SÃO PAULO – It still needs a few finishing touches, but the 42-meter cross has already arrived, the stage with the altar and the image of Mary above it has been set up. And the people are arriving in dribs and drabs, kneeling in the 6,000 square meters of this oasis of peace on the southern edge of the Brazilian metropolis. This is the shrine of the Theotokos or Mãe de Deus, inaugurated last December after almost five years of work. An arena capable of holding up to one hundred thousand people, an immense space with no pillars and covered by a roof designed by the architect Ruy Ohtake.
It is the largest Catholic church in Brazil and on the entire continent of South America. It is the tangible sign of the success that accompanies the priest who conceived and constructed it, collecting donations and investing the proceeds of his recordings and writings: Father Marcelo Rossi, 44, six feet four inches tall, with an athlete’s body and a gentle face.
Father Marcelo is the leading figure of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Brazil, the one who was able to bring three million people to the racetrack in São Paulo in 2008, in a gathering characterized by music and prayer that saw the participation of Ivete Sangalo, Claudia Leite, and other pop music stars of the country. From 1998 until now, twelve of his albums have gone platinum, an award for recordings that sell over a million copies. His latest book, “Ágape,” was far and away the best seller of 2011, reaching sales figures attained in the past only by Paolo Coelho.
This charismatic son, in the literal sense, of a middle class São Paulo couple, distanced himself from the Church in his adolescence, dedicating himself to sports and obtaining a degree in physical education. At the age of 21, shaken by a series of family tragedies and meditating on the vanity of life, he returned to the sacraments, heard the call to the priesthood, entered the seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1994. He immediately stood out for his homilies, for his ability to involve the faithful and hold the stage in his parish in the diocese of Santo Amaro. He came to the forefront on the occasion of a meeting he organized entitled “I am happy to be Catholic,” in which 70,000 people participated. From that point it was a crescendo. In 1998, he debuted as a singer and recorded “Music to praise the Lord,” which sold four million copies, immediately followed by the album “A gift for Jesus.”
In 1999, the faithful who flocked to the gathering “Saudade yes, sadness no” were 600,000 in number. In 2000, he released ‘”Songs for a new millennium,” and in 2001, “Peace,” with songs by Roberto Carlos. In 2002, Bishop Antonio Figueiredo, the one who had encouraged and protected him in his unconventional apostolate, appointed him rector of the Terço Bizantino shrine. In 2003, in addition to releasing yet another CD, Father Marcelo shot his first film, “Mary, mother of God,” which took Brazil’s movie theaters by storm and came in seventh at the box office. The next year he made another film, “Brothers in faith,” while his new internet portal was flooded with visitors. Then the stunning performance at the Interlagos racetrack in 2008, from which two DVDs were made that were also commercial triumphs.
Understanding the reasons for such success is not a futile exercise, because it also means understanding what was stirring in the depths of Brazilian Catholicism starting in the 1990′s.
“When I rediscovered the faith,” Father Marcelo said in an interview, “it was a period in which the Church was immersed in political questions, because of the influence of liberation theology. A form of theology that certainly had a positive role during the dictatorship, but that has left a void. I had lost one of my cousins, and I was looking for the word of God, but when I went to church they were talking about politics. From that moment, I understood what I had to do.” Which meant returning to the essential, proclaiming the Gospel using the means of communication, in particular music, the greatest and most widely shared conduit of emotions and words in the daily life of the people. Using it to meet the thirst for God and reawaken love for the Church, for Mary, for the Eucharist, worn away by the proselytism of Pentecostal groups and factions.
The result of that intuition is now before the eyes of all, and has made Father Marcelo a figure as problematic for the hierarchy as he is loved by the Catholic people. Problematic for the hierarchy, but not only for them. It is no coincidence that in 2007, during the visit of Benedict XVI, in the great clearing of Campo de Marte in São Paulo, he was brought to the stage very early in the morning, to avoid creating embarrassment or bad blood. To see a priest who galvanizes the crowd by singing and dancing, although with decorum, is a spectacle still unpalatable to many.
And the liturgical liberties that Father Marcelo takes, not only in the selection of music for the celebration, go well beyond the “Roman canon.” On the other hand, those who were dreaming of an ecclesial renewal founded on base communities and the “preferential option for the poor” can’t get over how a multitude of all the social classes – including indigents and representatives of the urban subproletariate – flock to the call of a priest who speaks “only” of spiritual things, of the love of God, of the forgiveness of sins, of the joy that Christianity gives amid the hardships and injustices of life.
Not only that. Father Marcelo is also a priest who recalls the importance of faithfully following the magisterium, of knowing and defending Catholic doctrine. And who, as he has stated recently, feels more at ease with the spiritual children of Escrivà de Balaguer than with those still attached to the utopias of the Boff brothers. In 2005, at the synod of bishops on the Eucharist at the Vatican, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of São Paulo at the time, addressed the assembly in these words: “In Brazil, the Catholics decrease by an average of 1 percent a year. In 1991, Brazilian Catholics were about 83 percent, and now, according to new studies, they are only 67 percent. We ask ourselves in distress: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country? Today for every Catholic priest there are two Protestant pastors, most of them of the Pentecostal Churches.” The Brazilian episcopal conferences knows about the risks inherent in a pastoral approach that can easily drift into sentimentalism, that risks imitating the approach of the evangelicals, but it is aware that the experience of Father Marcelo Rossi is of crucial importance, because it is the first large-scale reaction to an erosion of Catholicism of historic proportions.
And the athletic priest who has set up a structure in service of the new evangelization that is made up of thousands of collaborators, who has single-handedly created a large platform for himself on “Globo,” the country’s main television network, is no longer alone, on the contrary. In his footsteps have arisen other priest-singer-writers with large followings, like Sacred Heart Father Fábio de Melo, or Hewaldo Trevisan, also a priest in São Paulo, or Reginaldo Manzotti. All of them in their forties, of appealing presence and inspired speech. All of them, or nearly all, curiously, of Italian origin.
Used by permission of Chiesa. Copyright 2012. Translated by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A. Originally published in Italian by Avvenire.