Posted May 3, 2007
Interview with Auxiliary Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha
By John L. Allen Jr.
NCR Senior Correspondent
April 30, 2007
Auxiliary Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha, 49, of the Newark
archdiocese is the first and, so far, the only Brazilian-born bishop in the
United States. A member of the Society for Divine Vocations, da Cunha is the
son of Josefa and Manuel da Cunha of Nova Fatima, Bahia, Brazil, and a graduate
of the Universidade Catolica Fatima dos Salvados with a degree in philosophy.
Though he served his entire priestly career in Newark, da Cunha has remained in
close contact with Brazil. He recently returned from a month in the country,
and watches the Brazilian news every night via satellite television. On April
30, he sat down in the chancery of the Newark archdiocese for an interview
about Pope Benedict XVIs upcoming trip to Brazil, in
conjunction with the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America
and the Caribbean (CELAM).
NCR: What is the significance for Brazil of this
Da Cunha: I think it has tremendous significance. First of all, I
think people will get to know him better than what theyve seen and heard
through the press. They will see him personally, and the unique personality he
brings: his pastoral approach, his simplicity and humility, and his concern for
the people and the church. I think people are going to really like him, and
its going to be a big boost to the church in Brazil. Hopefully, it will
revive enthusiasm for evangelization, and bring people back to the church.
Do you expect big crowds?
Yes, definitely. There will be big crowds for his meeting with youth in
the stadium in São Paolo, and there will be a huge crowd for the Mass at
the Sanctuary of Aparecida which he will celebrate, and for the canonization of
You mean crowds in the millions?
Im not sure if you can say in the millions, but I would say around
a million. Thats my feeling.
Is it your impression that the average Brazilian is excited that the
pope is coming?
Yes. I watch the Brazilian news in the evening, and for the last several
weeks, theyve been doing a segment every night called Im
Going to See the Pope. They choose a person from a different part of the
country, from a different state, every night, who is planning to go to see the
pope. They interview that person, asking what it means to them and so on. There
are a lot of young people, and you see the enthusiasm and the joy. People are
coming from all over the country, in caravans and buses, flying, in groups and
by themselves. Its going to be an important event for the church in
Brazil. There will be a lot of media coverage as well.
How do you think the Brazilian media will cover the trip?
One question is how much enthusiasm the trip will produce. I hear a lot
of young people saying that the presence of the pope will revive our passion
for the faith. Also, theyll be interested in the social consequences.
Yesterday I remember one young man saying that the pope will bring a message of
peace and love, meaning less violence. Theres so much violence, so much
poverty and drugs, especially among the young. Theres a hope that he will
awaken enthusiasm for the faith, and as a consequence there might be less
violence because of a greater commitment to God and to the church.
What will Brazilians be waiting to hear from the pope?
I think they want to hear a message of hope, more than anything else.
They want him to say that theres hope for Brazil, for the world, for the
church, and for young people to commit and offer their talents to make a
Around the Catholic world, the church in Brazil has a reputation of
being somewhat secularized and rather liberal. Are those impressions
To a certain extent, yes. Secularism has grown tremendously in Brazil in
recent years. There is a tremendous influence of the media in the life of
families and young people. You see young people heavily influence by this
secular world, and you see how its effecting commitments in the family.
Theres a heavy emphasis on sexual liberation, and you see how its
taking many young people away from traditional values that we have accepted and
professed and preached for years. Probably, however, theres some
exaggeration in what you read and hear in Europe and elsewhere, but
theres also some truth.
But youre saying that all of Brazil is not defined by the
Exactly. Thats the summary of what Im saying.
Your answer focuses on Brazilian culture. But what about the church?
In the past, battles over liberation theology created the impression of a rift
between Brazil and Rome. Where do things stand today?
It has changed considerably. If you think in terms of the 1970s and
1980s, there was a tremendous growth of liberation theology and leftist
tendencies. Since then, things have swung much more to the center. A lot of the
leaders of those leftist movements are no longer around. The church itself has
been a lot more in tune with the Vatican and with the pope. Theyre
speaking with one voice now a lot more than they were thirty years ago.
