‘We used to live in a dreamy seaside town where the kids used to go to the beach and sail and windsurf all year long. Here the Mersey doesn’t allow that.’ Maybe not but that was never going to stop Joao D Filipe from leaving Cascais, a popular resort close to Lisbon, to settle with his family in Liverpool, where they are parishioners at St Charles, Aigburth.
As a member of the Neocatechumenal Way missionary initiative, the 60-year-old sees it as their calling: ‘We came to Liverpool as a lay missionary family in 2018 – us parents with our three youngest kids. We expect, by the grace of God, to live here indefinitely.’
He and his wife Ana, who is Brazilian, began their life as Neocatechumenal Way missionaries in the United States in 1991, their efforts focused on helping revitalise parish life and participation. ‘First we went to the US,’ says Joao. ‘We were sent personally by John Paul II.’ He offers a lyrical description of their efforts ‘both for the baptised and for people who once belonged to the Church and are far away. If the Church is a hospital for those who need to be healed and cared by Jesus Christ, the Neocatechumenal Way could be an “emergency room” in the heart of the Church.
‘We live here as a normal Christian family,’ he adds, ‘helping where it’s needed, working, with the kids in school. We have no plans, no programme, no regular financial support from anyone. We trust God will guide us.’
He and Ana have nine children and their youngest three – Martin (19), Catarina (16), and Vicente (13) – are here with them in Liverpool, studying at King’s Leadership Academy, where Ana is a governor, and the City of Liverpool College. ‘We are regularly in the parish, helping with what’s needed, such as Baptismal preparation. The children serve as altar boys and help with the music at Mass on Saturdays. Also they help the Sisters of Charity in the city centre.’
Life has been an adventure for this one-time Law student at the University of Lisbon, who is now a professional artist. ‘In America we lived in Newark, New Jersey and in Houston, Texas. I had small jobs in construction, moving furniture, even in a fruit market, until I established myself just as an artist.’
A specialist in religious icons, he explains: ‘I’ve painted more than 700 icons in my life. They’re in churches and private homes in several countries, mainly America and Portugal.’ Born close to the shrine of Fatima, Joao cites this as one reason for his fascination with icons: ‘The message of Fatima is very associated to Russia in the sense of praying for its conversion and consecration.’ Another is a love of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland, prompted by St Pope John Paul II. ‘The statues and representational paintings we see normally in our churches appeal more to our immediate senses, whereas icons appeal more to our reason. We have to stop, look carefully and contemplate.’
His latest commission is for St Charles parish – an altarpiece for the Our Lady of Walsingham chapel depicting the Annunciation and the Wedding Feast of Cana. ‘In Lisbon I had an amazing studio in an 18th-century building,’ he continues. ‘Right now I just have a very small corner in my own home. I can’t afford to rent somewhere. I’ve been looking for two years for a space to paint and display my art in exchange of me providing paintings as “rent” but have had no success yet. Hopefully God will provide me a studio some day.’