Brazil's Priests Use Song and Dance To Stem Catholic Church's Decline

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page A01

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Pack 15,000 bodies shoulder to shoulder in a vast old warehouse, get them singing as loud as their lungs will allow and feel the temperature rise.

"How many people are sweating?"

As the Rev. Marcelo Rossi stands before a shimmering expanse of upraised hands, working up the crowd, a droplet of perspiration cuts a shining rivulet behind his left ear and trickles toward his clerical collar.

"Sweating is good," he announces. "It gets the bad things out. Now put your hands over your hearts and join me: Let's get rid of envy, of greed. . . ."

If Rossi sounds more like an exercise instructor than a Roman Catholic priest, it's probably because he used to be one. That was before Pope John Paul II visited Brazil in 1997 and met with Rossi and other young priests, urging them to find ways to reverse the erosion of Catholicism in a country where evangelical Protestantism is threatening its centuries-old dominance.

"He told us to wake up, that we needed to do something to get more young people involved in the church," Rossi said, just before his five-piece rock and gospel band heralded the start of his Thursday night service. "So I made a promise that from then on I would use all the tools I had available: television, radio, movies, the Internet. Everything."

Brazil is home to more Catholics than any country in the world. But if the evangelical Christian movement continues to spread at the pace it has in recent years, statistics suggest that by 2022 Catholics will be a minority in a country that was about 90 percent Catholic in 1980.

Taking a cue from the evangelicals, Rossi has become the most visible of a growing number of Brazilian priests who retain the core beliefs espoused by the Vatican, but who spread them in an informal style aimed at connecting with the country's lower and middle classes.

At any mall in this sprawling metropolis, a shopper might find videotapes of Rossi's "Aerobics of the Lord" services or his feature film, "Mary, Mother of the Son of God," the fourth-highest-grossing Brazilian movie of 2004. At a music store, one can flip through the albums that have earned Rossi multiple Latin Grammy nominations. At a magazine stand, any issue of Caras -- the equivalent of People magazine -- is likely to feature his picture.

The charismatic Catholic movement has been active in Brazil for years, but Rossi and others are pushing it into the mainstream. Today, the up-tempo Mass can be found in churches far more buttoned-down than Rossi's, where some solidly traditional priests have begun offering periodic charismatic services. In the process, they have learned to be more expressive with their hands and voices, to sing modern gospel songs instead of classic chants and recitations, and to avoid wincing when applause breaks out.

"The charismatic movement is now being institutionalized, just in the past two years or so," said Antonio Flavio Pierucci, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo. "The bishops now support it. They have found they can point to it as an alternative to those who want the church to be more politically liberal and leftist."

The historic dominance of Catholicism in Brazil means it has always been entwined with politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, liberation theology took root here. Its core tenet was that church leaders should be social activists, helping people "liberate" themselves from poverty and oppression -- even if that also meant fighting against political systems they believed were at the root of poverty.

Liberation theologians called this idea a "preferential option" for the poor, aimed at disturbing the complacency of the affluent. John Paul, however, did not like the movement's Marxist overtones. The pope censured some of its more controversial leaders and the movement faded, although it still has adherents in the church.

For priests who came of age when liberation theology dominated religious discussion in Brazil, the charismatic movement is troubling not for its lack of formality but for what they see as a shift of focus from social to individual problems. The Rev. Julio Lancelotti, a priest who works in a home for children with HIV and AIDS, lamented what he views as an evangelical emphasis on the individual as a means of attracting the poor.

"The church became like the evangelicals, focusing on individuals instead of collective society," Lancelotti said. "But that's because in the past the church decided to give the preferential option to the poor, and the poor took the option and chose the evangelicals."

When most Brazilians say "evangelicals," they are referring to a variety of Protestant churches including Baptists, Pentecostals, the Assembly of God and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Throughout many of Sao Paulo's poorer neighborhoods, where abandoned industrial buildings are tattooed by graffiti and surrounded by patchwork fences, newly built evangelical churches rise from the ruins in walls of mirrored glass.

Sometimes, the churches have expanded faster than their surroundings allow, requiring creative solutions. At the Agua Branca Baptist Church, the congregation outgrew its rented brick facility, so it bought a giant blue-and-white-striped tent from a circus, big enough to accommodate the crowds of 1,500 it attracts most Sundays. Some of those who attend come from extremely poor neighborhoods, called favelas, where both evangelicals and Catholics have sought to make inroads.

Alexandre Ferreira, 21, rose at 3 a.m. last Wednesday and began pushing a two-wheeled cart through the streets, loading it with scraps of newspaper and whatever else he might be able to sell to a recycling company. At 2 p.m. he returned to the favela for a few hours of sleep. Then at 6:30, his white shirt stained and wrinkled, he arrived at Agua Branca, which means white water.

Four nights a week, Ferreira sits in a classroom with 15 other adults, learning to read and write. Like the vast majority of Brazilians, he was born and nominally raised as a Catholic, but he came to the Baptist church when a neighbor told him about its free literacy programs.

"I'd like to get a better job and I'm not choosy. Any job would be better," said Ferreira, who said he was never able to keep up in school because his family could not afford to rent a home and moved from place to place.

Getting people like Ferreira to visit the church regularly has helped the Baptist church grow steadily in Brazil, even though the newcomers might not formally join the church and perhaps turned to it initially only as a way to better themselves.

"I think we are closer to the needs of the people," said Ed Rene Kivitz, the pastor of Agua Branca, comparing his church to the Catholic tradition. "We try to talk in a contemporary language and make a connection between the spiritual life and real life. Here, we don't talk about God in heaven. We talk about God on Earth."

It's that kind of practical dialogue that the Rev. Euclydes Pizzamiglio, a Catholic priest at the Santo Antonio Church in a residential section of the city, has been trying to incorporate into his services. His church looks nothing like Rossi's stripped-down warehouse or the brightly lit, simply decorated worship halls of the evangelists. There are angels in the architecture, gold-leaf doors, stained glass and a Gothic tabernacle. Candles and dim lights flicker amid the shadows.

Pizzamiglio places himself on the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum, and he is clearly uncomfortable with the looser ecclesiastical style. But every fourth Sunday, Pizzamiglio keys up his usually restrained Mass for a more emotional service. It wasn't his idea; the congregation requested it.

Pizzamiglio clearly isn't eager to completely embrace the charismatic movement. Once, he recounted, some of the fourth-Sunday attendees wanted to institute "spirit baptisms," but a bishop intervened, reminding members of the congregation that they had already been baptized once.

Still, Pizzamiglio acknowledges that the turnout for his charismatic services is always a bit larger than the crowds for traditional Mass. So, on those Sundays, he moves his body a little more, speaks a little more informally and sings along with the other voices.

"It's not a big adjustment," he said. "In the same way I alter the Mass for children on Saturdays, I alter it a little on the fourth Sunday of the month."