Yet its clear that Brazilian Catholicism is still viewed
somewhat warily in Rome. After all Brazil, which is the largest Catholic
country on earth, has only three cardinals under the age of 80 and therefore
eligible to vote for the next pope; the United States, the fourth largest
Catholic country, has 12, or four times as many, despite having just half the
Catholic population. In light of that, is it especially important for the pope
to convince Brazilian Catholics that he cares about them too?
Definitely, thats important for them. Having chosen the site for
the conference in Brazil, both the Vatican and CELAM are saying that Brazil is
an important country, the largest country in Latin America and the largest
Catholic country in the world, and we need to show them that we care about
Does it help that the pope is canonizing a Brazilian while hes
Yes, its important, because he is the first Brazilian-born saint
to be canonized. To do that in Brazil, while hes there, is another way of
saying that Brazil is important. [Note: Benedict XVI will canonize an 18th
century Franciscan named Antonio de SantAnna Galvao, famous for having
promoted a paper pill with a dedication to the Virgin Mary said to
have miraculous properties.]
Is the devotion to Frei Galvao very popular and widespread?
No, its not. Its more localized in São Paolo, until
his canonization was declared. In the Northeast of Brazil, Padim Ciço is
more popular than Frei Gavao. [Note: Padim Ciço is the
popular name of Fr. Cícero Romão Batista, a 19th century diocesan
priest in the town of Juazeiro, in the countryside of Ceará.
Romão worked for the social and spiritual development of the poor, and
was suspended from the priesthood as a result of conflicts with the local
bishop. He is regarded as capable of working miracles.] Yet he is not a saint.
People go to his sanctuary, they pray to him, and he is more popular than Frei
Gavao. Frei Gavao is more localized. But since his canonization was made
public, he is becoming a national figure, but he hasnt been one until
Some have criticized the devotion to Frei Galvao as superstitious and
tinged with elements of folk magic. Cardinal Aloísio Leo Arlindo
Lorscheider said in 1998 that he considered the devotion
ridiculous, and prohibited the local nuns from making the pills.
(The sisters kept going anyway.) How is the canonization being received by the
mainstream of the church?
Im really not sure. Frankly, I didnt know about this thing
with the pill until recently. It wasnt known in Brazil, its a very
localized thing. It was not anything well known or popular. Now that its
become official, obviously the church recognizes that something miraculous
So for most people the point is simply that a Brazilian is being
canonized, and the specifics dont matter that much?
I dont think it matters. In Brazilian culture, and this is
probably true of all Latin America, rituals and external forms of piety, the
statues and all these things, are very, very popular, its embedded in the
culture. People like that and they go to these places. Our church is
diversified enough to have room for all these options.
But you dont expect that devotion to Frei Gavao is going to
become a national phenomenon?
No. I think it will stay local. It will pick up some more now, but in
six months, who knows?
I bring it up because some people say that Catholicism in Brazil is
fairly syncretistic, often shading off into magic and folk religion. Surveys
show that some Brazilians, for example, are perfectly comfortable going to a
voodoo ritual on Friday and to Mass on Sunday. Is that concern
I wouldnt say its a generalized problem. We find religious
syncretism more through the African influence on Christianity. When the African
slaves and the Christians from Portugal began to mix, the lords of the slaves
told them, You have to be baptized and become Christians. While
they were externally professing Christianity, behind the scenes the slaves
practiced their African traditions. People grew up doing that. They had to
practice Catholicism publicly, and they kept alive their traditions from Africa
privately. That grew up in the culture. So you find the tendencies to
syncretism more among people of African descent. You cant say its a
general thing about Brazil. Its true of people from Bahia, mostly, and of
So if you were going to make a list of the top three or four issues
facing the Brazilian church, syncretism would not be on it?
Thats right. There are many other more important issues.
Lets come to some of those issues. Talking to Brazilian bishops
and reading documents from the bishops conference, it seems that their
top concerns could be expressed in terms of three Ps:
poverty, Pentecostals, and priests (or the lack thereof). Lets talk first
about poverty. Catholics in Brazil are engaged in multiple ways in caring for
the poor and seeking justice on their behalf. Is there a contribution the pope
can make to that work?
