Antonio Carlos Tavares de Mello has run the Catholic Community of the Child Jesus for almost 30 years.
(NCR) One night a little over 30 years ago, Antonio Carlos Tavares de Mello cried out to God, asking why disabled children who had survived abortions all too often had no one to care for them. He immediately received an answer: Offer your own life to them and stay with them.
After much prayer and having consulted his bishop, De Mello set about creating an organization to do just that, and he adopted three children. His organization, called the Catholic Community of Jesus Menino (Child Jesus), now has three homes — two in Brazil and one in Portugal — and cares for more than 100 disabled children and adults.
One of four children born in 1960 to devout Catholic parents in Petropolis, Brazil, De Mello had a simple childhood and volunteered for diocesan youth work in his late teens. But he felt called to do more. He wanted to become a priest, but sensed he had a different calling. He returned to work in a local youth movement and eventually started the community instead.
Abortion remains a crime in Brazil: A pregnant mother who kills her child is liable for up to three years imprisonment unless the woman’s life was in danger, the pregnancy was the result of rape, or the unborn child was anencephalic (a disability in which the brain is partially missing).
Some Brazilian pregnant mothers still try to abort their children, often for economic reasons, through various means such as lethal drugs, and many survive with disabilities, which is where the Jesus Menino Community steps in.
Brazil’s ambassador to Washington, Nestor Forster Jr., has praised the community, noting in 2019 that most of the people it cares for are “victims of abortion, of abortions that went wrong, botched abortions.” He called it an “embassy of Heaven on Earth.”
De Mello sat down with the Register’s Rome Correspondent Edward Pentin Nov. 11 to share the work of his community and his own life story. The day before, he and two of his adopted children, Alexandre and Felipe, met Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience. De Mello’s story was recently featured in a documentary film called HUMAN Life by Gustavo Brinholi.
Mr. De Mello, could you tell us more Jesus Menino Community?
We care for children who’ve survived abortion and those who have been abandoned. It’s a Catholic humanitarian mission for children, to protect human life. Most of those we care for have survived an abortion. In Brazil, abortion isn’t allowed and women sometimes take drugs during the whole time they’re pregnant.
The community, for example, has looked after a boy called Jean since he was a baby. He’s now 9 years old, but during his mother’s pregnancy she took drugs to try to abort him. Jean was born unexpectedly at the entrance to a hospital and almost without a brain — what is called anencephaly — but he was still alive. The doctors said he had just a couple of months to live but now he’s 9 and has been cared for by the community all his life. It’s beautiful because he’s very mild mannered, he has feelings.
Alex, here to my left, his father tried to kill him through domestic violence while he was still in the womb. He suffers from brain paralysis, he lost contact between the brain and the eyes, but he just took a picture of us, even with such a disability.
How did you start this organization, what gave you the idea?
We started in 1990. I was working as a volunteer in a small community for children with disabilities. I was called to help at a party at a clinic, there were 125 children there at the time, all very poor.
The first day I came I met a 15 year-old-boy, Alexandre, and he asked me, “Do you want to be my father?” I said I couldn’t as I was 25 and he was 15, but I told him, “I can be your father in my heart.” Then I helped with this party. It was a weekend commemoration of something, and I started to often return to this community.
I was very moved by this situation, seeing how they were left to fend for themselves in society, and then I started to understand their needs — there were cases of sexual abuse, physical and psychological violence, and so I wanted to try to somehow bring them into society. For instance, there were trees in front of the building, and I cut them down so they could see the street and have visible contact with the outside world. Then, during this process, they began to grow, I became their adopted father, and I then left everything to dedicate myself to them.
You had no family of your own at that time?
No I was living with my parents. After that moment, everything changed. I was 23 years old and had dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then, one evening, the first night I slept there, I realized that the suffering was very intense. So I asked God that night — I went outside yelling: “How can you leave them here like that? How can they live?” That night I heard God’s reply: “Then give your life to them, stay with them.”
Did you question that, or hesitate, after you heard that?
Yes, I thought maybe it was in my mind, I was just being too emotional.
What gave you the impetus to continue, to see it through?
I went to look for the bishop to ask for his advice, to clarify it. I was a friend of the bishop having been involved with the diocesan youth group. The bishop said, “This is from God, but God is waiting for you elsewhere, not at that clinic. You have to be their family, but what’s coming will be something different.”
