RIO DE JANEIRO — At one new megachurch in São Paulo, a Roman Catholic priest who was a personal trainer before joining the clergy energetically belts out songs, rock-star style, before 25,000 worshipers. Other Brazilian priests are donning cowboy hats and crooning country tunes at Mass or writing best-selling advice tomes emblazoned with heartthrob photographs on the cover.
If there is any place that captures the challenges facing Catholicism around the world it is Brazil, the country with the largest number of Catholics and a laboratory of sorts for the church’s strategies for luring followers back into the fold.
Reflecting the shifting religious landscape that Pope Benedict XVI’s successor will contend with, Brazil rivals the United States as the nation with the most Pentecostals, as a Catholic monolith gives way amid a surge in evangelical Protestant churches.
Despite the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that towers over this city, there is deep anxiety among some Catholics about the future of their faith, given rising secularization and indifference to religion here. Only 65 percent of Brazilians now say they are Catholic, down from more than 90 percent in 1970, according to the 2010 census. The decline has been so steep and continuous, especially in Rio de Janeiro, that one of Brazil’s top Catholic leaders, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, has remarked, “We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?”
Before Benedict announced that he would vacate the papacy at the end of the month, he had been expected to visit Rio in July for World Youth Day, a gathering of millions aimed at bolstering new generations of Catholics. Many of Brazil’s faithful were hoping that the trip would represent a new focus by the Vatican on the double-barreled threat of evangelical competition and growing secularism.
Some here hold out hope that the new pope could still visit Rio early in his papacy, and they are even encouraged that two Brazilians, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz and Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo, are among those mentioned as possible candidates to succeed Benedict. But others seem resigned to what they describe as a combination of neglect and condescension from the Vatican.
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By Simon Romero
Taylor Barnes contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro; Jill Langlois from São Paulo, Brazil; and Laurie Goodstein from New York.
Originally published in The New York Times on February 15, 2013.