I dont know. I know its a concern of the church, because
poverty leads to violence, to drugs, to so many other things. I think that
education is the main solution, because it leads to the eradication of poverty,
which in turn drives down crime and violence. Thats what the church has
been advocating and promoting. But I dont think the pope can do much
about it. There is some improvement in the social conditions of Brazil,
including education, slowly. There is economic growth. There are signs of
improvement. The last few years, economic growth has been stronger than in many
periods in the past. But that growth is not yet filtering down to the poor, it
is benefitting primarily the upper layers. I hope that with time, it will reach
those with real need. But again, I dont think the pope can do anything
Do you expect the pope to talk about poverty while hes
I think he will.
Many sectors of the church in Brazil seem disappointed in the
government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Why?
People had a lot more hope in Lula than he was able to deliver. The
church was really behind Lula when he was running for president. There were
many priests, bishops and church members who supported Lula.
Including Cardinal Claudio Hummes of São Paolo, who is now in
the Vatican as Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.
Yes, thats right. But Lula wasnt able to deliver what they
hoped he would, and the expectations they had of him.
What were those expectations?
Coming from a poor background, and being a worker, the church believed
he would be able to do much more about the poverty which is so prevalent in
Brazil. I dont know how much its his fault, and how much its
the structures. In many ways, the political system in Brazil needs a full
reform rather than just changing the president. His hands are tied in many
ways. If he makes proposals and congress says no, he cant
just go off and do it anyway. I think there is a great need to reform the
political and judicial systems.
Every year the church in Brazil sponsors a march called the Gritos
dos Excluidos, or the Cry of the Excluded, to promote social
justice. In 2006, they added corruption as one of the key issues, making the
point that the whole system, in a sense, needs to be flushed out.
Theres so much corruption in politics in Brazil that people at
lower levels, the poor, say, If they can be corrupt, so can I. The
press constantly talks about public corruption. I should say that its
changed somewhat, because now they cant hide anymore. The press is very,
very critical. Almost every day, someone is removed from office. Just this
week, they removed a mayor and two councilmen because of corruption. They had a
hidden camera showing under-the-table payments. Its a little tougher now
than it used to be, but theres still a long way to go.
The day after Pope Benedict goes back to Rome, a trial will begin of
one of the ranchers accused of orchestrating the murder of American missionary
Sr. Dorothy Stang, killed two years ago for her defense of the landless poor in
the Amazon. She is hardly the only person in Brazil killed for trying to defend
the poor. Is the church in Brazil in some ways a church of martyrs?
She is one among many who have suffered. Recently there was a list
compiled from the state of Para, which has the largest incidence of this kind
of violence. The landowners kill people because they dont want to give
land to the poor. On this list, there were priests and church workers who have
been martyred. Chico Mendez is another example. [Note: Mendez was a union
organizer and environmental activist assassinated in 1988.] Unfortunately, the
justice system in that state is very, very poor. Its difficult to punish
the criminals who commit this kind of violence. There have been many people who
gave their lives to defend the landless and the rights of the poor, and Sr.
Dorothy is one of them.
Apparently, the assassins themselves have sometimes been convicted in
the past, but you almost never get to the ranchers who ordered the
So the significance of this trial is that a rancher is actually in
the docks. Do you think the presence of the pope so close to the trial might
have any influence on the outcome?
I dont think it will have any impact. It will depend on the
personality of the judge, how hes feeling. But I really dont expect
much impact. Justice could be done, but not because the pope was there.
Coming to my second P, sociological surveys and press
reports suggest a significant defection of Catholics to Pentecostal and
Evangelical churches. How widespread is this?
The reports are pretty accurate. There have been significant losses.
What officials in Brazil say quite often is that in a practical sense, this is
not a loss, because most of those people were never practicing
Catholics. Now theyre practicing Evangelicals and Pentecostals. In a
sense, this might be a good thing, because theyre practicing some
religion, whereas they were not doing anything before. Of those who once
considered themselves Catholics and are now Pentecostals or Evangelicals,
definitely the majority were non-practicing Catholics. They were baptized, but
never really received any catechesis, education in the faith, or sacramental
Why not? As baptized Catholics, why didnt they ever get those
things? On the surface, it seems like a terrible indictment of the
First of all, there are many places without any resident priest, so
theres no parish with a formal system of catechesis and education. The
priest comes once every two months to celebrate Mass and then goes back. He
comes to baptize the babies, and then he goes back. Theres no structure
of the church to continue their formation. So its connected to your other
P, the shortage of priests.
