When the answer finally came, Nastasi said he was as surprised as anyone: Why yes, in fact, the Holy Father would. In something of a trial run ahead of the first major trip of his papacy — a week-long visit to Brazil that begins Monday — Francis touched down on the island July 8 and behaved in a way that got observers buzzing about the rise of a revolutionary pope.
Only days earlier, Mercedes-Benz had presented Francis with a new bulletproof popemobile. But the first Latin American pontiff, who has largely rejected the lavish trappings of his office, traveled around the island in a borrowed, open-top Fiat. His predecessor’s words once sparked riots in predominantly Muslim countries. But from an impromptu altar made out of a rickety raft, Francis welcomed “the dear Muslim immigrants who are beginning the fast of Ramadan.” He called for more-humane treatment of immigrants regardless of faith and an end to the “globalization of indifference.”
“Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters?” he said, referring to seven refugees who recently drowned after fishermen failed to aid them near the island. “Who has wept for the people who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who wanted something to support their families?”
In the four months since he became pope, Francis has emerged as the great hope of a church facing a management crisis at headquarters and major challenges from secularism and rival faiths. Talk now is less about the irreversible decline of an out-of-touch papacy and more about whether Francis will fulfill the early hype and connect with a complex, diverse and increasingly modern global audience in a way that Pope Benedict XVI never really could. Francis’s biggest test yet comes this week, during his visit to the world’s largest predominantly Roman Catholic country. In Brazil, the Argentine-born pope will find a microcosm of the church’s greatest opportunities and most thorny challenges.
In Brazil, the pontiff’s message of social justice could not be more timely. This year, Latin America’s largest nation has seen its biggest bouts of social unrest since the early 1990s. Ostensibly over bus fares, the rash of protests came to encapsulate the frustrations of millions in a country that, despite years of economic growth, still harbors a vast underclass and deep income disparities.
The 76-year-old pope will be wading into a security challenge, especially when he rides through the still-unsettled streets of Rio de Janeiro without his popemobile. But he is also, many say, heading into a golden opportunity to resell the faith to the disenfranchised masses who have been taking to the streets. In recent decades, the Brazilian Catholic church has been steadily losing ground to evangelical faiths.