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RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – Bringing his message of a "poor Church for the poor," Pope Francis heads to Brazil Monday to find a country facing a shrinking Catholic flock and anger over government waste.
Pilgrims from around the world began to gather in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, arriving by bus from neighboring nations or landing by plane from across the ocean to greet the first pope from Latin America.
While men in swim trunks and women in tiny bikinis dived in the waves, workers climbed scaffolding on Copacabana beach on Sunday to finish the ornate stage that the pope will use to greet throngs of young people on Thursday.
Nuns checked in at hotels while other pilgrims walked on the beach, flaunting the colors of their countries as if it was already the 2014 World Cup. More than one million people are expected for the festivities.
"We have a Jesuit pope who is eternally simple, humble, who is revolutionizing the Catholic Church," said Antonio Prada, a 27-year-old Venezuelan clad in a T-shirt in his country's yellow, blue and red colors.
"His message is that we should be like Christ, that he's the example to follow," Prada said as he walked along Copacabana's swirling, black and white promenade.
Speaking from the Vatican on Sunday, Pope Francis said: "Everybody who is going to Rio wants to hear Jesus. And they want to ask him: 'Jesus, what must I do with my life, what is my path?'"
The Argentine pope's message of a simpler church, closer to the people, may strike a nerve in this emerging power. Brazil has become richer in time but struggles with corruption and lagging public services that brought some one million protesters to the streets last month.
Despite the past protests, which were sometimes marred by violence, the pope is ditching his armored "Popemobile" for an open-top jeep to have direct contact with the people. Authorities are deploying 30,000 troops and police in the crime-riddled city.
During his week-long visit, Francis will see the faces of Brazil's success and struggles, starting with a meeting Monday with President Dilma Rousseff and followed by a visit to one of Rio's sprawling favelas, or slums, on Thursday.
While Francis meets Rousseff in the Rio state governor's palace, atheists and the Anonymous protest group plan to demonstrate outside against the $53 million spent from public coffers for the pope's visit.
"Our leaders must be more in touch with the pope and invest more in the country," said Adilson de Sena, 60, who rents beach chairs on Copacabana. Pointing to the stage, he said: "The pope is simple, humble. I think he's going to think this was too much for him."
Edina Maria Perreira Lima, a 49-year-old retired cook, embodies some of Brazil's woes: She needs to treat a stomach ailment but can't afford health insurance -- and thieves snatched her purse last week.
"The government is putting a facade for the world to see the best of Brazil. But behind this facade, people are dying in hospitals," she said on the beach next to the pope's stage.
While Perreira is happy the pope is bringing a message of peace, she is among Brazil's growing Evangelical population because "it speaks more about God and Catholics speak more about saints."
Stemming the flow of Catholics toward Protestantism or secularism is one the pope's challenges since he succeeded Benedict XVI in March. He has since championed a youthful, vibrant church.
More than 90 percent of Brazilians identified as Catholic in 1970, according to the census. A poll by Datafolha Institute showed Sunday 57 percent now call themselves Catholic, while 28 percent say they are Evangelicals.
Francis is scheduled to take a break Tuesday and travel Wednesday to the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, a pilgrimage site located halfway between Sao Paulo and Rio.