The Church in Northeast Brazil

On the northeast coast of Brazil, at its easternmost point, stands the city of Natal, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte. Few North Americans are familiar with it, yet its people played a crucial part in major developments in the Brazilian church and probably had an influence on the church in all of Latin America.

In the early 60’s, when we lived there, Natal was a mid-sized city in the dry and impoverished area of Northeast Brazil. The only good road was one the United States had built during World War II to link the town with the airport, which was used as a supply base because of its strategic position in relation to Africa. The region had a high infant mortality rate, very little industry, lack of skilled labor, widespread illiteracy and inadequate health facilities. Most people in rural areas were subsistence farmers. Compared to the southern part of Brazil, it was like another country and felt exploited by the South. The whole region was in ferment and ripe for social revolution.


Fortunately, the church, led by the dynamic Bishop Dom Eugenio de Araujo Sales, was ready to take an active part in the radical transformation of society, not according to Marx, but according to the Gospel. With the help of a small team of priests and lay people, the bishop organized the Rural Assistance Service (SAR), which was the core of what became known as the Natal Movement. The basic characteristic of the movement, as it developed, was that it became a work of the whole churchclergy and laity working together to solve the problems of underdevelopment. Many young people were ready and eager to volunteer, most of them from the ranks of Catholic action groups and from the small school of social services in the city. Dom Eugenio aimed at a unified plan for the diocese that would use the vast resources of the church to help the people in need. To attack illiteracy, SAR initiated radio schools; to lower the infant mortality rate, it started maternity centers in rural areas; for the workers there were cooperatives, credit unions and labor unions.

This year the Archdiocese of Natal celebrated its 50th anniversary and the people of SAR held a grand reunion. Since those early days of the movement, Dom Eugenio had become the Cardinal of Rio de Janeiro and is now retired. His brother, Dom Heitor, is currently archbishop of Natal. We were eager to learn what changes had occurred, for better or worse, in the 40 years since we had worked there.

My husband, Michael, had been a representative for Catholic Relief Services to Northeast Brazil in the early 60’s, and we have a great love for Natal and the people of Brazil. Two of our children were born there. It was a back to the future experiencereturning this spring to visit old friends and to see the modern Natal40 years later. We received a warm Brazilian-style welcome from people we had not seen for many years, some of whom were showing the toll that time had taken on them.

Only remnants remained of the city we had known. A modern coastal highway now runs from the beaches to the city itself. Modern hotels are everywhere. High-rise apartment houses break the skyline. Excellent beaches and balmy weather attract tourists from all over Brazil, and charter flights bring tourists from Europe. Roads are good and traffic heavy with new-looking cars. Signs of development abound.

Meeting With the Archbishop

During a pleasant dinner with the present archbishop, Dom Heitor, we learned that many of the changes we see in the Brazilian church and the Northeast today came from seedlings planted in the Natal Movement many years ago. In the quiet, gentle manner we remembered well, he gave us the picture.

Radio schools. This was a systematic program of basic education by radio. Thousands of rural people from ages eighth to 80 learned to read and write by this means. These are no longer necessary, because there are now municipal schools in every town in the Northeast that provide a decent education. Virtually all children attend school through eighth grade, and even in rural areas many go to high school.

Maternity centers. SAR started a number of them in the small villages. They have now been replaced by government-operated maternity clinics.

Campaign for the Children. This is the approach of the church to meet current needs. Through an aggressive education campaign, a very high infant mortality rate in the state has been reduced by 80 percent. Natal and two other dioceses just signed a new agreement with the state to train thousands of volunteers to continue work in this campaign. The church provides leadership courses for these volunteer promoters, so they in turn can educate women in prenatal health and care of infants. Some of the pointers the women learn are: 1) mother’s milk is better than formula milk; 2) mothers can increase their own milk supply by a better diet; 3) good sources of protein can be found in things they had been throwing away, like egg shells, pumpkin seeds and fruit skins.

The Campaign of Brotherhood. This is a national bishops’ collection to support the social work of the church. It has been so successful that everybody wants to take credit for it. It was an idea that came in part from the Lenten appeal of the bishops in the United States. The campaign started in 1962 in several northeast dioceses. Dom Eugenio promoted it, and took the lead in helping the Brazilian bishops to adopt it as a national program. Every year it grew bigger. Now a theme for each year is prepared by select groups who meet two or three years ahead. All during Lent the theme is developed in homilies that emphasize responsibility for the poor and the respect due to other cultures. This year the campaign focuses on the indigenous peoples of Brazil.

The Repression

We heard from our Brazilian friends about the dramatic events in 1964, when a military coup took over the government and a period of severe repression began. Anyone working with the poor was in danger of torture and imprisonment. Repressive techniques including disappearances, which would be used in other Latin countries, started here, they said. We had left Brazil by this time and had no idea how bad it was for them. The people of SAR were of course prime targets. Some of them went into exile. Others who stayed on continued to work and speak out, but there were very clear limits. Even certain words could not be spoken or used, such as conscientização, the Portuguese term for raising awareness of the poor. The very name of Dom Helder Câmara, the outspoken bishop of Recife, was not to be mentioned.

Dom Eugenio had a hard role to play, they told us. He could not speak out strongly without losing all influence with the government. He was able to stay within the limits and help save hundreds of those imprisoned. No unions were allowed, and union leaders were jailed. Media people were able to make some criticism, but there were definite limits.

The ugly repression continued in the country for over 15 years (1964-79). But in 1979, General Figueiredo, who was then president, offered a general amnesty to exiles and political prisoners. After 1979, little by little there came an opening and a bit more freedom, until finally in 1990 the first popular election of a president was held since 1964.

Brazil is a very open society today. It is unlikely that it will move back toward another coup with the kind of repression Brazilians had before. No one wants it, and new democratic structures are in place to prevent it.

Changes in the Church

We attended Sunday liturgy in a parish by the beach. There was a choir, lively music, with everyone participating. Lay men and women took the lead in readings, distributing Communion and other aspects of the service. At the offertory, people formed a procession to the altar, where one by one they left their offering. The homily focused on the Campaign of Brotherhood, emphasizing the theme of the needs and treatment of indigenous people.

Dom Heitor told us that the situation of vocations to the priesthood has changed dramatically. Forty years ago the church was closing seminaries. Now the big challenge is to select from the large number of potential seminarians who want to enter the priesthood, and also to find the funds to operate expanded seminaries. Many of the new seminarians are coming from the working classes. Vocations to women’s religious orders are also stronger now. Dom Heitor sends four to five priests a year to Rome to get their master’s degrees. When they come back, these priests give courses to their colleagues to help raise the educational level of the clergy.

Ecumenical relations have changed very much also. Dom Heitor told us about an event that happened years ago, when a new Presbyterian minister held his first service in a remote village. The local priest organized a crowd with pots and pans to make all the noise they could to disrupt the service. That kind of behavior is no longer acceptable. There is now more respect for other religions and even efforts to work together on community issues.

The Vision

Many of the approaches that Dom Eugenio and the SAR team started 40 years ago continue today in Natal and other dioceses, including leadership training, promotion of community participation and empowerment of poor people. The motivation of leaders was not only oriented to improving the lives of the poor, but also came out of a vision of faith.

Dom Eugenio’s words from an early interview are worth quoting: It is really a tragic situation if the only revolutionaries in our society are Communists. Christians are also revolutionaries, and they have a much better alternative for social progress. With the authentic application of the Gospel, we will bring about a deep change in society without a revolution in the Communist sense, without putting class against class, without hate and without bloodshed.

Some things are much better now, particularly the level of literacy and more employment opportunities. But there are always new challenges. The continuing response of the church in Natal that has carried through from 40 years ago is to go to the people themselves, make them conscious of the issues and get them involved in solving their own problems.

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