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RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 4 2005 (IPS) - In Brazil, the legacy of Pope John Paul II’s lengthy papacy is a Church led by bishops who are "less independent, and less capable of thinking for themselves," according to priest Oscar Beozzo, a theologian specialising in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Pope who led the world’s Catholics from 1978 until his death on Saturday appointed over 300 bishops in Brazil, close to three-quarters of all those active today, Beozzo told IPS. Around the globe, it is estimated that two-thirds of the roughly 4,500 bishops currently serving the Church were designated by John Paul.
The generation that lived through the experience of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, has practically disappeared, said Beozzo. There is not a single bishop in active service in Brazil who personally participated in this "major revolution in the Catholic Church," he noted.
Beozzo described Vatican II as "an experience that questioned everything, that encouraged participants to rethink everything, and to look for new directions." As a result, it fostered a new generation of independent bishops, a phenomenon "that is no longer part of the Church today," he said.
The Council, which was opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and closed in 1965 under Paul VI (1963-1978), is considered the most important event in the Catholic Church in the 20th century.
Through the 16 documents produced, Vatican II aimed to bring the Church into the modern era, with wide-reaching changes in the way the religion is practised and a greater opening to the world and its current problems.
There has always been a struggle "between Rome and the Council," Beozzo said. The leaders of the Curia, or Vatican administration, strove to impose their own will on the process, despite constituting a minority, but John XXIII made it clear that the work of the Council was to be primarily the responsibility of the bishops.
Under John Paul II, however, it was the line followed by the "losing side" that gained force, and gradually undermined the stances held by the majority, he noted.
This fact is clearly reflected in the new generation of Brazilian bishops, Beozzo said. As the years passed, the more independent bishops, who promoted pastoral work "with a local face," inevitably reached the retirement age of 75, and were replaced with successors more closely aligned with the Vatican.
As a result, the "number one question" with regard to a bishop’s work was no longer "what needs to be done to respond to local problems," but rather, "what does Rome want, what does the Vatican say," Beozzo maintained.
This transition took the form of open confrontation in some cases. The most striking example is that of Hélder Câmara, the archbishop of Recife and Olinda in northeastern Brazil – the poorest region of the country – from 1964 to 1985, renowned around the world as a champion of the poor and a pioneer of liberation theology.
The first blow dealt to Câmara was the refusal to promote him to the position of cardinal, which was interpreted as the Vatican’s punishment for his independent stance and outspoken defence of the rights of the poor and marginalised.
This was followed by further affronts, like the shutting down of a seminary whose orientation was opposed by the Vatican, and Câmara replacement with a successor chosen against his will. "It was traumatic," said Beozzo.
Sometimes these conflicts descended into petty cruelty, as in the case of Pedro Casaldáliga, the former bishop of Sao Felix do Araguaia, in central-western Brazil.
Upon his retirement, the Church leadership tried to force him to move out of the municipality he had served for so many years, so as not to "constrain" his successor through his continued presence. In the end, the order was withdrawn in the face of the fierce opposition of local residents, Casaldáliga’s former flock.
The popular image of "Joâo de Deus", as John Paul was known in Brazil, arose from his first visit to this country, in July 1980, when he drew crowds of millions during a tour of 13 state capitals in 12 days.
On that first visit, the Pope "really listened" to the Brazilian clergy, even to the followers of liberation theology, the progressive current that gained strength in the Latin American church in the 1960s and 1970s, said Beozzo.
Brazilians feel "orphaned" by the Pope’s death, said Cardinal Claudio Hummes, archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Cardinal Geraldo Majella of Salvador, summing up the grief shared not only by Catholics but by Brazilians from other religions as well, who welcomed John Paul’s ecumenism.
For the first time, Brazilians felt close to a Pope, who returned to this country in 1991 and 1997. He was "a symbol of peace" who won the affection of the Brazilian people, said President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But his words during his 1991 visit to seven cities were very different from what he said in 1980, said Beozzo, who pointed out that by his third journey to Brazil, in 1997, he only visited Rio de Janeiro.
Despite the size of Brazil’s Catholic population, there are only four Brazilian cardinals in the College of Cardinals with the right to vote for a new pope. Although there are four other Brazilian cardinals, they are over 80, which means they can participate, but cannot cast votes.
There is a clear imbalance in the College of Cardinals, said Beozzo. Latin America, which is home to nearly half of the world’s Roman Catholics, accounts for only 18 percent of the voting cardinals, among whom Europeans comprise an absolute majority.
But "it used to be worse," said Beozzo, who noted that the Italians, who made up half of all the cardinals at the time of Pope Pious XII (1939-1958), now account for 18 percent – although that is still "a huge proportion" for one single country, he added.
In the last two decades, under John Paul’s papacy, the Roman Catholic Church has lost ground in Brazil. While Catholics represented 89 percent of the population in 1980, that proportion has now dropped to 73 percent of the country’s 182 million people.
Protestant churches have been growing fast. But the "most spectacular" growth has been seen among those who identify themselves as having "no religion," who now make up seven percent of the population, Beozzo added.
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