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Pop go priests


YOUTH CONNECT: New-age Catholic priests in Brazil like (clockwise from above) Father Marcelo Rossi, Fabio de Melo and Raginaldo Monzetti are connecting with the young through foot-tapping music, TV shows and social media

If the next Pope's from Brazil, it may help the world's biggest Catholic country check the church's decline. But a bunch of priests, who look like models and preach like rockstars, are already bringing people back into the fold.

From his appearance, Fabio de Melo can't be anything but someone famous. A Diesel watch sparkles on his left wrist. His neatly cut hair has golden streaks. A guitar is never far from his hands, and so are the fans who go hysterical the moment he gets appears on stage, singing songs of love and hope in his soft voice. But, he is not just a singer. Fabio de Melo is also a bestselling author chased by autograph-hunters at airport lounges across Brazil. Actually, this singer-writer with Hollywood looks and rockstar-like following is a Catholic priest who holds a Masters in theological anthropology. The 37-year-old preacher with the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a rage in Brazil - the world's biggest Catholic country.

In July, this South American country will host the first international event for the new Pope - the soon-to-beelected successor of Benedict XVI, when the leader of the world's 1. 2 billion Catholics arrives in Rio de Janeiro to address the church's World Youth Day. With the big event on their own soil and a huge vacancy in the Vatican, the Brazilian media is asking some obvious questions. "Why not a Pope from the Third World?" said the Istoe magazine. "A Brazilian Pope?" was the headline in Epoca, another big magazine. They are providing answers too: More than 42% of the world's Catholics live in Latin America;so, if the church wants to grow more in this part of the world, it should get a younger pontiff from here. That sounds like a reasonable demand.

But there is a problem. The Catholic church here is not growing;it's on the decline. Ask a man on the street about the cardinals who are front-runners for the Vatican job - Odilo Pedro Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Joao Braz de Aviz, the former archbishop of Brasilia - and you may get a blank look. Many people complain that the church is stuck in the past. "It did not enter modernity and is not comfortable with the digital world, " says Franciscan friar and writer Frei Betto.

But priests like Fabio de Melo are fighting the negative trend by making people sway to gospel music, and it seems to be working. In 2008, his album 'Life' sold 542, 000 CDs in 100 days. He became the biggest music sensation in the country. Known as a "pop priest", De Melo never gets clicked with his hands in prayer position. "It's corny, " he says. Of course, he is not very popular with the Catholic establishment.
Brazil still has more Catholics than any other country, with about 65% of its 200 million people identifying themselves that way in the 2010 census. But that figure was 74% in 2000;it was 90% in the 1970s. In the 1990s, when the country was being ravaged by daily inflation, the evangelical churches entered the poor areas by offering nuts-and-bolts self-help advice through television.

Alarm bells began to ring when surveys suggested that the new Pentecostals have a huge following among the young. It was then that Father Marcelo Rossi, 45, decided to fight back. The Sao Paulo-based Rossi devised new ways - often mimicking the evangelists - of conducting mass. Since the late 1990s, his masses have looked like pop concerts, with people dancing and crying to his foot-tapping gospel. Rossi has recorded CDs, hosted radio and TV programmes and even appeared in movies with religious themes to renew the Catholic church. His CDs have sold in the millions and earned him a Latin Grammy too. This priest, who once organised a mass for some two million people on the Formula One track here, has now opened a huge sanctuary, Mother of God, which can accommodate 20, 000 people. At the inaugural mass last Friday which attracted 50, 000 people, Rossi was smiling: "That's a sign we're on the right path. "

But the church establishment isn't convinced. In 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI came to Brazil on a tour largely aimed at stopping losses in Latin America, Rossi was steered away from the Pope. When asked to comment on Rossi's style, Cardinal Scherer of S?o Paulo, probably the next pope, once said: "Priests aren't showmen. The mass is not to be transformed into a show".

But that's exactly what the evangelicals have done to lure people away from the Catholic fold. "The Catholic Church is like an ocean liner, it takes a lot to change the route even slightly, due to the size of its bureaucratic structure. But evangelicals are like small boats, " says Cesar Romero Jacob, a Rio-based political scientist.

But the pop priests too are behaving like small boats, moving against the tide. Aware that the church hasn't lost its people only to the evangelists, but also to secularism, new age faiths and eastern philosophies like Buddhism, some of the "pop priests" have transformed themselves into self-help gurus. Raginaldo Monzetti, a Catholic priest whose latest book Wounds of the Soul is selling like hot cakes, uses TV, radio, podcasts, Twitter and Facebook to address emotional issues faced by people, especially the young. "It's very easy to talk with these priests. They speak our language, understand our problems and offer practical solutions, " says Cate Fernandes, 19, who religiously follows Fabio, Rossi and Monzetti on social media.

The "pop priests" may not be in the good books of the church, but few would deny that they are arresting its slide. History seems to be repeating itself in Brazil, where Liberation Theologists, the leftist priests who worked with the poor and took the church closer to the people, came under attack from the conservatives a few decades back. Says American historian Kenneth Serbin, the author of Dialogues in the Shadows, "In the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil created Liberation Theology and led the international church. That leadership doesn't exist any more. "

Brazil may or may not get the next Pope, but the Catholic church here can't revive itself without the priests who can record the gospel with guitars and drums and post it on YouTube.

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