Pope Francis will seek to channel enthusiasm that his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has generated in Latin America to attract more supporters in the world’s most Catholic region during a visit to Brazil.
Francis, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, was greeted by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff when he landed in Rio de Janeiro today. He will preside over World Youth Day in Rio, which organizers say may draw 2.5 million attendees. During the July 23-28 event, whose theme is “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Francis, 76, will tour a slum, meet young inmates, hold three public Masses and ride along Copacabana beach in an open-topped vehicle -- rather than the bulletproof Popemobile -- to be closer to his faithful.
“Many bishops have distanced themselves from the people, and one of the Protestants’ great triumphs has been that their priests are close to the people,” said Guillermo Escobar, Colombia’s ambassador to the Vatican from 1998-2007. “The best place to start acting as a shepherd and creating closeness to the Catholics of the contemporary world is in Latin America.”
The Catholic Church has lagged behind Protestant faiths in gaining a bigger share of Latin American followers in recent decades.
Since becoming pope in March, the Argentine-born Francis has made overtures to other faiths and attempted to root out corruption in the Vatican Bank. His messages of personal humility and justice for society’s most marginalized coincide with recent Brazilian street protests calling for better basic services and an end to corruption.
“He will show that the church has something to say to youth,” Eulalio Avelino Pereira Figueira, a professor of religion sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, said in a phone interview. “He will talk about transparency and corruption. He will talk about a moral truth in areas including the economy and politics.”
Many Brazilians who turned out in the streets last month may hold Francis up as a model for their own political leaders, said Paul Freston, religion and politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, from his home in Campinas, Brazil. The country’s National Conference of Bishops last month declared their solidarity and support for the demonstrations, which attracted more than a million people across the country.
Pope Francis’ visit is “the most complex police operation in Rio’s history” and entails reinforcement of normal security forces with nearly 7,000 civil and military police, Rio state’s security secretariat said in an e-mail. The pope’s personal security will be managed by the Federal Police.
‘Transform the Dissatisfaction’
In the wake of the protests, the pope may send an indirect message to Latin American leaders that the most needy must be better cared for, said Chester Gillis, a theology professor and dean of Georgetown College in Washington. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Panama President Ricardo Martinelli are among regional leaders planning on attending events in Rio.
“He’s coming at a time when the population’s dissatisfaction toward the government is significant,” said Virgilio Arraes, a professor at the International Relations Faculty at the University of Brasilia in a telephone interview. “The success of his trip will hinge on his ability to transform that dissatisfaction into a message of hope and, at the same time, a warning to governments.”
Francis will meet with Rousseff again at 5:40 p.m. local time, and later in the week with other Brazilian authorities at Rio’s municipal theater. He will visit a hospital, take confession from young people and fly by helicopter to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Conception of Aparecida in Sao Paulo state.
While almost half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, the faith hasn’t kept pace with the region’s population growth, according to Vatican statistics and a report from the Pew Research Center in Washington.
The share of Latin Americans who are Catholic fell to 72 percent in 2010 from 90 percent a century earlier, according to a March report from the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals, part of the Protestant movement, made up 22 percent of Brazil’s population, up from 15 percent a decade earlier.
“Catholics hoped the rate of decline would’ve been less in the 2000s than in 1990s; in fact, it wasn’t,” Freston said. “There was clear disappointment. They thought they were closer to turning the corner.”
‘For the Poor’
In the first four months of his tenure, Francis has worked to portray himself as a man of the people, shirking the traditional robes, jewelry and even papal apartment for more spartan trappings. While archbishop in Buenos Aires he was known to use public transport, cook his own meals and, after he was selected as pope, called his newspaper vendor to cancel his subscription. In one of his first papal addresses he said he wished “for a church that is poor and for the poor.”
As part of his outreach, Francis visited an Italian island off Tunisia this month where many African migrants have shipwrecked and drowned. While there, he dropped a wreath of flowers into the sea and told the migrants that the church supported their search for a more dignified life. The pope also wished the Muslim families on the island a happy Ramadan. In May he said God redeemed all non-Catholics.
This week’s trip may reveal more about the direction in which Francis intends to take the church. His election following Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation came as the Vatican struggles to leave behind an era of sex-abuse and financial scandals.
Francis named a commission to oversee the Vatican Bank’s operations after Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s monitoring body for money laundering and terrorism financing, called for its independent supervision. The director and deputy director of the bank resigned July 1 amid a corruption investigation, three days after a senior Vatican cleric was arrested for alleged fraud. Francis also appointed an advisory council of eight cardinals to propose changes to the church.
While he is unlikely to make specific policy recommendations on his visit, Francis believes social and moral principles must guide government to create an economy that benefits the disadvantaged, according to Richard Coll, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Latin America policy adviser.
“He’s emphasized that the economy has to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around,” Coll said by phone from Washington. “Economics must be at the service of human beings, reflecting their inherent dignity and worth.”
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