How Hillsong brought the ‘clubbing experience’ to religion in Catholic Brazil

Brazil is home to the world’s largest Catholic population, but the rise of Pentecostalism is drawing young Brazilians away from traditional pews, and toward charismatic, “club-like” mega-churches.

And according to Cristina Rocha, a Brazilian-born cultural anthropologist at Western Sydney University, Australia plays an important role in this trend.

Over the past two decades, Professor Rocha has been researching the intersections between migration and religion, exploring why so many Brazilians travel to Australia.

“More and more international students coming from Brazil have said, ‘I came here because of Hillsong,’” she says.

But Hillsong Church, which was established by husband and wife pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in Sydney in 1983, isn’t the only drawcard.

Professor Rocha discovered that C3, Australia’s second-largest Pentecostal church, has also amassed a large Brazilian cohort.

“[Both churches] focus on youth culture,” she explains.

“[Followers] can be who they are, they can have tattoos and piercings, they can dance and listen to secular music. They can drink in moderation.”

Australia’s religious export

These attitudes, Professor Rocha says, are at odds with traditional Pentecostal churches back in Brazil.

Cristina Rocha is director of Western Sydney University’s religion and society research cluster.(Supplied: Cristina Rocha)

“What Hillsong and C3 say is, ‘Once you’re here, the Holy Spirit will change your life. It’s not us — we’re just humans like you.’”

Professor Rocha says many Brazilians — both students and pastors — who study at the churches’ colleges or attend their conferences, are spreading this style of worship.

“There is a circulation of Brazilians coming here then going back [to Brazil],” she says.

“They bring these practices — the way Hillsong does church with lights in a dark room, and the clubbing experience — and the very informal way of relating the Bible to everyday events.”

C3 now has two branches in Brazil, while Hillsong has one in São Paulo, and Professor Rocha says several of the pastors received their training in Australia.

Marist priest Paul Mahony spent nearly 20 years working with Catholic communities in Brazil.(Supplied: Paul Mahony)

Following in Catholic footsteps

Decades before C3 and Hillsong set up their outposts in Brazil, Australians from other denominations were spreading the Word in South America.

One of these Australians was Father Paul Mahony, a Marist priest who arrived the capital Brasilia in 1985 and spent 18 years working in congregations throughout the country.

“We went to live and work with the poorest people we could find,” he recalls.

Although Brazil was — and still is — a majority Catholic country, Father Mahony says the priesthood requires a high school certificate, so many locals were not qualified to lead their own parishes.

He recalls being faced with a surprising level of violence. During his time in Brazil, homicide rates were some of the highest in the world.

As a Marist, Father Mahony conducts services, including this one in a Brazilian jail, in the spirit of Mary, mother of Jesus.(Supplied: Paul Mahony)

“[In São Paulo] we had the largest cemetery in South America near our parish,” he says.

“In the time I was there, there’d be no child finishing primary school who didn’t personally know somebody who’d been murdered.”

When the spiritual becomes political

For Brazilian-born Gabriela Cabral da Rocha Weiss, who is now studying social work in Australia, this prevalence of violence explains why so many Brazilians look to a higher power.

“Sometimes the only hope people have is religion, because there’s poverty, violence and inequality,” she says.

Ms Cabral da Rocha Weiss, however, is neither Catholic nor Pentecostal. She was raised in the minority religion known as Spiritism.

Gabriela Cabral da Rocha Weiss was raised in a devout Spiritist family, but today she’s not religiously affiliated.(Supplied: Gabriela Cabral da Rocha Weiss)

It was founded in 19th century by a French educator, who wrote under the pen name Allan Kardec, and gained a following in Brazil. According to the country’s 2010 Census, there were 3.8 million members.

“Spiritists believe in God and Jesus Christ,” she says.

“They believe that we incarnate multiple times to develop our moral[ity] and our intellect, and whatever you did in past incarnations will impact your future.”

Although Ms Cabral da Rocha Weiss no longer practises today, she appreciates the moral framework and comfort that religion offers many in Brazil.

Ms Cabral da Rocha Weiss recalls attending Spiritism gatherings with her family, pictured, from an early age.(Supplied: Gabriela Cabral da Rocha Weiss)

But she says faith has become increasingly politicised, especially by the country’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, who identifies as a Catholic, but has strong support from Evangelical and Pentecostal voters.

“I believe that religion mixed with politics — in a country where there’s no good education, everything’s so expensive, salaries are so low — can be a very dangerous mix, and it can be taken advantage of, like Bolsonaro is doing.”

Ever-evolving faith

While President Bolsonaro is popular amongst many religious voters, Professor Rocha says his leadership is dividing Christians, often within denominations.

“There has been a rift within all these major religions between the far-right conservative wings of these religions versus the progressives,” she says.

“We have seen the more conservative Opus Dei Catholics [working] with the very conservative Pentecostals, as much as we have seen progressive Pentecostals working together with progressive Catholics and Spiritists.”

Professor Rocha acknowledges that while Brazil’s religious demography has changed under the leadership of Bolsonaro, the transformation of faith is endemic to this country.

When the Portuguese colonisers arrived in Brazil in 1500, they brought Catholicism. Simultaneously, through the slave trade, religious practices from Africa also came to Brazil.

According to Professor Rocha, these religious traditions melded with the pre-existing spiritual practices of Indigenous Brazilians.

“Catholicism in Brazil is divided, even today, between Roman Catholicism — the hierarchical Church — and popular Catholicism, with the cult of the saints, the myriad miracles, healings and pilgrimages,” she says.

“This popular Catholicism is mixed with Indigenous religion, Shamanism, animism and African practices of veneration of ancestors, spirit incorporation, divination.

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