Brazil’s pop star priest leading change in Catholic Church

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — He’s had a No. 1 record, won a Latin Grammy and now has a hit movie — all aimed at revitalizing the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil.

He is the Rev. Marcelo Rossi, Brazil’s pop star priest, a leader of the Brazilian church’s efforts to bolster its waning appeal in the world’s largest Catholic country.

“The majority of Catholics are estranged from the church. So — this was the promise I made to the pope — I promised to use all means of communication available to bring them back to the Church,” Rossi said.

Rossi’s latest foray into mass media evangelism is a Portuguese-language feature film, “Mary, Mother of the Son of God.”

The film tells the story of Mary, with Rossi as parish priest recounting the role of Jesus’ mother in biblical events to a little girl in Brazil’s poor northeast; the child imagines her townspeople as scriptural characters (Rossi is also the angel Gabriel).

The movie has been seen by 2.5 million viewers — an impressive figure for a Brazilian film.

Now, the film’s distributor, Columbia, is planning to dub the movie in Spanish for release in the rest of Latin America and perhaps for Spanish-speaking audiences in the United States. It’s been a big hit with the over-40 crowd, a surprise for Rossi, who’s audience tends to be younger.

“Columbia has high hopes for Mexico, where they are deeply religious and buying power is high. Brazil has only 1,700 movie theaters; Mexico has 4,000,” explains Diler Trindade, the film’s producer.

Best known for producing hits starring kiddie TV show hostess Xuxa, Trindade said he got the idea for a movie about Jesus and approached Rossi because of his star power. Rossi added a twist: telling the tale as Mary’s story.

“Marcelo Rossi regularly draws 20,000 people to his Masses. Without him, we would have had maybe 500,000 people coming to see the film,” Trindade said. “With him, we had five times that number.”

Rossi is a leading proponent of the church’s charismatic movement, brought to Brazil in the late 1960s by American priest Harold J. Hans in an effort to counter the rising popularity of Protestant evangelicalism.

Charismatics are more exuberant in their style of worship than many Catholics, and hope the singing and dancing will draw young people away from the Protestant denominations that in recent years have grown sharply, especially among the poor.

According to the 2000 census, the last year for which numbers are available, 15 percent of Brazilians said they were evangelical Protestants, up from nine percent in 1991. Only 73.8 percent declared themselves Catholics, down from 83.8 percent in 1991. Other statistics say that fewer than 10 percent of those professed Catholic attend Mass.

Rossi, a boyish looking, 6-foot 4-inch former gym teacher is leading the countercharge.

A typical Rossi Mass is followed by a “festinha,” Portuguese for little party, where he leads the crowd in his “Aerobics of the Lord” — jumping, singing and air-boxing. Rossi said the church needs to emphasize prayer over politics to stay vital.

Some have seen the movie’s emphasis on Mary — a more central figure to Catholics than Protestants — as an attack on the evangelicals, but Rossi denies this.

“There was talk that the film was against the evangelicals,” he said. “Quite the opposite. So many evangelical brothers saw the film and saw that it wasn’t about that. I’m of the opinion it’s not worth it to attack anyone, you always have to give a positive message.”

“Rossimania” has quieted down since 1998, when his album “Songs in Praise of the Lord” sold nearly 3 million copies and topped the Brazilian charts. His five weekly Masses in a Sao Paulo warehouse now attract only about a third of the 70,000 people who turned out at the height of his fame.

But Rossi is still going strong. His record “Paz — Ao Vivo,” or “Live Peace,” won a Latin Grammy for best Christian album in 2002, and his daily radio broadcasts remain extremely popular.

“I see a retaking, a return of young people to church. When I started celebrating Mass the congregation was 99 percent women,” he said. “Today, at all five Masses, it’s 40 percent men.”

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