Aid Director Tells of a Church Witnessing 700% Growth in Vocations
When thousands of pilgrim youth descend on Brazil in 2013 for World Youth Day, they will find a Church in the midst of renewal, despite momentous challenges.
José Correa, director of the Brazilian office of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, spoke with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN), in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about what is happening in the Church in Brazil today.
Q: What makes Brazilian Catholicism unique?
Correa: Indeed the faith in Brazil is expressed in a unique form, partly because the Brazilian people are composed in its majority by three main components: the European immigrants who came from Portugal and Italy, mostly from the Mediterranean part of Europe; secondly by Africans who were brought to Brazil as slaves to work in sugarcane and coffee plantations, and finally by the local Indians who were living in the country. Contrary to what happened in the United States where mixing was not as common, in Brazil these three peoples intermarried a lot, forming the Brazilian people of today. We must also add to this mix the Arab as well as Japanese immigrants -- Brazil has the biggest Lebanese community outside of Lebanon and the biggest Japanese one outside of Japan. The result is a very mixed population.
The population is generally a joyous one, very musical, outpouring their feelings in an effusive way. This is also shown in our liturgy. Masses for instance, are very lively, very musical -- full of joy and song. It is amazing when you go to the most miserable part of our big cities, what we call the favelas, the slums, there is utter misery but you find people singing our national music, samba, you find happy people. It is hard to find something similar elsewhere in the world.
Q: How do you see this reflected in the growth of vocations?
Correa: Vocations are increasing in Brazil. Growth was higher a few years ago, less now, but the growth continues, by 1%, 2%, 3% every year. For you to have an idea, 30 years ago we had around 900 seminarians in the whole country. Now we have over 9,000 seminarians. And, in some dioceses the seminaries are full, also while being stricter in the selection of seminarians because there are more candidates. For instance in the city of São Paulo, where I live, this year there were 55 candidates and they cut them down to 15 to enter into the seminary of that city.
Q: Pope John Paul II asked that theChurch in Brazil try and find new ways of communicating the Gospel. What did he mean by that this how did it then respond?
Correa: Yes, the Holy Father asked this of the Church in Brazil because a great part of our population has not been properly evangelized. Brazil is still a majority Catholic country -- although the numbers are declining year by year mostly because of the intense media work of new Pentecostal sects -- but the majority of Catholics have not been evangelized properly. Most do not even go to church, and do not frequent the sacraments. That is why the Pope encouraged the Church to be more creative in preaching to the un-churched Catholics. The Church has answered this challenge. For instance they renewed the so-called popular missions, a form of evangelization that already existed in Brazil but only on a small scale. Now it is practiced throughout the country.
Q: What is this exactly?
Correa: Specialized preachers go from city to city preparing special spiritual exercises with lively preaching, processions, pilgrimages, and meetings for young people, very lively, and very active. And people love that; the results have been excellent. Together with this there is distribution of catechism, the formation of catechetical classes, conferences for couples, and all sorts of other initiatives that relate to these popular missions.
Q: Another way of reaching the population is a more intensive use of the media ...
Correa: Yes. Brazil now has four national Catholic networks and we have more than 200 Catholic radio stations. The use of secular media by Church personnel has also increased. For instance, the radio program with the biggest morning audiences is a talk show by the well known priest Father Marcelo Rossi. Finally another way of evangelizing young people is through the lay movements of the church: There are many new movements founded in Brazil itself, some of them are local, others are regional and national. Some of them, like Shalom, the Work of Mary or the Alliance of Mercy, are enormous -- attracting dozens of thousands of young people all over the country.
Q: There is a Brazilian expression that says: "The hunger met the appetite." Could one say that the Catholic Church through the new phenomenon of singing priests has met this love of music in Brazil?
Correa: Yes, there are several singing priests who are very popular especially with young people. Father Marcello Rossi from São Paulo was the first one to become a national star and in a certain way he and others like him became a sort of social phenomenon in Brazil. His records often top the bestseller lists, his latest book Agape has already sold more than 5 million copies in Brazil. Father Fabio Melo also attracts enormous masses of people to his Masses and Catholic musical shows.
Q: What kind of numbers are we talking about?
Correa: We are talking of some 30,000 to 40,000 people at each of Father Marcelo's weekend Masses. Some 60,000 people attend Masses and preaching at a growing youth movement called Cancao Nova -- a movement of young people, dedicated to evangelize through Catholic music near São Paulo. This movement also has its own national TV network and an extensive radio network.
Q: Despite these phenomenal figures and extraordinary stories, there is a challenge confronting the Catholic Church -- a challenge coming from the new personality-based churches. Can you tell us a bit about this challenge?
Correa: Yes, there is a very serious problem. In Brazil you have a majority of Catholics: 67% according to the latest figures. A majority of them are non-practicing. The number of practicing Catholics is not known, but is certainly below 10%. The number of Protestants belonging to traditional confessions (Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.) is very small and does not grow. Then, there is a minority of Pentecostal Evangelicals, mostly belonging to new churches founded in Brazil that are growing enormously. They are eating up this big middle ground of non-practicing, un-churched Catholics. The experts in religion define several of these new churches as personality-based sects.
Q: They are not the mainline churches?
Correa: No not at all. I am not talking about mainline Protestant churches, which are serious churches. I am talking about opportunistic people that start a church from scratch, trying mostly to make some money out of it. They are very materialistic. Actually, the government is suing some of them after several recent financial scandals.
Q: I want to come back a little bit more to the question of vocations. How is the Catholic Church structurally in a position to correspond to this flowering of faith?
Correa: Well the Church is trying to answer to this challenge as best as it can, investing especially in the training of new priests, of nuns and lay people. I think that one of the best answers of the Church has been the new movements. I am particularly enthusiastic about the role of these new movements in the future of the Church in Brazil. I think they are exerting already a very positive influence and I think that their influence is going to grow in the future.
Q: Aid to the Church in Need has done a lot of work particularly in construction, and re-construction of seminaries. Why has there been such a weight given to this construction?
Correa: It is because of the growth in the number of seminarians. As I mentioned earlier, the growth has been in the order of a 700% increase in the number of seminarians in Brazil over the last decades. The old edifices are not fit anymore to hold the greater number of young men looking to the priesthood.
Q: José, we see the growth in the Catholic Church, we also see the challenges, what is the future of faith and the Catholic Church in Brazil?
Correa: Despite the considerable challenges, and I have not spoken about the other challenges such as poverty and education, I am optimistic about the future. I can feel that the grace of God is there touching our people and I think that once more, as it has happened in many other countries, the grace of God will overcome the evils that we find in society.