Pope Francis issued blunt, soul-searching criticism Saturday of the Brazilian church’s failure to stem the “exodus” of Catholics to evangelical congregations, challenging the region’s bishops to be closer to the people to understand their problems and persuade them that Catholicism isn’t “barren, fruitless soil.”
In the longest and most important speech of his four-month pontificate, Francis drove home a message he has emphasized throughout his first international trip to World Youth Day: the need for Catholics, lay and religious, to shake up the status quo, get out of their stuffy sacristies and reach the faithful on the margins of society or risk losing them to rival churches.
Francis 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 simply don’t understand 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.”
In a speech outlining the kind of church he wants, Francis asked bishops to reflect on why hundreds of thousands of Catholics have left 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 have been welcomed by the poor.
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 percent to 65 percent. During the same time period, the number of evangelical Protestants and Pentecostals skyrocketed from 26 million to 42 million, increasing from 15 percent to 22 percent of the population in 2010.
Francis offered a breathtakingly 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. “Perhaps the world seems to have made the church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions. Perhaps the church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.”
At the same time, he dismissed as empty the allure of rival congregations promising “lofty, more powerful and faster” solutions.
Francis asked if the church today can still “warm the hearts” of its faithful, with priests who take time to listen to their problems and remain close to them. He said he wants a church that acts like a “mother” who not only gives birth to her children but cares for them and holds their hand.
“We need a church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy,” he said. “Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”
“We need a church able to dialogue with those disciples who … are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”
The Vatican said Francis read the five-page speech in its entirety to the 300 or so bishops gathered for lunch in the auditorium of the Rio archbishop’s residence, and noted that the talk was both the longest and most important to date of Francis’ pontificate. He will issue a similarly lengthy and important speech on Sunday to the bishops of Latin America before heading back to Rome after the conclusion of World Youth day, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
Despite Francis’ critical assessment of the state of the church in Brazil, the pope’s reception in Rio has shown that he at least can still draw a crowd. Copacabana beach’s 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of white sand was nearly half full by Saturday afternoon with young people gathering for the Catholic youth festival’s final vigil Saturday night before Sunday’s morning Mass. During a ceremony Friday night, Brazilian media estimated that 1.5 million people were on hand, filling up only a fraction of the beach.
The Argentine pope began his day with a Mass in Rio’s beehive-like modern cathedral where he exhorted 1,000 bishops from around the world to go out and find the faithful, a more diplomatic expression of the direct, off-the-cuff instructions he delivered to young Argentine pilgrims on Thursday. In those remarks, he urged the youngsters to make a “mess” in their dioceses and shake things up, even at the expense of confrontation with their bishops and priests.
“We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!” Francis said in his homily Saturday. “It’s not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people.”
Francis 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.
Francis’ 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 slum areas, met with juvenile offenders and drug addicts and welcomed in a place of honor 35 trash recyclers from his native Argentina.
“Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning with the outskirts, with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church,” he said Saturday. “They too are invited to the table of the Lord.”
He carried that message to a meeting with Brazil’s political, economic and intellectual elite, urging them to look out for the poorest and use their leadership positions to work for the common good. He also called for greater dialogue between generations, religions and peoples during the speech at Rio’s grand municipal theater, where he was welcomed with a standing ovation and shouts of “Francisco” and “Viva o Papa!” (Long live the pope).
On a few occasions, he looked up at the gilded theater boxes almost in awe from the stage and seemed positively charmed when a few dozen young students of the theater’s ballet school, all with their hair in buns, sat down around him. At the end of the event, the little ballerinas swarmed around Francis, and he gave each one a kiss on the forehead.
Also receiving papal embraces were a handful of Brazilian Indians, dressed in their traditional, bare-bellied garb who lined up to kiss his ring. One man gave Francis a feathered headdress, which he gamely wore for a few moments.
Several of the Indians were from Amazon tribes, where indigenous peoples have been locked in battles over land that has been designated as an Indian reserve but that farmers and ranchers illegally invade for timber and to graze cattle.
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