By Vincent Bevins and Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times
RIO DE JANEIRO – The first pope from the Americas, making what many hope will be a triumphant homecoming to his native continent, will find a massive audience that reflects hope for a shift in the Roman Catholic Church and deep skepticism that he can right a social imbalance that has sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in protest.
The Argentina-born Pope Francis, on his first overseas trip since his election in March, arrives Monday in the world’s largest Catholic country, Brazil, where he will walk the Stations of the Cross on the glittering Copacabana Beach and visit a slum so poor and violent it is sometimes called the Gaza Strip.
Expectations are high. Many Catholics believe the decision of church leaders to select their new pope from the New World signaled a determination to get past scandals debilitating the Vatican and attempt to recapture the devotion of millions who had abandoned or become disillusioned by an increasingly distant church.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, took his papal name from St. Francis, known for living in solidarity with the poor.
“This new pope is very important, not only because of what it means to have a pope named Francis, but because he is from a country that is like Brazil and he must understand us,” said Maria das Dores, 71, a retiree from the poor northern state of Ceara.
But Catholicism has been on the decline in Brazil, eroded by Protestant evangelicals who have made deep inroads, as well as apathy toward what many have seen as an uninterested church that did not address the serious problems facing Brazilians, especially the poor.
Added to that, recent demonstrations – huge and often raucous demands over a litany of grievances – have galvanized a population that might once have been more receptive to a visiting pontiff.
“Why do we need the pope here? They’re just spending lots of money on his security that should go to our hospitals instead,” said Barbara Silveira, a 41-year-old homemaker who was raised Catholic but now attends evangelical services, if anything.
“If they think having him physically here will make more people go back to the church, they’re wrong,” she said.
That, actually, is one of the major goals. And if anyone can achieve that, it might be Francis. In contrast to the erudite and aloof Pope Benedict XVI, whom Francis succeeded, the new pontiff, a Jesuit, is known for his simple, humble ways and emphasis on the poor.
It is not the message that was often emanating from Rome in recent years and should be fresh air to many hopeful Catholics. There has long been a thirst in Latin America for a pope who heard the poor and for a church that worked more closely on their behalf and in the spirit of redressing social inequities.
“The pope knows profoundly what the church is in Latin America and what Latin America is,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said last week in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper. “This pontificate is very clear about attention to the poor, to injustice, for rights and for a vision of faith that is an active faith, for charity and solidarity.”
Francis will no doubt be greeted by adoring young pilgrims who have come from the world over for World Youth Day, an annual gathering of Catholic youth. On Sunday, from the center of Rio de Janeiro to the beach of Copacabana, thousands of pilgrims marched in color-coordinated T-shirts, most young and smiling, many wearing national flags around their shoulders.
“He’s going to win the people over with his charisma,” said Rafael Barreiros Farias, 18, a student. “He believes in bringing the church closer to the people, and he’s already been able to do that.”
Juan Carlos Gutierrez, 21, a port worker from Guayaquil, Ecuador, praised Francis’ simple style, his use of the bus instead of limousines, his refusal to live in the papal penthouse.
“The church will grow under this pope. He’s a very attractive character to young Catholics because he’s proved to be humble and simple in the ways others haven’t,” Gutierrez said. “The church cannot change, but things inside it can be purified.”
But the crowd farther from the festivities will be a tough one.
A poll conducted by the Datafolha agency and published Sunday by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper said 50 percent of Catholics surveyed felt Francis was the same as Benedict, while 26 percent said he was better and 3 percent worse.
“They suppose that bringing the pope here might inspire more young people to return to the church. Yeah, it could work,” said Lucas Ribeiro, 15, adding he goes to Mass because his parents make him.
Francis, exuding his usual buoyancy, appeared excited again Sunday about reaching out to the young. “There will be many young people down there from every part of the world.” he said of Rio during his regular Sunday appearance in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. “And I think that you could call this Youth Week, yes, indeed, Youth Week!”
Departing from his text, he pointed to a banner held by someone among the thousands crowding the square. It said “Buon viaggio!” – “Have a good trip!”
In keeping with his efforts to maintain a humble and low-key style, Francis has chosen to forgo the armored and enclosed “popemobile” and instead ride through Rio’s streets and plazas in an open jeep. Although that may please the crowds, expected to exceed a million people, it has created a major headache for security agents, especially as some of the groups behind the protests are planning new demonstrations timed to the pope’s visit.
Lombardi downplayed concerns, saying the pope was “serene” about the trip and confident in the measures taken by Brazilian and Vatican security. The Brazilians reportedly doubled security to 28,000 personnel after the protests spread throughout the country.