RIO DE JANEIRO – He kissed seemingly countless babies hoisted to his popemobile. He exchanged white beanies with people in the crowds and caught the soccer jerseys, flags and who-knows-what-else hurled his direction. He scolded the Brazilian elite, both ecclesiastic and secular, on the many ways they are failing their people.
Pope Francis, first pontiff from the Americas, has been both grandfatherly icon and stern cajoler, combining charm with serious teachings, in a weeklong pilgrimage to the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, which wrapped up Sunday.
His widely acknowledged success on his first overseas trip as pontiff will surely strengthen his hand as he returns to a troubled Vatican which he is determined to reform and as he faces the beginnings of a backlash from conservatives.
But, while the Argentine-born Francis wooed enormous crowds here – a reported 3 million filled the crescent-shaped Copacabana beach for a prayer vigil Saturday night and then slept over ahead of Sunday’s final Mass – it is far less clear that he has changed many Brazilian minds in a country that is less Catholic every day.
In his final homily Sunday, at one of the largest papal Masses in recent history, Francis again urged the young to spread the Gospel to “the fringes of society,” to reach beyond their comfort zones to help rebuild a church that has suffered debilitating decline in Latin America, a region once dominated almost exclusively by Catholicism.
He allowed numerous elements into the Mass from the Catholic charismatic movement, a theologically conservative but theatrically boisterous strain that many see as the best answer to the down-to-earth evangelicals who have lured millions of worshippers away from the Catholic Church.
“Jesus is calling you to be a disciple with a mission!” the pope said. “There are no borders, no limits: He sends us to everyone.”
As the Mass was winding down and worshippers took communion, other pilgrims jumped into the sea for a brisk swim. Later, the pious and the partially clad shared the powdery sands.
Francis has consistently reiterated the key leitmotifs of this pilgrimage: working for the poor, the need for social justice in countries with huge rich-poor gaps, aggressive evangelism – all ways to recoup the church’s influence.
His receptions, from the cherished shrine of Our Lady Who Appeared in central Brazil, to gatherings of top Brazilian leaders and lowly young prisoners, to a notorious slum, have been enthusiastic.
“The Francis program — a church of and with the poor, nourished by popular devotion, firm on teaching but radical in its directness … and boldly evangelizing — has been launched in Rio,” said Austen Ivereigh, a commentator with Catholic Voices, an advocacy group, who traveled to Rio.
“Its success means that Francis will have the authority and the legitimacy to carry through reforms in Rome and elsewhere,” Ivereigh said. “The feeling here … is that Francis may be resisted, but he’s unstoppable.”
Zuenir Ventura, a columnist with the leading O Globo newspaper, alluded to regional rivalries and noted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, two miracles: Brazilians going crazy over an Argentine, and an Argentine who was actually humble. “Can you think of any other?” Ventura asked.
Some of Francis’ messages, however, may fall on deaf or indifferent ears.
The centerpiece of this trip was Francis’ decision to wade into a slum, or favela, so violent and poor it is sometimes called the Gaza Strip. There, on Thursday, he chatted with residents, scolded the government for not doing more for the poor and prayed at the small stone St. Jeronimo Emiliano church.
On Sunday, as the faithful heard the pope on Copacabana beach, the church was chained shut — even as hundreds of people flocked to the nearby evangelical house of worship.
“For the whole week, no one here could talk about anything but the pope’s visit,” said Rafael Ribeiro Marques, a 27-year-old resident of the Varginha slum, acknowledging the neighborhood was spruced up with newly paved streets and electrical cables. “But the people that live here are in dire need of more (permanent) improvements” like health care.
The pope told “vested interests” in Brazil, code for the traditional and deeply entrenched economic powers that dominate the nation, that they must respect human rights, share the wealth, even stop destroying the land of indigenous Amazonian tribes. Few Brazilian analysts expected any of that to come about.
“It will probably be business as usual” once the pope is gone, said Julita Lemgruber, a former Brazilian police ombudsperson who studies civilian security issues. The pope, she noted, singled out the 1993 Candalaria massacre, when police killed eight homeless children sheltering at a church. “But the police killings keep going on and on and on,” she said.
The pope won praise among some Brazilians for focusing on poverty and the need for political activism instead of potentially more divisive issues like abortion and gay marriage, issues where many young Catholics diverge from their pastors’ conservative teachings.
Francis seemed to endorse the mostly young demonstrators who have been taking to the streets here since last month to demand an end to corruption, excessive government spending and lack of basic services like education and health care.
“The pope’s telling us to listen to the voice of the streets, that was good,” said Pedro Abramovay, a human rights activist and professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation law school in Rio. “It reinforces this important political moment in Brazil … when there is a great opportunity to reshape Brazilian democracy.”
Of all his comments, Francis was perhaps most critical of the church’s failure to stop the hemorrhaging of members to rival denominations, which he blamed on numerous factors, including an adherence to rigid rules and intellectualism over the “grammar of simplicity.”
Brazil is the world’s largest Catholic country. But, according to census data and a recent poll, the percentage of Brazilians who identify as Catholics has declined by six percentage points in just the last three years, to 57 percent. And among 16- to 24-year-olds, the number of Catholics has fallen to 44 percent, while 38 percent say they are Protestants, which here almost always means membership in an evangelical church.