[On Sunday, Oct. 9, Pope Francis announced a consistory on Nov. 19 for the creation of 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope. Crux is offering a series of profiles of the new cardinals.]
ROME— Sérgio da Rocha, who will soon turn 57, is the current archbishop of the Brazilian capital Brasília, where he was appointed by Benedict XVI in June 2011 to succeed Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, considered a strong Latin American contender to the papacy in 2013.
As president of the Brazilian Bishop’s Conference, da Rocha took part in the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, where he obviously caused a positive impression on Pope Francis, who this year tapped him to be part of the Synod’s Council to prepare the 2018 meeting of bishops, to focus on youth and vocations.
The council has 15 members, 12 of whom were chosen by the prelates gathered in Rome in 2015, and three others, like da Rocha, who were handpicked by Francis.
Ahead of the synod, da Rocha spoke about the need for both Church and State to pay closer attention to couples in difficult situations, saying he hoped the bishops could “find light, not just general enlightenment but pastoral guidance.”
He didn’t, however, give a clear opinion on access to Communion for divorced and remarried couples, one of the hot button issues of that meeting.
On the Church’s approach to the LGBT community, another contentious issue, Rocha said that “the Church wants to welcome everyone, without excluding anyone, but, at the same time, tries to offer, under the light of the Gospel, the values that come from God’s words, that must orient the actions of everyone.”
Under his command, the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference (CNBB) has strongly condemned the legalization of abortion as the response to the Zika virus, which scientific evidence shows might be tied to a growth of cases of babies being born with cerebral abnormalities.
Responding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who earlier in the year asked Latin American governments to allow abortions in cases of pregnancies where babies present signs of microcephaly, da Rocha said: “We need to value life in every situation and every condition. Less quality of life does not mean less right to live or less human dignity.”
The CNBB also launched a 2016 “Fraternity campaign” under the banner “Common Home, Our Responsibility,” to implement Pope Francis’s environment encyclical, Laudato Si’.
Care for creation is a key concern for the new Brazilian cardinal, who grew up in the rural areas of São Paulo state.
Late last September, talking to Vatican Radio from a gathering of Portuguese-speaking bishops held in Aparecida, Brazil, he appealed for society to take action, rather than rely solely on governments.
“When we talk about the care of creation, don’t think only of distant ecosystems, but of where you live, our common home,” he said.
He added that it was necessary to talk to authorities about basic sanitation in Brazil, where millions have no access to clean water, but forming consciences regarding a more responsible care of nature was also key. Among the examples he gave were recycling as well as reducing food consumption and water waste.
Since being named to his diocese — Brasília is Brazil’s fourth largest city — he has created 11 new parishes, introduced two new pastoral plans for the homeless and for young people, reformed the local seminary and restructured the pastoral teams.
People close to him have told Crux that he favors spending the weekends in the poorest areas of the city, often celebrating Sunday mass in parishes on the outskirts rather than at the local cathedral. Like Pope Francis, too, da Rocha has a very pastoral approach, and is a big defender of the poor and marginalized.
During a September meeting of the CNBB’s pastoral council under the motto of “Practicing justice, loving mercy and walking with God,” Rocha said that putting both mercy and justice into practice must be done in “the search for God’s voice, listening to his people.”
“I believe that we have to advance in understanding and practice,” he said, adding that these were not opposed but “two dimensions of the same reality.”
On the day of the announcement, Rocha wrote on the diocesan Facebook page that he was “surprised” by Francis’s decision to make him a cardinal. He was on a pastoral visit to a parish in a neighboring city at the time.
“I thank the pope in the name of the whole Church, for the sign of mercy and love he’s given to the Church in Brazil,” he wrote.
Regarding his new title, he wrote: “Being a cardinal is not an honor, but a service that needs the help of the faithful and the people to be truthful.”
Curiously, on the same Sunday that Francis announced the new names, the website of the diocese of Brasilia was hacked by the so-called “Brazilian Cyber Army.” Visitors to the site in search of information about the new cardinal found a black screen with its logo and a reggae song chanting: “I smoke pot, I smoke one, I smoke two and save the others to smoke later.”
Da Rocha was born in 1959 in the state of São Paulo. He was ordained a priest in 1984, after doing his theological studies in São Paulo and Rome’s Alphonsian Academy.
Three years after his ordination he became the rector of the São Carlos Seminary and coordinator of Diocesan Pastoral Vocation. He’s also been a member of the formation of permanent deacons, and of the Council of Priests in the same diocese.
In 2001 Pope John Paul II made him an auxiliary bishop of Fortaleza, in northeast Brazil. Six years later Benedict XVI appointed him coadjutor Archbishop of Teresina, and finally Brasilia. Before becoming president of the CNBB he held positions related to priestly formation and youth ministry both in Brazil and in the continent-wide Latin-American bishops’ council CELAM.
With da Rocha’s appointment Brazil will have 11 men in the College of Cardinals, but only five of them are under 80, and therefore able to vote in a conclave.