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The Vatican's troubles in Brazil

Nearly 120 million Brazilians identify themselves as Catholic, but interest in the church is in sharp decline.
Last modified: 18 Feb 2013 02:54
"A Brazilian Pope?" was the cover of weekly current affairs magazine, Epoca [Gabriel Elizondo / Al Jazeera]

As the old saying goes: Numbers don't lie.

If that's the case, here are a few recent numbers that relate to Catholicism in Brazil that might be of interest to the Vatican: 64 and 1 and 70,000.

First, the basics: The 64 stands for the percentage of Brazil's 199 million people who identify themselves as Catholics. That's nearly 120 million Catholics in Brazil alone.

Roughly put, one out of every 10 of the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world is Brazilian.

Brazil is - without question - the largest Catholic country in the world.

But is it the most Catholic?

It's no secret the church is struggling in Brazil - down from 89 percent of Brazilians who identified themselves as Catholic in 1980 to the 64 percent today.

Dwindling numbers

The amount of people who say they are evangelical in Brazil was 6 percent in 1980, but has ballooned up to about 22 percent today. A lot has been written about this in recent years and likely a lot more over the coming weeks.

But to get a feel for the state of Catholicism in Brazil, I have two anecdotes from the past week, and this is where the other two numbers - 1 and 70,000 - come into play.

Last Monday, the day Benedict XVI stepped down, I was in Rio covering carnival. As you might expect, the coverage quickly went from Party to Papal.

We headed out to get a feel for what the Catholics in Rio were thinking of the Pope Benedict news.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of Sao Sebastiao - the famous cone-shaped building that sits next to Petrobras headquarters in Rio. It seats more than 20,000 worshippers - but when we stopped in for a few minutes there were no more than 20 people inside and every last one of them was a foreign tourist snapping photos.

We then headed over to the church of Nossa Senhora do Monte do Carmo - another storied Catholic landmark in downtown Rio and we found it was closed, locked shut.

Slightly perplexed, we headed to the beautiful Sao Bento Monastery and found it was open (good sign!). But not a sole was inside. We lingered a few minutes, and finally a few foreign tourists showed up, digital cameras dangling around their sunburned necks. Their guide, a young Brazilian woman, waited for them out front.

"Are you Catholic?" I asked her.

"No, I don’t have a religion," she replied. “In English you call that atheist, right?”

Let me summarise: On the day the Pope announced he would step down, a drive-by of three Catholic churches in Rio, and only one Brazilian, who didn’t even believe in God. (About 8 percent of Brazilians say they don’t have a religion).

Wildly anecdotal, I know.

Fast forward to this past Saturday to a shopping center in Rio. That is where there was a book launch for the new autobiography of Edir Macedo, the popular (and wealthy) Brazilian Pentecostal pastor and founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

There were an estimated 70,000 people who waited in a line that extended over a kilometere long to get their hands on an autographed copy. Not 7,000, not 17,000, but 70,000. You read that right.

And get this, Macedo himself didn't even show up.

Non-conventional Pope

On the same day they were lining up for Macedo's book, the glossy weekly newsmagazines hit the newsstands all over Brazil and there was a general consensus the church would be better off selecting a non-conventional Pope in order to re-energise the non-European base.

"Why Not a Pope from the Third World?" asked the cover headline of Istoe magazine.

"A Brazilian Pope?" was the cover of weekly current affairs magazine, Epoca. If a Brazilian is selected, all the editors need to do is change the ? to a !

The drumbeat of anticipation of a possible African or Latin American Pope is in full swing. Three Brazilian Cardinals have been identified as "front runners" (Who picks these 'front runners' anyways? Twitter?).

I am not foolish enough to claim to know what will happen in that secret conclave at the Vatican.

But I do know 64, 1 and 70,000; The anecdotal exercise of the challenges the Catholic church faces in Brazil.

Make of it what you wish.

Just remember what they say: Numbers don't lie.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel