The Papal Comeback Tour

Now that Pope Francis has landed back in Italy, some of his friends in the Curia will be asking, “what did Brazil do to our dear Frank?”

In a few short weeks, the world’s first Latin American pope dusted off the staid old views of his predecessor Benedict and energized a flock in crisis.

Brazil might not be the country of the future in all of the respects it would like, but for Catholicism it has a pretty good case. Pope Francis made his first official papal visit to Brazil not because the beaches are good, but rather because the country is the largest Catholic country in the world by a long margin.
A church in crisis - Credit: Brazilian Census and Globo
A church in crisis – Credit: Brazilian Census and Globo

But it is a church in trouble. To draw just how far the church has fallen in Latin America’s largest country, Catholics now only account for ~60% of Brazilians, vs. more than 90% in Mexico, Spain, Italy and Argentina. In the crosswinds are local and U.S.-backed evangelical churches, offering the carrot of more inclusive and supportive social and religious services with the stick of a harder-line spiritual message.

This is a trend happening across the region, particularly amongst poorer Latin Americans alienated from the previously high-handed nature of the Catholic Church (Benedict’s attitude and Euro-centrism didn’t help). This trend, of course, cannot be altered overnight and one papal visit doesn’t make up for the decades of decay in the local hierarchy. But time will probably show that this visit reinvigorated a generation of young Brazilians at a time when the Church cannot afford to lose any more faithful in the country and region.

Coming out swinging against corruption in the Brazilian government and hypocritical anti-gay voices in Rome, Francis’s ministry touched upon the toughest problems facing the church today, from sex abuse to money laundering to its stance on homosexuality. He even alluded to the after-life benefits of retweeting and Facebook posting the Church’s message to friends and family.

Some will see this as a cynical ploy, and others will see it as desperate measures, but many in Brazil see it as refreshing and indicative that Francis is their pope after all.

To this lapsed Catholic, it’s looking more and more like Francis is trying to make the church finally seem like the answer again rather than the problem.

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