Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Bishop Vital: Model of Pastoral Charity
Legionário, june 8th 1944
In an article commemorating the centenary of the birth of Bishop Vital (1844-1878 – Legionário, june 8th 1944), commonly known as Dom Vital, Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira extols the prelate’s virtues
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Generally speaking, the Brazilian people have a confused notion of who Dom Vital was. We know that he was a bishop of rare valour, who faced great perils in order to overcome Masonry. Valour in defence of good and truth, however, is not a popular virtue. If there were holy cards and pictures of Dom Vital kissing babies, smiling to multitudes, giving blessings, and distributing alms (all attitudes proper to a bishop), he would bask in popularity. Instead, his photo depicts a young Dom Vital of pleasant yet strong features: his broad, high brow portrays audacity; his deep, serious gaze twinkles with intelligence and strength; he wears a virile beard, black and long; noble and energetic is his bearing. He has the air of a fighter, of a miles Christi (soldier of Christ). The photo seems to capture the moment when he was seated on the defence stand, as majestic as though he were in his palace, with his serene and penetrating eyes transfixed on the confused and indecisive judges. If it is true to say "Christians should be other Christs" then, a fortiori, "Bishops should be other Christs".
The adorable moral physiognomy of Our Lord Jesus Christ spans the full spectrum of virtue, from the ineffable tenderness with which He said "let the little children come to Me" to the terrifying majesty which hurtled His enemies to the ground when He said the words "I am He" in the Garden of Olives. Similarly, the moral physiognomy of a bishop of the Catholic Church should also encompass all aspects of virtue, from tenderness to pastoral severity. However, Our Lord grants each one of us the grace of illustrating the Church by reflecting a particular spiritual facet. He calls some to edify Christianity by the splendour of their tenderness like St Francis de Sales, for instance.
He calls others to defend Christianity by their pugnacity and their strength, as did Pope St. Gregory VII and Dom Vital. The latter's heart was overflowing with tenderness and kindness. It was precisely this kindness that compelled him to rise up like a giant, staking everything: his life, health, tranquillity, reputation, losing close friends, and gaining endless enemies, all to defend the souls which Masonry would drag to hell. There are times when authentic and genuine pastoral tenderness entails imitating Job: "I broke the jaws of the wicked man and out of his teeth I took away the prey" (Job XXIX, 17). Job also boasts: "I had delivered the poor man that cried out; and the fatherless that had no helper" (Job XXIX, 12). When Dom Vital was appointed to the archiepiscopal see of Olinda, many were the innocent victims who were caught "in the jaws of the wicked man" and numerous were the "poor own that cried out, and the fatherless that had no helper".
If Dom Vital had excommunicated men who had caused material damages to widows and orphans, he would have been applauded by the whole country and everyone would have acknowledged that his just severity was inspired by charity.
Masonry causes moral damages, however, not material. We live in a materialistic era that only acknowledges as evil that which harms the body. It was precisely spiritual and immortal souls, redeemed by the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ that were daily being lost in the Masonic confraternities. The loss of a single one of these souls would be a disaster far worse than if the sun were to be extinguished, than if the Earth were to crash into the Moon, than if the entire city of Recife were to disappear beneath the ocean. Likewise, it would have been incomparably worse if Dom Vital had closed his eyes to this spiritual tragedy than if he would have shut himself within the comfort of his palace to shield his ears from the cries of indigent widows and orphans. It was to fulfill his duty of pastoral charity — of spiritual charity — that Dom Vital stood tall and firm.
There are no emotional, material symbols for this kind of charity. One can be moved by a painting portraying someone distributing bread to the poor, but not many would be moved by a painting portraying someone in the act of "breaking the jaws of the wicked man", with blood dripping, a dislocated jaw and teeth strewn on the ground. It is easy to grasp how noble, just, Christian, and praiseworthy alms-giving is: no explanation is necessary. It requires long reflection, though, to grasp when it is good and praiseworthy to meddle with "the jaw of the wicked man". If there is one thing modern man detests more than reflection, it is long reflection over a matter. It comes as no surprise, then, that the average person today increasingly fails to grasp the significance of acts of charity like those practiced by Dom Vital. Herein lies, in my view, the most providential aspect of Dom Vital's mission.
By his example, Dom Vital teaches us that the soul is worth more than the body; hence we must do more to defend the soul than we would do to defend the body. He also teaches us that, while all true Christians should prefer harmony over discord, meekness over pugnacity, and conciliation over conflict, nonetheless there are circumstances when it is our duty to discord, where conflict is inevitable, and where pugnacity is a moral requirement.
A human soul is so valuable that all valour, all energies, and all licit means of resistance must be employed in its defence. When it comes to fulfilling our duty, we must go to extremes, just as Our Lord did; He never cast aside His Cross; rather He carried it to the top of Calvary where He then lay down upon it and allowed Himself to be nailed to it, and upon which He died-all because He wanted to do His duty: to obey His Father's Will.
Bishop Vital Maria Gonçalves de Oliveira (1844-1878)
Born in 1844
in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, the young Dom Vital began his studies
under a priest. Esteemed by professors and students alike,
the local seminary and soon had the distinction of being sent to
Notwithstanding the fact that the overwhelming majority of Brazilians at
that time were Catholics, Masonry was rife in his diocese and in
were also concerned at this deplorable state of affairs. They had two
options: to remain silent and allow the situation to deteriorate until
masonry had taken effective control of everything, even the Church, or to
decry the situation and attempt to put an end to it at the risk of
displeasing the very Emperor himself.
between the Church and her poorly veiled enemies came when the Bishop of
he returned to
recalcitrant priest was suspended from using his faculties, his supporters
(whose ranks included troublemakers and who were led by prominent members of
the liberal party) resorted to vandalism. On the
In April of
that same year, the government ordered that he halt the suspensions, but Dom
Vital stuck to his duty rather than cave in to their demands. This outraged
the emperor, who convoked the Privy Council where Dom Vital and Dom Macedo
were condemned to four years of forced labour at the emperor's behest. Only
one of the eleven members of the council stood up to the emperor and
protested the injustice being committed against the bishops. Furthermore,
the emperor sent an emissary to
There was an
outcry of public support for the bishops: the government received hundreds
of thousands of written protests, forcing the emperor to call upon the
mediation of a universally respected war hero, the Duque of Caxias, who only
agreed to assist on the condition that the bishops be granted amnesty. This
was given on
release from prison, Dom Vital travelled to
Sick and worn
out by the ordeal, Dom Vital requested to be relieved of his office, which
neither Pope Pius IX nor his successor Pope Leo XIII deigned to accept. Dom
Vital returned to his diocese in October of 1876 where he was warmly
welcomed. He resumed his work of moral restoration that had been interrupted
by the dispute, but his health continued to decline, forcing him to return
Dom Vital is considered a martyr of the Faith and defender of the rights of the Church.
The above biographical data on Dom Vital was extracted from the website of FUNDAJ, which is a foundation subsidized by the Brazilian Federal Government.