RIO DE JANEIRO -- A month ago, hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets of Brazil to protest corruption, wasteful government spending, bad schools and hospitals, police brutality, and other abuses of power. On Monday, Pope Francis, in his first venture abroad, will dive into the middle of that ferment when he begins a weeklong visit to the world's largest Roman Catholic country.
"This is a crucial moment for the church, the nation, society and the people, heightened by the fact this is Francis' first trip," said Fernando Altemeyer Jr., a theologian and philosopher at the Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo. "Brazil has changed and things are bubbling, but there is no clarity. Everything is new and unknown, in the country and the church, even for the bishops."
Pope Francis has endorsed the protests in general terms, and, according to European news reports, will do so again more emphatically and specifically this week. Church officials in Brazil declined to confirm those reports, but they said two Brazilian cardinals, Claudio Hummes and Raymundo Damasceno Assis, have been working closely with the Vatican to assure that Pope Francis' declarations on social justice in Brazil will convey sympathy both for the protest demands and those involved in the movement.
"The pope will certainly have words about the issues the young people have raised, their dissatisfaction or searches but also their great desire to participate in change," Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, said last week. "They can expect from Pope Francis words that will orient and aid them."
The trip, whose nominal purpose is to have the pope meet with and speak to participants at the World Youth Day, a conference of Catholic youth in Brazil, was originally planned for the now-retired Benedict XVI, Pope Francis' predecessor. Initially there was speculation that the new pope might cancel because of the scandals he is confronting at the Vatican. But the Argentine-born Pope Francis seems to see a visit to Brazil as a way to direct attention on the gospel of social justice that he has said he wants to make the focus of his papacy.
"If he is to do what he wants to do, he needs to keep media attention focused on what he is doing and saying," said John Thavis, author of "The Vatican Diaries" and a former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service. "This puts him back in the world spotlight, and I suspect we are going to hear a lot not just about the Brazilian situation, but the world situation, the divide between the rich and poor and the church's social teaching."
Previous papal visits, by John Paul II and Benedict, were marked by doctrinal disputes and veiled verbal skirmishes between advocates of the theology of liberation, which mixes the gospel and political activism on behalf of the poor and persecuted, and the Vatican hierarchy, which sees the movement as tainted by Marxism. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis never showed much sympathy for liberation theology, but since he assumed the papacy, signs abound that a truce is now in effect, at least temporarily.
"These are different times, times that are not as obstinate or intransigent," said the Rev. Jose Oscar Beozzo, a historian of the Catholic church in Latin America and a supporter of liberation theology. "The era of military dictatorships, of the pope wagging a finger at a priest in Nicaragua, those are over. We live now in times that permit one to see things with less ideological distortion."
Barely a month after becoming pontiff, Pope Francis took a symbolically important step that liberation theologians in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America interpreted as a peace offering. The beatification of Bishop Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran who was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980 and is considered a martyr by many disciples of liberation theology, had been frozen since 2005, the year Benedict assumed the papacy, but Pope Francis almost immediately ordered it reopened.
Liberation theologians often critical of Vatican policies have responded in kind, led by Leonardo Boff, a former Franciscan priest who in 1985 was ordered not to write or speak publicly for a year because of his positions by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict. Now an emeritus professor of the philosophy of religion at the state university in Rio, Mr. Boff just last week published a laudatory biography of the pope.
"It doesn't matter that Pope Francis doesn't use the expression 'theology of liberation,' " Mr. Boff said recently. "What is important is that he speak and act on behalf of the liberation of the poor, the oppressed and those who have suffered injustice. And that is what he has done, with indubitable clarity."
At Pope Francis' request, the original itinerary prepared for Benedict has been expanded to include a visit to Aparecida, site of Brazil's biggest shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was also there, during a visit by Benedict in 2007, that Pope Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, scored a personal triumph by presiding over the writing of an important policy document that was presented to the pope on behalf of the Latin American Episcopal Conference.
The document emphasized social justice and evangelization, an issue that remains critical to the Brazilian church, even more than in the rest of Latin America. When John Paul made the first visit by a pope to Brazil, in 1980, nearly 90 percent of the population considered itself Catholic; by the 2010 census, that had fallen to under two-thirds, with the number of Brazilians calling themselves Protestants rising to 22 percent from 6 percent during the same period.