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Sunday, May 16, 1999 Published at 22:45 GMT 23:45 UK

World: Americas

Brazil's 'pop star priest'

Father Rossi has become a national celebrity

By Stephen Cviic in Brazil

Watch Stephen Cviic's report
One of Brazil's biggest-ever hit records has sold more than three millon copies in less than a year. But unlike many other popular hits here, it has no scantily-clad female dancers on the cover.

The music comes from a Mass, and the man leading the singing is a Catholic priest - Father Marcelo Rossi.

[ image: The priest has them dancing in the aisles]
The priest has them dancing in the aisles
No country in the world has as many Roman Catholics as Brazil - more than 120m of them.

But over the past couple of decades, the Church there has been in decline. Many people have stopped going to Mass; others have converted to the fast-growing Protestant evangelical movement. Father Marcelo Rossi is something of a phenomenon here. As a teenager, he preferred body-building to religion. But he rediscovered the Church after the death of his cousin.

And since becoming a priest, his extraordinary charisma has turned him into a national celebrity.

'I'm no star'

Even on a popular Sunday evening TV variety show, which usually tries to raise its viewing figures with bizarre erotic games, the tall, good-looking Father Rossi captivates the audience, telling them which Biblical psalms are effective against depression.

[ image: Thousands attend Father Rossi's Masses]
Thousands attend Father Rossi's Masses
Despite his fame, father Rossi insists he is not a star.

"I am a priest first and foremost, and I have a clear objective. The Church has to use the media to spread its message," he says.

"Most people don't go to Mass, but they do watch television. Because I appear on television, people inevitably talk about the pop-star priest. But that's not what I am."

Father Rossi's Sunday Masses are huge events, held in a converted factory and attended by tens of thousands of people. The congregation is mainly poor and overwhelmingly female.

The Mass itself has all the usual orthodox elements, but the atmosphere is completely different from what most Catholics are used to.

[ image: The congregations are mainly female]
The congregations are mainly female
Judging by the reaction of one woman in the congregation, Father Rossi's approach is succeeding. "My life has changed completely since I started coming to Father Rossi's Masses," she says. "It's helped me resolve my personal problems, and now I can say I am a happy person. God's light is shining in my life."

Father Rossi and his supporters are part of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, a current within the church which concentrates on the spiritual side of religion.

They criticise the hierarchy of the Brazilian Church for spending too many years concentrating on social issues, while millions of people went over to the more intense worship of the Protestant evangelicals.

The Lord's Aerobics

But Father Neil Crombie, a Scottish priest who works in São Paulo, thinks Father Rossi's approach also has its dangers.

"In a sense, he's appealing to the people who are looking for instant answers to their problems, especially the social problems created by living in this large city," Father Crombie says.

"And I would say there's a danger that his message is becoming confused with his personality, becoming a personality cult."

The most extraordinary moment in the Mass comes at the end when Father Rossi leads the congregation in a dance he calls The Lord's Aerobics.

Some Brazilian bishops find the sight of tens of thousands of people shaking their bodies in time to the music hard to take. But even they can't argue with this level of enthusiasm.

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