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Francis Greeted With Jubilant Reception in Rio on First Trip as Pope

July 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin American, was greeted by jubilant crowds as he made his inaugural international trip as leader of the Catholic Church. Margaret Warner talks to The Washington Post's Marie Arana for more on what his visit means for Brazilians and the greater Latin American Catholic population.

JEFFREY BROWN: And next to Brazil, the scene of the first international trip by Pope Francis as leader of the Catholic Church.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: He held a solemn ceremony for thousands inside the ornate basilica in the small city of Aparecida, while, outside, tens of thousands braved the cold winter rain, awaiting a glimpse of Pope Francis and a few words in his native Spanish.

POPE FRANCIS, leader of Catholic Church: Pray for me. Pray for me. I need it.

MARGARET WARNER: The first Latin American pope and first Jesuit one, Francis came to Brazil to celebrate this weekend’s World Youth Day, a triennial event to energize young Catholics.

Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population, some 120 million. The church has lost ground to evangelical Protestants in recent years. Yet, at each stop, Francis has been greeted exuberantly. Arriving Monday in Rio, Francis dispensed with the customary bulletproof popemobile, and was mobbed by the crowds, sparking security concerns.

There have also been some scattered protests.

ANDRE RIBEIRO, student: The attention the government gave the pope’s visit was $52.7 million. That’s too much. You could invest in health or education.

MARGARET WARNER: That theme sparked massive protests last month against social inequality and the lavish spending to prepare for hosting next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Welcoming the pope Monday evening, President Dilma Rousseff reflected those concerns.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF, Brazil: We have before us a religious leader sensitive to the aspirations of young people, of our people, of social justice, opportunities for all, and a citizen’s dignity. We struggle against a common enemy, inequality in all its forms.

MARGARET WARNER: The pope, for his part, described his mission in Brazil this way.

POPE FRANCIS: I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.

POPE FRANCIS: I have come in his name, to feed the flame of fraternal love that burns in every heart.

MARGARET WARNER: Tomorrow, Francis will visit one of Rio’s largest and most violent favelas, or slums. He returns to Rome Sunday.

To explore the pope’s visit to Brazil, I’m joined by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-American author and journalist and a member of the Scholars Council at the Library of Congress. She’s the author of “Bolivar: American Liberator.”

And, Marie Arana, thank you for coming.

MARIE ARANA, author, “Bolivar: American Liberator”: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, popes usually get enthusiastic welcomes overseas.


MARGARET WARNER: But what explains the fervent outpouring we have seen for this pope in Brazil?

MARIE ARANA:  Well, the fact that it’s a Latin American pope, let’s start with that.

The Catholic Church has undergone a lot of changes in the past, say, 100 years. In 1910, 65 percent of all Catholics in the world were in Europe. Now 40 percent, which is actually majority, are in Latin America. And the growth of Catholics around the world has been in the Southern Hemisphere.

So, especially for Latin America, this is a very big step for them, to be included and to have a world leader at the level of a pope to be one of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there also something deeper, though, in the sort of — in the philosophy and approach he’s brought, not just to the papacy, but to his ministry throughout?

MARIE ARANA:  Absolutely. Absolutely.

The Latin American church, which began, let’s say, with Bartholomew de Las Casas in the early 1500s, he turned the theology upside-down. He said, we are going to have a grassroots perspective here, and we are going to start with the poor and we are going to start with the people, and particularly with the indigenous.

And that’s something that this pope brings back, the concern for the poor, the concern for the socially marginalized. And he has really emphasized that in his pastoral work. And so it’s very important to him.

MARGARET WARNER: And he brings a kind of humble style. I mean, we have all read that he doesn’t wear the red papal shoes, he doesn’t live in the lavish apartments that the popes usually do. Does that have special resonance in Latin America even today?

MARIE ARANA:  Yes, it does, and especially fact that he’s taken the name Francis, which, of course, was St. Francis of Assisi.

Now, there has been no other Francis. And St. Francis of Assisi to Latin Americans is a very big figure, a very worshipped figure. So that means a great deal to them as well. The fact that the pope has also expressed concern for women, because he is a very deep believer in the Virgin Mary.

When he went today to visit the Aparecida, he was making a statement then. So that means a great deal to Latin Americans as well.

MARGARET WARNER: What explains, though, that there has been this drop-off in the number of Brazilians who identify as Catholics?

MARIE ARANA:  Well, I would say, for the past 50 years, the church has — in Latin America — has associated itself with the powerful and with the moneyed classes.

And this has turned the tables on the church a bit. And so there has been great bleeding away of people from the Catholic Church. In Brazil, 90 percent — almost 90 percent used to count themselves Catholics in 1980, and today it’s almost, you know, barely close to 60 percent. So there has been a drop-off, not that Christianity has lost, because they have remained Christians. They have just gone to the other side, a lot of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Protestant evangelicals, in fact.

MARIE ARANA:  Exactly, exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: So it isn’t — what you’re saying is, in Latin America, it isn’t that there’s been this huge growth in secular — secularization, as, say, in Europe, where people just don’t go to church.


MARGARET WARNER: But they actually have switched to evangelical.

MARIE ARANA:  Absolutely.

So they haven’t really left the faith, in a sense. They haven’t left Christianity, but they have moved over to Protestantism, to Pentecostalism, evangelism, charismatics as well, so…

MARGARET WARNER: So is this pope in a mission to revitalize the church in Latin America, other than being a symbolic figure?

MARIE ARANA:  A lot of scholars think so.  

I have spoken to quite a few who have said that this — the feeling that — the general feeling in Latin America, even for those who are not Catholics, the feeling that there is somebody in that position of power means that Latin Americans will be included more sort of at a higher level.

Latin Americans for so long have been misrepresented and unrepresented and under-represented, that now they see a head of state — because that’s what a pontiff truly is — representing them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he arrives, of course, at a time of tremendous social unrest in Brazil, as we saw from those demonstrations last month.

How does his visit play into that? And can it help alleviate some of those tensions over social inequality, or might his message of social justice add fuel to the fire?

MARIE ARANA:  Well, it was really interesting today in the clips that you just showed of the president sort of allying herself with the social justice that the pope so clearly represents and the concern for the poor.

I think that the pope will have a calming influence, a sort of tranquilizing influence. It doesn’t help that the state has managed to shell out $52 million for the state visit, but what they explain is that, in fact, it is an investment because it’s brought a lot of tourism and a lot of sort of jobs and whatnot.

But it’s still for the people to judge.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, is there a lot at stake for the Brazilian government in this visit?

MARIE ARANA:  I think there is, because there is at this point — it’s such a tenuous, volatile situation, that they need all the help they can get in calming the population and sort of stabilizing things.

And I think, if the pope says the right things, which he is likely to say — address — and, in fact, I think the cardinals have said he will address the protest issues. And I look forward to seeing what he says tomorrow, because that will tell the tale.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Marie Arana, thank you so much.

MARIE ARANA:  Thank you.