RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil’s Roman Catholic faithful are hoping to get a boost from the visit by the charismatic Pope Francis this week.
Brazil is the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, but it is less Catholic than it has ever been. According to a recent poll, 57% of Brazilians identify themselves as Catholics, and just 16% say they go to weekly Mass.
Evangelical Christians are making strong inroads. In the impoverished Rio de Janeiro slum of Varginha, the Catholic Sao Jeronimo Chapel, which is expecting a visit from Pope Francis, stood empty most of Sunday afternoon. Just a few doors down, however, the Rosa de Saron Evangelical Congregation Church was packed all day with singing, dancing and enraptured faithful.
"We've taken faith in Jesus and helped to transform prostitutes and drug dealers here into people of God," said the church’s 33-year-old pastor, Leo Magalhaes, who was wearing beach sandals and a black T-shirt.
He said some locals prefer evangelical churches because they offer a direct connection to God.
"We give all of the glory and faith to Jesus, not any man," he said.
Critics accuse some evangelical leaders of treating religion like an investment and getting rich off donations to the church. Some tell their flocks that God will bless them with material rewards – that is, money – for their good works and financial contributions.
In a widely shared video, evangelical pastor Marco Feliciano, head of Brazil's Human Rights Commission, is seen criticizing a worshiper for apparently failing to provide the Assembly of God church with the PIN code to his bank card.[Link in Portuguese]
"Now he's going to ask God for a miracle, and God won't give it to him," Feliciano says in the video.
The video caused a media storm. Feliciano's website later published an interview with the worshiper, in which the man says that he surrendered the bank card in a symbolic gesture, so God would bless his finances. It worked, he says. Now he makes a lot more money.
Leonardo Boff, a former Catholic priest who is one of Brazil's leading proponents of liberation theology, said the proliferation of religious practices is not surprising. He said spiritual culture in Brazil is the product of numerous traditions, including African religious practices, and has always been flexible.
"The Brazilian people are very religious, I'd even say mystical," Boff said. "But they are pragmatic instead of doctrinaire. If they feel welcome and feel that a message speaks to their immediate needs, they start to participate in these [evangelical] churches."
It may be no coincidence that Pope Francis, who is known for his humility, is aligning himself with the poor. This is the segment of the population among whom the Roman Catholic Church has lost the most influence in Brazil over the last few decades .
If the throngs of cheering faithful who turned out for Francis's arrival Monday are any indication, he may be making a good start.
Bevins is a special correspondent.