Pope Francis' trip to Brazil called 'strong start' in revitalizing church

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Pope Francis celebrated the last Mass of his trip to Brazil on Sunday before an estimated 3 million people gathered on the beach in this city, the national flags of Catholics from around the world hoisted in the air as a chorus of Brazilian priests belted out songs before the multitude. It was a vibrant display of the Vatican's ambition of halting the losses of worshippers to evangelical churches and the rising appeal of secularism.

By various measures, Pope Francis's first international trip since he was named pope this year was a success. The 76-year-old Argentine, a Jesuit who is the first pope from the Americas, was greeted like a rock star by attendees to a conference of Catholic youths. He urged people to combat corruption, a top grievance in the protests shaking Brazil, and called on bishops to focus on the pragmatic needs of congregants, shifting emphasis from the abuse scandals that have plagued the Vatican for years.

"If this trip is any indication, he's off to a strong start at revitalizing the church," said Andrew Chesnut, an expert on Latin American religions at Virginia Commonwealth University who came to see the pope's visit up close. "He's been very astute on focusing on the everyday afflictions of the poor, taking a page from the evangelicals themselves."

Before scolding Brazilian clergy at one point during the weeklong visit for losing touch with their own worshippers, by appearing "too distant from their needs," Pope Francis offered the example of visiting a medical center where drug addicts receive treatment. Still, he hewed to the Roman Catholic Church's prevailing view on drugs, criticizing supporters of decriminalizing drug use, showing how a pope can seem at the same time to be caring and resistant to a profound shift underway in parts of the world.

"Francis is more simpatico than John Paul II, certainly more likable than Benedict [XVI], but transforming the church requires more than public relations gestures, appealing as they might be," said Peter McDonough, a scholar of religion who has written widely on the Jesuits, comparing Pope Francis with his predecessors. "It's doubtful, aside from a positive bump in applications to the priesthood and perhaps a groundswell in confessions, that Pope Francis' visit to Brazil will stem the loss of congregants to evangelical and other denominations or reverse the tide of secularization."

Illustrating Brazil's diversity of beliefs, various protests coalesced around the pope's visit. One of them, a Marcha das Vadias, or SlutWalk, involved scantily clad women questioning the Catholic Church's opposition to legalized abortion, women as priests and same-sex marriage. At one point, a man reportedly spit in the face of one of the protesters, only to have several women in the protest show him their breasts and shake their behinds at him in defiance.

But while a Carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed in some Rio neighborhoods, a more relaxed vibe was evident in many parts of the city during the pope's visit. Pilgrims from around the world roamed through the streets. Some strummed guitars, singing religious hymns from their homelands. Thousands camped on the beach, shrugging at the blunders by local organizers like an accidental shutdown one day of the subway system.

While shifting attention to Latin America and other parts of the developing world, Pope Francis notably welcomed the participation during Mass of the Charismatic Catholic Renovation, a movement of singing priests, some of them heartthrobs with hit CDs, seeking to appeal to congregants with upbeat, lively strategies similar to those employed by fast-growing evangelical churches.

Getting some evangelicals to even consider a return to Catholicism may be the start of a shift in the church's fortunes in Latin America. But some scholars warn that the Vatican remains far from undergoing a broader transformation, with Pope Francis, who returned to the Vatican on Sunday night, opposed to allowing women a more prominent role in carrying out religious services or allowing priests to marry.

"The gestures have changed, but the dogma has not," said Fortunato Mallimaci, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires who specializes in the relationship between culture and religion, pointing to the example of the pope's stance against legalizing drugs. "On social issues, Francis will be a continuation of his predecessors."


First Published July 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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