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Brazil and the pope: an uneasy embrace

May 08, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The pop-idol priest strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating in this cavernous ex-factory that serves as a church.

"Hold the hand of Jesus!" Father Marcelo Rossi, a dynamic giant in a red cassock and billowing white sleeves, proclaims into the cordless mike, urging the faithful to hold hands. "God is tops! God is tops!"

Rossi is the kind of priest who just might be able to save the Roman Catholic Church here. Brazil has more believers than any other country, but the church has been steadily losing members to evangelical denominations.

Rossi is also just the kind of priest that Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives here Wednesday, is likely to frown upon.

Benedict is making his first papal trip to the Americas, home to half the planet's Catholics, and will face a church replete with competing visions of how to retain the faithful and win back those who have left. The five-day Brazil visit also will serve as an important test of whether a pope seen as a rigid, Europe-focused intellectual, who stresses traditional dogma over creative worship, can reach and influence today's Latin America.

He has scolded the region's church in the past, most notably over leftist liberation theology, which emphasizes political activism in the fight for justice for the poor. Catholics here, from bishops gathering to meet with the pontiff to the tens of thousands of worshipers who will crowd around him, are eager to see what direction he will take: Will he embrace the diversity, or will he end up alienating a hopeful but disoriented flock?

For many here, including Rossi, the greatest challenge to Catholicism is the flashy, feel-good magnetism of the Pentecostals and other Protestant evangelical groups, and the best response is to borrow from the competition. Rossi, 39, packs the Sanctuary of the Byzantine Rosary every week. Legions of supporters, especially among the poor, have made his Masses a televised hit.

On his makeshift altar, a poster of a smiling "Bento XVI" looks down as Rossi gyrates and urges enthusiastic worshipers into a hug fest of songs, candles, blessings and tears.

"I was away from the church for 35 years, and Padre Marcelo brought me back," said Maria dos Santos, 59, one of more than 5,000 who came to see the famous priest's service on a recent evening.

Outside, vendors hawked "Padre Marcelo" CDs, writings and calendars featuring the priest pictured alongside Christ and the Virgin Mary. Rossi says proceeds from the sales of the CDs go to his parish and Catholic charities.

Ground has been broken on a new chapel that will hold 25,000 people inside and 75,000 outside. Rossi's website allows online interaction: Followers can send in questions, ask for prayers and make donations.

Rossi's Mass employs traditional prayers and rituals, but otherwise the scene is reminiscent of a Southern revival meeting. At the service's boisterous conclusion, Rossi uses a bucket to douse worshipers with holy water.

Eroding membership

He is part of a small but bulging movement of "charismatic" Catholics that has emerged as the traditional church has floundered, losing an estimated 1% of its membership annually in recent decades.

Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former archbishop of Sao Paulo and now a senior Vatican official, says Brazil's Catholic community shrank from 83% of the country's population in 1991 to 67% in 2005. There is one Catholic priest for every two Protestant ministers, he says.

"How long will Latin America remain a Catholic continent?" Hummes asked. He was speaking in late 2005 during a synod of bishops in Rome. A few days later, the Vatican announced Benedict's plans to travel to Brazil, home to 124 million Catholics.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal, as the movement is known here, is only one aspect of a Catholic evangelical drive that proponents believe is halting the exodus from the church.

The charismatic movement has "filled a gap in the church, stressing Catholics' spiritual needs and talking straight to their hearts about a God of love and mercy," said Antonio Miguel Kater Filho, founder of the Brazilian Institute of Catholic Marketing, a private research group that consults with the church.

Raves, discos and priests speaking in what they describe as the voices of angels form part of the movement, which arrived in Brazil after the birth of charismatic Catholicism in the United States in the late 1960s. Charismatic groups now flourish in venues such as Sao Paulo's Pontifical Catholic University, a sprawling campus full of middle-class Catholic youth alienated by traditional services and the Vatican's strictures on premarital sex and artificial birth control.

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