• Pope Francis to visit favela indicative of Catholicism on the wane in Brazil

    The Guardian reports:

    Tour comes amid division over how to stem flow of believers, particularly from poor communities, towards evangelism

    When Pope Francis returns to his home continent on Monday as the first Latin American pontiff, the world’s attention is likely to focus on the adoration of more than a million worshippers expected at a giant open-air mass on Copacobana beach.

    But it is during a lower-key visit to a small favela community on Thursday in the north of Rio de Janeiro that he will address the biggest threat to the pre-eminence of the Catholic church in the region: the exodus of believers to US-style evangelical preachers.

    Varginha is a favela of 2,500 residents which was once so notorious for violence that is was nicknamed the Gaza Strip. Although it has now been “pacified” by heavily armed police, the drug dealers never left and gang graffiti are still daubed on the walls.

    Along with visits to a prison and a drug rehabilitation centre, this area has been included in Francis’s week-long trip to Brazil to highlight the new pope’s emphasis on working with poor communities.

    Amid a wave of protests in Brazil at social inequality and poor public services, locals say this is a timely shift in style from his bookish and seemingly aloof predecessor, Pope Benedict.

    “He is coming here to see the reality in Brazil,” said Everaldo Oliveira, who is organising the welcome reception at the San Jerónimo Emiliani chapel, a simple space of eight rows of pews and a wooden altar with a cross and two candles.

    Part of that reality, however, is that Catholicism is on the wane. The weekly Catholic mass at the chapel attracts about 70 people. But there are four Pentecostal halls, which draw growing crowds. Oliveira says a once staunchly Catholic community is now divided 50/50.

    This is part of a wider trend. Though Brazil is the most populous Catholic country in the world, and Latin America accounts for 40% of the church’s believers, the pre-eminence of the Vatican is slipping.

    In the 1980s, nearly 90% of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic. Today, however, census data suggests only 65% do so, while 22% describe themselves as evangelical, and 10% say they are not religious.

    The Pentecostalists are gaining so much ground that Brazil will soon rival the US as the most Protestant nation on Earth, and the number of followers could overtake those of the Catholic church by 2030.

    They are increasingly visible, active and influential. In São Paulo, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has spent £130m on the construction of a 10,000-seat replica of Solomon’s temple. The country’s second biggest broadcaster is run by Pentecostal church groups. In the capital, Brasilia, last month, televangelist Silas Malafaia gathered 40,000 followers outside the Congress building to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. A short time later, 2 million people shut down much of São Paulo during a “March for Jesus” organised by Pastor Estevam Hernandes of the Reborn in Christ Church.

    This has translated into political clout. In last year’s congressional elections, evangelical parties increased their seats by 50%. President Dilma Rousseff is now so reliant on them for support that the Workers party head has had to appoint several arch-conservative evangelicals to prominent political positions. Among them is Marco Feliciano, who heads the legislative body’s human rights committee even though he is accused of homophobia and racism.

    Support is strongest in poor communities like Varginha, where the evangelical “theology of prosperity” promises rewards in the here and now, which has a strong appeal compared with a Catholic emphasis on life after death.

    Paulo Raimundo, of the Varginha residents’ association, says the preachers have a particularly strong appeal among the young, who are seeking an escape from violence, drugs and inequality.

    “When people want to leave drug trafficking, they turn to evangelism. Their approach is more flexible and popular, while the Catholic church seems very traditional,” he says.

    Local Catholics claim their religion is as strong as ever. “The only people who converted were not religious in the first place. The evangelicals offer them short-term rewards,” says Oliveira.

    But several young Catholic priests are emulating the animated preaching and media-savvy style of the evangelicals by adding music, dance and audience participation to their services. One member of this so-called Charismatic Catholic Renewal movement, Marcelo Rossi, attracts 25,000 worshippers to mass and has put out million-selling DVDs.

    The Vatican has reacted with a mix of encouragement and caution. On the one hand, Rome has been glad to see more bottoms on pews in once half-empty churches. But it has also warned priests against overstepping the line in their efforts to find a more upbeat, Latin style of worship.

    World Youth Day crossPeople carry the World Youth Day cross on their way to a Mass at Sugar Loaf mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

    The cardinals in Rome have also given mixed signals on how to address inequality and other social issues. While many Latin American priests have advocated a push into poor communities and greater defence of human rights and indigenous groups, the church’s traditionalists – including the last pope – have accused this “liberation theology” movement of flirting with Marxism.

    Catholics in Varginha hope Francis can heal these divisions by focusing more on the poor and stripping away the ostentatious trappings of the Vatican.

    Shirleis Curato, a lay member of the Catholic congregation, said she hoped the papal visit would see a swing in the pendulum. “I think the pope will encourage people to come back to Catholicism. I’m hoping we will have to build a new church.”

    The chapel’s priest, Marcio Queiroz, said: “The theme of this visit is youth. We will tell the story of Christ’s suffering in a way that makes it relevant to young people who face difficulties today. It will be a message of solidarity.”

    But the difference may prove one of style rather than substance. Nobody expects Francis to declare a more liberal approach on issues such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, though there is wide acknowledgement that the conservative Catholic line on sex has driven many young people from the church.

    A Datafolha survey in March found 58% of Brazilians believe the church should allow divorce and 83% support the use of condoms – two issues that evangelical churches say followers can decide for themselves.

    Padre Jesus Hortal, from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says Pope Francis – an Argentinian who worked in the slums of Buenos Aires – offers a clearer view of the struggles of the poor. But while the papal visit may provide a short-term fillip to the Catholic church in Brazil, he cautioned that the long-term decline in the number of believers is likely to continue because urbanisation and consumerism are driving more people to evangelicalism and secularisation.

    Those who have already made the shift from Catholicism say they will be curious onlookers during the pope’s visit to Varginha.

    Outside the Assembly of God pentecostal hall – which Francis will pass – all the worshippers over 30 said they had been raised Catholics and had converted.

    “It’s hard to say why I changed,” said Eva Reis, there with her 15-year-old son, Sanderson – one of a generation increasingly growing up in the evangelical tradition. “But we welcome the pope’s visit here. It’s good for our community and nice for our Catholic friends. We’ll wave as he passes.”

    Category: ChurchDemographics of religionReligion and Society


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce