120,000 Sing Along With Pop-Star Priest

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Sports-intoxicated Brazilians refer to Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro as soccer's “cathedral.” On Oct. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil's patroness, more than 120,000 people filled the world's largest soccer arena — not to cheer the national team, but to turn the stadium into a temple of prayer and song.

The crowd was on hand to attend a Mass celebrated by a priest who draws crowds that rival the country's most popular athletes and performers.

Father Marcelo Rossi — tall, dark and handsome — has emerged in the last two years as probably the most popular personality in Brazil, thanks to a simple and highly emotional charismatic spirituality that, combined with his own considerable talents, has conquered thousands of hearts.

“God called me to priesthood and gave me the opportunity to fill stadiums in a way that I could never have predicted,” said the 32-year-old former aerobics trainer who once dreamed of soccer greatness.

The event served as an important sign of approbation for Father Rossi by the Church's leadership, which is naturally cautious about encouraging adulation for an individual priest.

The Mass at Maracana Stadium was offered at the request of the archbishop of Rio, Cardinal Eugenio Araujo de Sales, regarded as the Brazilian bishop closest to Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Araujo de Sales' invitation was taken by many as an acquiescence to the priest's ministry, a signal that the Church in Brazil is willing to take a chance on the young priest.

Cardinal Araujo de Sales went further Oct. 14, telling one newspaper reporter that he has given Father Rossi “a free hand to act in Rio.” He added: “I am not the type of person who gives free rein. On the contrary, I am usually reluctant, but he is a very obedient man.”

From Priest to Pop Star

Marcelo Mendonca Rossi, the first of three children, converted to an active Catholic life 10 years ago when a beloved cousin died in a car accident. He entered the seminary of the recently created Diocese of Santo Amaro and was ordained a priest five years ago.

In 1997, at age 30, he took charge of a small parish where he quickly gained a following among the faithful who were impressed by the intense and unhurried manner in which he celebrated Mass, and by his realistic homilies that are easy to relate to life's daily problems and challenges.

By the end of his first year as pastor, weekend liturgies had to be moved to a 16,000-square-foot former factory in Southern Sao Paulo, which was renamed Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He remains pastor of the community.

Father Rossi recorded his first compact disc, The Byzantine Rosary, which includes songs, prayers and mediations, in 1998. By the end of that year, his nationwide celebrity was furthered by a feature spread in the popular magazine Istoé that focused on the young priest's success in bringing back to the faith non-practicing and former Catholics who had become evangelical Protestants.

The article launched what would become an unstoppable path to fame. Father Rossi was invited to appear on popular TV programs, with one network airing a weekly Mass celebrated by the youthful pastor. It quickly became one of the five top-rated shows in Brazil.

Fame, Fortune and Faith?

Father Rossi's second CD, Songs to Praise the Lord, has sold more than 3 million copies and the single, Raise Your Hands, held second place on the Brazilian pop charts for 12 weeks.

Intrigued by his ability to win many Brazilians back to the faith, secular media around the world have also noted the Padre Marcelo phenomenon. Time magazine selected him one of the 100 most influential Latin Americans for the next millennium. The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report have also done articles.

Father Rossi's latest CD, A Gift to Jesus, has made him the No. 2 all-time seller of CDs in Brazil.

Each of his regular Masses draws more than 60,000, and includes testimonies of conversions, including from those returning from evangelical Christian denominations or African-Brazilian cults.

A team of some 400 “cooperators” of Father Rossi not only have a strong Catholic commitment, but are regarded as models of prayer, charity and service.

Father Rossi has also been credited with helping the small Diocese of Santo Amaro become a national leader in vocations, going from 12 seminarians in 1995 to 62 this fall. “Father Marcelo certainly played a significant role in this increase,” Father Julio Shinji, rector of the local seminary, told the Register.

Legitimate Concern

Father Rossi's successes have not come without criticism. Some, including members of the hierarchy, have questioned the appropriateness of a priest who is also a pop idol.

Cardinal Serafim Fernandes de Araujo, archbishop of Belo Horizonte, sees a value — and a danger — in Father Rossi's ministry.

“Father Marcelo has certainly brought many Catholics back to Church life, but his permanent exposure to media could be a source for problems, especially for a young priest,” the cardinal said. “The media could sink him just as it brought him up, and the media could also distort the sense of the Mass by turning it into a trendy show.”

Some of Father Rossi's fellow priests in Santo Amaro also expressed concern about what they say is an excess of emotion and a lack of content in the famous priest's celebrations.

Father Rossi agreed that dangers exist and, for that reason, he says he exercises great care in his ministry. “I can't control my image, and good things can turn bad in the wrong hands,” he said.

“Everything I do, any initiative, is done with the explicit permission of my bishop; otherwise I don't go ahead,” he added.

Yet, some Church leaders wonder if Father Rossi's carefulness will be enough to prevent what could become, for many people, a purely emotional short-term experience.

In his Oct. 14 comments on Father Rossi, Rio's Cardinal Araujo de Sales acknowledged that the criticism that the popular priest provides little solid content to his followers has some merit. “Yes, but he gets young people to sing songs of praise to the Lord — young people who would otherwise would be singing [worldly] songs”.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Lima, Peru.