RIO DE JANEIRO – The white sands of Copacabana beach typically draw millions of sun-worshippers, New Year's Eve revelers and fans for free concerts by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones. In the coming week, the star of the show is infinitely less flamboyant than Mick Jagger, but he promises to stir up just as much passion among devotees.
Pope Francis, the 76-year-old Argentine who became the church's first pontiff from the Americas in March, will turn the crescent-shaped shoreline into a giant stage for his first international trip as pope, returning to the embrace of Latin America to preside over the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day festival.
The pontiff is coming to the heart of a city known for pricey real estate and sexy samba with a message of humility, simplicity and support for the poor — priorities that he has set out already in his four months as pope.
The Catholic Church in Brazil is one he knows well, aware that it is losing legions of adherents to Pentecostal churches and secularism. But Catholic youth festivals are meant to reinvigorate the faithful, and Francis, a soccer-loving native son, is expected to rally young people with his humble and unconventional ways.
More than a million young Catholics are expected to flock to Rio to celebrate their new pope. The city overseen by the giant Christ the Redeemer statue has mobilized thousands of soldiers and police to make sure the visit goes smoothly, even as violent anti-government protests continue to erupt a month after Brazil saw mass demonstrations nationwide.
Some residents have already prepared a uniquely Rio de Janeiro welcome for Francis: They've built from sand life-sized images of the pope on Copacabana, in place of the usual sculptures of bikini-clad beauties.
Rafaela Bastos, a pilgrim walking along the beach a few days before the pontiff's arrival, said the "Francis effect" was already evident. As she spoke, an army of construction workers toiled at a furious clip on the beach to finish the enormous, white altar where Pope Francis will celebrate a Mass.
"Francis has captivated me; he's absolutely won me over," said the 23-year-old from Brazil's Minas Gerais state. "He's brought the church close to the people and especially to young Catholics. He's creative, he's modern, he's not changing doctrine, but he seems far more flexible and open to discussion."
That Francis is from Latin America "just makes him even better: He understands our culture and that brings him closer to us and allows us to understand him," Bastos said.
Despite such optimism, these are worrying times for the church, and Brazil's case is emblematic.
The vast nation was 89 percent Catholic when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit in 1980. According to the national census, that figure had dropped to 65 percent by 2010. Such declines are happening all over Latin America, which is one of the church's remaining strongholds amid growing secularism in Europe and the United States. Sex abuse and corruption scandals have further eroded trust in the church.
Francis's response to the challenges has been to help find "an entirely new way to interact with the world" by the manner in which he communicates, said Sao Paulo Cardinal Odilo Scherer, one of two Latin Americans named to the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization created in 2010.
"The church, Christianity, the Catholic faith cannot be apart from the world," Scherer said. "It must be a part of the world, inside of it, and it must interact with modern society if it hopes to have repercussions and influence."
Francis has moved quickly to build a more everyman approach to his office.
He still refuses to sign his name as pope, rarely refers to himself as pontiff, and thinks of his role more as a good pastor — and a good role model for other pastors. Once a priest who rode the subway to work, he is now a pope who spurns the ornate symbols of power: He passed on the red papal shoes for his old black ones and shed the fancy papal residence and gold pectoral cross.
Recently, Francis skipped a concert held in his honor in the Vatican auditorium, something unheard of among popes. Instead, he left his white papal chair empty as the concert went on without him.
"He doesn't seem to be interested in the kind of symbolic things that hold him at the center," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a fellow conservative Jesuit and head of U.S. publisher Ignatius Press.
Still, he hasn't shied from flexing his papal authority.
Francis' audacious decision to canonize Pope John XXIII was evidence that he knows full well how to wield papal power. Francis bypassed Vatican rules that require confirming a second miracle to John's credit before he could be declared a saint, skipping that formality so he could canonize both the liberal "father" of the Second Vatican Council and the conservative John Paul. That was seen as a balancing act aimed at keeping the disparate wings of the church happy.
So far, Francis' changes appear to have paid off, with public opinion polls showing broad popularity, at least among Catholics.
One recent survey in Italy said 96 percent of Catholics there have "a lot" of trust in Francis, a level not seen since the apex of John Paul s papacy. A Pew Research poll in the U.S. said 84 percent of American Catholics also have a favorable view of the pontiff, compared to 67 percent for Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, in the first Pew poll taken after his election.
"I think the 'Francis effect' is real. He's captured the world's imagination. He comes across as more authentic because he practices what he preaches," said David Gibson, author of a biography on Benedict XVI. "He looks like your parish priest, he talks like your parish priest, and people connect with that.
"But people from the U.S. to Africa to Asia are watching and wondering how he'll come off. Will Pope Francis translate from Rome to Rio?"
Francis will certainly take every opportunity to show off his simpler touch in Brazil, the world's biggest Catholic country, especially after what many considered the more aloof style of Benedict, who visited Brazil in 2007.
Francis is also well known for his outreach to Jews, Muslims and even atheists, so his appeal doesn't seem limited to Catholics alone. What's unclear, however, is how he will deal with the millions of Brazilians who have left the Catholic faith for evangelical churches that the Vatican considers "sects." Francis has no official encounters planned with representatives of other faiths.
After meeting with President Dilma Rousseff shortly after his arrival Monday, Francis will take a day off on Tuesday. On Wednesday he will begin his public activities in the rolling hills of rural Sao Paulo state, visiting a huge shrine built around a small clay statue of the Virgin Mary that is a figure of worship for millions of Brazilians. In Rio, he'll walk the Stations of the Cross surrounded by more than a million young devotees on Copacabana beach as part of World Youth Day festivities.
In one of the key events of his trip, the church's first Jesuit leader will venture into a rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. For many Brazilians, images of that visit will conjure memories of the still beloved John Paul II, who made his own visits to Rio's slums in 1980 and 1997. Since then, evangelical groups have made deep inroads into Brazil's slums with their hands-on ministry of personal improvement and self-discipline.
Through much of the trip, Francis will forego the bullet-proof popemobile used by his two predecessors and instead wade through crowds in an open vehicle, a move strongly opposed by Brazilian security officials.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis chose to leave the popemobile home because he likes being able to get on and off the open-topped car to greet the faithful — something that's not possible from the bulletproof cage of the more secure vehicle.
Such moves are being closely watched by Brazilians such as Fernanda Neves, a 24-year-old lapsed Catholic in Brazil's biggest city, Sao Paulo, who this month attended her first blessing rite in more than a decade.
In a tiny chapel tucked behind the Sao Judas sanctuary in a working-class neighborhood, Neves looked startled when beads of holy water hit her forehead and dripped down onto her hot pink shirt as a young priest moved around the room, blessing the two dozen faithful gathered.
"I was raised in the church, my family is strongly Catholic, but by age 14 I felt emptiness in Mass. The messages were irrelevant to me," said Neves. "But this new pope, he speaks my language, he seems like a man of the people. It's easier to understand what he wants from us and I think he'll help bring Brazilians back to the church."
Associated Press writer Bradley Brooks reported this story in Rio de Janeiro and Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.