Brazil Catholics await new pope amid challenges

Rio de Janiero - Brazil, home to the world's biggest Roman Catholic population, will be closely watching developments as cardinals prepare to elect a new Pope next week. But the Catholic Church faces huge challenges in Brazil, as BBC Brasil's Julia Carneiro reports.

Few places in Brazil are a greater reflection of the devotion of the country's Catholics than the town of Aparecida half way between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The town boasts the world's second largest basilica after St Peter's in Rome, built to honour Brazil's national saint, Our Lady of Aparecida.

This huge red brick structure is visible from miles around, and attracts 11 million pilgrims each year.

The parking spaces outside the building are packed with buses and cars that bring the faithful for religious services that begin every two hours.

Some of the worshippers approach the altar on their knees in an act of devotion.

There is no sign of crisis in Aparecida, but the Catholic Church in Brazil has seen a steady decline in the numbers professing the Catholic faith over the past 30 years.

As cardinals meet in Rome to select a new Pope, worshippers in Aparecida think a Brazilian pope would help to revitalise the Church both nationally and in neighbouring countries.

"We are rooting for a Brazilian Pope," said Cristina Soares, who came to attend Mass at Aparecida. "If he is not, may God do the best for us Brazilians."


This hope has gained strength as Cardinal Odilo Scherer, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, is increasingly mentioned as a strong contender for the papacy.

He would satisfy those who call for a Pope from the developing world, but within Brazil he is viewed as conservative for his stance against homosexuality and abortion.

After celebrating a last Sunday Mass before leaving for Rome to attend the conclave of cardinals, the Archbishop of Aparecida, Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis, reflected on the way forward.

"The Catholic Church is the strongest church in Brazil, but we have to update the message for the people of the present," he said.

"The Church in Latin America is constantly reaching out and renewing itself. Europe seems to have settled down and stagnated a bit."

Pope Benedict XVI visited Brazil, including Aparecida, but he did not attract the same crowds as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

In the Vidigal favela in Rio de Janeiro, older residents have fond memories of John Paul II's visit in 1980.

He is credited with saving the shantytown - perched on a hilltop overlooking the sea, with the Christ the Redeemer statue visible in the distance - from being demolished.

"I hope the next Pope follows in John Paul's style, the Pope who was closest to us and had the courage come to a favela," says Paulo Roberto Muniz.

He was 25 years old at the time and today helps take care of the small, tin-roofed chapel built for the Pope's visit.

"There is no use in saying that you are a man of the people. You have to come and get your feet dirty, like he did," he says.

No connection

But just a few houses away from the chapel, Maria Gerlaide shows little interest in the election of the next Pope.

Ms Gerlaide is one of the many lapsed Catholics in this community.

Here numerous simple buildings have popped up between homes to serve as places of worship.

Ms Gerlaide and her entire family now attends an evangelical Church.

"The pastors are much closer to the people," she said. "They talk to you, they are approachable, they spread the word, explain what we're reading. They show you things you don't see in the Catholic Church."

Evangelical churches are growing in strength in Brazil. The Victory in Christ Church, for instance, was founded 12 years ago, and today runs 120 ministries.

Its main place of worship is in Vila da Penha, a working class neighbourhood in the north of Rio de Janeiro.

At a recent late night Sunday service, the church was so full that an overflow room offered latecomers the option to watch along on television screens.

Silas Malafaia, a controversial pastor who presides over the congregation, believes the Catholic Church is losing ground for a combination of reasons, including what he describes as an antiquated preaching style and a weak connection to the faithful.

"There is a lack of commitment to the faith and no incentive to live the gospel outside the church," Mr Malafaia said.

Mr Malafaia, who preaches against homosexual marriage and abortion, estimates the evangelical population will surpass the number of Catholics within the next two decades.

Faith and laughter

But there is also a new generation of Brazilian Catholics intent on paving the way for a more promising future for their Church.

And they hope World Youth Day, scheduled to be held in Rio in July, will be a galvanising event as it will be one of the first foreign trips for the new Pope.

"We have always had strong youth groups, but now with this special moment coming up, the Catholic Church is even more focused on approaching the youth," says Fabio Alexandre Borges, who co-ordinates a youth group in Rio's Archdiocese.

Mr Borges and his friend Cristiano Martins developed a stand-up comedy routine to teach the stories of the Bible while making people laugh.

"Today the world offers us a wide array of information and we can't fall behind," says Mr Martins.

"People can be Catholic and still be listening to music, make jokes, have fun. We don't need to be so serious."