A surfing saint? Pope Francis recognizes the heroic virtue of Guido Schäffer

Guido Schaffer Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtue of Brazil’s “Surfer Angel” Guido Schäffer in a decree issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on May 20, 2023. | Credit: Photo courtesty of guidoschaffer.com.br

The Catholic Church is one step closer to canonizing a surfing saint. Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtue of Brazil’s “Surfer Angel” Guido Schäffer in a decree issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on Saturday. 

Schäffer was a seminarian, a doctor, and a surfer who drowned while surfing in 2009 off the coast of Rio de Janeiro at the age of 34 before he could fulfill his desire of being ordained to the priesthood.

The Brazilian seminarian, known locally as the “Anjo Surfista” or “Surfer Angel,” used to begin each of his surfing lessons with a prayer and was known for his work with the poor, providing medical care to Rio’s “favelas” (poor, working-class neighborhoods) alongside the Missionaries of Charity.

With the decree, Pope Francis declared Schäffer “venerable.” The Church will now need to approve a miracle attributed to his intercession before he can be beatified.

Born in Brazil on May 22, 1974, Schäffer grew up near the sandy beaches of Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood. His father was a physician and his mother was very active in a charismatic renewal movement in their Catholic parish, Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, and instilled in him a love of Scripture and prayer.

As a student, Schäffer was an active member of a charismatic prayer group called Canção Nova (New Song), founded by Father Jonas Abib. Schäffer later co-founded, together with his girlfriend and a priest known as Father Jorjão, the prayer group “Fire of the Holy Spirit” at a parish in Ipanema the year he graduated from medical school.

During his medical residency from 1999 to 2001, Schäffer worked as a general practitioner at the Hospital Santa Casa de Misericórdia. He also began volunteering with a Catholic group that provided pastoral ministry to the sick at the hospital.

While on a retreat, Schäffer was moved by a line in the Bible: “Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, so that God’s face will not be turned away from you” (Tobit 4:7). He asked for God’s forgiveness and prayed: “Jesus, help me to care for the poor.”

One week later, he met Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and soon began working with them to offer medical care in some of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods. He invited other doctors from his hospital to join him and also brought young people from his prayer group and hospital ministry to volunteer.

Sister Caritas with the Missionaries of Charity recalled how Schäffer talked to each of the people he served about Christ, taking care of “both their body and their soul.”

“He used to pray with and for each of them, always inviting them to receive the sacraments as a source of grace and communion with God,” she said

“His only concern was to save souls to God — guiding as many people as he could to a personal experience with Christ.”

While he was volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, Schäffer read “Brother Francis of Assisi” by Ignacio Larrañaga, which became a great inspiration for him. 

St. John Paul II’s visit to Rio de Janeiro in 1997 and Schäffer’s pilgrimage to Europe for the beatification of Brazil’s protomartyrs in 2000 also played a decisive role in his life-changing decision to leave his profession as a doctor and leave his girlfriend to respond to a call to enter the priesthood.

Schäffer began studying philosophy at the São Bento Monastery in 2002. In between seminary classes, he volunteered at a local hospital. He moved to the Archdiocesan Seminary of São José in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, where he devoted himself to evangelization while continuing his medical volunteering and surfing. 

Big wave surfer Rodrigo Resende was impressed by Schäffer’s love for the poor and inner peace. He told the Brazilian publication Veja Rio: “I have never seen someone treat the marginalized with such respect. The inner peace that he radiated was impressive.”

While surfing with friends off of Rio’s Recreio dos Bandeirantes beach on May 1, 2009, Schäffer hit his head on his surfboard and drowned. 

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In 2019, the beach where he suffered his fatal accident was officially renamed in his honor: Praia do Guido.

Father Jorjão, who has since written a book in Portuguese about his life, reflected: “I have never seen someone with so much faith and at the same time so normal. Anyone who knew him was sure they were dealing with someone from God.”

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