CARAPICUIBA, Brazil (Reuters) - For years, Ronaldo da Silva’s daily routine consisted of drinking himself into a stupor until he passed out on a sidewalk.
Now he spends his days praying and singing with hundreds of fellow Christians at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Carapicuiba, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Sao Paulo where Pentecostal congregations are found on just about every block.
“I’d probably be dead or in jail if it weren’t for this church,” said da Silva, a 38-year-old former Catholic who claims God cured him of epilepsy and helped him straighten out his life when he converted to Pentecostalism a decade ago.
Conversions like da Silva’s are increasingly common all over Brazil, where a boom in evangelical Protestantism is steadily chipping away at the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church.
The trend, which is playing out all across Latin America, poses a major challenge for Pope Benedict, who arrives in Brazil on May 9 for a five-day visit largely aimed at blunting the decline of Catholicism in this continent-sized nation.
Although Brazil still has more Catholics than any other country in the world, with about 125 million, the percentage of believers that practice the Vatican’s brand of Christianity has been dropping rapidly in the last three decades.
When the late Pope John Paul II visited Brazil in 1980, 89 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic. By 2000, when the last census was taken, the share of Catholics in the population had fallen to 74 percent.
The number of evangelical Protestants nearly tripled in the same period to 26 million, or about 15 percent of the population. That growth, which is expected to continue, is dramatically altering the religious landscape of a country where the national identity has been intertwined with Catholicism since the Portuguese landed 500 years ago.
“The face of Christianity in Brazil, and all over the developing world, is increasingly Pentecostal,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a research group in Washington.
Pentecostals are not Brazil’s only “evangelicos,” as Protestants are called here. Mainstream churches such as Presbyterian and Lutheran are also present, but Pentecostalism is by far the fastest growing kind of Protestantism.
More than other Christians, Pentecostals believe that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, plays an active role in everyday life. They belong to denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Universal Church, which was started in a Rio de Janeiro funeral home in 1977 and now has more than 2 million members.
Pentecostalism is especially strong in poor urban areas, where the precariousness of daily life — blackouts, violent crime, high unemployment — can make people seek divine intervention. Many converts are also attracted to the pop-style music and dynamic liturgies, which resonate with contemporary tastes more than the traditional Catholic Mass.
At the Universal Church in Carapicuiba, the weekly Saturday night service at times looks more like a dance hall than a religious temple, with worshippers flailing their arms in the air and singing in unison. Some, like the former alcoholic da Silva, frequently break into tears as they look to the sky and thank God for their good fortune.
“The language of evangelicals is simple, direct, with minimal theology, making it easily understood by the masses,” said Silvia Fernandes, a sociologist at the Center of Religious Statistics and Social Research in Rio de Janeiro.
Evangelical Protestants are also a political force in Brazil. About 10 percent of members of Congress are evangelicals, acting as an influential legislative caucus. Three of the last four state governors in Rio were Protestants, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva aggressively courted the evangelical vote in his re-election campaign last year.
The Catholic Church, which is also losing followers to secularism, has responded to the Pentecostal boom by borrowing some evangelical thunder. In a movement that has come to be known as the Charismatic Renewal, some Catholic churches in Brazil have adopted animated worship styles and Pentecostal practices like speaking in tongues and divine healing.
The best-known proponent of renewalist Catholicism is Padre Marcelo Rossi, a former aerobics instructor turned pop-star preacher from Sao Paulo who sells millions of CD’s and even starred in a movie in which he played the Archangel Gabriel.
So far, however, the shift to renewalism has done little to reverse the evangelical tide — a trend that Catholic leaders acknowledge is worrisome.
“I’m not going to say that it pleases us when believers leave the church,” Odilo Scherer, Sao Paulo’s new archbishop, said in a recent interview with the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo. “Maybe our methods are inadequate.”