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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 with NCR about Pope Benedict XVI’s 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 trip?
Da Cunha: I think it has tremendous significance. First of all, I think people will get to know him better than what they’ve 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 it’s 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 Frei Gavao.

You mean crowds in the millions?
I’m not sure if you can say in the millions, but I would say around a million. That’s 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, they’ve been doing a segment every night called “I’m 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. It’s 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, they’ll 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. There’s so much violence, so much poverty and drugs, especially among the young. There’s 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 there’s hope for Brazil, for the world, for the church, and for young people to commit and offer their talents to make a difference.

Around the Catholic world, the church in Brazil has a reputation of being somewhat secularized and rather liberal. Are those impressions accurate?
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 it’s effecting commitments in the family. There’s a heavy emphasis on sexual liberation, and you see how it’s taking many young people away from traditional values that we have accepted and professed and preached for years. Probably, however, there’s some exaggeration in what you read and hear in Europe and elsewhere, but there’s also some truth.

But you’re saying that all of Brazil is not defined by the carnival?
Exactly. That’s the summary of what I’m 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. They’re speaking with one voice now a lot more than they were thirty years ago.

Yet it’s 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, that’s 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 them.

Does it help that the pope is canonizing a Brazilian while he’s there?
Yes, it’s important, because he is the first Brazilian-born saint to be canonized. To do that in Brazil, while he’s there, is another way of saying that Brazil is important. [Note: Benedict XVI will canonize an 18th century Franciscan named Antonio de Sant’Anna 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, it’s not. It’s 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 hasn’t been one until now.

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?
I’m really not sure. Frankly, I didn’t know about this thing with the pill until recently. It wasn’t known in Brazil, it’s a very localized thing. It was not anything well known or popular. Now that it’s become official, obviously the church recognizes that something miraculous happened.

So for most people the point is simply that a Brazilian is being canonized, and the specifics don’t matter that much?
I don’t 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, it’s 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 don’t 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 justified?
I wouldn’t say it’s 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 can’t say it’s a general thing about Brazil. It’s true of people from Bahia, mostly, and of African descent.

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?
That’s right. There are many other more important issues.

Let’s 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 P’s”: poverty, Pentecostals, and priests (or the lack thereof). Let’s 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 don’t know. I know it’s 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. That’s what the church has been advocating and promoting. But I don’t 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 don’t think the pope can do anything about this.

Do you expect the pope to talk about poverty while he’s there?
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, that’s right. But Lula wasn’t 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 don’t know how much it’s his fault, and how much it’s 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 can’t 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.
There’s 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 it’s changed somewhat, because now they can’t 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. It’s a little tougher now than it used to be, but there’s 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 killing.

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 don’t think it will have any impact. It will depend on the personality of the judge, how he’s feeling. But I really don’t 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 they’re practicing Evangelicals and Pentecostals. In a sense, this might be a good thing, because they’re 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 preparation.

Why not? As baptized Catholics, why didn’t they ever get those things? On the surface, it seems like a terrible indictment of the church.
First of all, there are many places without any resident priest, so there’s 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. There’s no structure of the church to continue their formation. So it’s 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 it’s the fault of liberation theology, which they say politicized the church and left a spiritual vacuum. Liberals say it’s the fault of the institutional church, which they regard as too aligned with elites and distant from the people. What’s 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. They’ve 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 agree?
Yes. For many of them, what’s happening is a discovery of religion for the first time, and it doesn’t really matter which one. ‘I’ve found this church, it’s the closest one, and it’s the first contact I had with Jesus.’ So, what difference does the denomination make? Some people don’t have that notion that I was baptized in the Catholic Church and should stay Catholic. The idea is, they’re all God’s people, so what difference does it make if I’m 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. It’s 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 that’s it. I think that story is so typical, and really reflects the reality. I don’t buy those ideological theories either. People are poor, people are needy, people are hungry, they’re lonely, and when they find a place that meets some of those needs, that’s where they go.

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 there’s 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 it’s 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 -- they’re training people to do that work, and they’re 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 these problems?
It can, and it needs to be done. When you train people to carry out the mission of the church, you’re not training them to be in opposition to the hierarchy. You’re training them to do this together. We need to do it in a way that they’re actually representing the church in evangelizing and catechizing, and doing the work that we don’t 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, it’s the priest who should do it. Laity were largely consumers.
I think that has changed. In Brazil, I can say that I’ve seen that change. More needs to be done, because we haven’t 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 it’s the only thing they have.

Sometimes, unless there’s a priest there, people don’t find it fully satisfying. Is that true of Brazil?
I don’t think it is. I think it’s more true here than in Brazil. Americans have a much greater expectation that there’s going to be a priest than Brazilians.

That’s because Brazilians are accustomed to not having a priest around?
Exactly. I remember when I was a student, there were times the priest wasn’t 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 world’s highest percentage of Catholics who identify themselves as “charismatic.” It’s 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?”
That’s exactly it. You hit the nail on the head.

Is the attrition slowing down because of the growth of the charismatic movement?
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 that approach.

Will he meet the Holy Father?
I don’t know. He’s not as prominent as he was a few years ago. He’s 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. That’s very typical of Brazil.

In other places, there have sometimes been tensions with charismatic groups and the hierarchy. What’s your impression of that dynamic in Brazil?
I think it’s been pretty seamless. In most of the parishes, you will see a charismatic presence. I don’t 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?

They’re not small little fringe groups, they’re everybody.
That’s right. There’s no longer the division of this group versus that group, because everybody blends in.

You don’t have to explain it or defend it.
Yes, right.

I’ve named some specific challenges, but now let me turn the tables and ask you to identify the major pastoral issues facing the church in Brazil.
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. Brazil’s 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, etc.?
I don’t know the answer, but it’s 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, they’re also watching what’s 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 pope’s 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 they’re 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 it.

The pope is visiting the sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida. Can you explain its importance in Brazilian Catholic devotion?
She’s 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. That’s 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, it’s a huge celebration.

I’ve 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. I’m very glad the Holy Father picked it.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted May 3, 2007

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