Papal visit to Brazil set to boost hope
Pope Francis' trip likely to boost Catholicism, which has declined amid a surge in evangelism
The first pope from the Americas, making what many hope will be a triumphant homecoming to his native continent, will find a massive audience that reflects hope for a shift in the Catholic Church and deep scepticism that he can right a social imbalance that has sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in protest.
The Argentinian-born Pope Francis is visiting Brazil, the world's biggest Catholic country, on his first overseas trip since his election in March. He will walk the Stations of the Cross on the glittering Copacabana Beach and visit a slum so poor and violent it is sometimes called the Gaza Strip.
Expectations are high. Many Catholics believe the decision of church leaders to select their new pope from the New World signalled a determination to get past scandals debilitating the Vatican and attempt to recapture the devotion of millions who had abandoned or become disillusioned by an increasingly distant church.
Catholicism has been on the decline in Brazil, eroded by Protestant evangelicals who have made deep inroads, as well as apathy towards what many have seen as an uninterested church that did not address the serious problems facing Brazilians, especially the poor.
Added to that, recent demonstrations have galvanised a population that might once have been more receptive to a visiting pontiff.
"Why do we need the pope here? They're just spending lots of money on his security that should go to our hospitals instead," said Barbara Silveira, a 41-year-old homemaker who was raised Catholic but now attends evangelical services, if anything.
"If they think having him physically here will make more people go back to the church, they're wrong."
That, actually, is one of the major goals. And if anyone can achieve that, it might be Francis. In contrast to the erudite and aloof Pope Benedict, whom Francis succeeded, the new pontiff, a Jesuit, is known for his simple, humble ways and emphasis on the poor.
Francis will no doubt be greeted by adoring young pilgrims who have come from the world over for World Youth Day.
"He's going to win the people over with his charisma," said Rafael Barreiros Farias, 18. "He believes in bringing the church closer to the people, and he's already been able to do that."
Juan Carlos Gutierrez, 21, a port worker from Guayaquil, Ecuador, praised Francis' simple style, his use of a bus instead of limousines and his refusal to live in the papal penthouse.
"The church will grow under this pope. He's a very attractive character to young Catholics because he's proved to be humble and simple in the ways others haven't," Gutierrez said.
But the crowd further from the festivities will be a tough one.
A recent Brazilian poll found 50 per cent of Catholics surveyed felt Francis was the same as Benedict, while 26 per cent said he was better and 3 per cent worse.
Francis, exuding his usual buoyancy, appeared excited again about reaching out to the young. "There will be many young people down there from every part of the world," he said of Rio during his regular Sunday appearance in St Peter's Square in Vatican City.
"And I think that you could call this Youth Week, yes, indeed, Youth Week."