Pope Francis draws millions in Rio

Francis' popularity belies exodus of Catholics to evangelicalism as he blasts church's failings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 6:27am


Pope Francis drew a reported three million faithful to Rio's Copacabana beach for the final evening of World Youth Day, hours after he chastised the Brazilian church for failing to stem the "exodus" of Catholics to evangelical congregations.

Francis headed into the final hours of his first international trip riding a remarkable wave of popularity. By the time his open-sided car reached the stage for the vigil service on Saturday night, the back seat was piled high with soccer jerseys, flags and flowers tossed to him by adoring pilgrims lining the beachfront route.

In the longest and most important speech of his four-month pontificate, Francis took a direct swipe at the "intellectual" message of the church that characterised the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Speaking to Brazil's bishops, he said ordinary Catholics simply did not understand such lofty ideas and needed to hear the simpler message of love, forgiveness and mercy that was at the core of the Catholic faith.

In a speech outlining the kind of church he wants, Francis asked bishops to reflect on why hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left the church for Protestant congregations that have grown exponentially in recent decades in Brazil, particularly in its slums or favelas.

According to census data, the number of Catholics in Brazil dipped from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million in 2010, with the church's share of the total population dropping from 74 per cent to 65 per cent.

During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15 per cent to 22 per cent of the population in 2010.

Francis offered a blunt list of explanations for the "exodus".

"Perhaps the church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas," he said.

Despite Francis' critical assessment of the sorry state of the church in Brazil, the pope's reception in Rio has shown he can draw quite a crowd. Copacabana beach's four kilometres of white sand was overflowing for the final vigil as days of rain finally relented. Local media, citing information from the mayor's office, said three million people were on hand for the vigil.

That is far higher than the one million at the last World Youth Day vigil in Madrid in 2011, and far more than the 650,000 at Toronto's 2002 vigil. Also receiving papal embraces earlier were a handful of Brazilian aboriginals. One man gave Francis a feathered headdress, which he wore briefly. The Pope also announced that the next World Youth Day will be held in the Polish city of Krakow in 2016.