Historically Black Catholic Lay Associations Fight to Survive in Brazil

Members of black brotherhoods participate in a service at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men in Salvador, Brazil. Courtesy photo by William Justo

At the end of October, members of Brazil’s Catholic black lay associations gathered in the northern port city of Salvador to discuss their centuries-long history and the challenges facing the new network they have formed — an association of associations — in a country where the Catholic Church itself is questioning its future.

Created by slaves and emancipated black men and women in colonial times, when they were not allowed to attend the same churches as their white masters, the black lay associations were once refuges of solidarity and resistance against slavery. Most made efforts to buy freedom for their enslaved members. “Our brotherhood functioned as an important center in the abolitionist struggle,” said Antônio Nicanor, a member of the Brotherhood of the Black Men in Salvador.

But the existence of the black Catholic groups is threatened by the same societal forces that are draining all established religions of members and energy, chiefly the loss of young people. “The average age in our brotherhood is 55,” Nicanor told Religion News Service. “In most of the organizations all over Brazil, there’s no effective renewal.

“Since 2017 we’ve been working to reunite all brotherhoods and communities in Brazil, in an effort to grow stronger,” said Nicanor, referring to the network that is meant to bolster brotherhoods like his. “Our organizations are aging, and we have to fight against their end.”

Some of the decline has to do with problems particular to Brazil’s complex religious landscape. The lay associations have long been concerned with the conservation of African culture in the church, and many members are loyal both to Catholicism and to Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. These allegiances have caused some Catholic clergy to regard them with suspicion.

“We still suffer with the prejudice of some people in the Church,” said Analia Santana, a member of Nicanor’s Brotherhood of the Black Men and an academic researcher specializing in its history.

“Many priests say they don’t know anything about the black brotherhoods. Seminaries don’t talk about us. What happens if a priest like this is suddenly appointed as our chaplain?” asked Vanilda Silvério, vice-director of the Brotherhood Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black Men, in São Paulo.

(In Portuguese, the term for these communities, “irmandade,” encompasses both men and women, though it is often rendered as “brotherhood” in English, and many specify black men in their titles. Even so, women such as Silvério have only served in leadership roles since the early 2000s.)

Her association has existed in São Paulo since 1711 and counted more than 400 members a few decades ago. Now there are 62 brothers and sisters. “My grandfather joined the brotherhood in the 1920s. Now one of my daughters is also a member,” said Silvério.

Her younger daughter, however, resists the idea of taking part in the group. “I’m 57. I’m worried about the future. I don’t see many young people joining the brotherhood. They don’t have time to contribute — they have to study and work.”

Like many shrinking institutions, Brazil’s lay Catholic associations both benefit from an infrastructure built up during their high times and pay dearly to maintain it. Most of the black fraternities own their churches, cemeteries and other historical buildings and are responsible for their conservation.

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Source: Religion News Service