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Charismatic priests battle Catholic flight

05 June 2013, 13:00

Sao Paulo - In a scene out of a pop music concert, mass at Sao Paulo's huge Mae de Deus (Mother of God) church features spirited singing, dancing and shouting led by priests of Brazil's rising Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement.

About 6 000 faithful are seated and thousands more are standing, all waiting for the master of ceremonies and face of the movement - 46-year-old rock star Catholic priest Marcelo Rossi.

With his broad smile and movie-actor good looks, the 1.90m former gymnast and his musicians warm up the crowd.

Every Thursday evening and Sunday morning, Rossi says mass in this cavernous, 20 000-seat sanctuary inaugurated late last year and which can accommodate an overflow crowd of up to 100 000.

His appeal contrasts with a decades-long exodus from the Catholic Church by Brazilians, many of them lured by booming Protestant evangelical churches.

Brazil, which will welcome Pope Francis in late July for a major Catholic youth fest, remains the world's largest Catholic country.

Working hard to stem erosion

But the proportion of those identifying themselves as Catholics has plummeted from almost 92% of the population in 1970 to a mere 64.6% in 2010.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Protestant evangelicals has soared from 15.4% in 2000 to 22.2% in 2010.

Sao Paulo-born Rossi, who was ordained in 1994, is working hard to stem the erosion of the faith.

"Father Marcelo is charismatic and humble. You come once and you keep on coming," said 72-year-old Olga Ribeiro, who has been following him for the past six years.

"It's a modern, dynamic mass. I had stopped going to church because I was bored," said 58-year-old Luis Fernando Camentori.

In the middle of the service, lights go off and candles are lit. Many of the faithful burst into tears.

500 000 copies sold within a month

"God will turn your pain into joy," Rossi tells the delirious crowd.

The wildly popular Rossi has already sold millions of records and books. He has his own radio and television programmes, has made movies and is very active on Twitter.

He has just criss-crossed the country to promote his latest book Kairos. In less than a month, 500 000 copies were already sold.

"The Church in Brazil has been in crisis since the 1990s with the decline of leftist liberation theology, and its churches are becoming empty," said Magali Cunha, a theology professor at Sao Paulo Methodist University.

"Charismatic groups are calling on the Church to renew itself to win back the faithful by following the Pentecostal model," she added.

Initially known as "Catholic Pentecostalism", Catholic Charismatic Renewal began making inroads in Brazil in the 1970s and grew into a diverse movement that the Catholic hierarchy monitors from a distance.

Arsenal of gimmicks

While it has so far failed to stop Brazil's Catholic exodus, "without this type of spirituality, the Catholic Church would have lost even more members", said Edin Abumansur, head of the religion sciences department at Sao Paulo Catholic University.

And Catholic Charismatic Renewal is resorting to an arsenal of gimmicks to lure followers, including raw emotionalism, masses for cures, blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith.

The movement says it has one million members but points out that another nine million people take part in its activities through spiritual retreats or seminars.

"Today, there is mass in the sanctuary. Don't forget your candle. If you cannot make it, follow us on our website. God bless you," wrote Rossi on his Twitter account.

"The world has changed" and social media is "very important", he told AFP in an e-mail interview.

In frank language, Rossi conveys his message during mass, focusing on crime without mentioning the country's social problems.

Rossi to sing for pope

"One should not mix religion and politics. The Church does not belong to any political party," he said.

For years, the Catholic hierarchy kept the Charismatic movement at bay. Now it is lending support, although it has some concerns about its autonomy.

"The Church tolerates rather than accepts these movements. They attract a lot of people, so what can it do?" said Abumansur.

In 2007, Rossi was not allowed to sing for then pope Benedict XVI. Six years later, he will be able to do so for Pope Francis during World Youth Day in July.



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