Is that the primary explanation for the defections to Pentecostalism?
There are, of course, many other theories. Conservatives sometimes say
its the fault of liberation theology, which they say politicized the
church and left a spiritual vacuum. Liberals say its the fault of the
institutional church, which they regard as too aligned with elites and distant
from the people. Whats your explanation?
Number one, I would say the lack of catechesis, the absence of priests
in many places, and the aggressive proselytism that Evangelicals and
Pentecostals practice. Theyve taken advantage of the vacuum. Then what
happens is that as they grow, the number of churches involved in proselytizing
increases, and so they multiply.
Some time ago, many bishops in Latin American thought these converts
to Pentecostalism would eventually come home to the Catholic
Church. The data, however, suggests that this is not happening. Do you
Yes. For many of them, whats happening is a discovery of religion
for the first time, and it doesnt really matter which one.
Ive found this church, its the closest one, and its the
first contact I had with Jesus. So, what difference does the denomination
make? Some people dont have that notion that I was baptized in the
Catholic Church and should stay Catholic. The idea is, theyre all
Gods people, so what difference does it make if Im Evangelical,
Pentecostal, Baptist, Catholic, or whatever?
I was just in Honduras, where I met a woman who is almost the last
Catholic in her family. She told me that several years ago, her mother-in-law
had been hospitalized with cancer. The hospital had no priest as chaplain, and
her local pastor was stretched so thin he rarely got by to see her. Meanwhile,
the ladies from the local Evangelical church were in her room every day. They
prayed with her, they held her hand while she got chemotherapy, they read the
Bible with her, they looked after her kids and her house. Its no surprise
that when she left, she joined that church and brought many members of her
family along. So it seems to me, despite all the grand theories, that often the
basic factor is meat-and-potatoes pastoral presence.
I think thats it. I think that story is so typical, and really
reflects the reality. I dont buy those ideological theories either.
People are poor, people are needy, people are hungry, theyre lonely, and
when they find a place that meets some of those needs, thats where they
That brings us to the third P, meaning the shortage of
priests. The official Vatican numbers say that there is one priest in Brazil
for every 8,604 Catholics, compared to one for every 1,300 Catholics in the
United States. To deliver the kind of meat-and-potatoes pastoral care that we
just agreed is the key to understanding why the church is losing people, do you
agree that theres no foreseeable future in which Brazil is going to have
enough priests to do that on a routine basis?
So the only way to address this problem is to bring the laity more
into the pastoral mission of the church?
Yes, and its already happening. In many places and parishes, lay
people are filling in for the absence of a priest. Sometimes, they lead a
Sunday service when the priest is not there. They lead the Bible study groups,
they do the sacramental preparation, and they lead small communities in prayer
meetings. What the church needs to do is to offer more training and support to
laity so they can fulfill these ministries more effectively. We see what the
Evangelicals are doing -- theyre training people to do that work, and
theyre good at it.
In the past, lay empowerment in Brazil has been
associated with the liberation theology movement, with the idea of a
church from below that some in the hierarchy found threatening. Can
laity be brought into the pastoral mission of the church in a way that avoids
It can, and it needs to be done. When you train people to carry out the
mission of the church, youre not training them to be in opposition to the
hierarchy. Youre training them to do this together. We need to do it in a
way that theyre actually representing the church in evangelizing and
catechizing, and doing the work that we dont have enough priests and
religious to do.
For a long time, the Latin American model has been that if something
pastorally needs to be done, its the priest who should do it. Laity were
I think that has changed. In Brazil, I can say that Ive seen that
change. More needs to be done, because we havent gotten yet to the level
we need. Since Vatican II, that change has been a growing process. You see a
lot more lay involvement. There are places where a lay person runs the parish,
and the priest just comes to celebrate the sacraments once in a while, but a
lay person is in charge of the parish.
Does that work?
It works because its the only thing they have.
Sometimes, unless theres a priest there, people dont find
it fully satisfying. Is that true of Brazil?
I dont think it is. I think its more true here than in
Brazil. Americans have a much greater expectation that theres going to be
a priest than Brazilians.
