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  • Needs of the Heart: A Social and Cultural History of Brazil’s Clergy and Seminaries
  • Ralph Della Cava
Needs of the Heart: A Social and Cultural History of Brazil’s Clergy and Seminaries. By Kenneth P. Serbin. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xix, 496. Illustrations. Tables. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $60.00 cloth.

This work stakes out entirely new terrain in the history and historiography of Catholicism and society in Brazil. A study of the priesthood and of key seminaries that formed the nation's clergy over the last century and a half, it metes out praise for the many important contributions to education and culture just as it spares no criticism for profound failures. Not the least of these—and a theme central to the study (one rarely dealt with before so publicly, and yet pertinent to today)—has been the untoward consequences ensuing from the obligatory vow of celibacy. The virtual impracticability of the commitment, Serbin's study implies, accounts for its repeated and manifold violation and the untold psychological damage it inflicted on generations of idealistic youths, some of whom, later as priests, would abandon the priesthood or betray their calling.

Uncompromising and yet compassionate in its judgments, this second major work on the Church since the author's Secret Dialogues (2000) draws ably and amply on hitherto untapped, century-old archives of key religious congregations charged with clerical training and of Brazil's national hierarchy that oversaw it. Richly reconstructed too are the events of the last five or so decades, coinciding chiefly with the tumultuous aftermath of Vatican Council II, the opposition to military rule and the subsequent restoration of "civil society." Verbatim accounts are drawn from interviews, conducted over nearly two decades, with 175 priests, bishops and one-time seminarians, and speak not only to the author's assiduousness, but also to the heartfelt needs of his informants to come to grips with the past—their own, the Church's and the nation's.

Three segments of the book stand out as original contributions to that past. The first concerns the role of the "Vincentians," or the Congregation of the Mission, founded in France in 1625 by St. Vincent De Paul. Arriving in Brazil in 1825 and called "Lazaristas" (after the Congregation's "House of Saint Lazarus" in Paris), [End Page 697] they would dominate seminary education in Brazil for nearly 150 years, implanting unswervingly the norms of the Council of Trent, as adhered to rigorously throughout Europe. Inseparable were their successes from the Vatican's simultaneous drive to bring national churches, their cadres, liturgies, and popular devotions under its authority. This process—referred to as "Romanization"—was not without contradictions. For example, it intentionally isolated seminarians from society well before puberty (the "abduction of minors"), made holy orders the privilege of a fair-skinned minority (thus sustaining both racism and a century-long shortage of priests), while through repressive discipline, fundamentally over human sexuality, gave rise to scandals which, mostly kept hidden from public view, abetted and "encouraged immoral behavior" (p. 139). Romanization also ignited outbursts of nationalist sentiment against foreign clerical tutors, especially at the Lazaristas' key seminaries in Ceará and Minas Gerais. It also rekindled, albeit along less conflictive lines, the Feijóian dream of a Brazilian national Church, an option which the papacy still mightily and universally combats.

"Viamão," the modern diocesan seminary on the outskirts of Porto Alegre, provides the second focal point of the study and amounts to a historical "revelation": The thrust for post-Second Vatican Council reforms and opposition to military rule converged in a "rebellion of the seminarians." One hundred of them walked out after Church superiors managed to appropriate, and thus checkmate, student efforts from 1961 to 1967 to create an independent "national union of seminarians." For the bishops, this amounted to but one step short of the "unionization of the 'lower clergy'" (p. 164), and an even greater threat to episcopal authority. But Viamão's heretofore unrecognized importance lies in its psychological and institutional liberation of some of the most talented and politically committed young men who would then embrace secular society tous court. Some...


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