RIO DE JANEIRO — Pope Francis on Saturday issued what the Vatican said was one of the most important speeches of his papacy, taking to task the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil for hemorrhaging droves of followers to other faiths or to apathy.
Speaking to bishops from around the country, Francis blamed the “exodus” on a long list of failings by the church and leaders, and took a direct swipe at the “intellectual” message of the church that so characterized the pontificate of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He said ordinary Catholics don’t relate to such lofty ideas and need to hear the simpler message of love, forgiveness and mercy that is at the core of the Catholic faith.
“At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people,” he said. “Without the grammar of simplicity, the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery.”
Outlining the kind of church he wants, Francis asked bishops to reflect on millions of Catholics who left the church for Protestant and Pentecostal congregations that have grown exponentially in recent decades, particularly in Brazil’s slums, or favelas, where their charismatic message and nuts-and-bolts advice is welcomed by the poor.
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“Are we still a church capable of warming hearts?” the pope asked. “We need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them,” he said.
Millions of Brazilians have migrated from Catholicism to evangelicalism in recent years. A poll published last Sunday in the São Paulo newspaper Folha said only 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 or older identified themselves as Catholic, down from well over 90 percent in the 1960s. During the same period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15 to 22 percent of the population in 2010.
The pope’s speech repeated a theme he has addressed several times during his week in Brazil: Priests and Catholic leaders had to “shake up” their institutions and “get out into the streets” to build the church.
Francis, who became pope in March, himself is imposing a shake-up in the Vatican’s staid and dysfunctional bureaucracy, setting in motion a reform plan and investigations into misdeeds at the scandal-plagued Vatican bank and other administrative offices.
His target audience is the poor and the marginalized, the people that history’s first pope from Latin America has highlighted on this first trip of his pontificate. He has visited one of Rio’s most violent slums, met with juvenile offenders and drug addicts and welcomed in a place of honor 35 trash recyclers from his native Argentina.
Earlier in the day, the Argentine pope seemed to endorse the message of Brazilian demonstrators who have filled the streets in recent weeks, urging government leaders to work to redress severe social inequities. But he also told young protesters to steer away from violence and toward “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.”
“The outcry, the call for justice, continues to be heard even today,” the pope told a gathering of senior Brazilian officials in the ornate Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro.
Leadership and responsibility mean finding “the way to go to the heart of the evils of a society and to overcome them, also with the boldness of courageous and free actions,” Francis said. He also suggested that sympathy for their causes did not give demonstrators carte blanche. “Between selfish indifference and violent protest, there is always another possible option: that of dialogue,” the pope said.
Francis, 76, was beaming as he left the theater, surrounded by little ballerinas who gave him flowers and an indigenous tribesman who offered him his feathered headdress, which Francis briefly donned, mugging for the cameras. The tribesman and others who accompanied him said they were part of a group caught in a long struggle with ranchers over protecting their lands from illegal timbering.
Hours after he chastised the bishops, Francis drew a reported 3 million flag-waving, rosary-toting faithful to Rio’s Copacabana Beach for the final evening of World Youth Day. By the time his open-sided car reached the stage for the vigil service Saturday night, the back seat was piled high with soccer jerseys, flags and flowers. He is a lifelong fan of the Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo and has been a member since 2008.
On the beach, pilgrims staked out their spots on the sand, lounged and snacked, preparing for an all-night slumber party ahead of the final Mass on Sunday. Many of those paying attention to the vigil teared up, moved by Francis’ call for them to build up their church like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was called to do. “Jesus offers us something bigger than the World Cup!” Francis said, drawing cheers from the crowd in the soccer-mad nation.
Despite Francis’ critical assessment of the sorry state of the church in Brazil, the pope’s reception in Rio has shown that he can draw a crowd. Copacabana Beach’s 2.5 miles of white sand was overflowing for the vigil Saturday night.
Local media said 3 million people were on hand for the vigil. That’s far higher than the 1 million at the last World Youth Day vigil in Madrid in 2011, and far more than the 650,000 at Toronto’s 2002 vigil.
Francis returns to Rome on Sunday after a final Mass.
Material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post is included in this report.