By Rafael Tavares, ACN Brazil
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Both the results of the last census conducted by the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 and the recent research work of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), renowned in the field of Brazilian history and sociology, have indicated a fall in the number of Catholics. These facts compiled on the religious profile of the nation with the most Catholics in the world have also surprised many. Even so, the dynamic life and work of the Catholic Church in Brazil tell a story which the figures ignore.
According to the data in the IBGE study “the percentage of Catholics fell at the same rate as in the last two decades, although they are still the largest religious community.” The “New Map of Religions” drawn up under the FGV economic scientist Marcelo Néri shows that the proportion of Catholics in relation to the population as a whole declined from 73.8% in 2003 to 68.4% in 2009, in other words a loss of 5.4 percentage points. At the same time the proportion of evangelical Christians increased from 17.9% in 2003 to 20.2%. Another figure, however, is particularly striking: the group “with no religion” (atheists and agnostics) grew from 5.1% of the Brazilian population in 2003 to 6.7% in 2009. According to the FGV study these are the lowest numbers of Catholics ever recorded in Brazil. Even so the country is, with its more than 123 million faithful, the nation with the most Catholics in the world.
According to the most recent studies the Catholic Church is losing followers among young people in particular. This could be a cause for concern since the next World Youth Day is to take place in Brazil – a meeting between the Holy Father and the world’s youth which is held every two or three years in a different country each time. On the last occasion more than two million young people gathered in Madrid, Spain.
The figure could give rise to a certain degree of pessimism. But if we take a closer look at the life of the Catholic Church over the past 25 years we find an encouraging and highly promising panorama, which is certainly connected with the “spring of John Paul II”.
Fast growing Charismatic Communities
During the last two Popes’ period of office movements related to the Catholic Church in Brazil and in particular to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal have grown in numbers and presence in the Brazilian dioceses. They have even spread to other countries.
Two of the fastest growing Charismatic Communities in the Church have emerged in Brazil: the Canción Nueva (“New Song”) Community and the Shalom Community. Both were recently granted papal approval. They are highly successful in getting through to young people. They promote prayer groups, a greater commitment on the part of Catholics and calls to the priesthood and religious orders. Furthermore they perform a broad apostolate in the media. The Canción Nueva Community operates one of the largest Catholic television stations in the world. It reaches thousands of homes, including by radio and the internet.
Rodrigo Luiz, missionary of the Canción Nueva Community and active in the communications department of the television station run by the Community, said in an interview with the North American Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor that the recent figures and statistics regarding the Church do not take account of the vitality of Brazilian Catholics, especially young Catholics. His Community has more than 1,200 missionaries, most of them under 30 years of age. They organise trips and days of contemplation in which hundreds of thousands of young people from the whole of Brazil take part.
“In contrast to other, traditionally Catholic countries in Europe the churches (in Brazil) are full of young people. The young people have become increasingly dynamic and they are discovering possibilities for integrating into the Catholic family and belonging to it,” Rodrigo stressed.
Founded by the Brazilian consecrated layperson Moysés de Azevedo, the Shalom Community has more than 4,000 missionaries in Brazil, some of whom take a vow of celibacy. They live in small communities dedicated to the new evangelization. In a single event, the Festival Halleluya held in Fortaleza (CE) in 2012, the Shalom Community brought a million people together. The majority of them were under 25 years of age.
A lively influence on culture
A further sign of a vital and powerful church is the record number of pilgrims at the Shrine of Our Lady in Aparecida, the world’s largest Marian Shrine: in 2012 a total of 11,114,639 visitors came here. This exceeded the number of pilgrims in 2011, when this Marian Shrine had 10,900,000 visitors.
Finally the Church exerts a lively influence on culture. The book which sold more than 5 million copies and thus became the best seller of all times in Brazil was written by the Catholic priest Marcelo Rossi, a cleric from the diocese of Santo Amaro in the State of São Paulo.
In an interview with the American broadcasting network Fox News Father Marcelo recently stated that the construction of the new Theotokos sanctuary, which will be one of the country’s largest Catholic churches, was by no means to be seen as a kind of reaction to the “migration” of Catholics to other religious communities. In another interview Father Rossi stated that his experience with young people was quite different to the picture given by the figures which FGV put forward: “The number of young people visiting the pilgrimage site is growing,” the priest told the Catholic news agency ACI Digital. “You only need to attend one of the Holy Masses.”
Father Márcio Queiroz, head of the communication department in the World Youth Day 2013 local organising committee, also claimed that his experience was in stark contrast to the figures recently published.
“Yes, a lot of young people are disappointed by the Church. But the number of young people who are now beginning to live the Catholic faith is really growing,” Father Queiroz said to the Sunday Visitor.
“Our greatest hope,” Father Queiroz continued, “is that the Pope’s visit will lead to a situation where many ‘statistical Catholics’ will, through their involvement in the new movements, communities and parishes, become Catholics of the heart again.”
“Many Catholics who, according to the statistics, have left the Church did so because they were never truly Catholic,” the Brazilian priest concluded.