RIO DE JANEIRO – Get energized, go out and spread the Gospel and give the Roman Catholic Church a more active role in society.
That was the message that Pope Francis told clergy and faithful alike during his mission in Brazil.
Francis led the way, with upward of three million faithful gathering for his Mass on Copacabana beach, a gushing local press following his every move on nationwide TV and even a group of nuns squealing in delight like groupies upon spotting him. By all measures, the pope's first international trip was a smash success.
But the burning question in the post-trip glow remains: How to carry out his commands with a church that's loaded with challenges, from a severe shortage of priests to the fleeing of faithful for two decades in strongholds such as Brazil, as well as across Europe and the United States.
On Monday, priests, lay people and religious experts alike interpreted through their own cultural lens how to understand Francis' call to action, when he told bishops in Brazil that clergy must work on the peripheries, get out in the street and better understand how to communicate with modern society.
"As a younger priest, that's part of my idealism, to take our work into the streets," said Father Roy Bellen from Manila, who was in Rio for the papal visit. "It's encouraging for me to hear from the boss that the old school ways aren't welcome, that of clergy sticking to their comfort zones inside the church."
Some predicted a rough road ahead if the church is going to change its more traditional pastoral forms, which put a priest at the front of a Mass talking to instead of with parishioners. The growth sought by Francis will require many clergy to exercise atrophied missionary muscles.
"It's the mission of the church to go out and proclaim the Gospel to everyone, but there are people who don't like to do this; they prefer to stay within their parishes," said Jan Scheuthela, a 28-year-old seminarian from Poland attending the Mass on Copacabana beach. "In my parish we try to do things like this, but we need to do more: We need to organize missions on the streets, especially to bring in those young people who have lost interest in the church."
Francis told Latin American bishops they must be spiritually close to their parishioners and had earlier instructed Brazilian clergy to have the "scent of their flock" on them.
"There are pastoral plans which are 'distant,' ... which give priority to principles, forms of conduct, organizational procedures ... and clearly lack nearness, tenderness, a warm touch," Francis said Sunday. "The bishop has to be among his people in three ways: in front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, assuring that no one is left behind."
Father Omar Mateo, secretary general of Ecuador's Episcopal Conference, addressed the elephant-in-the-room question: How do you take the Gospel to the street when the clergy are spread so thin?
Nearly 25 percent of the world's parishes don't have a resident priest, according to Vatican statistics. While the number of Catholics in the world grew by 68 percent between 1975 and 2010, the number of priests ticked up by just 1.8 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
In Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, the percentage of the population calling itself Catholic dropped from 89 percent in 1980 to 65 percent three decades later, according to census statistics. Many Brazilian Catholics joined charismatic Pentecostal evangelical churches, while Americans joined flashy megachurches and many Europeans simply became secular.
Mateo said the answer will require both "asking God to send more workers to his cause" and by pragmatically "launching campaigns to go out and find new priests who will devote their lives to the Christian vocation."
"The holy father asks us to live our religious life in all settings," he said. "To understand and live religion and to go out into the community in a convincing and simple manner."
Beyond direct calls for a more active church, experts said the pontiff's Brazilian trip was rich in symbolism just as important in getting his messages across.
He paid a visit to a trash-strewn slum recently cleared of drug gangs. He met with young, recovering drug addicts to whom he gave deep hugs after they told their stories to him at a public event. He responded to a crowd mobbing his car on arrival in Brazil not by recoiling, but by rolling down his car window to shake hands and kiss babies.
"The symbolism Francis showed throughout the trip was perfect. He touched the hearts of all Brazilians, not just Catholics," said Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo. "It will be a long-term project to repair losses of the church, but what he's done is provide an immediate shock to the system."
Most of Francis' changes were in style rather than substance. He offered no bending on Catholic doctrine that splits some of the church's followers, including contraception, abortion and refusal to allow clergy to marry. Only on the plane flying home to Italy did he hint at new thinking from the church, saying he wouldn't judge gay priests for their sexual orientation.
Francis showed a deft ability to understand his audiences in Brazil and how best to communicate with whomever he might be interacting, something he's also asking of clergy.
During homilies and in public speeches, he used plain language that reinforced basic messages of help for the poor, of God's love for everyone, and of the need for Catholics to keep the Lord in their hearts.
When meeting with clergy in closed sessions, however, Francis switched to theologically complex discourses laden with thoughts on how the church must change, and said the church must end its overly intellectual and self-referential manner of communicating if it hopes to be understood.
"If the losses of the faithful are the result of church liturgy that is too staid or a message not being put across in a modern way in terms of how it's delivered, then, yes, he can make a difference," said Monsignor Raymond Kupke, who teaches church history at Seton Hall University's School of Theology in the U.S. "One trip to Brazil won't immediately change things, but it may have an impact on re-energizing people and reaching out to those who are nominally Catholic."
Shivering in a cold Rio de Janeiro dawn, light just starting to streak the sky, Fabio Feitosa da Silva, a 32-year-old waiter on his way to work, quietly spoke about his impressions of the pope, of how he's starting to look differently at the Catholic Church he stopped attending 15 years ago when its message no longer resonated with him.
"I didn't expect this, but I love him, everybody loves him," Silva said, neatly summing up the general feeling in Brazil. "He's won my interest, he has my attention, I'm listening. It's his humility that touches my heart. He's even got me convinced to attend Mass later on the beach."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.