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Changing Lifestyles : A Wave of Religious Revival Splits Brazil : Evangelical worship has taken hold in the most populous Catholic nation. A spirited church movement fights back.

July 06, 1993|MAC MARGOLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO — A woman in jeans and large horn-rimmed glasses brandishes a microphone and rises from the marble steps before the altar. "Who knows that Jesus loves you?"

Murmurs of "Amen" ripple through the packed pews, and a thousand index fingers sprout toward heaven like a righteous forest. On cue, a matronly woman with white hair leans into her Yamaha electric piano. Two electric guitars and a bass kick in a sotto voce backbeat, and suddenly the cavernous church trembles with sweet, amplified gospel music. Soon, the congregation is on its feet, swaying like wheat in the wind.

It might have been a revival in the American Bible Belt, or the run-up to a Billy Graham crusade. But the venue was the stately Nossa Senhora de Copacabana church, one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in Brazil, which has the most Catholics of any nation--about 140 million.

This was a routine Monday night prayer meeting of charismatic Catholics, a small but spirited movement inspired by the Catholic "renewal" in North America. Weary of the staid fare of traditional worship, more and more churchgoers are turning to these charismatics. Rough estimates say they number between 4 million and 5 million in Brazil, and perhaps that many again in the rest of Latin America. Followers say the movement is still growing.

To traditionalist clergy, all this swooning for God borders on indecorum. Worship, they say, is a serious business that calls for reflection and discretion, not magic and merriment. To others, however, this is joyful noise.

Behind the debate is a spiritual brooding that has been roiling Brazil for some time. While the clergy deny any aim to compete, they make no secret of their joy that the rousing charismatics have revived a flagging cause. And none too soon.

It is not only that collection plates are bare and Sunday Mass plays to half-empty churches. Evangelical Protestants, particularly the Pentecostalists, have rolled over this country, and much of Latin America, like a tidal wave. Their temples, which range from storefront churches to virtual stadiums, are sprouting all over a map that once was the undisputed domain of the Vatican.

In Brazil's first detailed religious census, a Rio de Janeiro theological institute found that five new evangelical churches are founded every week in this city of 9 million. Roughly 90% of these are Pentecostalist. Rubem Cesar Fernandes, an anthropologist at the Institute for Religious Studies in Rio, calls this "the most important ideological involvement in Brazil in decades."

The biggest church of all, the Universal Kingdom of God, run by multimillionaire Edir Macedo, has spread like a fast-food franchise. "Bishop" Macedo, as he is known by his followers, is wanted in Brazil on a series of charges ranging from fraud to charlatanism, and for allegedly violating Brazil's "white-collar crimes" law by illegally using his church to leverage funds to buy out a major televsion network, TV Record. Macedo, who lives in New York, is busy evangelizing in reverse. He recently opened four churches in New York and plans another in Moscow.

Pastor Caio Fabio d'Araujo Filho, head of the Brazilian evangelical association, reckons that 35 million to 40 million people attend evangelical churches on a given weekend. The Worldwide Evangelization Crusade calculates that evangelical membership has also burgeoned, although more modestly, throughout the region, growing by 7% to 9% annually in recent years in Peru, Mexico and Bolivia.

Now, Catholics are on the defensive and bitterly divided over their decline. Some senior bishops blame the left wing of the church for polluting the faith with partisan politics. They charge that liberation theology, the doctrine that championed the poor and the hungry, remade religion into a matter of serving up daily bread but little food for the spirit.

To others, the conservative church crushed the initiative of the "progressives" wherever they reared up. The theologian Leonardo Boff, a leading voice of liberation theology, quit the Franciscan order last year after repeated censures from Rome. The Catholic Church is being ruined by "a clerical dictatorship," Boff said recently.

A favorite bogy for all sides, meddling by foreign missionaries, will not serve anymore. Latin evangelicals were once thought to be agents of Yankee imperialism, especially in war-torn Central America. However, the latest generation of Pentecostalist pastors is Brazilian born and bred, and proud of it. "There are still 3,000 missionaries in Brazil," said D'Araujo, "and we could do without 2,700 of them."

Catholic authorities play down their "rivals," who they believe do not have the staying power of the Roman church, but they are clearly worried about the hemorrhage of souls. "There is a faith crisis in the Catholic Church," says Father Edward Dougherty, a Jesuit priest who has worked for 26 years in Brazil. "The Catholic Church is behind the times."

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