A huge country – the largest in South America, there is a great variety of religions in Brazil from all the influences that have built this nation over the centuries. But the most important of all is naturally the Christian religion, and more particularly Catholicism, imported in the sixteenth century by Portuguese settlers.
When, in the first half of the sixteenth century, Portuguese sailors put their boots on the shores of the eastern coast of South America, (which was still not called Brazil) they brought missionaries with them to evangelize the indigenous population. Colonization and the Jesuits established the Catholic religion throughout the territory, although they were soon ousted by the crown who feared the growing power of this ambitious congregation.
The Catholic religion in Brazil
The largest Catholic country in the world
The Portuguese crown long associated religion with its personal dominion, until the separation of church and state in 1891, when the Vatican instituted a reorganization of the church and clergy. During this time they emphasized the ordination of priests and multiplied ecclesiastical structures in the country. Nevertheless, because of its exceptional size and dense population, Brazil has in a few centuries become the largest Catholic country in the world.
Until the eighties, more than 80% of the Brazilian population claimed to be Catholic, according to the studies of the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics). Nearly 130 million faithful, about 15% of the world’s Catholicism! It is important to bear in mind however, that the religious practice of millions of “Catholics” was simultaneously occurring alongside other Brazilian religions such as local syncretism or evangelical religions, both of which flourished especially in more recent decades.
The last IBGE census in 2010 reported just over 60% of the population claiming the Catholic religion. This reduction is due to the growing practice of other forms of Christian religions (spiritualism, televangelism, Pentecostalism, others) as well as to a certain disinterest of the younger populations. Despite this, Brazil is still a country under strong Catholic influence, at all ages.
Causes of disaffection
Statistics show a higher proportion of practitioners in the countryside than in the cities. With the gradual migration of people from agrarian areas to urban centers, this proportion is naturally decreasing. In these more urban areas, Catholic vehemence diminishes as we reach the outlying districts, peripheries which multiply with the increase of the urban population. In addition, the low socio-cultural level of these neighborhoods opens a vast boulevard to televangelists of all sorts with colorful speeches, more attractive than the traditional liturgy professed in churches.
A certain demographic often turns away from the precepts issued by the clergy: young, urban women who fought for their freedoms, and who associate less and less with the strict Catholic religion. The growing middle class is recorded as being the least Catholic. Once again, despite these facts, one cannot dispute the reality that Brazil remains an eminently Catholic country by nature.
Brazilians are very fervent in their beliefs. Religion obviously does not escape this state of affairs and extends its presence in all parts of society. The crucifix is present in all public places, and politicians find it hard to proclaim their faith. According to a study by the IBGE, six out of ten Brazilians would not vote for an atheist candidate. Nevertheless, the Catholic population has fallen sharply in recent years, dipping below the 70% threshold in 2010.
The church at the service of the needy
Over the years, the Catholic Church emerged as a defender of the poor and oppressed, and tried to fight against the great injustices that are an indisputable characteristic of Brazil. This movement took on particular importance in the years of dictatorship, from 1964 to 1985. The Prophetic Church denounced social and political injustices, thanks in particular to Dominican fathers, like Xavier Plassat or Henri Burin des Roziers who became the active lawyers of the most deprived who were expelled from their lands. This essentially put them at war with the wealthy landowners. Henri Burin des Roziers succeeded in bringing – and winning – lawsuits against some of these owners. Since then, the Youth Ministry established by the Conference of Bishops (CNBB ) followed this same social and prophetic way.
The Basic Ecclesial Communities were also created for the same humanitarian purpose. They abide by the strict principles of the Christian religion, by first and foremost helping the poor. These communities are guided by the quote from Saint John: “He who says he loves God, but who does not love his brother is a liar.” They live to build an evangelical fraternity closer to reality. Archbishop Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife in the years of dictatorship, was one of its most famous representatives, and became angry with the bourgeoisie and moved from his episcopal palace to a modest house in his city’s favelas to be closer to the concerns of the poor. The arrival of John Paul II to the Vatican hindered this kind of practice.
The fact remains, however, that the church in Brazil is rich, working with local television and radio stations with the avowed purpose of stemming the fierce competition from televangelists. The practice of Catholicism remains very strong in Brazil, evidenced by immense popular gatherings such as the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Aparecida, the feast of the Holy Spirit ( Festa do Divino Espírito Santo the Círio ) or the Círio de Nossa Senhora of Nazaré in Belém which brings together more than two million people! Pope Benedict XVI chose Brazil for the 5th Great Latin American Episcopate Conference in 2007, and the city of Rio de Janeiro was selected for World Youth Days held in July 2013. Two additional testimonies of the paramount importance of Brazil in the Catholic world.