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Pope heads to Brazil to visit youth, poor

Pope Francis makes his first trip outside Italy tomorrow to the country with the most Roman Catholics. 

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A wooden cross, symbol of the World Youth Day given to young people of the church in 1983 by Pope John Paul II, is carried along Copacabana beach by pilgrims in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday. Pope Francis will return Monday to the embrace of Latin America to preside over the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day festival.

Victor R. Caivano/AP

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Pope Francis makes his first trip outside Italy tomorrow and fittingly for the first Latin American pope he is flying to Brazil, home to more Roman Catholics than any other nation on earth.

The trip could help define the focus of Francis’s papacy, and if his schedule is anything to go by, it will serve as further confirmation that the Argentine Jesuit will concentrate on the plight of the poor that make up the majority of Latin America’s 600 million citizens.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio arrived at the papacy in March with a reputation for simplicity and humility. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio frequently visited the city’s dirt-poor villas, or shantytowns.

He has cemented those everyman credentials in the months since taking over as Bishop of Rome, eschewing some of the more luxurious aspects of the papal office and speaking out against consumerism, savage capitalism, and the cult of the individual.

“Francis certainly has that pastoral ability to connect with people and he has street credibility, he has seen poverty first hand and lived among people who are poor and of modest means in Buenos Aires,” says Ramon Luzarraga, assistant professor of theology at Benedictine University in Mesa, Ariz. “It is similar to when John Paul II spoke of war and totalitarianism, he lived through it so his words carried credibility.”

The trip to Brazil is to celebrate World Youth Day, a week-long festival of play and prayer that brings together more than 350,000 youngsters from around the world. The Vatican, mindful of uniting so many spirited youths together in one place, has promised them indulgences, which in Catholic theology are the removal of the punishment from some sins.

Walkabout among the poor

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The Pope’s schedule is slanted heavily towards the pastoral, with the Holy Father getting out and about to visit a hospital, hold two events on Copacabana beach, and even go walkabout in a favela, or slum, where a police officer was shot last month in a clash with drug traffickers.

That hands-on approach has both delighted and worried organizers. Just last month millions of people took to the streets all across Brazil to demand better public services, an end to corruption, and more accountability from their politicians.

There are some fears that demonstrators or agitators could use the Pope’s visit as a stage for more protest and Brazil’s security forces have warned they will crack down on anyone with placards or protests at papal events.

And yet Pope Francis would appear to sympathize with the protesters’ gripes. He has made several references to economic injustice and his desire for a fairer world.

“I think coming on the heels of the protests, economic inequality was a strong message,” says Julia Young, a professor of Latin American history at the Catholic University in Washington, DC. “He has the credentials to be a really popular Pope, a pope of the common people.”

Brazil growing less Catholic

That is important in a region where Catholicism, for long the dominant religion, is under threat. Only 64.6 percent of Brazilians now profess to being Catholics, down from 91.8 percent in 1970, according to the government’s statistics institute.

Most of the deserters have switched to Protestantism and more than one-in-five Brazilians now belong to one of the hundreds of Protestant denominations.

Some younger members of the Catholic Church have sought to claw back some territory by using similar techniques to their Protestant colleagues. The so-called Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement features priests who sing, dance, and even surf.

It has had some effect. Celebrity priests such as the Rev. Marcelo Rossi have recorded best-selling CDs and written million-seller books, and today around half of all Brazilian Catholics identify with the CCR movement, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.

However some academics say the Holy See needs to pay attention to the substance as well as the style. In Brazil, as elsewhere, the church has been stained by its slow and some say unsatisfactory response to pedophile priests and other controversial topics. Others say its unwillingness to admit women to the clergy or address modern issues such as abortion or birth control is anachronistic.

No one believes Pope Francis, who is considered a conservative and has spoken out against gay marriage, will suddenly pull the church in a new, more progressive direction.

But his focus on injustice and the poor could signal a thaw in relations with the liberation theologians who were once so visible in Latin America. The leftist priests were treated almost as heretics by the conservative Vatican and have long been marginalized.

But Francis has a shared background and appears to understand their roots and their motives, say academics.

"Pretty much every act and pronouncement that he has made so far is about the dispossessed and it is exactly the poor and dispossessed that have been exiting the church since the 1950s, particularly in Latin America,” says Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

“His penchant for asceticism meshes well with his preference for the preferential option for the poor because most people live in poverty, especially in Latin America." The preferential option for the poor is a Catholic social teaching that argues public policy should prioritize the needs of the poor first.

However, others said the furor over issues such as abortion and women in the clergy are less important in Latin America than Europe and North America. The priest at one 19th-century church in downtown São Paulo says his congregation knows the church’s positions on those issues and accepts them.

“Most people have an opinion about those subjects but they don’t form a central part of our discussions,” says the Rev. Andre Torres.

The main reason to celebrate a Latin American pope is that the region is getting the attention that is finally in keeping with its importance to the Holy See, says Massimo Faggioli, an Italian who teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas.

“My impression is that Latin America is the continent that has given the most to Catholicism in the last 50 years and got the least in return,” says Dr. Faggioli. “With the election of Pope Francis, Latin Americans are seeing something like the acknowledgment of their contribution.”

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