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The Church in Brazil is Dying. This Young Woman is Desperately Trying to Save It.

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George Martell/Pilot Media

Mychelle Oliveira Coelho - published on 04/28/14

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.”



A second problem: non-attendance.

There are many “Catholics” who only step inside a Church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

The excuse people give for this is that Catholicism has become an old institution meant for old people. Many people, like in my family, have had problems with priests and nuns and with the rigidness of the Church pre-II Vatican Council and have literally gained a disgust for the Church and for Mass-going. They have passed this on to my parents generation who have passed to my generation.

Few parishes have any sort of youth ministry. Most Masses are seen to be dull, and music ministries in most parishes are made up of people in their fifties who only sing the dullest and oldest hymns in the Catholic Brazilian repertoire.

Children in these families are baptized out of spiritual superstition and as an expression of love of the parents in choosing a godparent and entrusting that child to them – but not to be a part of the Church and the body of Christ. The same is true for First Communion and Confirmation. Even so, few people get Confirmed as children. It’s very common for people to go to Confirmation classes only when you want to get married.  

A third problem: spiritual poverty.

If it is common for people to not distinguish Catholic beliefs and practices from paganism and not to practice their faith, the result is only logical. Most Catholics are spiritually poor when it comes to liturgical practices and the Bible itself.

Yes, it is common to see a little altar with the Bible opened to Psalm 23 in Catholic homes, but take a closer look and you’ll see that this Bible is not being used and its pages are probably dusty. Most Catholics don’t read the Bible. Most Catholics don’t even know what happened between Moses going into the desert and the Annunciation in the New Testament.

And there’s really no knowledge at all when it comes to the Catechism and Church History.

Very little is taught aside from the venial sin vs. mortal sin distinction and how to go to Confession. The very ritual of the Mass and its profound significance is known only to a select few – and mostly older people.

Most people think they know that Catholics were “very bad” at some point in the Middle Ages when people were burned at the stake, and most Catholics agree that the Luther was right – our Protestant friends and atheist teachers don’t let us forget that part.

Most Catholics have no clear idea on what the Church teaches, particularly on hot topics such as the communion of the saints, the role of the Pope, the infallibility of the Church, purgatory, and the Church’s hierarchy. And do you think people understand the Church’s teachings on moral issues like contraception and sex before marriage? My brothers and sisters are mostly clueless.

So you can imagine how easy it is for a Protestant to come along with his Bible and show Catholics how “wrong” and “distorted” their beliefs are. You can imagine how a school friend can invite young Brazilians to a beautiful youth service with a wonderful worship team full of hip young people like themselves where they can finally feel like God has touched their heart. You can imagine how appealing it seems for the undervalued youth to come to a service specifically directed to their financial life and learn about how God wants them to make money and buy a car and a house and bring home good things for your family.

So this is the situation. Evangelicalism is growing 10% a year. Most evangelical churches have the explicit goal of “quick conversions” so the statistic can grow. More than a religious group, evangelical churches and sects are businesses here in Brazil. Most pastors report in spreadsheets the number of faithful to their superiors.



WYD Sparked a New Beginning – But It’s an Uphill Battle

So, coming back to WYD in Rio. Three million people went to that beach for Mass! Do you have any idea what it felt like to be part of that?

It’s hard to fully express how deeply WYD affected my country, and the youth in particular. We cried to the top of our voices, “The Church is alive! The Church is young!” and so I was sure that what happened in Rio could not stay in Rio.

I saw people coming from every town in Brazil and all over the world, people investing money they didn’t have in plane fares, I saw people who hadn’t stepped inside a church in so long come be touched by Pope Francis and our happiness. Friends called me and said, “I watched it on TV all day just to see what’s going on.” I saw people make plans, and youth ministries being formed. The Facebook pages of our Catholic organizations have reached millions of “likes” on Facebook, just like other Christian organizations.

This was massive! The Holy Spirit was truly among us!

Yet, today almost a year later, young people are losing faith in their own attempts to evangelize and bring revolution to the Church in Brazil.

I am one of those young people.

I have personally felt called to evangelize Catholics about chastity and contraception in a country ready to legalize abortion and among young Catholics who consider it normal to have sex before marriage, to dismiss the Church’s teachings on NFP, and even distribute contraceptives to the poor.

It is such a taboo to talk about virginity and saving yourself for marriage. Evangelical Protestants are promoting campaigns about it because they too see the needs for our youth. But as for contraception, people think anything goes when it comes to sex for married people. Children will come “when they are ready for them,” sexual satisfaction is considered a sign of God’s blessing, and any sort of sexual abstinence is considered an offense against God.

Now, how can I study and prepare talks or even converse with my fellow brothers and sisters if I have no access in Portuguese to important Church documents like Humanae Vitae, or if it’s hard to get a copies of books like Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body?

In Brazil, we have few resources to help youth ministries and to really evangelize our youth. We have scant leadership preparation, relying solely on our natural abilities. If you’re lucky and in the good graces of a priest, you might be able to get a hold of high quality training material. Our main Catholic media network Canção Nova does a phenomenal job but has the burden of being the one of the only quality networks to spread the faith.

I’m studying in a Catholic university (Pontificial Universities throughout the country are the highest ranking private schools) but my major isn’t theology or philosophy, and it isn’t very common for lay people to have those majors.

I’m blessed that I speak and read English fluently, so I’ve discovered really great ministries like the  Chastity Project, Bobby Angel, Jackie François’ page on Facebook, and Matt Fradd’s ministry against pornography. I’ve started reading compulsively and discovering other Catholic sites to get information.

But this is just me, and this is how I am trying to do 0.001% of the work that needs to be done.

The Church is one body, so what affects me affects you, and I am moved to tears that sites like Aleteia and other communities can help each other. But if I can ask for your help as a lay person, for information and for guidance, I feel myself called to do so.

After all, what happened in Rio cannot stay in Rio.

This is my story and this is my struggle.

Mychelle Oliveira Coelhois a 21 year old Brazilian Catholic. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tags:
BrazilFaithPope FrancisWorld Youth Day
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