|Society & Culture|
|Wednesday, 26 October 2011 18:00|
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Padre Marcelo is Rome's secret weapon
by Mac Margolis
Such is the life of Marcelo MendonÃ§a Rossi, the 44-year-old priest from SÃ£o Paulo who has become Latin America's, and one of the Roman Catholic world's, leading evangelists. Famed for the rollicking masses he celebrated in the late 90s, where multitudes swayed, chanted and swooned to songs set to pop music scores and aerobics, Rossi has been reborn as Brazil's hottest new author. His debut title, Ãgape, an easy-reading self-help riff on St. John's gospel, has flown off the shelves since it was launched last August. Rossi's publisher, Editora Globo, knew they'd struck gold signing Rossi - even an autographed napkin by Brazil's star preacher would be a winner - and boldly projected sales of a million copies by mid 2011. But the spirit moves in wondrous ways. Rossi's Sunday sermons and broadcast prayathons spread the word. A network of bookshops, hypermarkets, and Avon ladies did the rest. By late October, sales had tipped the 5 million mark, shattering all national records.
Â It was no different in SÃ£o GonÃ§alo, where two dozen security guards, a medical team, and roving booksellers were deployed to tend the crowds as they poured off city buses into a roped off parking lot outside the mall, where some had slept. "I get butterflies in my stomach when I see this," says Rossi, as his black Toyota Corolla edged up to the mall, where the lines coiled around the block. The most ardent fans waited up to 13 hours or more for a chance to see him, calling in sick at the office, cutting class and enlisting baby sitters for the promise of a glimpse and a blessing from the pop holy man. One was Rita de Cassia, 50, who sells handbags door to door. "This morning when I left home I told my husband, âHoney, today, I belong to Padre Marcelo. And I don't know when I'm going to be home'," she laughed.
Rossi burst into religious life in the late nineties, when the Roman Catholic Church was bleeding souls in a war of attrition against galloping secularism and aggressive Protestant Evangelicals sects. Pentecostal Christians were sweeping Latin America, where fast talking pastors hung their shingles in storefronts prayer halls, culling the broken and bewildered. Census takers reported that the number of professed Catholics plunged from 89 percent of the population in 1980 to 73 percent by 2000, possibly falling further in the decade since. During the same period evangelical Protestants doubled their flock, from 8 to 16 percent of the population. At this pace, some scholars predicted, the world's largest Catholic congregation would be half Protestant by mid 21st century. At the same time, faithlessness had spiked, with the number of Brazilians professing no religion at all doubling to 9 million by the mid 2000s. Rome's strongest fortress was under siege.
As the congregation thinned, the bishops huddled. Liberation Theology, a grassroots offshoot of Catholicism that mingled Marxism and Franciscan asceticism, was in retreat, most evidently in Latin America. Barefoot priests and guitar-strumming Christian activists had turned the church into an important bunker of resistance during the era of military dictatorship but they lost their cachet when democracy returned in the 1980s and 90s. The Brazil's National Conference of Bishops cleaned house, purging the hierarchy of its prominent "red bishops". But no one doubted that Catholicism needed a shot in the arm. Enter Padre Marcelo.