New president of bishops' conference aims for dialogue in polarized Brazil

New president of bishops’ conference aims for dialogue in polarized Brazil

New president of bishops’ conference aims for dialogue in polarized Brazil

Archbishop Walmor Azevedo of Belo Horizonte speaks at the meeting of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) after being elected the organization’s president in Aparecida, Brazil, May 6, 2019. (Credit: NCBB.)

Only the “light of faith” can help restore the collegiality of the bishops of Brazil, according to their new president.

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Only the “light of faith” can help restore the collegiality of the bishops of Brazil, according to their new president.

On Monday, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) elected Archbishop Walmor Azevedo of Belo Horizonte as its new president. The election took place in the city of Aparecida, where the Brazilian episcopate is attending the 57th General Assembly of the NCBB.

The archbishop is now responsible for keeping unity among the Brazilian bishops for the next four years – in a time of great political polarization in the country.

In his inaugural speech, the 65-year-old Azevedo said that “only the light of the faith can restore the strength of the collegiality in the Brazilian Church, through a very profound listening of the people of God.”

Bishop Flavio Giovenale of Cruzeiro do Sul, in the Northern State of Roraima, said Azevedo has demonstrated competence in his time at Belo Horizonte, which is needed right now at the bishops’ conference.

“In his speech, Archbishop Azevedo said that one of his goals is to keep and increase the dialogue inside and outside the Church. He’s the ideal person,” Giovenale told Crux.

According to Giovenale, the other two candidates that were in contention in the third and final round of voting were Cardinal Odilo Scherer, from São Paulo, and Archbishop Jaime Spengler, from Porto Alegre. Azevedo received over 50 percent of the vote in the three-person contest.

“It was a rather peaceful electoral process. Now it’s up to us to work for the permanent dialogue of the Church with the society – and with the Church itself,” said Giovenale.

Azevedo holds a doctorate in Biblical Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained a bishop in 1998 by Pope St. John Paul II and in 2004 became the Archbishop of Belo Horizonte. Over the years, he headed a number of commissions at the NCBB, and since 2009, he has been a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2014, Pope Francis appointed him as a member of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, told Crux Azevedo “has good relations with all segments and has good bonds with bishops who are already involved in the NCBB’s administration.”

Borba said the archbishop is seen as a moderate-progressive clergyman, who represents continuity in the NCBB’s administration.

Since its creation in the 1950s, the NCBB has been traditionally led by a socially progressive group – a natural consequence of the social problems such as poverty and inequality that the country has always faced.

However, the Brazilian episcopate as a whole is mostly moderate in political terms, tending to avoid extremism and radicalization, said Borba. Now, with the increasing political polarization in Brazilian society, the Catholic community also started to feel a growing internal controversy.

The polarization gained steam in the second term of former President Dilma Rousseff, who ended up being impeached in 2016. It reached its climax during the 2018 presidential race – which resulted in the election of President Jair Bolsonaro. During the first 120 days of his administration, Bolsonaro, who is an unabashed admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump – has engaged in several disputes with segments of society identified by him as political opponents, including the Catholic Church.

In February, the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo revealed that the military and the Brazilian intelligence agency were monitoring the preparatory activities of the Church for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will be held in Rome in October.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro promised to do more to develop the Amazon region, 60 percent of which is in Brazil, drawing the ire of environmentalists and indigenous rights organizations.

The government, according to the story, was worried about the political nature of the activities. After the publication, a general involved in the case confirmed that the synod would deal with issues concerning national security, so the government was concerned about it – but he denied the military had been spying on members of the Brazilian clergy.

Analysts feared a possible fragmentation in the NCBB motivated by clashes between pro-Bolsonaro and leftist bishops; so the expectation was that a moderate voice would rise.

“Now, things will only get out of control if someone – either in the Catholic community or in the government – makes a big mistake, provoking an unwanted confrontation,” Borba said.

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