African faith gains followers in Brazil Worried by losses, Catholics go along

October 14, 1991|By Michael Molinski | Michael Molinski,Special to The Sun

SALVADOR, Brazil -- A deacon spreads smoke from an incense pot that he swings around by a chain; old black women chant as if lost in some African ritual; a priest takes water from a bowl and flings it over the crowd with his fingers; people of all ages and races, caught up in the spirit of the ceremony, push forward to be baptized.

The scene, resembling something between a Zulu ritual and a Southern Baptist revival meeting, is a regular Sunday mass at Nossa Senhora do Rosario -- a typical Roman Catholic church in Salvador, capital of the north Brazilian state of Bahia.

Pope John Paul II will visit Salvador at the end of his 10-day Brazil tour, which began Saturday, and what he can expect to find will be in sharp contrast to the conservative Catholicism he espouses and that is practiced back at the Vatican.

"I'm Catholic, but I don't disbelieve in Candomble," said Marcelino Carlos, a sanitation worker, referring to the African-derived religion which is rapidly gaining followers in Brazil. "A lot of people who are Catholic also believe in Candomble."

Mysticism and spiritualism long have been a part of Brazilian culture, inherited from the African slaves who worked on the sugar plantations. It is not unusual for Candomble items to be found inside some Catholic churches, as is the case at the Igreja do Carmen, a few blocks from Nossa Senhora do Rosario.

Brazil is the world's largest Catholic country. But church membership has dropped from nine out of 10 Brazilians in the 1970s to eight out of 10 today, mainly because of an upsurge in Protestant religions. To help membership, the church has found it wise to encourage cult influences, rather than fight them, and to resurrect some of the church's own mystic roots.

The Rev. Antonio Aparecido, a professor at the Theology Institute in Sao Paulo, said that 25 million to 30 million of Brazil's 150 million people believe in Candomble, and about 90 percent of those believers are practicing Catholics.

"The people view the figure of the pope in Brazil as a savior . . . with mystic and spiritual powers," said Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of Sao Paulo, during an interview at his residence.

"I have respect for those who practice Candomble," he said. "All the slaves were obligated to be baptized [as Catholics]. They practiced their [Candomble] rituals at night until in this century the government finally suspended the prohibitions against freedom of religion."

He said a close friend of his is a Candomble priestess who is also a devout Catholic. "The church accepts this, because even in my region there wasn't a priest around for more than 100 years," he said.

The signs of Candomble are everywhere.

Near a waterfall in the countryside, one might find a lighted candle surrounded by necklaces, perfume, champagne and meat -- offerings to Oxum, the god of fresh water and waterfalls.

While Candomble is most popular among lower-class blacks, it is by no means limited by race or social class, nor is it limited to the predominantly black state of Bahia.

On a dirt road in a slum neighborhood called Jardim Noemia on the far east side of Sao Paulo, Jose dos Reis Ferrera, a Candomble priest, has followers who come from as far away as Rio de Janeiro.

Pai Ze, as he is known, said as many as 1,000 people -- construction workers, doctors and businessmen -- show up at his rituals.

"Candomble doesn't have anything to do with Catholicism," he said. "But people are looking for other roads."

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