Pop-star priest revives masses

SUN JOURNAL

Charisma: With a chart-topping CD and huge TV ratings, the Rev. Marcelo Rossi could be a model for the revitalization of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil.

April 03, 1999|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- His CD is at the top of the charts with 3.2 million copies sold, the kind of showing normally reserved for samba greats.

He is the hottest thing on television, drawing sky-high ratings that have executives begging him to sign a contract for his own show. His boyish face outsells Leonardo DiCaprio and Brazil's scantily clad dancing girls at the magazine stands, and his songs are de rigueur at the top nightclubs.

Last month at Carnival, his dancing atop a huge sound truck drew 100,000 adoring fans, including hordes of women swooning from more than just the heat.

"He's such a hunk," said Adriana Rodrigues, a 21-year-old accounting student with a low-cut skintight white blouse and a dolphin tattoo on her shoulder. "Have you seen him? He's really gorgeous."

That Marcelo Rossi, 31, is a Roman Catholic priest doesn't seem to slow anybody down, least of all the priest himself.

"I'm not an idol; I'm a priest," insists the former aerobics instructor with close-cropped brown hair, blue eyes and a broad smile. "My aim is to bring Catholics back to the church."

Has he ever. Brazil, the largest Roman Catholic country in the world, with 83 percent of 160 million Brazilians self-proclaimed Catholics, until recently had one of the lowest rates of church attendance, with around 4 percent of Catholics going to services each week. Now, since Rossi has taken to the stage in six weekly Masses plus radio, television and variety show programs, attendance has grown to 10 percent, according to a survey by the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics.

Church leaders are looking at his success as a possible model for Catholic renovation in the rest of Brazil and perhaps worldwide.

"You can't deny that to be Catholic is cool now," said Brazil's Life Is Faith magazine recently. "Marcelo Rossi, the highest expression of the charismatic renovation in Brazil, has accomplished what many priests have tried over the years -- bringing Catholics back to the church."

Evangelical Protestant pastors, who had made huge progress in recent years converting lapsed Brazilian Catholics, are fuming. Rossi's charismatic Catholic Masses, they say, are stolen from their own services, which generally combine dancing and singing with casting out devils.

The pop-star priest, who fills his Masses with singing and follows them with what he calls "The Lord's Aerobics," insists that charismatic services are as old as Catholicism and that he wants no trouble with the evangelicals.

"I don't want war," he said in an interview. "On the contrary, I love the church, and my aim is to bring back the Catholics who are distanced."

Rossi, raised with a fondness for pizza and Bruce Lee movies in the middle-class Sao Paulo neighborhood of Santana, never intended to become a priest. He finished a degree in physical education, got engaged and was spending 14 hours a day at the gym -- "I was a young narcissist," he admits -- when tragedy changed his life.

A cousin whom Rossi considered a brother died in a wreck with a drunken driver. The same day an aunt was found to have a tumor. Searching for answers, Rossi returned to church prayer groups, studied Scripture "and fell in love," he remembers.

After emerging from theology school, he experimented with a new kind of Mass, incorporating the energy of his former aerobics studio into the services. He asked followers to use a Byzantine rosary, which allows completion of a round of prayers in 10 minutes, down from 30 or more.

"Today people don't have too much time and we have to think of that," he said.

The response was electric. Soon his church on Sao Paulo's south side was packed beyond capacity. Last July the parish rented a former bottle factory in the city's industrial zone, knocked down the exterior walls and moved Masses to its huge concrete floor, still marked with yellow stripes from the factory line.

Today the factory grounds resemble a rough theme park, with souvenir and food stands sprinkled around the bare earth and gravel parking lot. There's a lost and found stand -- a delightful touch -- and an information booth.

Outside the main gates, hawkers rent plastic chairs for $1 and sell hot dogs and candied apples, rosaries, votive candles, T-shirts and Divine Light mini-flashlight key chains bearing the grinning priest's face.

"You can't imagine how many young people are coming to the church now," marveled Maria Custodia, a rosary and candy vendor.

Inside, up to 20,000 people pack each service -- an estimated 60,000 listen on radio -- as Rossi says Mass on a 10-foot-high white stage. An electric guitarist, drummer and backup singers in white robes help out, along with up to 80 other priests and 1,000 crowd control officers.

The pale 6-foot-4 priest, clad in a long white robe, strides onto stage to applause from the mob below. He quickly launches into one of his hits, "Raise Your Hands," smiling warmly and holding his microphone out to the crowd.

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