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Vital Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira, Brazilian Capuchin bishop, was born on 27 November 1844 atthe Aurora sugarcane plantation, Pedras de Fogo, in the parish of Itambé, Pernambuco, on the Paraiba border.
Son of Captain Antonio Gonçalves de Oliveira and Antonia Albina de Albuquerque, Vital began his studies under the direction of Father Antonio Generoso Bandeira in the Itambé Public School. He then moved to Recife, where he studied at Benfica College, which was run by priests.
He was a leading student and soon won the esteem of teachers and colleagues. He entered the seminary of Olinda and received the tonsure (a religious ceremony in which the bishop gives a haircutto the novitiate to give him the first rank of the clergy) from Dom João da Purificação in 1861, earning the distinction of going to study theology at the Seminary of Issy in Paris, where he remained until 1863, when he joined the Capuchin Convent in Versailles.
In 1868, he completed his sacerdotal studies in Toulouse, France. Returning to Brazil, he taught philosophy at the Major Seminary of São Paulo.
In 1871, Dom Vital was chosen by Emperor Dom Pedro II to be the Bishop of Olinda. In May 1872, at only 27 years of age, Vital took over his diocese, being received with solemnity and taking possession of his office in the Church of the Holy Spirit. Soon he began the campaign against Freemasonry, which began the so-called‘Religious Question’.
At that time, Freemasonry was forbidden by the Pope for Catholics. However in Brazil, Freemasonry was normal, and most of the Empire’s prominent figures followed it, even rendering important services during the process of Brazilian independence.
In the diocese,Dom Vital found many masonicpriests and fraternities governed by Freemasons, in whose hands were the keys to the church and eventhe tabernacle. The Prime Minister at the time, the Viscount of Rio Branco (José Maria da Silva Paranhos), was a Grand Master of Masonry himself. On the occasion of the commemoration of the ‘Free Womb’ Law (which decreed that those born on or after that date would never be slaves) on 2 March 1872, the Freemasons organised a party that was attended by large numbers of people.
Several orators spoke, among them Father Almeida Martins, who made a speech in perfect Masonic style that was published in newspapers and circulated throughout Brazil, causing a great scandal. Due to these events, Father Almeida was punished by the Bishop of Rio de Janeiro, Dom Pedro Maria de Lacerda, with the suspension of his ecclesiastical functions.
The Masonic Lodges declared they were offended by this act,and on 16April of that year, held a general meeting to adopt resolutions on the case. The Head of the Government directed the assembly himself and proposed:
1. Start a press campaign against the bishops and the church.
2. Invite all dissident Masons to unite.
3. Collect funds for the struggle.
New newspapers were foundedand declared organs of Freemasonry. The main ones were: A Família(The Family) in Rio de Janeiro; Correio Paulistano(PaulistanoPost)in São Paulo; O Maçom(The Mason)in Rio Grande do Sul; O Pelicano(The Pelican)in Pará; A Fraternidade(The Brotherhood)in Ceará;A Labarumin Alagoas; A Família Universal (The Universal Family) and Verdade(Truth) in Recife.
The government and later the Baron of Penedo accused D. Vital of having upset Brazil. Even before the arrival of D.Vital to Recife, the press sought to sow distrust for the new bishop, calling him a dangerous manand amonk with an inquisitorial spirit.
D. Vital initiated, with the support of Bishop Antonio MacedoCosta, a campaign against Freemasonry, imposing restrictions on fraternities, whose members were asked to leave Freemasonry, with those who didn’t being suspended.
The fraternities suspended by D. Vital appealed to the Court. The bishop was asked but declined to explain to Minister Viscount of Rio Branco the reason for his actions, which he considered the exclusive domain of the Church hierarchy.
Among the priests, there were some less abiding of their duties, most notably the popular priest Joaquim Francisco de Faria, from Olinda, who after being warned, was suspended, leading to scenes of vandalism by his friends and troublemakers, headed by notable figures of the Liberal Party.
On 14 May 1873, the Jesuit Church was broken into and vandalised, injuring dozens of worshipers who attended the ceremonies.
On 12 April the same year, D. Vital was intimidated in order to suspend the prohibitions made, but the bishop did not flinch, continuing with his dutiful stance. D. Pedro II was enraged with his strength and convened the Council of State. Of the 11 Council members, only the Viscount of Abaeté protested against the violence being committed against the bishops.
Throughout the country, true Catholics cried out in protest with the voices of Zacarias de Góis, Antonio Ferreira Viana, jurist Cândido Mendes, Silveira Lobo, Figueira de Melo, Tarquínio de Souza and dozens of other important figures.
Opposed to the bishops, besides the military Masons headed by the Viscount, were Rui Barbosa, Franklin Távora, Saldanha Marinho, Joaquim Nabuco and others.
Bishops D. Vital and D. Macedo were arrested and relentlessly sentenced to four years imprisonment and hard labour at the behest of the Emperor, who sent an envoy to Rome, the Baron of Penedo, in order to achieve further condemnation of the bishops from Pope Pius IX.
Hundreds of thousands of signatures of protest came to the hands of government. The Emperor had difficulties in finding a chief of staff able to overcome the crisis, and had to ask the Duque de Caxias, who only took the job on condition that the bishops were granted amnesty.
Finally, through Decree 5,993 on17September 1875, amnesty was decreed.
Upon being released from prison, D. Vital travelled to Rome in order to clarify his position before the Pope, as the Baron of Penedo and Baron of Araguaia had misrepresented the truth.
The Pope listened to the bishop and lamented the flawed information he had received from the Brazilian government. In the Brazilian episcopate papal letter, dated 29April 1876, Pius IX defines his true thoughts for siding totally with the persecuted bishops.
He continued his restoration work, completing the work interrupted due to religious issues. However, his health worsened and he had to return to Europe, where he died on 4July 1878, at 33 years of age. DomFrair Vital is considered a martyr of the faith and defender of the rights of the Catholic Church.
After three years, the remains of D. Vital were transferred to Brazil and buried solemnly in the Basilica of Penha in Recife.
Recife, 3 august 2005.
(updated on 9 september 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.
OLÍVOLA, Frei Félix de. Um grande brasileiro a serviço de Deus: D.Frei Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira. 4.ed. Recife: Imprensa Universitária, 1967.
SILVA, Jorge Fernandes da. Vidas que não morrem. Recife: Departamento de Cultura, 1982.
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Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Dom Vital. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009