Six years ago, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires attended a gathering of Latin American bishops at the Marian shrine of Aparecida in Rio de Janeiro and called for the Roman Catholic Church to go toward the “outskirts, not only geographically but … existentially.”
Two years after the 2005 papal conclave where Bergoglio was the runner-up to Pope Benedict XVI, the speech helped raise his profile as a man to watch.
Next week, Bergoglio will return to Aparecida and Rio, this time as Pope Francis. Though he won’t visit his native Argentina, the visit will draw attention to Latin America’s first pope and his appeal for a poor church that eschews worldly power.
Francis will arrive in Rio on Monday to preside over World Youth Day, a triennial gathering of the world’s Catholic youth that is sometimes dubbed a “Catholic Woodstock” where papal star power takes center stage.
Brazil will encounter a pope unlike any in the church’s modern history, and Francis will find a church in crisis in the world’s most populous Catholic nation.
In the first few months of his pontificate, Francis has set the church on a path of renewal through his simple, no-nonsense style that has won widespread support from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In Rio, Francis’ trademark style will be on clear display: He will visit a “favela,” or slum, on foot and tour one of the world’s most dangerous cities in an open-top car, shunning the bulletproof popemobile of his predecessors.
“He feels that for him, communicating directly with the people is better that way,” explained the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, on Wednesday.
Organizers expect more than 1 million young pilgrims, from 170 countries, to flock to Rio for the weeklong event.
Brazil is home to some 123 million Catholics and more than 400 bishops. Despite these numbers, according to a report  by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published on Thursday, the Catholic share of Brazil’s population has shrunk from 92 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 2010.
This is largely a consequence of the growth of the country’s evangelical and Protestant churches, which have surged from less than 5 million members 40 years ago to 42 million in the latest census.
Most worrisome, according to the report, the growth of Protestantism seems to be a consequence of “religious switching,” with the Catholic Church losing popularity among “younger Brazilians and city dwellers.” The trend seems to be accelerating in recent years, and World Youth Day’s organizers hope a charismatic pope can help revitalize the Brazilian church.
Disaffection with the church seems to reflect the wider discontentment in Brazilian society that erupted in unprecedented unrest that has shaken the country in recent weeks.
Protesting against widespread corruption and lavish government spending, hundreds of thousands of young Brazilians took to the streets in late June. The protests rocked the center-left government of President Dilma Rousseff just as Brazil prepares to showcase its newfound global power in hosting World Youth Day, soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
Brazil’s defense ministry has deployed nearly 3,000 extra soldiers for the pope’s visit, and the Vatican is watching the situation closely. Lombardi said he is confident that “everyone will understand that the pope’s message is a message of solidarity with the whole society, calling for a peaceful life and adequate development for everyone.”
Even if it pales in comparison with the estimated $13 billion the government is spending on the World Cup, the papal visit’s $150 million price tag — a third of it covered by Brazil — probably won’t make things easier. Responding to critics, Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo countered that the price is for World Youth Day should be considered an “investment in the young people.”
While the papal trip to Brazil had originally been organized for Benedict, Francis — who has traveled away from Rome only once since his election — soon confirmed he would keep his predecessor’s engagement.
Nevertheless, as Lombardi explained on Wednesday, he has asked for some changes to the original schedule.
The visit to the Varginha favela, in one of Rio’s poorest and most troubled areas, was arranged in response to Francis’ personal demands, as well as a visit to a hospital for alcohol and drug addicts. Francis also is scheduled to meet a group of juvenile inmates.
Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and started writing for Religion News Service in 2011. Via RNS .