Tintin and the Catholic Charismatics

The story so far … Intrepid reporter Tintin, accompanied by his faithful fox terrier Snowy, has travel to Brazil to report on the preparations for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day celebrations in July. Upon his arrival Tintin finds the natives have abandoned their base communities and liberation theology for Catholic Pentecostalism. Who is behind this tragedy? Soviets, American gangsters, Jews? Can our hero rescue the church from the clutches of charismatics in Brazil?

I write in jest — this disclaimer is for the perpetually offended — nevertheless a recent story from AFP, Agency France Presse, entitled “Brazil Charismatic priests try to stem Catholic flight” could easily be transformed into a comic.

There is a cartoonish, condescending quality to this article that perpetuates anti-Catholic, anti-Pentecostal stereotypes. It does not rise to the level of Hergé’s “Tintin in the Congo“, but that was merely an 80-year old comic — this is a news story that does a second rate job in reporting on one of the major religion news stories of modern times — the rise of and reaction to Pentecostalism.

The article begins with a soft focus:

AFP – In a scene out of a pop music concert, mass at Sao Paulo’s huge Mae de Deus (Mother of God) church features spirited singing, dancing and shouting led by priests of Brazil’s rising Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. About 6,000 faithful are seated and thousands more are standing, all waiting for the master of ceremonies and face of the movement — 46-year-old rock star Catholic priest Marcelo Rossi. With his broad smile and movie-actor good looks, the 6’4″ (1m90) former gymnast and his musicians warm up the crowd.

The article moves on to a report on church statistics and then offers comments from those who like the “rock-star” priest and a description of a service:

“Father Marcelo is charismatic and humble. You come once and you keep on coming,” said 72-year-old Olga Ribeiro, who has been following him for the past six years. “It’s a modern, dynamic mass. I had stopped going to church because I was bored,” said 58-year-old Luis Fernando Camentori.

In the middle of the service, lights go off and candles are lit. Many of the faithful burst into tears. “God will turn your pain into joy,” Rossi tells the delirious crowd. The wildly popular Rossi has already sold millions of records and books. He has his own radio and television programs, has made movies and is very active on Twitter. He has just criss-crossed the country to promote his latest book “Kairos”. In less than a month, 500,000 copies were already sold.

At this stage we hear from the experts:

“The Church in Brazil has been in crisis since the 1990s with the decline of leftist liberation theology, and its churches are becoming empty,” said Magali Cunha, a theology professor at Sao Paulo Methodist University. … While it has so far failed to stop Brazil’s Catholic exodus, “without this type of spirituality, the Catholic Church would have lost even more members,” said Edin Abumansur, head of the religion sciences department at Sao Paulo Catholic University.

The AFP’s editorial voice emerges:

And Catholic Charismatic Renewal is resorting to an arsenal of gimmicks to lure followers, including raw emotionalism, masses for cures, blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith.

Followed by comments from Fr Rossi:

In frank language, Rossi conveys his message during mass, focusing on crime without mentioning the country’s social problems. “One should not mix religion and politics. The Church does not belong to any political party,” he said.

And we end with a damn with faint praise hook:

For years, the Catholic hierarchy kept the Charismatic movement at bay. Now it is lending support, although it has some concerns about its autonomy. “The Church tolerates rather than accepts these movements. They attract a lot of people, So what can it do?” said Abumansur. In 2007, Rossi was not allowed to sing for then pope Benedict XVI. Six years later, he will be able to do so for Pope Francis during World Youth Day in July.

What is the problem with this story? No balance — the article alleges the Catholic Church is in free fall but we do not hear from the church. Does it agree that the church is collapsing? Is it true that the Catholic Charismatic movement has stemmed its losses? What does the hierarchy say, or has it said? Where are the contrary voices? Is this a liturgical issue or a doctrinal challenge for the Catholic Church?

This is compounded by a lack of curiosity. Why has the Catholic Charismatic movement grown? Is it simply more entertaining than a regular mass — or are there theological, cultural, political or social reasons for the decline in church attendance or for the fall of liberation theology? What are the implications of Fr Rossi’s statement that the church should get out of politics? Is he saying man is a spiritual animal and not a political one?

And then there is the sneer — the opiate of the masses treatment of faith. “‘God will turn your pain into joy,’ Rossi tells the delirious crowd.” Or an “arsenal of gimmicks to lure followers, including raw emotionalism, masses for cures, blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith.”

Why are these called gimmicks? Is that fair or an honest appraisal of what is taking place? Calling petitionary prayer or healing prayer a gimmick connotes fraud on the part of Fr Rossi -”he doesn’t believe this stuff himself and is playing off of the credulity of his flock” or it is an editorial comment by AFP. If Fr Rossi is a Brazilian Elmer Gantry then AFP has a great story and should dig deeper. If this is merely an opinion voiced by the AFP’s reporter as he watches the weird rituals of Catholic Charismatics then it is libelous.

And — then there is the National Geographic approach to reporting on the simple natives who have abandoned political religion for a spiritual one. The anthropological approach can be seen in the “corporal expressions of faith” quip. I presume by this the author means dancing and other rituals that involve body movement. Or did he mean “corporeal expressions”? The author writes as if he was peering through the bushes watching the natives at worship. This is not merely detachment, but a distancing that seeks not to understand but to categorize — and condescend.

What do we learn from this article? Aside from the color commentary we have the who, some where, less when and no why.

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  • Jerry

    One of the seminal moments in my life came when I heard Theodore Bikel reciting “Digging the We’ans” – how anthropologists in the future might misinterpret our lives today. I call it seminal because, thanks to that short story, I can put in perspective quite a few things including news reports which distort what is going on rather than correctly reporting it. If you’ve not read that story http://www.joshpachter.com/pages/weans.pdf

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I cringe when I see phrases like “rock star priest” because this often ends badly. There may be a reason ‘the Vatican’ is cool towards Fr. Rossi, and it’s not because they’re fuddy-duddy ceremonialists out of touch with the Zeitgeist.

    Regarding the “corporal blessings” phrase, that puzzles me also. I first wondered did they mean “corporeal blessings” but now I look at it in the context of “blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith”, it makes me think they’re perhaps referring to what’s called the “Prosperity Gospel” – the ‘God wants you to be rich’ notion where things like money, good heath, happy marriages with attractive spouses and all manner of worldly success is the kind of physical, tangible ‘blessing’ you will get when you perform the prescribed ritual (claim the blessing, speak the word of faith, and so forth).


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