Rio de Janeiro – Pope Francis departed from Brazil on Sunday after a week at Catholic World Youth Day, which drew more than 3 million people to the shores of Rio de Janeiro.
The pontiff, who has gained a reputation for being “the people’s Pope” and received rock star treatment in Brazil, broke from the traditional in his rhetoric by announcing that he will not judge priests based on their sexual orientation and for criticizing clergy for losing touch with their parishioners.
But with the number of followers plunging in the world’s largest Catholic country, religion experts said the pope’s visit could be the springboard that helps revive Catholicism in Brazil.
“[World Youth Day] is a sign that the Church is investing more force in Brazil. With Pope Francis, a pope who is close to the population, the impact of him will be very very big,” said Pedro Strozenberg, the executive secretary of the Institute for Religious Studies in Rio de Janeiro.
“He has a way of speaking the language of the people - he has a holy spirit but he speaks of everyday life [in Brazilian society] like corruption, the protest movements, and police pacification [of favelas neighborhoods].”
According to the 2010 census, 65 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic, compared to 92 percent in 1970. While still hugely influential, Catholicism is slowly losing its grip in the South American powerhouse, a likely reason that Rio was chosen to host the massive religious event.
“When Rio de Janeiro was chosen as a site for the WYD, the Catholic Church had this issue (the decrease of Catholicism in Brazil) in mind,” said Dr. Cristina Rocha, the author of “The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions.” “The Church hoped that the event would reignite people’s faith.”
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The pope’s divergence from Catholic rigidity, plus the massive crowds he drew, suggests that the pope’s visit could succeed in reversing the downward trend of Catholicism in Brazil.
According to Strozenberg, last week’s visit by Pope Francis will leave two lasting legacies on Catholicism in Brazil.
“First, there will be more churches in poor areas. This is one of the messages he gave. The church will leave the center of large cities and move to the periphery of cities and the interior part of the country,” he said. “Second, it will renew the visibility of participation of Catholic movements.”
He said the church will mobilize more and organize more public activities as well as become more politically involved and in a more open way.
“Historically, the church in Brazil is a big political force, but it’s always been discreet,” Strozenberg said. “Now it will be more explicit,”
For many Brazilian youths, the pope’s visit did revitalize their faith. Ana Luiza Silva, a 29-year-old journalist who traveled from São Paulo state for World Youth Day said her faith was reborn seeing Pope Francis in person.
“I’ve been Catholic since I was born, but with time and maturity, my faith drifted off sometimes throughout my life,” she said. “I wasn’t going to come to WYD if it weren’t for my boyfriend insisting so much, eventually I gave in and came.”
Silva said she traveled to Copacabana as a religious retreat, but things changed when she saw the pope.
“… He came in the popemobile and I realized that he’s not just any man of flesh and blood, but I saw him at the leader of the Church with a countenance of peace,” she said. “Now, I’m going to look at society and help how I can. I’m going to go to church every Sunday and I want to be involved more with the Catholic community.”
While Silva said the pope renewed her faith, others saw his visit as more of a nuisance.
“There will be no legacy left from the Pope’s visit besides the chaotic traffic, public transport issues that effectively ran over the lives of local workers, who had to leave work due to this event and the visit,” said Douglas Coelho, a student from Rio.
Others complained about the events economic costs. As the country was still reeling from violent protests against frivolous government spending, the federal government put up about $52 million for the religious event. While the event was expected to pour $796 million into the local economy, the government spending on a religious event upset many.
“I think who should spend money on these religious events are the churches! The Vatican is one of the richest states in the world!” Coelhos said. “Who pays for this in the end are the taxpayers, and many times these taxpayers aren’t Catholic. In the end, we’re paying for a service we don’t use.”
There certainly is the possibility that the pope’s legacy will be short-lived – creating a quick revival of Catholicism that will fizzle in the coming months. Some argue that the church’s rigid and traditional structure has not adapted enough to modern times for the pope’s visit to reverse the downward trend.
“I believe the visit of the pope can, in the short term, excite young people and bring them back to Catholicism. But that’s in the short term...,” said Dr. Rocha, who is also a professor at the Religion and Society Research Center at the University of Western Sydney.
She said what Pope Francis has a common touch that is much more inclusive than the previous Popes.
“That may help young people reconnect to the church, but that does not mean that they will stay in the church for the long run, or that they will follow only Catholicism,” Dr. Rocha said.
Dr. Rocha points to the church’s corruption and pedophilia scandals, along with the centuries-old hierarchy, rigid structure, and general out-of-touch attitude with modern Brazilian society as the reasons for the Catholic Church’s unlikely revival.
But, she said, the Pope’s departure from the traditional Vatican stance - including his announcement that he will not judge gay priests - suggests that reform may be coming to the Catholic Church with Pope Francis.