In Rapid Flux, Brazil Is Test of Catholicism's Future ; Church Tries Competing with Evangelicals to Keep People from Leaving Faith

By Romero, Simon | International Herald Tribune, February 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Rapid Flux, Brazil Is Test of Catholicism's Future ; Church Tries Competing with Evangelicals to Keep People from Leaving Faith


Romero, Simon, International Herald Tribune


If there is any place that captures the challenges facing Catholicism around the world it is Brazil, the country with the world's largest number of Catholics.

At one new megachurch in Sao Paulo, a Roman Catholic priest who was a personal trainer before joining the clergy energetically belts out songs, rock-star style, before 25,000 worshipers. Other Brazilian priests are donning cowboy hats and crooning country tunes at Mass or writing best-selling advice books emblazoned with heartthrob photographs on the cover.

If there is any place that captures the challenges facing Catholicism around the world it is Brazil, the country with the world's largest number of Catholics and a laboratory of sorts for the church's strategies for luring followers back into the fold.

Reflecting the shifting religious landscape that Pope Benedict XVI's successor will contend with, Brazil rivals the United States as the nation with the most Pentecostals, as a Catholic monolith gives way in the face of a surge in evangelical Protestant churches.

Despite the iconic statue of Christ that towers over this city, there is deep anxiety among some Catholics about the future of their faith, given rising secularization and indifference to religion here. Only 65 percent of Brazilians now say they are Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970, according to the 2010 census. The decline has been so steep and continuous, especially here in Rio de Janeiro, that one of Brazil's top Catholic leaders, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, has remarked, "We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?"

Before Benedict announced that he would vacate the papacy at the end of the month, he had been expected to visit Rio in July for World Youth Day, a gathering of millions aimed at bolstering new generations of Catholics. Many of Brazil's faithful were hoping that the trip would represent a new focus by the Vatican on the double- barreled threat of evangelical competition and growing secularism.

Some in Rio hold out hope that the new pope could still visit the city early in his papacy, and are even encouraged that two Brazilians, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and Odilio Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo, are among those mentioned as possible candidates to succeed Benedict. But others seem resigned to what they describe as a combination of neglect and condescension from the Vatican.

"I think they're going to maintain the same line of Benedict," said Silvia Fernandes, a sociologist at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro who specializes in Catholicism.

Ms. Fernandes said that big schisms persisted within the church in Brazil, between bishops in the Amazon who are focused on human rights, illegal deforestation and indigenous struggles, and the more conservative and traditional Catholic leadership in relatively prosperous southeastern Brazil.

Then there is the array of singing priests who belong to what is called Brazil's Charismatic Catholic Renovation, a movement seeking to invigorate Catholic services with the kind of liveliness that parishioners often find at other churches. They have been embraced by the Vatican, but only to a point.

The most famous among them, Father Marcelo Rossi, a 45-year-old former personal trainer, has sold more than 12 million CDs and has celebrated Mass in a soccer stadium filled with tens of thousands of worshipers. Still, he complained about feeling "humiliated" during Benedict's visit to Brazil in 2007 when Catholic leaders prevented him from even getting close to the pope.

In an extension of the charismatic practices, some Catholic priests now perform "liberation Masses" resembling group exorcisms and welcome congregants who speak in tongues. While such aspects may be frowned upon by some in the Roman Catholic establishment, the charismatic movement has clearly struck a chord among many worshipers.

"Through this movement, many people are finding themselves again inside the church," said Almir Belarmino, 53, a technician at a sewage treatment company who was one of 1,200 people attending a retreat in Rio over the Carnival holiday for people in the charismatic movement. …

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