Pope Francis Starts Rio Trip to Get More Youth in Pews

Pope Francis began his first trip abroad with an open-air drive through Rio de Janeiro’s historic center as throngs on the streets screamed, waved and jockeyed for a view of the Roman Catholic Church’s leader.

Francis was greeted at the airport today by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ahead of the church’s World Youth Day, which organizers say will draw as many as 2.5 million participants. Abandoning the Vatican’s “Popemobile,” the 76-year-old pontiff traveled to the city cathedral in a Fiat hatchback, greeting supporters through open windows as some jumped on the vehicle. People crowded building steps in the city center and climbed into trees to glimpse his passing.

“It’s so exciting to see the pope in our country,” Antonio Dantas, a 24-year-old seminary student from northeastern Brazil, said as he balanced barefoot atop a fire hydrant. “I hope he brings a message of peace to all of us who make up the Catholic religion, but also people of other religions.”

Francis, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, will seek to channel enthusiasm that his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has generated in Latin America to attract more supporters in the world’s most Catholic region.

“I learned that to have access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to enter through the door of its immense heart,” Francis, speaking in Portuguese, said in his first address. “Allow me at this point to knock softly on that door.”

During the July 23-28 World Youth Day, whose theme is “Go and make disciples of all nations,” Francis will tour a slum, meet young inmates and hold three public Masses to be closer to his faithful.

‘Get Chills’

“I just get chills every time I see him, it’s the best,” said Laura Vandorpe, a 19-year-old from Ohio who, draped in an American flag, is attending her second World Youth Day. “He’s so awesome. He’s like a grandfather. I just love him.”

The pope tomorrow will be resting and has no scheduled events, according to his official agenda. On July 24, he will fly by helicopter to Brazil’s largest shrine to the Virgin Mary, located in Sao Paulo state, where he will hold his first public mass. The following day he will receive the keys to Rio de Janeiro and bless the flags of the 2016 Olympic Games, which will be hosted in the city, then visit the slum of Varginha.

‘Acting as a Shepherd’

“Many bishops have distanced themselves from the people, and one of the Protestants’ great triumphs has been that their priests are close to the people,” said Guillermo Escobar, Colombia’s ambassador to the Vatican from 1998-2007. “The best place to start acting as a shepherd and creating closeness to the Catholics of the contemporary world is in Latin America.”

The Catholic Church has lagged behind Protestant faiths in gaining a bigger share of Latin American followers in recent decades.

Since becoming pope in March, the Argentine-born Francis has made overtures to other faiths and attempted to root out corruption in the Vatican Bank. His messages of personal humility and justice for society’s most marginalized coincide with recent Brazilian street protests calling for better basic services and an end to corruption.

“We have before us a religious leader who is sensitive to the desires of our people for social justice, for opportunity for all, and for citizen dignity,” Rousseff, standing alongside Pope Francis, said today. “We fight against a common enemy: inequality, in all its forms.”

Political Role Model

Many Brazilians who turned out in the streets last month may hold Francis up as a model for their own political leaders, said Paul Freston, religion and politics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, from his home in Campinas, Brazil. The country’s National Conference of Bishops last month declared their solidarity and support for the demonstrations, which attracted more than a million people across the nation.

Pope Francis’ visit is “the most complex police operation in Rio’s history” and entails reinforcement of normal security forces with nearly 7,000 civil and military police, Rio state’s security secretariat said in an e-mail. Police found a small homemade bomb near the shrine he is due to visit later this week, O Globo reported, citing military police.

Police at the Guanabara palace, where Francis met with Rousseff, deployed tear gas against some protesters, O Globo’s television channel reported.

In the wake of Brazilian demonstrations last month, the pope may send an indirect message to Latin American leaders that the most needy must be better cared for, said Chester Gillis, a theology professor and dean of Georgetown College in Washington. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Panama President Ricardo Martinelli are among regional leaders planning on attending events in Rio.

‘Transform That Dissatisfaction’

“He’s coming at a time when the population’s dissatisfaction toward the government is significant,” said Virgilio Arraes, a professor at the International Relations Faculty at the University of Brasilia in a telephone interview. “The success of his trip will hinge on his ability to transform that dissatisfaction into a message of hope and, at the same time, a warning to governments.”

While almost half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, the faith hasn’t kept pace with the region’s population growth, according to Vatican statistics and a report from the Pew Research Center in Washington.

The share of Latin Americans who are Catholic fell to 72 percent in 2010 from 90 percent a century earlier, according to a March report from the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals, part of the Protestant movement, made up 22 percent of Brazil’s population, up from 15 percent a decade earlier.

“Catholics hoped the rate of decline would’ve been less in the 2000s than in 1990s; in fact, it wasn’t,” Freston said. “There was clear disappointment. They thought they were closer to turning the corner.”

‘For the Poor’

In the first four months of his tenure, Francis has worked to portray himself as a man of the people, shirking the traditional robes, jewelry and even papal apartment for more spartan trappings. While archbishop in Buenos Aires he was known to use public transport, cook his own meals and, after he was selected as pope, called his newspaper vendor to cancel his subscription. In one of his first papal addresses he said he wished “for a church that is poor and for the poor.”

As part of his outreach, Francis visited an Italian island off Tunisia this month where many African migrants have shipwrecked and drowned. While there, he dropped a wreath of flowers into the sea and told the migrants the church supported their search for a more dignified life. The pope also wished the Muslim families on the island a happy Ramadan. In May he said God redeemed all non-Catholics.

This week’s trip may reveal more about the direction in which Francis intends to take the church. His election following Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation came as the Vatican struggles to leave behind an era of sex-abuse and financial scandals.

Money Laundering

Francis named a commission to oversee the Vatican Bank’s operations after Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s monitoring body for money laundering and terrorism financing, called for its independent supervision. The director and deputy director of the bank resigned July 1 amid a corruption investigation, three days after a senior Vatican cleric was arrested for alleged fraud. Francis also appointed an advisory council of eight cardinals to propose changes to the church.

While he is unlikely to make specific policy recommendations on his visit, Francis says social and moral principles must guide government to create an economy that benefits the disadvantaged, according to Richard Coll, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Latin America policy adviser.

“He’s emphasized that the economy has to serve the needs of the people, not the other way around,” Coll said by phone from Washington. “Economics must be at the service of human beings, reflecting their inherent dignity and worth.”

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