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Brazil's 'pop-star priest' gets mammoth new stage

Associated Press Modified: November 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm •  Published: November 3, 2012

There was nothing stale about his Mass on Friday.

Singing as loud as they could, waving white hankies and swaying with a rocking band, the 20,000 people who jammed into the Mother of God sanctuary hammed it up for TV cameras and shed tears down their cheeks as their superstar priest waved to them from the pulpit. An estimated 30,000 other people had gathered outside, where young boys climbed up into nearby trees trying to get a glimpse of the church grounds as they squinted over a sea of heads streaming out of the sanctuary.

"We have problems, everyone has problems," worshipper Zuleima de Oliveira Sales said as she stood in the tightly packed sea of people under the soaring blue roof of the structure, her voice choking. "They don't come to an end, but I have faith, I have faith in Our Lady."

That's the sort of belief the Catholic Church is counting on in Brazil and other developing nations. Leaders from the Vatican on down are looking to them as bulwarks against losses in Europe and the U.S., where sex abuse scandals have inspired many people to leave the church. About half of the world's Catholics live in Latin America.

Pentecostalism was once seen as a major threat to Brazil's Catholic Church. Pentecostal churches, many of them founded by U.S. evangelicals, saw their membership double to more than 12 percent of the country's population over the 1990s, with about half of the congregants estimated to be former Catholics.

During the 1990s, Brazil's economy suffered from hyperinflation and other woes, and Pentecostal churches aggressively recruited in the slums and poor outskirts of Brazil's cities by offering nuts-and-bolts self-improvement advice as well as Christian ministry.

Since 2003, however, Pentecostal churches have seen growth slow. The percentage of Brazilians calling themselves Pentecostals edged up from 12.5 percent of the population to 13.3 percent.

Yet the Catholic Church has continued to lose parishioners, and church leaders have had little success so far in halting that trend.

Brazil was the first nation outside Europe that Pope Benedict XVI visited, during a five-day tour in 2007 largely aimed at stopping losses in Latin America. During the trip, the pope canonized Brazil's first native-born saint.

Then Benedict announced last August during the church's World Youth Day, which drew 1.5 million people to Spain, that the next version of the gathering would be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. The pope is expected to attend.

For now, Rossi hopes his big church will bring together tens of thousands of faithful for every Mass, giving new energy to the Catholic faith.

"People want big spaces. They want grand places for prayer," he told the Globo TV network. "One candle illuminates, 10 candles illuminate — and 100,000 candles light up so much more."