotti, nonetheless, said this was one telephone call he will cherish forever.
"I will continue to do my work and do as the pope requested: 'Live as Jesus did, always being close to the poor,'" the priest said.