Thats because Brazilians are accustomed to not having a priest
Exactly. I remember when I was a student, there were times the priest
wasnt there, and I conducted the Sunday service. I read all the readings,
I delivered the homily, and I read all the prayers except the consecration.
People came to church and they went home happy, nobody questioned it. If you do
that here, more people will question it.
Brazil has the worlds highest percentage of Catholics who
identify themselves as charismatic. Its almost fifty percent.
Is that helping the church cope with the Pentecostal phenomenon? In other
words, is it a way of saying, You can find everything you like about the
Pentecostals inside the Catholic Church?
Thats exactly it. You hit the nail on the head.
Is the attrition slowing down because of the growth of the
I think so. Fr. Marcello Rossi, for example, gave a big boost to that
Pentecostal type of spirituality. He had Masses of over a million people, in
the racetracks, in the stadiums, and so on. He attracted huge crowds because of
Will he meet the Holy Father?
I dont know. Hes not as prominent as he was a few years ago.
Hes kind of fading away a little bit.
But the charismatic movement itself continues to grow?
Yes. If you got to almost any Mass in Brazil, there is a joyful
celebration, in a Pentecostal and charismatic style, much more so than you find
here. In Brazil, almost every parish has a charismatic group, and you have a
charismatic style of liturgical celebration, with singing and dancing and
clapping. Thats very typical of Brazil.
In other places, there have sometimes been tensions with charismatic
groups and the hierarchy. Whats your impression of that dynamic in
I think its been pretty seamless. In most of the parishes, you
will see a charismatic presence. I dont see tension and division, because
it has almost become a natural thing in all parishes and all dioceses.
In other words, the charismatic movement is becoming the Brazilian
way of being Catholic?
Theyre not small little fringe groups, theyre
Thats right. Theres no longer the division of this group
versus that group, because everybody blends in.
You dont have to explain it or defend it.
Ive named some specific challenges, but now let me turn the
tables and ask you to identify the major pastoral issues facing the church in
Evangelization and catechesis are so critical, and education so that
people can get jobs and address the problems of violence and corruption. The
church has to continue to speak out against corruption, in all branches of
government -- judiciary, executive, and legislative branches. Political and
judicial reform is critical.
Some bishops also mention a growing secularization in Latin America,
including moves in some nations to liberalize abortion, euthanasia, and
same-sex relations. Brazils legislature is considering a bill that would
broaden access to legal abortion. Is the pressure to move in this direction
coming from inside Brazil, or from other forces, such as NGOs, the EU, the UN,
I dont know the answer, but its probably both. If you look
at secularization in Brazil, there is a changing of values and mentality among
the people. Growing acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and so on, all come
as a consequence of this secularization. Traditional values are no longer so
important. On the other hand, theyre also watching whats happening
in other countries, and they see more countries moving in this direction.
If you held an open vote in Brazil today, yes or no to the
legalization of abortion, what would happen?
I think it would not pass.
What kind of numbers?
It would probably be close ... maybe 55-45.
Any other insight on the popes visit?
It always comes to my mind, I wonder what the Protestants are
saying? When they show on TV people making vestments for the pope, or
chalices, or the platform in front of the sanctuary, in the back of my mind is
always, I wonder what the Evangelicals think of all this? While the
media is creating all this enthusiasm for the pope, I suspect theyre
asking, Why are you doing this?The state of São Paolo is
spending millions on security and so on. I wonder if they are objecting to
The pope is visiting the sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida. Can you
explain its importance in Brazilian Catholic devotion?
Shes the patroness of Brazil. When the slaves were told to go
fishing in the river, they found the body of a statue of the Virgin without the
head. Then they kept on casting their nets, and later on they found the head
that matched the body. Thats why they call her aparecida, the
one who appeared. The devotion grew in Brazil. Marian devotion has always been
very strong in Brazil, an important part of the culture. Brazilians carry it
with them wherever they go. Last year, I went to celebrate the Feast of
Aparecida in Massachusetts, in Philadelphia, in Miami. When Oct. 12 arrives,
the day of the feast, its a huge celebration.
Ive read that the shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida ranks with
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and Czestochowa as one of the
most-visited Marian sanctuaries in the world.
Millions and millions of people all year round visit the shrine.
Im very glad the Holy Father picked it.
National Catholic Reporter, Posted May 3,