Brazilian renewal
A group of faithful pray during a Mass celebrated by the popular Charismatic priest Father Marcelo Rossi in this file photo from 2007. Newscom

As Brazil prepares to host World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, noted Vatican analyst Sandro Magister has drawn attention to the rare phenomenon of a “Charismatic” Catholic priest: Father Marcelo Rossi, the chart-topping musician whose concerts fill more stadiums than any rock star. 

Father Rossi, from the Diocese of Santo Amaro in the state of Sao Paulo, is an unusual combination of Catholic doctrinal orthodoxy and secular showmanship. He is also the emblem of one of the best-kept secrets of Brazilian Catholicism: the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.

Movement’s history

Most Church historians in Brazil agree that two American priests, Jesuit Father Harold Rahm and Father Edward Dougherty, started Catholic Charismatic communities in Brazil during the early 1970s, at a time when liberation theology and its controversial “ecclesial base communities” (CEBs) were becoming the flagship of the country’s post-Vatican II Church. 

At that time, Brazilian bishops embraced the “base communities” and their Marxist-influenced message of political change, but paid little attention to Catholic Charismatic groups. By the mid-1980s, however, the bishops could no longer ignore the Charismatics’ momentum and growth. 

Rafael Tavares, editor of the Brazilian Catholic news agency ACI Digital, told Our Sunday Visitor that the scrutiny brought on “probably the hardest days for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal” in Brazil. 

At that time, indeed, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who left the priesthood and the Church in the 1990s, derided the renewal as “an emotional drug aimed at making Christians feel good despite their lack of commitment to the poor.” 

But the Catholic Charismatic movement took hold among poor Brazilians, prompting Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, then archbishop of Sao Paulo and a champion of the CEBs and liberation theology, to back down from the possibility of banning its activities. He did, however, establish norms and limitations to try to prevent its growth and influence. 

“To be fair, some Catholic Charismatic Renewal communities had a ‘Pentecostal’ flavor in their identity and expressions that were in need of serious corrections” Tavares said. “But what the ‘ecclesial base communities’ were doing liturgically, and teaching theologically, was much worse.” 

Divergent tracks

By 1992, the base communities had become more of a liability than an asset to the local Church, as many of their leaders joined in leftist politics and engaged in open defiance of Pope John Paul II’s teachings. 

On September of that year, former champion of liberation theology, Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, criticized the base communities in an open letter that detailed their moral and theological faults, as well as their failure to evangelize or produce religious vocations. 

The Charismatic Renewal, meanwhile, was heading in the opposite direction. Cardinal Lorscheider’s letter also marked a turning point in its relationship with the Brazilian bishops. 

In 1994 the Brazilian episcopate wrote a pastoral letter addressing the role of the Charismatic Renewal. For the first time, the bishops acknowledged the gifts it brought to the Church. Though filled with warnings and regulations, the letter also announced the appointment of a bishop who would serve as a “spiritual advisor” and liaison to the movement’s national committee. 

But the most important gain for Brazil’s Catholic Charismatics came when Bishop Claudio Hummes, then known for his progressive leanings, became archbishop of Fortaleza, in the poor state of Ceara. 

He relied heavily on the Charismatics in his attempts to improve the state of the local Church. The bet paid off: In two years, Fortaleza showed signs of revival and a growth in priestly vocations. And in 1998, Archbishop Hummes was appointed archbishop of Sao Paulo and elevated to cardinal in 2001. 

The movement’s fortunes underwent a complete reversal: Cardinal Hummes regularly presided over massive Charismatic praise and worship events at the largest local stadium, before he was chosen for a Vatican post in 2006 and retired in 2010. 

New charisms

Today, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal’s spiritual adviser is Archbishop Alberto Taveira Correa of Belém do Para. He leads a fast-growing seminary and works in close collaboration with the Charismatics and other ecclesial movements. 

At present, Charismatic Catholicism is present in all 27 Brazilian states and has coordination offices in 285 dioceses. According to the latest data, there are 21,800 prayer groups, averaging 30 to 50 people. 

“The mere numbers are misleading,” said Renzo Valdettaro, a local church analyst. “The greatest impact of the Charismatic Renewal has been its capacity to inspire multiple ministries, new charisms and spiritual communities — and, paradoxically, far more effective social services than liberation theologians.” 

One of its most important fruits is the “Shalom” community, an association of the faithful recently approved by the Vatican. “It was via the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, with its intense call to prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, sacramental life and fidelity to Church authorities, that Shalom became a reality,” Shalom founder Moysés de Azevedo told OSV. The community has 17,000 members, 11 priests and 46 seminarians. 

Father Marcelo Rossi, the music star, is not a formal member of the Charismatic Renewal. His 150,000-plus followers, who show up every Sunday at a former warehouse turned temple in Santo Amaro, call themselves members of the “Terço Bizantino” (Byzantine Rosary). Their connection to the Charismatics, however, is undeniable. 

Father Rossi was on a national tour when OSV tried to reach him, but an assistant pointed to an interview he gave two years ago to Andrea Galli, a noted Brazilian journalist. 

“When I rediscovered my Catholic faith, it was during a period in which the Church (in Brazil) was submerged in partisan politics, under the influence of the theology of liberation … which ended up leaving a huge void,” Father Rossi told Galli. “I had just lost a beloved relative and I was desperately looking to hear the Word of God, but all I heard at church was politics. An experience with the Charismatics showed me immediately what God wanted me to do.” 

“My calling is to spark among Brazilians the love for the Church, the Eucharist and Mary, all devotions downplayed by (Liberation Theology) and undermined by Evangelical groups,” he added. 

According to Tavares, the Church in Brazil has reached a significant point of maturity, and “many spiritual families and communities have contributed to this moment.” 

“But it would be a historical injustice to deny that the Charismatic Renewal, especially at the height of liberation theology, was crucial in keeping and promoting the Eucharistic and Marian devotion that has strengthened marriage and promoted many priestly vocations,” he said. “And certainly, they will play a major role in paving the way for World Youth Day 2013.” 

Alejandro Bermudez is editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency and ACI Prensa.