About 40 per cent of the world’s Roman Catholics live in Latin America and 123 million of them in Brazil, more than in any other country. So it is doubly fitting that Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, should make his debut as a foreign traveller by spending a week in Brazil starting July 22.
The trip, to mark the church’s World Youth Day, was scheduled before the elevation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the papacy. But it is likely to set the tone of his tenure in the Vatican. Unlike Pope Benedict, who spent most of his last visit to Brazil with bishops, Francis is due to meet young people, visit a hospital, attend two events on Copacabana beach and visit a favela in Rio de Janeiro that was until recently controlled by a drug gang. The new pope’s identification with ordinary people and shunning of Vatican luxury is likely to go down well in Brazil, which has recently seen big marches against political corruption and for better public services.
But in Brazil, as elsewhere, the church is in trouble. It is losing the faithful at an accelerating rate to myriad evangelical Protestant churches and to atheism. Its image has been hurt by its failure to confront the crimes of pedophile priests, while its teaching on birth control is widely ignored. Brazilian Catholicism’s most effective response has come from the charismatic movement, which apes the evangelicals’ methods. Led by handsome, extrovert priests who are as much men of stage and screen as men of the cloth, the priests use rock ‘n’ roll and social media to appeal to the young. The most famous of them, such as Sao Paulo’s Father Marcelo Rossi, have topped both the pop charts and the bestseller lists.
Whereas the bishops prevented Rossi from singing at a mass with Pope Benedict in 2007, he and other charismatics have been invited to one of Pope Francis’s events in Rio. The charismatics’ rivals in Brazil’s once-influential liberation-theology movement, identified with the left, also hope that Francis might be a transformative pope, according to Frei Betto, a Dominican friar. He would like Pope Francis to deal with same-sex marriage, abortion and female clergy. That is unlikely.
But the pope’s emphasis on the poor and on social justice owes something to liberation theology, according to Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. "Liberation theology is not going to come back exactly as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but those issues and the theological insights are still alive (in) newer voices. He can reformulate them now to give answers for the emergencies of today." Brazilian officials are worried that the media attention drawn by the pope’s visit could encourage a revival of the recent protests.
Who should pay for the visit, costing at least 320 million reais ($142 million) is an especially sensitive matter. The church hoped much of the bill would be covered by the faithful, who are paying up to 600 reais for the privilege of taking part in the festivities. But only 350,000 have signed up so far. The Vatican has denied reports that it has asked the government for financial help. It would be an explosive request. Although Brazil’s politicians revel in the attention their country gets from hosting international events, many taxpayers have made it clear in the protests that they would rather their money went on temporal amenities, including health care, schools and public transportation.