Brazil is a funny country. When a foreigner visits Rio, Sao Paulo or even Salvador for the first time, he will probably walk away with the impression that Brazilians are very modern and perhaps post Christian, much like the Europeans, such as say Italians. That is while religious symbols are prevalent, they are really accepted more for their cultural significance rather than due to a deep rooted belief in God, scripture, dogma of any type and religious teachings. On a typical Sunday in Rio, for example, you will find many more Brazilians at the beach and bars than at church.
Still if you poll Brazilians about their belief in God, more than 90% will respond affirmatively. At the same time, church attendance declines as one moves up the social ladder. Church attendance tends to be inversely proportional to income. Indeed, the evangelical movement in Brazil has made its greatest advances among the lumpen and the working class.
The Pope’s recent visit on the heels of Brazil’s largest protest movement in the last 20 years tells a lot about how people feel. Some claimed that the visit was just entertainment and a sort of Catholic Woodstock; however, very few acts are capable of mobilizing millions, Rock in Rio, not withstanding. Copacabana, with 3 million attendees at mass, became Popacabana.
The heartfelt warmth that the great cross section of the Brazilian people showed the Pope was indeed sincere. Proximity to the leader of the church, brings Brazilians out in mass because of the desire for connection to something higher and to each other. This aspiration, this desire for solidarity and belonging, curiously runs parallel to the protest movements. The Pope, perhaps, attracts a wider audience drawing from all strata, while the protest movements were driven mainly by the middle class. Still the emotional feelings have parallels. Brazilians have turned in great numbers over the past decades to the evangelical movement. Much of this has been out of frustration with the traditional preaching of the Catholic church. The evangelicals have succeeded by offering promises that are closer to the heart of working poor. They offer both participation, fulfillment and even the promise of material advance. The traditional Catholic mass has certainly been shy about offering a “gospel of prosperity” and immediate hope. It has favored mainly patience and long suffering, except maybe for the Liberation Theology minority wing which has had less impact than in its heyday of the 80’s.
Turning to a higher power, seeking an ideal, and coming together with purpose occurred with the presence of the Pope and in the protest movements. At the Copacabana mass, the people were drawn by an individualistic need to express collectively their feelings and love for a symbolic representation of God on earth. And the Pope corresponded with support of their need to participate and expressed their desires for equality, progress, material and spiritual improvement. The Pope emphasized participation, the role that people have to play in interacting with their government, participating in politics and social movements. Overall, he was sympathetic to the broader demands of the protest movement and the broader aspirations of the Brazilian people vis a vis their elected officials. In the protests, in spite of minority violence, the overall mood was peaceful and orderly, not barring however the natural jocularity and fun poking nature of the Brazilian character.
In essence, Brazilians (like most people) believe in a higher power but not necessarily the doctrines of organized religion. They strive for improvement, they want a better and more responsive political organization and they need the feeling that they are being heard and taken into account. They would like to know that there is a chance for improvement and that this is available to all. Unfortunately. the Brazilian political and social system traditionally has been unequal and access depends on a personal exchange of favors. In the absence of the Pope, Brazilians have believed that their politicians could deliver, if not miracles, at least personal benefits. However, the system has failed and is now too large and massive for this populist/patrimonial exchange. The Pope resonates with the masses much more strongly than the politicians, President Dilma and even Lula. Pope Francis has a sympathetic feel and is perceived as down to earth, humble, and close to the people. Thus his popularity in the press and with the people.
Now that the Pope is gone, the governing class will most likely revert back to trying to convince the populace that God is indeed a Brazilian and that everything will work out as successfully as the Pope’s visit. However, it is more and more difficult for the government and the elite to find the golden thread that can bring the people together. The government and the elites may still reign but their grip on ruling is slowly being loosened. I think this is the meaning behind the protest turnout and the popularity of the Pope.