WYD in Rio sparked a badly needed movement of the Holy Spirit - but there’s so much work to do.
It still feels like only yesterday: it was a cold, rainy, and windy day in July. I had slept the night before on the beach with a group of friends, and spent the day with three million people on Copacabana beach, celebrating the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.
But then it was over.
We had been there for seven days, and now we were leaving. It was hard to accept. We felt like the other WYD pilgrims were our family and we would live forever in this joyous, vibrant communion with the other members of the body of Christ, being so close to the Holy Father, listening and taking pleasure in the immense wisdom that radiated from Pope Francis. We didn’t want to leave!
We all spent that night making plans, deciding how we could best take all that we had learned and apply it to the needs of our communities and other young people. How could we come back with the flame of the Holy Spirit to set fire to others? Was it more prayer groups? More youth ministries? More retreats?
The day of the closing mass, Pope Francis words spoke to our very hearts and minds: “Do not be afraid to serve! Do you know what is the best instrument to evangelize young people? Another young person!”
That was it. I knew that what happened in Rio could not stay in Rio.
All is Not Well in the World’s Most Populous Catholic Country
The first thing you need to know about Brazil is that we were colonized by Portugal in the height of its power. They were searching for a way to Asia and its riches when, the story goes, they stumbled across a whole new territory. They called it the “Land of the Holy Cross.”
Before building a fort, scavenging for food, or even developing relations with the Indian population, our forefathers held a Mass. It was Easter Sunday, April 26th, 1500.
We are still a profoundly religious people. Almost all of our holidays are religious holidays. Our best and most beautiful cultural celebrations and feasts are based on Catholic feast days. If you’ve only heard of the secular Carnaval, I can assure you every major state and even town has its own colorful and deeply spiritual feast at that time.
We have one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. Every major educational university and school were built by religious orders (mostly Jesuit). In fact our educational system is mostly Catholic or developed by Catholics.
If I seem to be describing a Catholic Shangri-la, you might be wondering what the problem is in paradise. Unfortunately, there are many.
The first problem with the Brazilian faithful: syncretism.
Syncretism is a huge issue in Brazil. It is part of our history that when Africans wanted to celebrate their pagan religion without persecution, they hid it behind Catholicism, associating their pagan deities with Catholic saints. In this way, Ogum became Saint George, Yemanjá became Our Lady of Sailors, Yansã became Saint Barbara, etc. For the new year, people today still throw offerings in the sea for luck and receive a “blessing” of water and herbs or salt baths to repel sickness or envious attention.
Spiritualism also has a wide appeal in Brazil. There is widespread curiosity regarding contacting spirits and spiritual possession. It is common for grandparents to participate both in spiritualism and Catholicism.
This blend in our cultural melting pot has become so normal in Brazil that it is common for people to not be able to tell the difference between what’s Spiritualism and what’s Catholic, or care. “It’s all Brazilian!” they say. “It’s been celebrated for hundreds of years! Its fun! To hell with what the Church says! They just want my money.”