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Brazil Readies For Pope Whose Mission Is Change

Visit aims to curtail liberation theology, growth of Evangelicals

By Julia MichaelsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 1991



SAO PAULO, BRAZIL

POPE John Paul II arrives Saturday in Brazil for a 10-day visit with the world's largest Roman Catholic populace. The Pope himself initiated this visit with the intent of making a significant impact on Brazilian Catholics, church officials say.As the agent of widespread change in the Brazilian Catholic Church during the last 10 years, the Pope, who will arrive on the feast day of Brazil's patron saint, is expected to push for transformation within the church to surmount challenges that lie ahead. Those challenges center on how the church can meet the needs of Brazil's growing number of poor, while boosting the church's rate of growth. On the question of helping the poor, the Pope is seeking a shift in emphasis. During the last two decades, many Catholic clerics here have - contrary to Vatican wishes - adopted "liberation theology," which typically uses Bible teachings as a foundation from which to preach for social and economic change. Clerics have, for example, organized rural squatter settlements to push land reform and encouraged factory workers to mobilize for better pay and work conditions. Liberation theology also has leftist ties. Some clerics are self-avowed Marxists who campaigned hard for the leftist Workers Party during the last presidential election. During his visits to 10 Brazilian cities, the Pope is expected to emphasize an orientation that concentrates on an individual's inner needs, say priests and others. His speeches are likely to focus on preaching the gospel and advocating the clerical vocation with the aim of meeting needs as well as bolstering church growth. "The excessive concentration on liberation theology ... led the church to lose its chance to deal with individuals, with things such as identity crises, psychological depression, family crises, fears, phobias, sin, and guilt complexes," says the Rev. Caio Fabio D'Araujo Filho, a Presbyterian minister and president of the Rio de Janeiro-based Brazilian Evangelical Association, one of Brazil's fastest-growing churches.

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Evangelical opportunity Into that gap have moved the Evangelical churches, whose dramatic growth now embraces an estimated 18 percent (about 26 million) of the the country's 140 million people, compared with 7 percent of the population a decade ago. During this period, the Catholic Church was unable to attract adherents fast enough to keep up with population growth. According to the National Bishops Conference, Brazil had one priest per 9,379 inhabitants in 1980, and, 10 years later, one priest for 10,591 inhabitants. "They left a big space for those who were [addressing individual needs]: the Evangelicals and the Kardec spiritists," Mr. D'Araujo Filho adds, referring to the movement founded in France by Allan Kardec, which espouses reincarnation as a prime tenet. To bring the Brazillian church more into line with the Vatican, the Pope has, in the past decade, appointed politically conservative bishops in Brazil. In 1988, the Vatican broke up the Sao Paulo archdiocese, once the world's largest at 14.5 million adherents, into five parts. The effect was to reduce the influence of Cardinal Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, a champion of human rights during the nation's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The Vatican also has censured liberation theologians and suggested changes in seminary faculties and curricula. "What the Church does not want is Marxist analysis, and some liberation theologists used this," says the Rev. Fernando Jose Cardoso, a Sao Paulo professor who backs the Vatican plan. Evangelical growth in Brazil is also attributed, in part, to those churches' ability to tap into what Fr. Cardoso calls the "fertile ground" of the poor, many of whom are looking to religion for help with health, employment, and housing problems. Among Brazil's roughly 26 million Evangelicals, about 70 percent are from Pentacostal denominations that include the Brazil for Christ church and the Assembly of God church. The other 30 percent (roughly 6 million people) belong to Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and other churches.

Modernizing the church Some Catholics complain their church has not kept up to date, with parishes still relying on mimeograph machines, for example, to get their word out instead of TV or radio, as Evangelicals do. "The church continues using rural language for an urban population," says the Rev. Fernando Altemeyer, a priest who works on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. "We talk about lost sheep and the good shepherd, when the only kind of shepherds we have here are German Shepherds - dogs to guard houses against burglars." While attempting to move the clergy away from liberation theology, the Vatican has expressed concern about the growing poor. The Pope will visit a 140,000-resident shantytown and is likely to push the government on land reform. He is also expected to address pollution and the depopulation of indigenous peoples. Finally, the Pope will put forward his well-known conservative stance on abortion and divorce. The Vatican reportedly created some discomfort by informing Brazil's Foreign Ministry that President Fernando Collor de Mello and his second wife Rosane may not take communion in a mass officiated by the Pope.