In Brazil, Support Swells for ‘Surfer Angel’

Rio de Janeiro — Praying for waves? Have faith: the Catholic Church is considering a surfer for sainthood.

The would-be patron saint of good vibes is Guido Schäffer, a Brazilian priest-in-training who was 34 and about to be ordained when he drowned while surfing near here in 2009.

After he died, locals started calling him the “Surfer Angel” and made pilgrimages to his tomb. Some left engraved stone plaques thanking him for answered prayers. Others left molds of feet and heads indicating body parts healed through his intercession.

The cult of the Surfer Angel grew so much that priests began holding a monthly Mass at Mr. Schäffer’s grave. A Portuguese journalist wrote a book on the phenomenon. Devotees sprang up as far away as Poland.

In January, the Vatican gave permission to Rio priests to gather evidence of Mr. Schäffer’s holiness and present it to the pope, a crucial early step in the sainthood process.

To mark the moment, Mr. Schäffer’s remains were transferred to the Our Lady of Peace Church in the beach town of Ipanema. His surf buddies accompanied the remains atop a firetruck in a lively procession. Several held surfboards aloft. One board said “JESUS IS OUR WAVE” in large black letters.

“For him, surfing was a mystical experience, like prayer. He felt the presence of God in the sea,” said the Rev. Jorge Neves, who mentored Mr. Schäffer at Our Lady of Peace and resembles the actor Forest Whitaker. Mr. Schäffer called his hefty mentor “Big George.”

A giant poster of Mr. Schäffer on his board now hangs on the outside of the Ipanema church. In it, a tanned and athletic Mr. Schäffer has just completed a wave and is riding the foam. The Surfer Angel wears blue board shorts and stares intently into the distance. Passersby cross themselves as they walk the busy sidewalk below the poster.

The notion of a surfing saint may surprise those who think of saints as ancient martyrs or inaccessible holy men. But that is the point, some of Mr. Schäffer’s backers say. In Latin America, among other places, the church needs youthful, contemporary priests and saints to compete with the rise of Evangelical Protestantism, the thinking goes.

“When he died, it was hard to understand. We asked God, why did you take him since, as a priest, he was going to bring so many people to the church?” said the Rev. Roberto Lopes, a Rio de Janeiro priest acting as liaison with the Vatican on Mr. Schäffer’s possible sainthood. “Then we realized: Maybe he will bring even more people to the church as a saint.”

Mr. Schäffer spread the gospel through surfing. Before paddling out, he would pray on the beach with his surf buddies. Often, other beachgoers joined in. Out in the water, he struck up conversations with fellow surfers between the sets. He liked to say that Jesus, who walked on water, was the first surfer.

But Mr. Schäffer was no beach bum. He finished medical school before deciding to become a priest and worked with the poorest patients at a public hospital. Down a rough alley in Rio, he also operated a medical clinic at a homeless shelter run by Mother Teresa’s order of nuns.

Catholics here say a surfer saint might reflect a better side of a city more known for the hedonistic flesh worship of its annual Carnival celebration.

“As a saint he would embody the best of Rio: young, a surfer in touch with nature, a professional who studied and helped the poor,” said Teresa Maria Gutierrez, a 58-year-old economist who was heading into the church in Ipanema. “I pray to him all the time.”

About 2,000 mourners, including surfers, doctors, nuns, and the homeless, showed up for his funeral. One parish sent five busloads of mourners, and Mr. Schäffer’s fame as a possible saint took hold, said Father Lopes.

The Rio archdiocese says any miracles that Mr. Schäffer is said to have performed will be revealed at later stages in the process, which can take decades.

But already the surfing seminarian has become a fertility icon for some. Women have contacted Mr. Schäffer’s friends and family to affirm that praying to the Surfer Angel helped them become pregnant, or bring their troubled pregnancies to term.

Even Mr. Schäffer’s drowning has taken on mystical proportions.

“It was all an act of God. God made it so Guido would die at the beach, that he would die surfing,” said 29-year-old Ricardo Bretas, a Rio surfer who met Mr. Schäffer about a year before he died.

Mr. Schäffer died on a sunny, blue-skied day near the 11th lifeguard post at Recreio, a beach outside Rio. The surf session was to be a bachelor party for Eduardo Martins, a young executive getting married the next day to a woman he had met through Mr. Schäffer’s prayer group in Ipanema.

That day, Mr. Schäffer borrowed one of Mr. Martins’s boards: A 6-foot 6-inch rounded pintail with a Bible inscription from Matthew 7:14 written on the stringer, the strip of wood that runs down the center of the board. Mr. Schäffer told Mr. Martins that the phrase (“But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”) was a favorite.

Messrs. Martins and Schäffer had become close a dozen years earlier when they struck up a conversation about God while on their boards waiting for waves. Inspired, Mr. Martins attended Mr. Schäffer’s prayer group.

“It was really not what I expected for a prayer group. There were lots of beautiful girls,” Mr. Martins recalled.

Mr. Schäffer invited Mr. Martins to follow him on his rounds tending to the homeless in downtown alleys. Mr. Schäffer knew the people living on the streets by name and cleaned “maggots from one homeless man’s open wound while calmly talking to him about God, trying to cure his body and his soul,” Mr. Martins recalled.

Sometimes, he gave his shirt or shoes to those he tended. “The first time he came home without his shirt, I thought he had been robbed in the streets,” said Mr. Schäffer’s mother, Maria Nazareth.

Mr. Martins said he was daunted by Mr. Schäffer’s example, and wondered whether his own faith was strong enough to follow Mr. Schäffer’s path.

Eventually, Mr. Schäffer broke off an engagement to a woman and decided to become a priest. Mr. Martins took another path, asking a woman he had met at the Ipanema church to marry him.

On May 1, 2009, they prayed and paddled out to celebrate Mr. Martins’s wedding the next day. Mr. Schäffer attempted to dive his board under what another surfer there described as a freakishly large wave.

Mr. Martins didn’t see the accident because he was already up on a wave. When he paddled back out, he found Mr. Schäffer face down and pulled him to shore. Exams showed he had broken a vertebra.

Not long after, a group of faithful surfers began a prayer group at the beach inspired by his life. They called it Surfers with Mary. “We meet at the beach, talk about some teaching from Guido’s life, say the rosary and then surf,” said Mr. Bretas.