SÃO PAULO — Father Jonas Abib, the leader of Canção Nova (“New Song” in Portuguese), one of the most important Catholic charismatic communities in Brazil, died on December 12 at 85. He had been suffering from myeloma, a form of cancer, since 2021.
Praised by supporters as a figure with a unique gift for organization and outreach to youth, Abib has also been criticized by others for hostility to indigenous spirituality and closeness to the right-wing government of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
One of the pioneering promoters of Charismatic Catholic Renewal (CCR) in the South American country, Salesian Father Abib launched Canção Nova in 1978 with the goal of establishing a community of lay people and clergy members animated by the Holy Spirit.
A musician who wrote Catholic songs that gained fame all over Brazil, Abib also worked intensely to spread the Gospel through the means of communication. In the 1980s, he created Canção Nova radio station and Canção Nova TV.
Today, Canção Nova media outlets reach millions of people in Brazil, Portugal and many other countries. The media group also includes a publishing house and a record company.
The community has branches in several Brazilian cities, besides groups in Paraguay, Mozambique, Portugal, Italy, France, and Israel.
“He was a humble, simple, saint man, who fully lived the priesthood,” affirmed Father Dilermando Cozatti, a longtime friend.
Cozatti first met Abib in 1959 at a seminary in Lavrinhas, in São Paulo, where Abib was his teacher. Over the years, they worked together in several fronts, usually with groups of young Catholics.
“At the end of the 1960s, he already began to experiment with community life. His group saw community life as an ideal for laicity,” Cozatti told Crux, adding that “one could see that such movement was something new that was about to begin.”
After the formal creation of Canção Nova, Abib had to distance himself from the Salesians’ daily life, but friends say he never abandoned Saint John Bosco’s ideals. In 2009, one year after receiving pontifical recognition, Canção Nova was formally admitted as part of the Salesian family.
Over the years, Canção Nova also invested in education, founding a school and a college. At the beginning of the 2000s, the first (non-credit) class of philosophy was launched by the group. In 2011, the college was officially recognized by the Brazilian government, also offering theology and other courses.
“Father Abib had the goal of forming new men for a new world. Not only communication, but also education was central for him,” affirmed Lino Rampazzo, a professor at the college since it was established.
Rampazzo recalled that Abib always emphasized the importance of offering high-quality, rigorous courses.
“It was part of the Salesian charism. He dreamt that one day it could become a university,” he added.
The death of Abib, who received the title of monsignor in 2007, caused many reactions from Catholics in Brazil.
“Monsignor Jonas Abib is an undying reference of a man of God in love with Jesus Christ. Through the strength of his witnessed faith, he constituted a rich heritage on the missionary journey of the Church, a source of inspiration,” affirmed Archbishop Walmor Azevedo de Oliveira of Belo Horizonte, who heads the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB).
Cardinal Odilo Scherer, the Archbishop of São Paulo, released a statement in which he emphasized Abib’s use of the media to evangelize and affirmed that he “devoted all his life to the Church, which he loved and served so much.”
Many Catholics expressed their sadness over Abib’s death on social media – along with their wish of his future canonization.
“He lived sainthood. He was a most loyal son of the Church, a person who was conscious of God’s plan for him but who never expressed any vanity about it,” Cozatti said.
The idea, however, is not supported by some in the Church, who see Abib’s legacy as controversial.
“He was a multifaceted man. He was very intelligent, had a great connection with the people, and was a communicator. But he had a few magical creeds, he believed he had healing powers,” affirmed theologian Fernando Altemeyer Jr, a Religious Studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, alluding to “Masses of cure and liberation” and other similar celebrations.
Altemeyer acknowledges that Abib had the merit of building one of the largest Catholic communities in Brazil within a few decades, but recalls that he had “a profoundly conservative rhetoric and even gave his blessing to [President Jair] Bolsonaro.”
The president, who lamented Abib’s death on social media, visited Canção Nova’s headquarters shortly after being elected, in 2018. Abib welcomed him and prayed with him.
“Who elected you was not the people, it was God. So Canção Nova welcomes you with arms wide open and tells you, Mr. President, to fulfil God’s will, so that Brazil will be completely changed,” Abib then said to Bolsonaro.
The incumbent leader, who was defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and will leave the presidency on December 31, had a highly controversial tenure, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he repeatedly tried to downplay the seriousness of the disease. His pro-gun rhetoric and his failure to protect the environment, especially the Amazon, led Church leaders to criticize him on several occasions.
Altemeyer affirmed that Abib “was not in tune with the CNBB nor with Pope Francis” due to his “brutal intolerance regarding non-Christian religions,” so the request of a speedy canonization process is not justifiable.
In the opinion of theologian Faustino Teixeira, a retired professor at the Juiz de Fora Federal University and an expert in inter-faith dialogue, Abib’s stance regarding other religious traditions is a massive taint on his legacy.
Teixeira recalls the controversy caused by Abib’s book Sim, Sim! Não, Não! – Reflexões de Cura e Libertação (“Yes, Yes! No, No! – Reflections on Healing and Liberation”) in 2008, when a judge in Bahia State ordered the removal of all copies from bookstores due to the alleged “practice and incitement of discrimination or religious prejudice.”
In the book, Abib affirmed that the Brazilian people is Catholic but have a “mentality strongly marked by Spiritism, both [Allan] Kardec’s Spiritism […] and the Umbanda, Candomblé and other branches of the African tradition.”
He said that the devil manifests in such practices and that the “Spiritist doctrine is malignant.”
“Spiritism is like an epidemy and must be fought as such: it is a focus of death.”
The lawsuit was taken to the Supreme Court, which ruled that although the book had an “intolerant, pedantic, and prepotent” stance, it was part of the “clash of religions” and is protected by religious freedom.
“This book caused a great controversy because it explicitly demonstrated how Canção Nova sees other religions, a way which is very distant from the principles of the Second Vatican Council,” Teixeira argued.
Teixeira said that the “notion of a Catholic centrality that must avoid ecumenism is contrary to the Second Vatican Council and to Pope Francis’ papacy.”
He posted an article on social media on December 13 recalling Abib’s anti-ecumenical visions and mentioning the controversy caused by the book.
“I received several attacks, especially from younger people,” he lamented.
Manoel Godoy, a Theology professor at the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute in Belo Horizonte, first met Father Jonas Abib in the 1970s, when he was a seminarian. He also thinks that his visions – and the ones of Canção Nova – have “ecclesiological inconsistences with regard to the Second Vatican Council, which opened the Church to the world.”
“Both Monsignor Abib and Canção Nova deny many times that they are part of the world and that they have to dialogue with other social segments,” he told Crux.
He said that the Canção Nova’s media “only portray one kind of Church, and never show that there are other dimensions.”
“They have a unilateral vision of the Church, and a proselytist, apologetical stance,” he argued.
The charismatic practices promoted by Canção Nova, such as healing activities and glossolalia, “reduce the Church to a therapeutical dimension, something very similar to the Neo-Pentecostal churches’ approach,” he analyzed.
Fernando Altemeyer Jr recalled that CNBB published a document decades ago to criticize the excesses promoted CCR, especially the idea of “baptism in the Spirit.”
“Those were his contradictions. He was a paradoxical man. But he left a well-organized movement. Canção Nova will certainly keep going without his presence,” Altemeyer concluded.