The bishop recommended that I stay with them at that clinic for the time being and pray about it for two years. At that time, I was quite well known in the youth movement and quite a few tried to join me in praying, in meditation. I began working within that institution and changed a lot of things there, the way they were treated and so on, and in 1990 I rented the first house. I got the authorization to work with three young people.
Since the beginning, I’ve been very concerned about being obedient to the Church, so I went and adopted three children. Alexandre was the first who asked me to his father.
How old were you at that time?
Were you concerned about how you would be able to provide for these three children you had adopted?
Not really, I believed that if God is calling me to this, He will provide. The first day, I told them we would go through many things together but that whatever the situation, I will be your father.
Tweet This: "I believed that if God is calling me to this, He will provide" - Antonio de Mello, founder of a mission that cares for abortion survivors
The first three years were very hard, especially financially, and we were living off Divine Providence. I promised God I wouldn’t have anything in my name, I would live as Joseph and Mary did. It’s been an eternal joy from the beginning.
It has already been 31 years and the community has adopted 106 children. We have a house in Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, another house in Brasilia, and a new one in Portugal.
Who do you help now and what kind of disabilities do they have?
We help boys and girls and they have psychological and physical disabilities. In Brasilia there are 78 and all are bedridden. We receive no government help; all is via donations. We have presented projects, for example, to the Italian bishops’ conference, the Papal Foundation, and we receive international donations.
What is the current situation in the Petropolis community?
I live with 45 children there; 15 have died in recent years. It’s a kind of farm, a camp, so there are lot of little houses with different areas. It’s called “The Little City of Mary.” There’s a school, a part for animals, a chapel. There are lay consecrated, an association of laypeople, that help, and always we have a chaplain as a spiritual guide.
During the day there’s a lot of normal work and moments of prayer. There’s silence in the house, the silence of Nazareth. We are not an NGO or a clinic but a consecrated family.
How do you deal with the many challenges you face each day?
We have a priest and a psychologist to support us, and the staff are trained to deal with this reality, to be “fathers” and “mothers” as we call them. We are all trained to deal with a hard life but also death, because it’s close, as are the people we help support. This is all important to keep the work flowing and to do it with joy.
One challenge is also to keep the finances healthy; that’s why I have this diplomatic work, as well, traveling a lot to keep in touch with contacts. In recent years spreading the word has helped a lot.
In the U.S. and Europe, there are also many child survivors of abortions and others like them in need of care. What advice would you give to anyone wishing to carry out similar work in those places?
I would offer the advice of Mother Teresa: “There’s no better gift than being present for someone.” Love cures, it’s the first need and is greater than anything.
Tweet This: "Love cures, it’s the first need and is greater than anything" - Antonio de Mello, founder of the Jesus Menino Catholic Community
Jean, for example, is a strong witness to this, of how love can change a person. The first day I saw him, they said no he wouldn’t survive, and I saw he was very happy but alone in bed and so the first thing I did was to be there with him. I don’t have a womb, but I have a heart and I promised to help rehabilitate him.
I think at that moment the Holy Spirit did something. He is now very healthy. Of course, he still has care, but his blood pressure is good and everything else. There are of course nurses with him, but he laughs a lot when we come into the room. He sees Jesus when we don’t see him. It’s a miracle of life.
Because of Jean I went to the U.N. where he gave a talk on anencephaly. He’s a very powerful pro-life answer to the world and to the community. The film HUMAN Life helped spread the word about the community and a Brazilian ambassador [Nestor Forster, Jr.] in the U.S. gave a beautiful speech, saying, “There’s nothing more pro-life than this community.”
What are your plans for the future and how can people help the community?
I’m happy if the word can be spread about us so we can attract more vocations and help more families, bring more life. Now we are realising that, of course, many problems regarding abortion come from not understanding pregnancy well at the very beginning so we are starting to work with pregnant women who feel abandoned, trying to reach these pregnant mothers who are thinking about trying to destroy their babies.
We’re trying to build a house to welcome pregnant mothers who are thinking about abortion, often for economic reasons. This house should therefore welcome them during their pregnancy and care for them for a year once their child is born so they can provide for them, and so they will be deterred from having an abortion. Many times we also talk with these women and tell them that if they’re thinking about having an abortion, then leave your child with us.
These projects of course cost money — the house in Petropolis needs $20,000 a month to run it — so we are always grateful for donations. This is a link with details on how to donate.
Editor's note: Edward Pentin began reporting on the pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for EWTN's National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review. This article is reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register – www.ncregister.com.