SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Pack 15,000 bodies shoulder to shoulder in a vast old warehouse, get them singing as loud as their lungs will allow and feel the temperature rise.
"How many people are sweating?"
Thousands attend an open-air Mass in Sao Paulo led by the Rev. Marcelo Rossi, who uses aerobics, films and rock music to reach the young.
(Alexandre Meneghini -- AP)
As the Rev. Marcelo Rossi stands before a shimmering expanse of upraised hands, working up the crowd, a droplet of perspiration cuts a shining rivulet behind his left ear and trickles toward his clerical collar.
"Sweating is good," he announces. "It gets the bad things out. Now put your hands over your hearts and join me: Let's get rid of envy, of greed. . . ."
If Rossi sounds more like an exercise instructor than a Roman Catholic priest, it's probably because he used to be one. That was before Pope John Paul II visited Brazil in 1997 and met with Rossi and other young priests, urging them to find ways to reverse the erosion of Catholicism in a country where evangelical Protestantism is threatening its centuries-old dominance.
"He told us to wake up, that we needed to do something to get more young people involved in the church," Rossi said, just before his five-piece rock and gospel band heralded the start of his Thursday night service. "So I made a promise that from then on I would use all the tools I had available: television, radio, movies, the Internet. Everything."
Brazil is home to more Catholics than any country in the world. But if the evangelical Christian movement continues to spread at the pace it has in recent years, statistics suggest that by 2022 Catholics will be a minority in a country that was about 90 percent Catholic in 1980.
Taking a cue from the evangelicals, Rossi has become the most visible of a growing number of Brazilian priests who retain the core beliefs espoused by the Vatican, but who spread them in an informal style aimed at connecting with the country's lower and middle classes.
At any mall in this sprawling metropolis, a shopper might find videotapes of Rossi's "Aerobics of the Lord" services or his feature film, "Mary, Mother of the Son of God," the fourth-highest-grossing Brazilian movie of 2004. At a music store, one can flip through the albums that have earned Rossi multiple Latin Grammy nominations. At a magazine stand, any issue of Caras -- the equivalent of People magazine -- is likely to feature his picture.
The charismatic Catholic movement has been active in Brazil for years, but Rossi and others are pushing it into the mainstream. Today, the up-tempo Mass can be found in churches far more buttoned-down than Rossi's, where some solidly traditional priests have begun offering periodic charismatic services. In the process, they have learned to be more expressive with their hands and voices, to sing modern gospel songs instead of classic chants and recitations, and to avoid wincing when applause breaks out.
"The charismatic movement is now being institutionalized, just in the past two years or so," said Antonio Flavio Pierucci, a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo. "The bishops now support it. They have found they can point to it as an alternative to those who want the church to be more politically liberal and leftist."
The historic dominance of Catholicism in Brazil means it has always been entwined with politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, liberation theology took root here. Its core tenet was that church leaders should be social activists, helping people "liberate" themselves from poverty and oppression -- even if that also meant fighting against political systems they believed were at the root of poverty.
Liberation theologians called this idea a "preferential option" for the poor, aimed at disturbing the complacency of the affluent. John Paul, however, did not like the movement's Marxist overtones. The pope censured some of its more controversial leaders and the movement faded, although it still has adherents in the church.
For priests who came of age when liberation theology dominated religious discussion in Brazil, the charismatic movement is troubling not for its lack of formality but for what they see as a shift of focus from social to individual problems. The Rev. Julio Lancelotti, a priest who works in a home for children with HIV and AIDS, lamented what he views as an evangelical emphasis on the individual as a means of attracting the poor.